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Pinning the Blame

1.

Since 1794, when George Washington formed a commission to advise him on the Whiskey Rebellion, presidents have appointed commissions to investigate, obfuscate, recommend action, or delay it—or because they couldn’t think of anything else to do. The reports of some of them, such as the Warren Commission, remain open to skepticism to this day; others have been totally ignored. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, known as the 9/11 Commission, has shared some of the traditional characteristics of commissions. Appointed by the President and Congress, most of its members had been prominent legislators or government officials. But in several ways the 9/11 Commission was strikingly different from any of its predecessors. The most important difference was that it had a specific and vigilant constituency, made up of the people who had lostfamily members on September 11, 2001, who had forced the creation of the commission through a reluctant Congress, and who overcame the opposition of President Bush.

Moreover, the commission decided at the outset that in order to gain the public’s trust it would be as “transparent” as possible. It not only held public hearings but, something very rare, its members commented publicly on its work while they were still deliberating. Even more unusual, the eighty members of the committee staff, including experienced prosecutors and former intelligence officials, issued interim staff reports on various aspects of the events surrounding the September 11 attacks. These seventeen reports provided factual material for the commission’s open hearings and for the final report itself, and helped the commission bring to light new evidence—from the government, the families, and others. The reports were read to the commissioners in a dry monotone; the lack of public drama made them all the more effective, especially since they were clearly written and contained a great deal of new information, some of it astonishing. Along with television appearances by the commission members, they stimulated public interest in the commission’s work. The commissioners believe that the staff reports and their own public comments put pressure on the Bush administration and helped them to obtain sensitive government documents that would otherwise have been withheld.

The administration fought the commission at nearly every turn—at first denying it sufficient funds, then opposing an extension of time, refusing it documents, trying to prevent Condoleezza Rice from testifying in public. The White House, in a preemptive move, told the commission that Bush would not testify under oath, and insisted that he appear along with Vice President Cheney. The main partisan division within the commission, I was told, was over how hard to press the White House for information that it was holding back. In its effort to achieve a unanimous, bipartisan report, the commission decided not to assign “individual blame” and avoided overt criticism of the President himself. Still, the report is a powerful indictment of the Bush administration for its behavior before and after the attacks of September 11.

The biggest obstacle the administration placed before the commissioners was CIA Director George Tenet’s refusal to let them interview detainees directly, including key figures in the September 11 plot—despite the strong objections of some of the commissioners. They were forbidden to talk to, among others, the plot’s mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (called KSM in the report), who had been captured in Pakistan. The report observed that assessing the truth of statements by such witnesses was “challenging”:

Our access to them has been limited to the review of intelligence reports based on communications received from the locations where the actual interrogations take place. We submitted questions for use in the interrogations, but had no control over whether, when, or how questions of particular interest would be asked. Nor were we allowed to talk to the interrogators so that we could better judge the credibility of the detainees and clarify ambiguities in the reporting. We were told that our requests might disrupt the sensitive interrogation process.

The latter claim seemed dubious, but the commissioners were unable to effectively challenge it. The commissioners were allowed to send follow-up questions, but were prevented from observing in person the emotional and physical reactions of the detainees or from pursuing a particular line of questioning on the spot. The commission had to take into account the possibility that some witnesses may have lied to the interrogators. But they received valuable information from KSM, whom the report depicts as “plainly a capable coordinator.” They cite, for example, his claim that Osama bin Laden “could assess new trainees very quickly, in about ten minutes, and that many of the 9/11 hijackers were selected in this manner.” KSM describes how bin Laden urged him to “advance the date of the attacks”:

In 2000, for instance, KSM remembers Bin Ladin pushing him to launch the attacks amid the controversy after then-Israeli opposition party leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. KSM claims Bin Ladin told him it would be enough for the hijackers simply to down planes rather than crash them into specific targets. KSM says he resisted the pressure.

Adding to the difficulty of deciding whether to believe the detainees, the commissioners were forbidden to see the conditions in which they were held or to investigate how they were treated by their interrogators. On May 15, 2004, The New York Times reported that in questioning KSM,

CIA investigators used graduated levels of force, including a technique called “waterboarding,” in which a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to believe he might drown.

Later reports said such practices had been “suspended.” Philip Zelikow, the staff director, told me that the staff tried to find out about the treatment of the prisoners but could not. Some of the information that KSM gave the interrogators could be checked against documents that were found when he was arrested. In any event, whenever they could, I was told, the commissioners sought verification from second sources, some of them also in custody—often in different locations—and under interrogation.

Zelikow and the commissioners I talked to say that when faced with questions about the accuracy of some information, they did what a historian or journalist does: search for confirmation wherever they could, and, when necessary, simply use their best judgment. In some 110,000 words of footnotes, the commission cites its sources, and in some instances presents its doubts in the report. For example, it doubted the statement by KSM that when two of the hijackers briefly stayed in California, al-Qaeda had no agents there to help them. “We do not credit this denial,” the commission says, arguing that it is unlikely that those two hijackers, who were “ill-prepared” for their mission, would have been sent to California if arrangements had not been made to look after them. (In a footnote the report says that, according to the CIA, “protecting operatives in the United States appeared to be a ‘major part’ of KSM’s resistance efforts.”) Zelikow told me that the commission and its staff rejected much other information for which they could not find support.

The commissioners worked under considerable pressures. The families pressed them to explore hundreds of specific questions, such as why there were no rooftop exits on the World Trade Center buildings, or where Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was on the morning of the 11th. The White House brought pressure in several ways. Stung by the charges of Richard Clarke, the former Clinton and Bush adviser on terrorism, that the Bush White House was lax in not heeding his warnings about the dangers presented by al-Qaeda, the White House sought to discredit Clarke as well as the commission, but it didn’t succeed. Public opinion was on the commission’s side, and, as the polls showed, it believed Clarke. The commission’s report essentially supports his charge that, by the summer of 2001, the administration had many warnings of possible al-Qaeda attacks and failed to respond to them.

In an attempt to discredit the commission, the White House charged that some of its Democratic members were “partisan,” a view some Bush officials expressed in interviews with an obviously phony show of sorrow. “Partisan” meant that certain commissioners, in particular Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democrat and a skilled trial attorney, asked tough questions—as if somehow tough questions weren’t in order. Some Republican commissioners—in particular Jim Thompson, Fred Fielding, and John Lehman—in appearances on television or in the commission’s deliberations, sometimes seemed to be doing the White House’s bidding, repeating some of its “talking points.” But in the end they didn’t attempt to block damning information about the Bush administration’s performance from appearing in the final report.

The administration also attempted to put pressure on the commission through the process of clearing the staff reports—by a committee set up by the White House. Several commissioners told me that the clearance process sometimes elicited new facts, which they accepted. Sometimes the administration questioned the staff’s conclusions or inferences, but the commissioners insist that they made changes only on the basis of new facts, and that they did not negotiate with the administration.

2.

The strongest objection lodged by the administration was to the staff report (Number 17) about how the administration performed on the morning of September 11, which clearly suggested that Dick Cheney decided on his own, without first clearing it with the President, that the hijacked planes should be shot down. Neither the staff report nor the final report explicitly charges Bush and Cheney with lying about this when they told the commission that Cheney had first gotten permission from the President to give the order; but the implication that they were doing so is clear.

Both reports observe that though Lynne Cheney and Scooter Libby, the vice-president’s chief of staff, were in the White House bunker with Cheney that morning and kept logs of the calls and conversations that took place there, they made no record of any conversation between Bush and Cheney on this subject before Cheney issued the order. There was also, apparently, no record of any such call in the phone logs of the White House switchboard, or the Secret Service and White House Situation Room logs. The staff report said, “There is no documentary evidence for this call.” The staff report also suggested that in his appearance before the commission Cheney may have been misleading when he was asked when he reached the bunker that morning, a question that would have a bearing on whether this particular conversation with the President had taken place.

The chronology given in the report shows that Cheney gave the order to shoot down a plane—which was believed to be headed to Washington but in fact had already crashed in Pennsylvania—“probably between 10:12 and 10:18.” At that point, the report says, Joshua Bolten, the White House deputy chief of staff, also in the bunker,

watched the exchanges and, after what he called “a quiet moment,” suggested that the Vice President get in touch with the President and confirm the engage order…. He said he had not heard any prior discussion on the subject with the President.

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