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Saturday, August 12, 2006

Edward Jay Epstein: Revising the 911 Commission 


Edward Jay Epstein -- author of numerous books (including a deconstruction of the Warren Commission), proprietor of a quirky and fascinating web site for the intellectually curious, and all-around polymath -- examines the premise($) behind Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton's book on the 9/11 Commission, Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission, in this morning's Wall Street Journal. I say "examines the premise" rather than "reviews," because Mr. Epstein's essay is much more about the 9/11 Commission's ommissions and public relations strategy than it is about the book itself.

In particular, Epstein calls out the 9/11 Commission for its silence over Operation "Able Danger" in the pages of a major newspaper, something that does not happen very often. Outside of readers of conservative blogs, very few people know what Able Danger was (a classified military intelligence program that had identified Mohamed Atta and three other 9/11 hijackers as part of an al Qaeda cell responsible for the '93 attack on the Twin Towers). The significance of the program is that if allegations surrounding it are true one of the official conclusions of the 9/11 Commission -- that we had not identified Atta as a terrorist before the attack -- is not true. (For more on Able Danger, you could do worse than scroll through the "9/11 Commission" archives at Captain's Quarter's.)

Finally, Epstein notes the Commission's startling indifference to the possible role of Iran, of which a bit more below.

With all of that background, here is what Mr. Epstein had to say about the Kean/Hamilton book:

The book's title is somewhat of a misnomer. There were of course dozens of precedents for high-level bipartisan inquiries, such as the Warren Commission's investigation of the JFK assassination. More to the point, there was a precedent for the investigation of the 9/11 attack: the Joint Inquiry by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Indeed, the 9/11 Commission was required to use the Joint Inquiry's report as its starting point and to limit itself to fill in what that report had not already covered.

The most notable difference between these two investigations was their public relations -- or, in Messrs. Kean and Hamilton's apt phrase, their "public face." The co-chairmen assumed that it was vital to be perceived "as having full access to the most secretive material in the government."

To build this impression, they recount in the book how they prevailed in their battle for information with a secretive Bush administration, an evasive military bureaucracy and recalcitrant New York City officials. They also had to cultivate the media. So both chairmen appeared on the TV talk shows, gave joint press interviews and did everything possible to build an aura of openness around the investigation -- hoping to avoid, as they explained, "the kinds of conspiracy theorizing that have followed in the wake of other inquiries."

For the commission to succeed, Messrs. Kean and Hamilton had to nurture the impression that the commissioners had seen all the evidence regarding 9/11 and had independently assessed it.

In reality, however, the 9/11 Commission was neither exhaustive nor independent. If the investigation had truly been as exhaustive as advertised, it would have made a genuine effort to weigh evidence that ran counter to its thesis. But it did not. Consider how the 9/11 Commission dealt with Capt. Scott Phillpott, a high-ranking naval intelligence officer who asserted that through data mining his military intelligence unit, code-named Able Danger, had identified Mohamed Atta as a potential terrorist in 2000 and even had his photograph on a chart.

Since the staff could not find any such chart in the documents that it had obtained from the Pentagon, and because Capt. Phillpott's account "failed to match up" with the staff's conclusion that Atta was unknown to U.S. intelligence prior to 9/11, this putative identification of Atta was omitted from the commission's report (and a number of commissioners were not informed about it).

Later, the Pentagon said that at least four other intelligence officers in the unit had confirmed that they had seen the photograph of Atta or recalled hearing Atta's name prior to 9/11. The Pentagon also explained one possible reason the chart with Atta's photo was missing: The military had destroyed many Able Danger records in 2001. To be sure, there were reasons to be skeptical about eye-witness accounts, but an exhaustive investigation would have at least heard them.

Nor was the 9/11 Commission able to independently evaluate or verify crucial information it received from intelligence agencies. Although the CIA had imprisoned seven al Qaeda conspirators who had planned, directed and coordinated the 9/11 attack, the agency refused to give the commission access to the prisoners. In the case of the Warren Commission, Chief Justice Earl Warren went to Jack Ruby's prison cell to personally question Oswald's killer. In the case of the 9/11 Commission, the commissioners were not allowed to speak to, see or know the whereabouts of conspirators. The commission could not even question the prisoners' CIA interrogators about the way information had been obtained from them.

The co-chairmen admit in "Without Precedent" that they "had no way of evaluating the credibility of detainee information." But apparently that did not discourage them from accepting, essentially at face value, information from the prisoners, delivered via a CIA "project manager," if it would fill in gaps in the commission's investigation.

For example, the CIA reported that one key prisoner, Ramzi Binalshibh, had said co-conspirator Atta "did not meet with anyone" when he went to Prague in June 2000 -- even though Binalshibh himself was not in Prague and had no first-hand knowledge. He further alleged that on another two journeys, Atta went to Spain solely to talk with him and met no other conspirator -- but Binalshibh was not in Spain during all of Atta's visits. And, again through the medium of the CIA project manager, Binalshibh informed commissioners that Osama bin Laden would not have allowed Atta to meet with an Iraqi intelligence officer because the al Qaeda leader was upset with Saddam Hussein's treatment of Muslims.

Even though such contributions were indeed unverifiable -- particularly the one that required Binalshibh to read bin Laden's mind -- the 9/11 Commission came to rely on this information, giving it the benefit of the doubt when conflicting information surfaced. For instance, the commission uncovered CIA documents that threatened to complicate matters by dragging Iran into the 9/11 conspiracy: The documents revealed that Iran had "apparently facilitated" the travel of most of the 9/11 "muscle hijackers" in flights from Afghanistan by not stamping their passports, and that Imad Mugniyar, the Hezbollah terrorist group's infamous chief of terrorist operations, had flown with the hijackers. But the commissioners merely referred the "troubling" matter to the CIA project manager.

At that point, the report was only one week away from publication. The project manager quickly ran the information past the agency's prisoners and sent a reply back "just in time for inclusion in the Report," Messrs. Kean and Hamilton write. Result: "We found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack." Such CIA feeds permitted the commission to hew to its theory that al Qaeda carried out 9/11 with no help from any outside party or government.

The "lack of interest" in Able Danger is evidence of a government covering up something, but it does not add much to the general suspicion of most Americans that the intelligence establishment, for reasons that are and are not its fault, has not covered itself in glory since the end of the Cold War. The failure to dig deeply into Iran's relationship with al Qaeda strikes me as the product of a conscious decision not to push the United States into a confrontation with that country. Whose conscious decision is the more interesting question. What we do know is this: Iran's president thought it was possible that Hezbollah was behind the attacks. A month ago we examined the extent of Iran's influence over Hezbollah:
While there is no doubt that Tehran sponsors Hezbollah, people do argue over the extent to which Tehran directs its operations. The relationship between Tehran and Hezbollah is revealed in a short anecdote in Ali Ansari's excellent new book, Confronting Iran (which I highly recommend, by the way). In the days after September 11, 2001, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami saw speculation in the American media that Iran might have been involved. According to Ansari (who is neither particularly critical of Iran nor blind to its depredations), "Khatami, anxious that the blame not be associated with Iran, summoned Hizbollah leaders to Tehran to make sure they could confirm they were not involved." (p. 182)

If this remarkable anecdote is true -- and Ansari is a very credible scholar, so the odds are in favor of it being true -- we have learned three fairly obvious things about Hezbollah and Iran. First, if the president of Iran -- even a lame duck "moderate" president such as Mohammad Khatami -- "summons" Hezbollah leaders to Tehran, they come when called. In this sense, at least, Iran controls Hezbollah. Second, five years ago the president of Iran believed that Hezbollah might have had both the will and the means to pull off the attacks of September 11. If the president of Iran had to satisfy himself that Hezbollah might have attacked the United States directly, then it is safe to say that Iran believes Hezbollah is capable of a lot of violence. Third, Khatami believed that they might have launched those attacks without consulting Tehran in advance. That belief implies that the relationship is hardly master-servant.

If Mohammad Khatami thought it necessary to cross-examine Hezbollah, why would the 9/11 Commission dismiss the link, especially in light of its acknowledgement that Hezbollah may have cooperated with al Qaeda in the Khobar Towers attack?

Fortunately, Mr. Epstein's next book will take on the 9/11 Commission. We can hardly wait.

7 Comments:

By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Sat Aug 12, 09:14:00 AM:

The 9/11 Commission is/was a fraud. It started with a premise and then cherry picked the evidence to fit it.

The 9/11 Commission is the modern equivalent of cosmic cycles and epicycles -- explaining how the sun revolves around the earth.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Sat Aug 12, 10:52:00 AM:

If true, Khatami's inquiry also points up his belief that Sunni al Qaeda would have had no trouble co-operating with Shia Hezbollah to pull off such an attack. (And one might also wonder as to his opinion concerning the recent heresy about religious fanatics and secular enablers working towards the same end.)

In any event, I notice the name Mugniyah once again surfacing in regard to a mass-casualty attack against Americans.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Sat Aug 12, 11:27:00 AM:

Recall, Hezb Allah literally invented the idea of the Muslim suicide bomber. That 9/11 was done by Al Qaeda is fact, but whether they may have received help from Hezb/Iran is a legitimate possibility. They'd worked together before, in Saudi.

Nice post. I started it thinking "oh god, another stupid conspiracy idea," but this guy seems to have done his homework and thought rationally.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Aug 12, 11:56:00 AM:

The primary purpose of the 9/11 Commision was to free Clinton of any question of treason, scandal, bribery or pre-knowledge. Bush accepted this because of the secondaey purpose of the Commission, to clear the Saudis of any involvement.  

By Blogger Gordon Smith, at Sat Aug 12, 02:22:00 PM:

The Bush administration opposed and stonewalled the commission. They might have done a much better job if the White House had actually wanted any oversight. They abhor anyone looking over their shoulders, however, so we got the commission report that we got.

If you're upset with the findings, don't forget to lay some blame at the feet of the Bush/Cheney obstructionists.

Here's the link to the story behind the Bush admin's opposition.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Aug 13, 09:21:00 AM:

Nice try Screwy, not working.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Sun Aug 13, 01:26:00 PM:

About half of the points on that link read like "Bush and co. would do X! (but then they did...)" and the other half are terribly oversimplified bites cut so as to make the administration look bad whereas if you follow the links provided and actually read the background and context it's attributable to bureaucratic infighting and politicking.

Bye the by, the 'resistance then fold eventually' pattern in this is deliberate and classically representative of the balance of powers in US government, going back to the 19th century. The Executive will *never* just roll over and give the Legislature what they want. It sets a precedent and erodes Executive authority. So when such a surrender is judged to be in the national interest, the Executive will bitch and moan and whine about Executive Privelege and stall, and then give in saying "only this once," and everyone involved knows why.

If the President were so aligned against the Commission and so conspiratorial about it, why weren't such accusations rolled out and supported in the '04 campaign? There's the truest test of any kind of political wrong-doing. If your opponents don't use it against you, it isn't wrong.

I noticed that the article about Bush not hunting down Sandy Berger with dogs after he stole documents from the National Archives so they couldn't be used to incriminate his administration and thereby contributing to a Democratic 'cover our ass by hiding our records' conspiracy was absent from the list. A shame.  

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