Don't know about you, but all this who-knew-what-when pre-9/11 stuff is mighty confusing. So once again, I head to that all-purpose reference series for some comprehensible answers.
Q. I've heard all these reports about the government knowing weeks and months in advance of 9/11 that airliners were going to be hijacked and flown into buildings, and yet the Bush administration apparently did nothing and denied they did anything wrong. They claimed the fault lay in the intelligence agencies "not connecting the dots," or that it was the "FBI culture" that failed. Can you explain?
A. Most of the "it's-the-fault-of-the-system" spin is designed to deflect attention from the real situation. Bush and his spokesmen may well be correct in saying they had no idea as to the specifics --they may not have known the exact details of the attacks --but it is more and more apparent that they knew a great deal more than they're letting on, including the possible targets.
Q. You're not just going leave that hanging out there, are you? Just bash Bush with no evidence to back it up?
A. There's no need to bash anybody. There is more than enough documentation to establish that the Bush administration was fully aware that a major attack was coming from Al-Qaeda, by air, aimed at symbolic structures on the US mainland, and that among mentioned targets were the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the White House, the Congress, Statue of Liberty. (According to Richard Clarke, the White House's National Coordinator for Anti-Terrorism, the intelligence community was convinced ten weeks before 9/11 that an Al-Qaeda attack on US soil was imminent.)
Q. If they knew in advance that the, or at least an, attack was coming, why did the Bush administration do nothing to prepare the country in advance: get photos of suspected terrorists out to airlines, have fighter jets put on emergency-standby status or even in the air as deterrents, get word out to the border police to stop these "watch-list" terrorists, put surface-to-air missiles around the White House and Pentagon, etc.?
A. The explanation preferred by the government is to admit, eight months late, to absolute and horrendous incompetence, up and down the line (although Bush&Co. --surprise! --prefer to focus the blame lower down, letting the FBI be the fall guy). But let's try an alternate explanation. Think about it for a moment. If their key goal was to mobilize the country behind the Bush administration, get their political/business agenda through, have a reason to move unilaterally around the globe, and defang the Democrats and other critics at home --what better way to do all that than to have Bush be the take-charge leader after a diabolic "sneak attack"?
Q. You're suggesting the ultimate cynical stratagem, purely for political ends. I can't believe that Bush and his cronies are that venal. Isn't it possible that the whole intelligence apparatus just blew it?
A. Possible, but not bloody likely. There certainly is enough blame to spread around, but the evidence indicates that Bush and his closest aides knew that bin Laden was planning a direct attack on the US mainland --using airplanes headed for those icon targets --and, in order to get the country to move in the direction he wanted, he kept silent.
Q. But if that's true, what you've described is utterly indefensible, putting policy ahead of American citizens' lives.
A. Now are you beginning to understand why Bush&Co. are fighting so tenaciously against a blue-ribbon commission of inquiry, and why Bush and Cheney went to Congressional leaders and asked them not to investigate the pre-9/11 period? Now do you understand why they are trying so desperately to keep everything secret, tightly locked up in the White House, only letting drips and drabs get out when there is no other way to avoid Congressional subpoenas or court-ordered disclosures? They know that if one thread of the coverup unravels, more of their darkest secrets will follow.
Q. You're sounding like a conspiracy nut.
A. For years, we've avoided thinking in those terms, because so many so-called "conspiracies" exist only in someone's fevered imagination. Plus, to think along these lines in this case is depressing, suggesting that American democracy can be so easily manipulated and distorted by a cabal of the greedy and power-hungry. But I'm afraid that's where the evidence leads.
Q. You mean there's proof of Bush complicity in 9/11 locked up in the White House?
A. We wouldn't use the term complicity. So far as we now know, Bush did not order or otherwise arrange for Al-Qaeda's attacks on Sept. 11. But once the attacks happened, the plans Bush&Co. already had drawn up for taking advantage of the tragedy were implemented. A frightened, terrorist-obsessed nation did not realize they'd been the object of another assault, this time by those occupying the White House.
Q. This is startling, and revolting. But I refuse to jump on the conspiracy bandwagon until I see some proof. Bush says he first heard about a "lone" pre-9/11 warning on Aug. 6, and that it was vague and dealt with possible attacks outside the US. Why can't we believe him? After all, the FBI and CIA are notorious for their incompetence and bungling. You got a better version that makes sense, I'd love to hear it.
A. Bush and his spinners want us to concentrate on who knew what detail when; it's the old magician's trick of getting you to look elsewhere while he's doing his prestidigitation. We're not talking about a little clue here and another little clue there, or an FBI memo that wasn't shared. We're talking about long-range planning and analysis of what strategic-intelligence agencies and high-level commissions and geopolitical thinkers around the globe --including those inside the US --saw for years before 9/11 as likely scenarios in an age of terrorist attacks.
The conclusion about Al-Qaeda, stated again and again for years by government analysts, was basically: "They're coming, by air. Get prepared. They're well-organized, determined, and technically adept. And they want to hit big targets, well-known symbols of America." (There was a 1999 US government study, for example, that pointed out that Al-Qaeda suicide-bombers wanted to crash aircraft into a number of significant Washington targets; during the 1995 trial of Ramsi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, he revealed plans to divebomb a plane into CIA headquarters, and earlier he had told FBI agents that the list was expanded to include the Pentagon and other D.C. targets.)
Elements in the FBI, all over the country, who suspected what was coming, were clamoring, begging, for more agents to be used for counter-terrorism investigations, but were turned down by Attorney General Ashcroft; Ashcroft also gave counter-terrorism short shrift in his budget plans, not even placing anti-terrorism on his priority list; John O'Neill, the FBI's NYC anti-terrorism director, resigned, asserting that his attempts at full-scale investigating were being thwarted by higher-ups; someone in the FBI, perhaps on orders of someone higher-up, made sure that the local FBI investigation in Minneapolis of Zacaria Moussauoi was compromised. All this while Ashcroft was shredding the Constitution in his martial law-like desire to amass information, and continues even now to further expand his police-state powers.
(Note: An FBI agent has filed official complaints over the bureau's interfering with anti-terrorism investigations; his lawyers include David Schippers, who worked for the GOP side in the Clinton impeachment effort; Schippers says the agent knew in May 2001 that "an attack on lower Manhattan was imminent." A former FBI official said: "I don't buy the idea that we didn't know what was coming ... Within 24 hours [of the attack], the Bureau had about 20 people identified, and photos were sent out to the news media. Obviously this information was available in the files and someone was sitting on it.")
One can accept the usual incompetence in intelligence collection and analysis from, say, an anti-terrorist desk officer at the FBI, but not from the highest levels of national defense and intelligence in and around the President, where his spokesman, in a bald-faced lie, told the world that the 9/11 attacks came with "no warning." More recently, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, in a quavering voice, tried to characterize the many warnings as mere "chatter," and concerned attacks "outside the US." But the many warning-reports focused on terrorist attacks both inside and outside the United States; the Aug. 6 briefing dealt with planned attacks IN the United States.
Not only were there clear warnings from allies abroad, but the US, through its ECHELON and other electronic-intercept programs, may well have broken bin Laden's encryption code; for example, the US knew that he told his mother on Sept. 9: "In two days you're going to hear big news, and you're not going to hear from me for a while".
And, the word of an impending attack was getting out: put options (hedges that a stock's price is going to fall) in enormous quantities were being bought on United Airlines and American Airlines stock, the two carriers of the hijackers, as early as Sept. 7; San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was warned by "an airport security man" on Sept. 10 to rethink his flight to New York for the next day; Newsweek reported that on Sept. 10, "a group of top Pentagon officials suddenly canceled travel plans for the next morning, apparently because of security concerns"; many members of a Bronx mosque were also warned to stay out of lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, etc. etc.
Q. You're giving me intriguing bits and pieces. Can't you tie it all together and make it make sense?
A. OK, you asked for it, so we're going to provide you with a kind of shorthand scenario of what may well have gone down, a kind of narrative that attempts to tie a lot of disparate-seeming events together. There is voluminous, multi-sourced evidence that establishes this scenario. It's scary, so prepare yourself.
We believe that the HardRight began serious planning for a 2000 electoral victory --and then implementation of a HardRight agenda, and the destruction of a liberal opposition --a year or two after Clinton's 1996 victory. (The impeachment of Clinton was a key ingredient to sully Democrat opposition.) The GOP HardRight leaders decided early to select George W. Bush, a none-too-bright and easily malleable young man with the right name and pedigree. They ran into a speed-bump when John McCain began to take off in the public imagination, and so with dirty tricks they wrecked his campaign in the South and elsewhere, and continued on their merry course.
For a while, they fully expected an easy victory over dull Al Gore, tainted goods for a lot of conservative Republicans and others because of his association with Clinton, but, given the obvious limitations of their candidate, they weren't going to take a lot of chances. In Florida, for example, where it looked as if the race might be tight, they early on arranged things --through Bush's governor-brother Jeb, and the Bush campaign's Katherine Harris, Florida's secretary of state --so that George W. couldn't lose. An example: removing tens of thousands of eligible African-American voters from the rolls.
As it turned out, Gore won the popular vote by more than a half-million votes nationwide, and, we now know, would have won Florida's popular vote had all the ballots been counted, but the US Supreme Court Hard Right majority, despite its longtime support for states' rights, in a bit of ethical contortionism did a philosophical reverse in midair and ordered the Florida vote-counting to stop and declared Bush the winner, installing a president rather than letting the people decide for themselves.
Q. That's ancient history. I'm interested in 9/11, not tearing at an old scab.
A. OK. We're merely trying to indicate that the HardRight's campaign to take power was not an overnight, post-9/11 whim but worked out long in advance. After so many near-chances to take total control, they would do anything to guarantee a presidential victory this time around --which would give them full control over the reins of power: Legislature (where HardRightists dominated the House and Senate), the Courts (where the HardRight dominated the US Supreme Court and many appellate courts), and the Executive branch, not to mention the HardRight media control they exerted in so many areas.
They had followed the news, they knew that the Al-Qaeda terrorist network was engaged in a maniacal jihad against America, and was quite capable --as they had demonstrated on many occasions, from Saudi Arabia to East Africa to the first attempt on the World Trade Center --of carrying out their threats. They also knew, from innumerable intelligence reports from telecommunications intercepts, and from various commissions, CIA and foreign agents that Al-Qaeda liked to blow up symbolic icon structures of countries targeted, and that Al-Qaeda, and its affiliates, had an affinity for trying to use airplanes as psychological or actual weapons. (The French had foiled one such attack in 1994, where a hijacked commercial airliner would be flown into the Eiffel Tower.)
By early 2001 and into the summer, warnings were pouring in to US intelligence and military agencies from Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Israel, and other Middle East and South Asian intelligence sources, along with Russia and Britain and the Philippines, saying that a major attack on the US mainland was in the works, involving the use of airplanes as weapons of mass destruction.
Indeed, in June and July of 2001, the alerts started to be explicit that air attacks were about to go down in the US; even local FBI offices in Phoenix and Minneapolis began passing warnings up the line about Middle Eastern men acting suspiciously at flight schools. In July, Ashcroft stopped flying on commercial airliners and traveled only by private plane, and Bush, after but a few months in office, announced he was going to ground, spending the month of August on his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Cheney disappeared from view, and our guess is that he was coordinating the overall, post-attack strategy.
Under this scenario, in mid-summer 2001, Bush&Co. decided this was it. Bin Laden unknowingly was going to deliver them the gift of terrorism, and they were going to run with it as far and as fast and as hard as they could. The various post-attack scenarios had been worked out, the so-called USA PATRIOT Act --which contained various police-state eviscerations of the Constitution --was polished and prepared for a rush-job (with no hearings) through a post-attack Congress, the war plans against the Taliban in Afghanistan were readied and rolled out, the air-base countries around Afghanistan were brought onboard, and so on. All during the summer of 2001.
Q. I don't understand how war against Afghanistan could have been anticipated so early.
A. Follow the money. Various oil/gas/energy companies had wanted a Central Asian pipeline to run through Afghanistan (costing much less to build, but also so it wouldn't have to go through Russia or Iran); that project was put on hold during the chaos in Afghanistan, but when the Taliban took over and brought stability to that country, the US began negotiating with the Taliban about the pipeline deal. Even after sending them, via the United Nations, $43 million dollars for "poppy-seed eradication," and inviting them to talks in Texas, the Taliban began to balk. At a later meeting, the US negotiator threatened them with an attack unless they handed over bin Laden and reportedly told them, in reference to the pipeline, that they could accept "a carpet of gold" or be buried in "a carpet of bombs." (The later US government spin was that the bin Laden issue and the pipeline issues were separate, and that the US threats didn't mix the two and there were misunderstandings of what was said.) Shortly thereafter, bin Laden, hiding out in Afghanistan, initiated the Sept. 11 attacks, and the US bombing of that country began. Oh, by the way, in case you haven't noticed, under the new US-friendly government in Kabul, the pipeline project is back on track. Oh, by the way, the pipeline will terminate reasonably close to the power plant in India built by Enron that has been lying dormant for years, waiting for cheap energy supplies.
Q. You're saying that US war and foreign policy have been dictated by greed?
A. Among other pleasant motivations, such as hunger for domination and control, domestically and around the globe --which always ties in with greed. That's why Bush&Co. play such political and military hardball. That's why the arrogant, take-no-prisoners, in-your-face attitude, to bully and frighten potential opponents into silence and acquiescence, even questioning their patriotism if they demur or raise embarrassing issues.
Q. But this is a democracy, people are still speaking their minds, right?
A. Certainly, there are areas of America's democratic republic that have not yet been shut down. But where there should be a vibrant opposition party, raising all sorts of questions about Bush administration policy and plans, America receives mostly silence and timidity. However, as more and more of the ugly truth begins to emerge --and Enron, anthrax, and pre-9/11 knowledge are just the tips of the iceberg --the Democrats (and moderate Republicans) are beginning to feel a bit more emboldened. But just a bit, preferring to run for cover whenever Bush&Co. accuse them of being unpatriotic when they raise pointed questions.
Q. You're so critical and negative about the Bush administration. Can't you say anything good about what they're doing?
A. Yes. They have moved terrorism --the new face of warfare in our time --front and center into the world's consciousness, and have mobilized a global coalition against it. They may be making mistakes, which could lead to horrifying consequences, or acting at times out of impure motives, but at least the issue is out there and being debated and acted upon.
Now, having said that, we must point out that the institutions in this country --the Constitution, the courts, the legislative bodies, civil liberties, the Bill of Rights, the press, etc. --are in as much danger as they've ever been in. And the US's bullying attitude abroad may well lead to disastrous consequences for America down the line.
Q. So, what's to be done?
A. The most important thing at the moment --even, or especially when, the inevitable next terrorist attack occurs --is to break the illusion of Bush&Co. invulnerability. The best way to do that, aside from ratcheting up the Enron and anthrax and 9/11 investigations (and it may turn out that those scandals are deeply intertwined), is to defeat GOP candidates in the upcoming November elections. If the Democrats hang on to the Senate and can take over the House, the dream of unchallengeable HardRight power will be broken. Bush&Co. will become even more desperate, overt, nasty, and in their arrogance and bullying ways, will make more mistakes and alienate more citizens. The edifice will begin to crumble even more; there will be more and deeper Congressional and media investigations; resignations and/or impeachments (of both Bush & Cheney, and Ashcroft) may well follow.
Q. You're asking me to support ALL Democrats, even though in a particular race a moderate GOP conservative would be better?
A. Yes. In some cases, you may have to hold your nose and send money to, canvass for, and vote for a Democrat; we can get rid of the bad ones later. The objective right now --for the future of the Constitution, and for the lives of our soldiers in uniform and civilians around the globe --has to be to break the momentum of the HardRight by taking the House and keeping the Senate from returning to GOP control. Doing so would be even more important than what happened when that courageous senator from Vermont, Jim Jeffords, appalled by the HardRight nastiness and greed-agenda of the Bush folks, resigned from the GOP and turned the Senate agenda over to the Democrats.
Q. And you think if the GOP gets its nose bloodied in the November election, that will convince Bush to resign or lead to his impeachment? I don't get that.
A. Churchill once told the Brits during World War II that "this is not the beginning of the end, but it is the beginning of the beginning of the end." There is a lot of hard work and organizing and educating to be done, but the recent exposure of Bush coverup-lies about pre-9/11 knowledge is "the beginning of the beginning of the end." With a GOP defeat in November, Democrats will be emboldened to speak up more, investigate deeper, and those inquiries will unlock even more awful secrets of this greed-and-power-hungry administration. And that will be the beginning of the end --and the beginning of the beginning of a new era of more humane values for America and the rest of the world.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., of San Francisco has taught American government & international relations at Western Washington University and San Diego State University; he was with the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly 20 years, and has published in The Nation, Village Voice, The Progressive, Northwest Passage and widely on the Internet.