Titlee: The 9/11 Commission Report
Author: Thomas H. Kean
Kean, Thomas H. (2004) and Lee Hamilton, compliers. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks. Also includes recommendations designed to guard against future attacks. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office
- Qaida (Organization)
- September 11 Terrorist Attacks, 2001.
- Terrorism–Government policy–United States.
- Terrorism–United States–Prevention.
- Intelligence service–United States–Evaluation.
- National security–United States.
- War on Terrorism, 2001-2009.
Date Updated: April 12, 2016
This is the official Government Edition. Provides a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks,
With a grave resolve that perfectly balances the enormous stakes with the necessity of delving into minutiae, this historic book describes the mechanics of the horrific attacks on the United States and recommends measures for preventing further strikes. Without trivializing any of the events or diminishing the people involved, it reads like a Shakespearean drama. The authors, with grim but charged dispassion, unspool paragraph after paragraph dramatizing the arrival of “muscle hijackers” (as opposed to pilots), the thinking of CIA director George Tenet (regularly referred to, along with most other players here, simply by last name) and plot co-coordinator Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (“KSM”) among thousands of others, and the other ways and means by which a “foreign” incursion caused catastrophic domestic damage.
Distilling an enormous amount of information in plain language, with unerring pitch and a perfect feel for when to gloss (“Dubai, a modern city with easy access to a major airport…”), the book’s implied narrator sticks as close as possible to how real people made real decisions, and, when stymied in considering a factor or set of factors, is willing to say so. In so doing, this multi-author document produces an absolutely compelling narrative intelligence, one with clarity, a sense of shared mission and an overriding desire to do something about the situation. At the same time, with quotational chapter headings like “‘We Have Some Planes’“ and “‘The System Was Blinking Red’,“ the authors never forget that they are communicating in a medium that has a lot of stylistic resources for holding one’s attention; they draw liberally on the most tried and true. Given what hangs in the balance, it is not a stretch to compare this document to The Federalist Papers, in the sense that the book is designed to foster the debate by which the country will reimagine itself through its bureaucracy.
In the 1980s and 90s it was common to talk about C3I, meaning Command, Communication, Control, and Intelligence. This generally applied to the highest level when considering dealing with a potential enemy attack. One major concern, especially during the Cold War, was a first strike nuclear attack, perhaps a “bolt from the blue” whereby the means of controlling the US strategic forces would be compromised by “decapitation,” that is, destruction of the National Command Authority for distributing commands on what is to be done, by whom, and with what weapons.
Maintaining the ability to defend one’s country then requires a command structure that cannot be decapitated. Policy makers develop structures considering what parts of the command system are vulnerable and how they may remain operative even under worst-case scenarios. An example is the New York City Fire Department. When the Twin Towers disaster occurred there was no unified incident command with a single agency in charge. The responding agencies acted according to their own protocols with results that were comparable to the loss of the buildings themselves. Paramedics took their own initiative in establishing triage centers and first-line treatment sites. No one was in command, and agencies did not even have a clear understanding of what was happening beyond the obvious.
In part this was due to the loss of fire department communications, since the department’s center was in the towers and knocked out along with the building. Senior fire command personnel were also lost in the building. Thus the command structure did not work, control suffered, and communications were lost. It is interesting that the 9/11 Commission Report (the “Kean Report” found at http://www.9-11commission.gov/report/911Report.pdf) focused on the al-Qaeda attack and global terrorism rather than the lack of preparedness.
The 9/11 Commission Report also pointed out the following:
“Most of the intelligence community recognized in the summer of 2001 that the number and severity of threat reports were unprecedented. Many officials told us that they knew something was planned, and that they were desperate to stop it. Despite their large number, the threats received contained few specifics regarding time, place, method or target. ‘The system was blinking red.’”
This intelligence was not adequately shared with either the New York Fire Department (lead emergency responding agency in a mass disaster) or the Police Department. Thus the fourth element of an essential preparedness structure must be intelligence. The three “C’s” cannot function without it.
One would think that lessons would be learned from 9/11 that would bring changes to emergency disaster response in New York City. According to retired Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn (http://vincentdunn.com/Changes-9-11-04.pdf) these needed changes have not occurred. Specifically Dunn points out that:
- Police and fire in New York City have no unified incident command, with a single agency in charge. The new emergency command protocol issued by the mayor’s office is said by some to be ambiguous because it does not clearly define who is in charge. Union leaders representing city firefighters and fire officers have sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge criticizing the city’s new emergency protocol, saying it does not meet federal requirements, and asking for a meeting to discuss their concerns.
- Firefighter radios still are not able to transmit messages in high-rise buildings, subways and tunnels. Battalion chiefs may carry portable booster radios (each weighing 22 pounds) that enhance communications between the fire ground commanders and firefighters’ portable radios. This so-called “quick fix” is nowhere near complying with the recommendation of the McKinsey & Co. consulting report Increasing FDNY’s Preparedness, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta stated.
“McKinsey recommended that building owners install and maintain permanent equipment (an in-building repeater) that picks up and amplifies walkie-talkie signals.”
This example extends to all levels of Command and Control. Unless the four elements presented, Command, Control, Communication, and Intelligence work together the system is at risk for decapitation and chaos.
Review by Richard A. Posner
And the execution was in one vital respect superb: the 9/11 commission report is an uncommonly lucid, even riveting, narrative of the attacks, their background and the response to them. (Norton has published the authorized edition; another edition, including reprinted news articles by reporters from The New York Times, has been published by St. Martin’s, while PublicAffairs has published the staff reports and some of the testimony.)
The prose is free from bureaucratese and, for a consensus statement, the report is remarkably forthright. Though there could not have been a single author, the style is uniform. The document is an improbable literary triumph.
However, the commission’s analysis and recommendations are unimpressive. The delay in the commission’s getting up to speed was not its fault but that of the administration, which dragged its heels in turning over documents; yet with completion of its investigation deferred to the presidential election campaign season, the commission should have waited until after the election to release its report. That would have given it time to hone its analysis and advice.
The enormous public relations effort that the commission orchestrated to win support for the report before it could be digested also invites criticism—though it was effective: in a poll conducted just after publication, 61 percent of the respondents said the commission had done a good job, though probably none of them had read the report. The participation of the relatives of the terrorists’ victims (described in the report as the commission’s “partners”) lends an unserious note to the project (as does the relentless self-promotion of several of the members). One can feel for the families’ loss, but being a victim’s relative doesn’t qualify a person to advise on how the disaster might have been prevented.
Much more troublesome are the inclusion in the report of recommendations (rather than just investigative findings) and the commissioners’ misplaced, though successful, quest for unanimity. Combining an investigation of the attacks with proposals for preventing future attacks is the same mistake as combining intelligence with policy. The way a problem is described is bound to influence the choice of how to solve it. The commission’s contention that our intelligence structure is unsound predisposed it to blame the structure for the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks, whether it did or not. And pressure for unanimity encourages just the kind of herd thinking now being blamed for that other recent intelligence failure—the belief that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
At least the commission was consistent. It believes in centralizing intelligence, and people who prefer centralized, pyramidal governance structures to diversity and competition deprecate dissent. But insistence on unanimity, like central planning, deprives decision makers of a full range of alternatives. For all one knows, the price of unanimity was adopting recommendations that were the second choice of many of the commission’s members or were consequences of horse trading. The premium placed on unanimity undermines the commission’s conclusion that everybody in sight was to blame for the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks. Given its political composition (and it is evident from the questioning of witnesses by the members that they had not forgotten which political party they belong to), the commission could not have achieved unanimity without apportioning equal blame to the Clinton and Bush administrations, whatever the members actually believe.
The tale of how we were surprised by the 9/11 attacks is a product of hindsight; it could not be otherwise. And with the aid of hindsight it is easy to identify missed opportunities (though fewer than had been suspected) to have prevented the attacks, and tempting to leap from that observation to the conclusion that the failure to prevent them was the result not of bad luck, the enemy’s skill and ingenuity or the difficulty of defending against suicide attacks or protecting an almost infinite array of potential targets, but of systemic failures in the nation’s intelligence and security apparatus that can be corrected by changing the apparatus.
That is the leap the commission makes, and it is not sustained by the report’s narrative. The narrative points to something different, banal and deeply disturbing: that it is almost impossible to take effective action to prevent something that hasn’t occurred previously. Once the 9/11 attacks did occur, measures were taken that have reduced the likelihood of a recurrence. But before the attacks, it was psychologically and politically impossible to take those measures. The government knew that Al Qaeda had attacked United States facilities and would do so again. But the idea that it would do so by infiltrating operatives into this country to learn to fly commercial aircraft and then crash such aircraft into buildings was so grotesque that anyone who had proposed that we take costly measures to prevent such an event would have been considered a candidate for commitment. No terrorist had hijacked an American commercial aircraft anywhere in the world since 1986. Just months before the 9/11 attacks the director of the Defense Department’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency wrote: “We have, in fact, solved a terrorist problem in the last 25 years. We have solved it so successfully that we have forgotten about it; and that is a treat. The problem was aircraft hijacking and bombing. We solved the problem. . . . The system is not perfect, but it is good enough. . . . We have pretty much nailed this thing.” In such a climate of thought, efforts to beef up airline security not only would have seemed gratuitous but would have been greatly resented because of the cost and the increased airport congestion.
The problem isn’t just that people find it extraordinarily difficult to take novel risks seriously; it is also that there is no way the government can survey the entire range of possible disasters and act to prevent each and every one of them. As the commission observes, “Historically, decisive security action took place only after a disaster had occurred or a specific plot had been discovered.” It has always been thus, and probably always will be. For example, as the report explains, the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center led to extensive safety improvements that markedly reduced the toll from the 9/11 attacks; in other words, only to the slight extent that the 9/11 attacks had a precedent were significant defensive steps taken in advance.
The commission’s contention that “the terrorists exploited deep institutional failings within our government” is overblown. By the mid-1990’s the government knew that Osama bin Laden was a dangerous enemy of the United States. President Clinton and his national security adviser, Samuel Berger, were so concerned that Clinton, though “warned in the strongest terms” by the Secret Service and the C.I.A. that “visiting Pakistan would risk the president’s life,” did visit that country (flying in on an unmarked plane, using decoys and remaining only six hours) and tried unsuccessfully to enlist its cooperation against bin Laden. Clinton authorized the assassination of bin Laden, and a variety of means were considered for achieving this goal, but none seemed feasible. Invading Afghanistan to pre-empt future attacks by Al Qaeda was considered but rejected for diplomatic reasons, which President Bush accepted when he took office and which look even more compelling after the trouble we’ve gotten into with our pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. The complaint that Clinton was merely “swatting at flies,” and the claim that Bush from the start was determined to destroy Al Qaeda root and branch, are belied by the commission’s report. The Clinton administration envisaged a campaign of attrition that would last three to five years, the Bush administration a similar campaign that would last three years. With an invasion of Afghanistan impracticable, nothing better was on offer. Almost four years after Bush took office and almost three years after we wrested control of Afghanistan from the Taliban, Al Qaeda still has not been destroyed.
It seems that by the time Bush took office, “bin Laden fatigue” had set in; no one had practical suggestions for eliminating or even substantially weakening Al Qaeda. The commission’s statement that Clinton and Bush had been offered only a “narrow and unimaginative menu of options for action” is hindsight wisdom at its most fatuous. The options considered were varied and imaginative; they included enlisting the Afghan Northern Alliance or other potential tribal allies of the United States to help kill or capture bin Laden, an attack by our Special Operations forces on his compound, assassinating him by means of a Predator drone aircraft or coercing or bribing the Taliban to extradite him. But for political or operational reasons, none was feasible.
It thus is not surprising, perhaps not even a fair criticism, that the new administration treaded water until the 9/11 attacks. But that’s what it did. Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, “demoted” Richard Clarke, the government’s leading bin Laden hawk and foremost expert on Al Qaeda. It wasn’t technically a demotion, but merely a decision to exclude him from meetings of the cabinet-level “principals committee” of the National Security Council; he took it hard, however, and requested a transfer from the bin Laden beat to cyberterrorism. The committee did not discuss Al Qaeda until a week before the 9/11 attacks. The new administration showed little interest in exploring military options for dealing with Al Qaeda, and Donald Rumsfeld had not even gotten around to appointing a successor to the Defense Department’s chief counterterrorism official (who had left the government in January) when the 9/11 attacks occurred.
I suspect that one reason, not mentioned by the commission, for the Bush administration’s initially tepid response to the threat posed by Al Qaeda is that a new administration is predisposed to reject the priorities set by the one it’s succeeding. No doubt the same would have been true had Clinton been succeeding Bush as president rather than vice versa.
Before the commission’s report was published, the impression was widespread that the failure to prevent the attacks had been due to a failure to collate bits of information possessed by different people in our security services, mainly the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And, indeed, had all these bits been collated, there would have been a chance of preventing the attacks, though only a slight one; the best bits were not obtained until late in August 2001, and it is unrealistic to suppose they could have been integrated and understood in time to detect the plot.
The narrative portion of the report ends at Page 338 and is followed by 90 pages of analysis and recommendations. I paused at Page 338 and asked myself what improvements in our defenses against terrorist groups like Al Qaeda are implied by the commission’s investigative findings (as distinct from recommendations that the commission goes on to make in the last part of the report). The list is short:
(1) Major buildings should have detailed evacuation plans and the plans should be communicated to the occupants.
(2) Customs officers should be alert for altered travel documents of Muslims entering the United States; some of the 9/11 hijackers might have been excluded by more careful inspections of their papers. Biometric screening (such as fingerprinting) should be instituted to facilitate the creation of a comprehensive database of suspicious characters. In short, our borders should be made less porous.
(3) Airline passengers and baggage should be screened carefully, cockpit doors secured and override mechanisms installed in airliners to enable a hijacked plane to be controlled from the ground.
(4) Any legal barriers to sharing information between the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. should be eliminated.
(5) More Americans should be trained in Arabic, Farsi and other languages in widespread use in the Muslim world. The commission remarks that in 2002, only six students received undergraduate degrees in Arabic from colleges in the United States.
(6) The thousands of federal agents assigned to the “war on drugs,” a war that is not only unwinnable but probably not worth winning, should be reassigned to the war on international terrorism.
(7) The F.B.I. appears from the report to be incompetent to combat terrorism; this is the one area in which a structural reform seems indicated (though not recommended by the commission). The bureau, in excessive reaction to J. Edgar Hoover’s freewheeling ways, has become afflicted with a legalistic mind-set that hinders its officials from thinking in preventive rather than prosecutorial terms and predisposes them to devote greater resources to drug and other conventional criminal investigations than to antiterrorist activities. The bureau is habituated to the leisurely time scale of criminal investigations and prosecutions. Information sharing within the F.B.I., let alone with other agencies, is sluggish, in part because the bureau’s field offices have excessive autonomy and in part because the agency is mysteriously unable to adopt a modern communications system. The F.B.I. is an excellent police department, but that is all it is. Of all the agencies involved in intelligence and counterterrorism, the F.B.I. comes out worst in the commission’s report.
Progress has been made on a number of items on my list. There have been significant improvements in border control and aircraft safety. The information “wall” was removed by the USA Patriot Act, passed shortly after 9/11, although legislation may not have been necessary, since, as the commission points out, before 9/11 the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. exaggerated the degree to which they were forbidden to share information. This was a managerial failure, not an institutional one. Efforts are under way on (5) and (6), though powerful political forces limit progress on (6). Oddly, the simplest reform—better building-evacuation planning—has lagged.
The only interesting item on my list is (7). The F.B.I.’s counterterrorism performance before 9/11 was dismal indeed. Urged by one of its field offices to seek a warrant to search the laptop of Zacarias Moussaoui (a candidate hijacker-pilot), F.B.I. headquarters refused because it thought the special court that authorizes foreign intelligence surveillance would decline to issue a warrant—a poor reason for not requesting one. A prescient report from the Arizona field office on flight training by Muslims was ignored by headquarters. There were only two analysts on the bin Laden beat in the entire bureau. A notice by the director, Louis J. Freeh, that the bureau focus its efforts on counterterrorism was ignored.
So what to do? One possibility would be to appoint as director a hard-nosed, thick-skinned manager with a clear mandate for change—someone of Donald Rumsfeld’s caliber. (His judgment on Iraq has been questioned, but no one questions his capacity to reform a hidebound government bureaucracy.) Another would be to acknowledge the F.B.I.’s deep-rooted incapacity to deal effectively with terrorism, and create a separate domestic intelligence agency on the model of Britain’s Security Service (M.I.5). The Security Service has no power of arrest. That power is lodged in the Special Branch of Scotland Yard, and if we had our own domestic intelligence service, modeled on M.I.5, the power of arrest would be lodged in a branch of the F.B.I. As far as I know, M.I.5 and M.I.6 (Britain’s counterpart to the C.I.A.) work well together. They have a common culture, as the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. do not. They are intelligence agencies, operating by surveillance rather than by prosecution. Critics who say that an American equivalent of M.I.5 would be a Gestapo understand neither M.I.5 nor the Gestapo.
Which brings me to another failing of the 9/11 commission: American provinciality. Just as we are handicapped in dealing with Islamist terrorism by our ignorance of the languages, cultures and history of the Muslim world, so we are handicapped in devising effective antiterrorist methods by our reluctance to consider foreign models. We shouldn’t be embarrassed to borrow good ideas from nations with a longer experience of terrorism than our own. The blows we have struck against Al Qaeda’s centralized organization may deflect Islamist terrorists from spectacular attacks like 9/11 to retail forms like car and truck bombings, assassinations and sabotage. If so, Islamist terrorism may come to resemble the kinds of terrorism practiced by the Irish Republican Army and Hamas, with which foreign nations like Britain and Israel have extensive experience. The United States remains readily penetrable by Islamist terrorists who don’t even look or sound Middle Eastern, and there are Qaeda sleeper cells in this country. All this underscores the need for a domestic intelligence agency that, unlike the F.B.I., is effective.
Were all the steps that I have listed fully implemented, the probability of another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 would be reduced—slightly. The measures adopted already, combined with our operation in Afghanistan, have undoubtedly reduced that probability, and the room for further reduction probably is small. We and other nations have been victims of surprise attacks before; we will be again.
They follow a pattern. Think of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the Tet offensive in Vietnam in 1968. It was known that the Japanese might attack us. But that they would send their carrier fleet thousands of miles to Hawaii, rather than just attack the nearby Philippines or the British and Dutch possessions in Southeast Asia, was too novel and audacious a prospect to be taken seriously. In 1968 the Vietnamese Communists were known to be capable of attacking South Vietnam’s cities. Indeed, such an assault was anticipated, though not during Tet (the Communists had previously observed a truce during the Tet festivities) and not on the scale it attained. In both cases the strength and determination of the enemy were underestimated, along with the direction of his main effort. In 2001 an attack by Al Qaeda was anticipated, but it was anticipated to occur overseas, and the capability and audacity of the enemy were underestimated. (Note in all three cases a tendency to underestimate non-Western foes—another aspect of provinciality.)
Anyone who thinks this pattern can be changed should read those 90 pages of analysis and recommendations that conclude the commission’s report; they come to very little. Even the prose sags, as the reader is treated to a barrage of bromides: “the American people are entitled to expect their government to do its very best,” or “we should reach out, listen to and work with other countries that can help” and “be generous and caring to our neighbors,” or we should supply the Middle East with “programs to bridge the digital divide and increase Internet access”—the last an ironic suggestion, given that encrypted e-mail is an effective medium of clandestine communication. The “hearts and minds” campaign urged by the commission is no more likely to succeed in the vast Muslim world today than its prototype was in South Vietnam in the 1960’s.
The commission wants criteria to be developed for picking out which American cities are at greatest risk of terrorist attack, and defensive resources allocated accordingly—this to prevent every city from claiming a proportional share of those resources when it is apparent that New York and Washington are most at risk. Not only do we lack the information needed to establish such criteria, but to make Washington and New York impregnable so that terrorists can blow up Los Angeles or, for that matter, Kalamazoo with impunity wouldn’t do us any good.
The report states that the focus of our antiterrorist strategy should not be “just ‘terrorism,’ some generic evil. This vagueness blurs the strategy. The catastrophic threat at this moment in history is more specific. It is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism.” Is it? Who knows? The menace of bin Laden was not widely recognized until just a few years before the 9/11 attacks. For all anyone knows, a terrorist threat unrelated to Islam is brewing somewhere (maybe right here at home — remember the Oklahoma City bombers and the Unabomber and the anthrax attack of October 2001) that, given the breathtakingly rapid advances in the technology of destruction, will a few years hence pose a greater danger than Islamic extremism. But if we listen to the 9/11 commission, we won’t be looking out for it because we’ve been told that Islamist terrorism is the thing to concentrate on.
Illustrating the psychological and political difficulty of taking novel threats seriously, the commission’s recommendations are implicitly concerned with preventing a more or less exact replay of 9/11. Apart from a few sentences on the possibility of nuclear terrorism, and of threats to other modes of transportation besides airplanes, the broader range of potential threats, notably those of bioterrorism and cyberterrorism, is ignored.
Many of the commission’s specific recommendations are sensible, such as that American citizens should be required to carry biometric passports. But most are in the nature of more of the same—more of the same measures that were implemented in the wake of 9/11 and that are being refined, albeit at the usual bureaucratic snail’s pace. If the report can put spurs to these efforts, all power to it. One excellent recommendation is reducing the number of Congressional committees, at present in the dozens, that have oversight responsibilities with regard to intelligence. The stated reason for the recommendation is that the reduction will improve oversight. A better reason is that with so many committees exercising oversight, our senior intelligence and national security officials spend too much of their time testifying.
The report’s main proposal—the one that has received the most emphasis from the commissioners and has already been endorsed in some version by both presidential candidates—is for the appointment of a national intelligence director who would knock heads together in an effort to overcome the reluctance of the various intelligence agencies to share information. Yet the report itself undermines this proposal, in a section titled “The Millennium Exception.” “In the period between December 1999 and early January 2000,” we read, “information about terrorism flowed widely and abundantly.” Why? Mainly “because everyone was already on edge with the millennium and possible computer programming glitches (‘Y2K’).” Well, everyone is now on edge because of 9/11. Indeed, the report suggests no current impediments to the flow of information within and among intelligence agencies concerning Islamist terrorism. So sharing is not such a problem after all. And since the tendency of a national intelligence director would be to focus on the intelligence problem du jour, in this case Islamist terrorism, centralization of the intelligence function could well lead to overconcentration on a single risk.
The commission thinks the reason the bits of information that might have been assembled into a mosaic spelling 9/11 never came together in one place is that no one person was in charge of intelligence. That is not the reason. The reason or, rather, the reasons are, first, that the volume of information is so vast that even with the continued rapid advances in data processing it cannot be collected, stored, retrieved and analyzed in a single database or even network of linked databases. Second, legitimate security concerns limit the degree to which confidential information can safely be shared, especially given the ever-present threat of moles like the infamous Aldrich Ames. And third, the different intelligence services and the subunits of each service tend, because information is power, to hoard it. Efforts to centralize the intelligence function are likely to lengthen the time it takes for intelligence analyses to reach the president, reduce diversity and competition in the gathering and analysis of intelligence data, limit the number of threats given serious consideration and deprive the president of a range of alternative interpretations of ambiguous and incomplete data—and intelligence data will usually be ambiguous and incomplete.
The proposal begins to seem almost absurd when one considers the variety of our intelligence services. One of them is concerned with designing and launching spy satellites; another is the domestic intelligence branch of the F.B.I.; others collect military intelligence for use in our conflicts with state actors like North Korea. There are 15 in all. The national intelligence director would be in continuous conflict with the attorney general, the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of homeland security and the president’s national security adviser. He would have no time to supervise the organizational reforms that the commission deems urgent.
The report bolsters its proposal with the claim that our intelligence apparatus was designed for fighting the cold war and so can’t be expected to be adequate to fighting Islamist terrorism. The cold war is depicted as a conventional military face-off between the United States and the Soviet Union and hence a 20th-century relic (the 21st century is to be different, as if the calendar drove history). That is not an accurate description. The Soviet Union operated against the United States and our allies mainly through subversion and sponsored insurgency, and it is not obvious why the apparatus developed to deal with that conduct should be thought maladapted for dealing with our new enemy.
The report notes the success of efforts to centralize command of the armed forces, and to reduce the lethal rivalries among the military services. But there is no suggestion that the national intelligence director is to have command authority.
The central-planning bent of the commission is nowhere better illustrated than by its proposal to shift the C.I.A.’s paramilitary operations, despite their striking success in the Afghanistan campaign, to the Defense Department. The report points out that “the C.I.A. has a reputation for agility in operations,” whereas the reputation of the military is “for being methodical and cumbersome.” Rather than conclude that we are lucky to have both types of fighting capacity, the report disparages “redundant, overlapping capabilities” and urges that “the C.I.A.’s experts should be integrated into the military’s training, exercises and planning.” The effect of such integration is likely to be the loss of the “agility in operations” that is the C.I.A.’s hallmark. The claim that we “cannot afford to build two separate capabilities for carrying out secret military operations” makes no sense. It is not a question of building; we already have multiple such capabilities—Delta Force, Marine reconnaissance teams, Navy Seals, Army Rangers, the C.I.A.’s Special Activities Division. Diversity of methods, personnel and organizational culture is a strength in a system of national security; it reduces risk and enhances flexibility.
What is true is that 15 agencies engaged in intelligence activities require coordination, notably in budgetary allocations, to make sure that all bases are covered. Since the Defense Department accounts for more than 80 percent of the nation’s overall intelligence budget, the C.I.A., with its relatively small budget (12 percent of the total), cannot be expected to control the entire national intelligence budget. But to layer another official on top of the director of central intelligence, one who would be in a constant turf war with the secretary of defense, is not an appealing solution. Since all executive power emanates from the White House, the national security adviser and his or her staff should be able to do the necessary coordinating of the intelligence agencies. That is the traditional pattern, and it is unlikely to be bettered by a radically new table of organization.
So the report ends on a flat note. But one can sympathize with the commission’s problem. To conclude after a protracted, expensive and much ballyhooed investigation that there is really rather little that can be done to reduce the likelihood of future terrorist attacks beyond what is being done already, at least if the focus is on the sort of terrorist attacks that have occurred in the past rather than on the newer threats of bioterrorism and cyberterrorism, would be a real downer—even a tad un-American. Americans are not fatalists. When a person dies at the age of 95, his family is apt to ascribe his death to a medical failure. When the nation experiences a surprise attack, our instinctive reaction is not that we were surprised by a clever adversary but that we had the wrong strategies or structure and let’s change them and then we’ll be safe. Actually, the strategies and structure weren’t so bad; they’ve been improved; further improvements are likely to have only a marginal effect; and greater dangers may be gathering of which we are unaware and haven’t a clue as to how to prevent.
A major flaw remains. Twenty-eight pages of the report were redacted by the CIA. In spite of Commission members arguing that it should be made public, the government remains firm in refusal. The apparent fear is that the government of Saudi Arabia would be offended, and that we cannot afford to offend such an ally.
Lawrence Wright wrote the following article article about these 28 pages.
On the bottom floor of the United States Capitol’s new underground visitors’ center, there is a secure room where the House Intelligence Committee maintains highly classified files. One of those files is titled “Finding, Discussion and Narrative Regarding Certain Sensitive National Security Matters.” It is twenty-eight pages long. In 2002, the Administration of George W. Bush excised those pages from the report of the Joint Congressional Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks. President Bush said then that publication of that section of the report would damage American intelligence operations, revealing “sources and methods that would make it harder for us to win the war on terror.”
“There’s nothing in it about national security,” Walter Jones, a Republican congressman from North Carolina who has read the missing pages, contends. “It’s about the Bush Administration and its relationship with the Saudis.” Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, told me that the document is “stunning in its clarity,” and that it offers direct evidence of complicity on the part of certain Saudi individuals and entities in Al Qaeda’s attack on America. “Those twenty-eight pages tell a story that has been completely removed from the 9/11 Report,” Lynch maintains. Another congressman who has read the document said that the evidence of Saudi government support for the 9/11 hijacking is “very disturbing,” and that “the real question is whether it was sanctioned at the royal-family level or beneath that, and whether these leads were followed through.” Now, in a rare example of bipartisanship, Jones and Lynch have co-sponsored a resolution requesting that the Obama Administration declassify the pages.
The Saudis have also publicly demanded that the material be released. “Twenty-eight blanked-out pages are being used by some to malign our country and our people,” Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was the Saudi Ambassador to the United States at the time of the 9/11 attacks, has declared. “Saudi Arabia has nothing to hide. We can deal with questions in public, but we cannot respond to blank pages.”
The effort to declassify the document comes at a time when a lawsuit, brought ten years ago on behalf of the victims of the attacks and their families, along with the insurers who paid out claims, is advancing through the American court system. The suit targets Saudi charities, banks, and individuals. In 2005, the government of Saudi Arabia was dismissed from the suit on the ground of sovereign immunity, but in July the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the Kingdom as a defendant. The plaintiffs believe that the withheld twenty-eight pages will support their allegation that the 9/11 hijackers received direct assistance from Saudi government officials in the United States. According to representatives of the families of 9/11 victims, President Obama has twice promised to release the material but so far has failed to do so. “The redaction of the twenty-eight pages has become a coverup by two Presidents, and coverup implies complicity,” Sharon Premoli, who is co-chair of 9/11 Families United for Justice Against Terrorism, said. “The families and survivors have the right to know the whole truth about the brutal murder of three thousand loved ones and the injuries of thousands more.”
Those advocating declassification present a powerful and oftentimes emotional argument, but others offer compelling reasons that the document should remain buried under the Capitol. Immediately after the Joint Congressional Inquiry finished its report, in late 2002, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States—better known as the 9/11 Commission—began its work, under the leadership of Thomas Kean, the former governor of New Jersey, and Lee Hamilton, a former congressman from Indiana. The questions raised by the twenty-eight pages were an important part of the commission’s agenda; indeed, its director, Philip Zelikow, hired staffers who had worked for the Joint Inquiry on that very section to follow up on the material. According to Zelikow, what they found does not substantiate the arguments made by the Joint Inquiry and by the 9/11 families in the lawsuit against the Saudis. He characterized the twenty-eight pages as “an agglomeration of preliminary, unvetted reports” concerning Saudi involvement. “They were wild accusations that needed to be checked out,” he said.
Zelikow and his staff were ultimately unable to prove any official Saudi complicity in the attacks. A former staff member of the 9/11 Commission who is intimately familiar with the material in the twenty-eight pages recommends against their declassification, warning that the release of inflammatory and speculative information could “ramp up passions” and damage U.S.-Saudi relations.
Stephen Lynch agrees that the twenty-eight pages were buried in order to preserve the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. “Part of the reason it was classified was the fact that it would create a visceral response,” he told me. “There would be a backlash.” But, thirteen years later, is that still a reason to keep the document a secret?
The theory behind the lawsuit against the Saudis goes back to the 1991 Gulf War. The presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia was a shattering event in the country’s history, calling into question the ancient bargain between the royal family and the Wahhabi clerics, whose blessing allows the Saud family to rule. In 1992, a group of the country’s most prominent religious leaders issued the Memorandum of Advice, which implicitly threatened a clerical coup. The royal family, shaken by the threat to its rule, accommodated most of the clerics’ demands, giving them more control over Saudi society. One of their directives called for the creation of a Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which would be given offices in Saudi embassies and consulates. As the journalist Philip Shenon writes, citing John Lehman, the former Secretary of the Navy and a 9/11 commissioner, “it was well-known in intelligence circles that the Islamic affairs office functioned as the Saudis’ ‘fifth column’ in support of Muslim extremists.”
The story told in those twenty-eight pages picks up with the arrival of two young Saudis, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, in Los Angeles in January, 2000. They were the first wave of the 9/11 hijackers. Neither spoke English well, so their mission—to learn how to pilot a Boeing jetliner—seemed crazily improbable, especially if they had no assistance.
Two weeks after Hazmi and Mihdhar got to L.A., a benefactor suddenly appeared. Omar al-Bayoumi, a forty-two-year-old Saudi national, was an employee of the Saudi aviation-services company Dallah Avco. Although he drew a salary, he apparently never did any actual work for the company during the seven years he spent in America. Bayoumi was in frequent contact with the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., and with the consulate in Los Angeles; he was widely considered in the Arab expat community to be a Saudi spy, though the Saudi government has denied that he was.
Bayoumi and a friend drove from San Diego, where they lived, to L.A. Bayoumi then went to the Saudi consulate, where he spent about an hour meeting with an official in the Ministry of Islamic Affairs named Fahad al-Thumairy, whom he considered to be his spiritual adviser. (In 2002, Thumairy was stripped of his diplomatic visa and deported, because of suspected ties to terrorists.) Afterward, Bayoumi and his friend drove to a halal restaurant in Culver City. Bayoumi later told investigators that, while eating there, he happened to overhear two men—Hazmi and Mihdhar—speaking Arabic with Gulf accents. He struck up a conversation with them and soon invited them to move to San Diego. He set them up in the same apartment complex where he lived. Because the hijackers-in-training did not have a checking account, Bayoumi paid their security deposit and first month’s rent (for which they immediately reimbursed him). He also introduced them to members of the Arab community, possibly including the imam of a local mosque, Anwar al-Awlaki—later to become the most prominent spokesperson for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Another Saudi who was in San Diego at the time, Osama Basnan, also befriended Hazmi and Mihdhar. As it happened, Basnan’s wife was receiving charitable gifts from Prince Bandar’s wife, Princess Haifa. The payments—as much as seventy-three thousand dollars over a period of three years—were supposed to fund the treatment of a medical condition that Basnan’s wife suffered from. According to pleadings in the lawsuit against the Saudis, some of that money went to support the hijackers in San Diego. The F.B.I. has not found any evidence that the money got into the hands of the hijackers, however, and the 9/11 Commission found no links to the royal family.
“We assert that purported ‘charities,’ established by the government of the Kingdom to propagate radical Wahhabi ideology throughout the world, served as the primary sources of funding and logistical support for Al Qaeda for more than a decade leading up to the 9/11 attacks,” Sean Carter, one of the lead attorneys in the lawsuit, told me. “Not coincidentally, these so-called charities were themselves regulated by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which from its formation, in 1993, assumed primary responsibility for the Kingdom’s efforts to spread Wahhabi Islam.”
Thomas Kean remembers finally having the opportunity to read those twenty-eight pages after he became chairman of the 9/11 Commission—“so secret that I had to get all of my security clearances and go into the bowels of Congress with someone looking over my shoulder.” He also remembers thinking at the time that most of what he was reading should never have been kept secret. But the focus on the twenty-eight pages obscures the fact that many important documents are still classified—“a ton of stuff,” Kean told me, including, for instance, the 9/11 Commission’s interviews with George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Bill Clinton. “I don’t know of a single thing in our report that should not be public after ten years,” Kean said.
September 11th may be a part of history now, but some of the events that led to that horrible day remain veiled by the political considerations of the present. The intelligence community doesn’t want to light up its failures once again, and no doubt the Obama Administration doesn’t want to introduce additional strains on its relationship with the Saudis. In the meantime, the forces that led to catastrophe before are gathering strength once again. Thomas Massie, a Republican congressman from Kentucky and a sponsor of the House resolution to declassify the material, told me that the experience of reading those twenty-eight pages caused him to rethink how to handle the rise of ISIS. It has made him much more cautious about a military response. “We have to be careful, when we run the calculations of action, what the repercussions will be,” he said.
“In some ways, it’s more dangerous today,” Timothy Roemer, who was a member of both the Joint Inquiry and the 9/11 Commission, observed. “A more complex series of threats are coming together than even before 9/11, involving ISIS, Al Qaeda, and cyber-terrorist capabilities. The more the American people know about what happened thirteen years ago, the more we can have a credible, open debate” about our security needs. Releasing the twenty-eight pages, he said, might be a step forward. “Hopefully, after some initial shock and awe, it would make our process work better. Our government has an obligation to do this.”