Bush's 9/11 coverup?

Family members of victims of the terror attacks say the White House has smothered every attempt to get to the bottom of the outrageous intelligence failures that took place on its watch.

Published June 18, 2003 9:35PM (EDT)

For family members of those who died on Sept. 11, last week brought a rare chance to meet face-to-face with a man who has become a symbol of their dissatisfaction -- FBI director Robert Mueller. The bureau had quietly invited several dozen family members to Washington to hear a presentation on the war on terrorism, but for the small band of husbands, wives and parents who successfully lobbied Congress last year for an independent 9/11 commission to investigate the attacks, it was a chance to ask some of the troubling questions they have about that day.

They weren't simply queries about the national security collapse that occurred on 9/11, and how a hijacked plane, flying hundreds of miles off course, was able to dive-bomb untouched into the Pentagon a full hour after the World Trade Center had already been attacked twice. Or how more than a dozen terrorists were able to enter America illegally and then live here undetected for weeks and months, and why U.S. intelligence sources failed to piece together significant clues that emerged in advance of the attack.

Family advocates also wanted to know why the government -- and specifically the Bush administration -- has been so reluctant to find answers to any of the obvious questions about what went wrong that day, why so little has been fixed, and why virtually nobody has accepted any responsibility for the glaring failures.

While the administration of President George W. Bush is aggressively positioning itself as the world leader in the war on terrorism, some families of the Sept. 11 victims say that the facts increasingly contradict that script. The White House long opposed the formation of a blue-ribbon Sept. 11 commission, some say, and even now that panel is underfunded and struggling to build momentum. And, they say, the administration is suppressing a 900-page congressional study, possibly out of fear that the findings will be politically damaging to Bush.

"We've been fighting for nearly 21 months -- fighting the administration, the White House," says Monica Gabrielle. Her husband, Richard, an insurance broker who worked for Aon Corp. on the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center's Tower 2, died during the attacks. "As soon as we started looking for answers we were blocked, put off and ignored at every stop of the way. We were shocked. The White House is just blocking everything."

Another 9/11 family advocate -- a former Bush supporter who requested anonymity -- was more blunt: "Bush has done everything in his power to squelch this [9/11] commission and prevent it from happening."

Thus far, the administration has largely succeeded. Its stonewalling has gotten little news coverage, and there is scant evidence that the public is outraged. The national discussion has moved on -- to Iraq, to that country's still-missing weapons of mass destruction, to Laci Peterson. But there are increasing signs that White House efforts to blunt a full inquiry into the domestic failures that preceded Sept. 11 could emerge as an issue in the 2004 presidential campaign, in which Bush and his handlers hope to exploit 9/11 for maximum political advantage.

Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat and former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has raised the profile of his presidential campaign with sharp criticism of Bush for both his administration's intelligence failures before Sept. 11 and its attempt to paper them over since. "The public has the right to know what its government has done and is doing to protect Americans and U.S. interests," Graham told Salon Monday. "Potential embarrassment isn't a good enough reason to keep these government materials secret."

Other Democrats almost certainly will realize that the issue is one way to counter the public's belief that Bush has been an effective leader in the war on terrorism.

Perhaps it was fear of a backlash that provoked Bush's staff to invite the Sept. 11 families to the Mueller seminar. But by the accounts of several people who attended the briefing at FBI headquarters, in a wing named after Bush's father, the mood was often contentious as the FBI chief and Department of Justice prosecutors answered questions for more than two hours. One flash point came during a sharp exchange about what the FBI had -- or had not -- done with several internal memos filed by field agents detailing concerns that al-Qaida operatives may be training at U.S. flight schools. Mueller confirmed that weeks before the Sept. 11 attack, one young FBI agent had seen two such memos but that she did not act on them.

According to family representatives, Mueller defended the agent, saying she did not have the proper training or tools to take action on the information. But when pressed on how such egregious oversight was able to occur, the director grew defensive and then demanded: "What do you want me to do, fire her?"

The remark was meant to be rhetorical, but in unison family members responded audibly: "Yes!"

"We're the most skeptical audience Mueller will ever have, and I think it showed," says Sept. 11 widow Beverly Eckert, whose husband, Sean Rooney, died in the twin towers. "We want answers."

Just over a year ago, the families' questions were at least being asked. During May 2002, controversy swirled when CBS News reported that five weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush had been briefed about an active plot by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida operatives to seize civilian aircraft. The revelations stood in stark contrast to White House spin in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks that nobody in the administration or the intelligence community had "specific information" about a possible hijacking plot.

Into that combustible mix came revelations that FBI special agents in Phoenix and Minnesota had warned their superiors about suspected al-Qaida operatives training at U.S. flight schools. For the White House, the "what did Bush know and when did he know it" narrative was its first real political crisis after Sept. 11, the first time the press along with Democrats were asking pointed questions -- and gaining traction by the day. Even the New York Post, usually a reliable White House ally, ran a headline that declared "Bush Knew"; the conservative Weekly Standard warned that "the administration is now in danger of looking as if it has engaged in a cover-up."

But the White House, aided by global circumstances and a distractible news media, conspired to change the subject.

First, a succession of senior administration officials made dire warnings about the certainty of suicide bombers striking inside America. Then, on June 6, 2002, the administration abruptly reversed itself and announced it was backing the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, as first proposed by Democrats. And the White House made the historic announcement the same day FBI agent Colleen Rowley testified before Congress about her famous Minneapolis memo, ensuring that the Department of Homeland Security was the next day's top headline.

Then, by last August, the Capitol was abuzz in talk of war with Iraq, and the buzz persisted for the next nine months. "Iraq changed everything with the press," says one victims' advocate whose wife died in Tower 1. "Nobody cares about this after Iraq."

"It was a successful attempt to change the story," notes John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a nonprofit defense policy group. "From the White House's perspective, no good can come of these [9/11] investigations. So I think their approach has been entirely predictable, and easy to understand."

Adding insult for some family activists was the fact that Bush used the 9/11 attacks as a justification for the war on Iraq. "I sat and listened to the State of the Union speech [last January] when Bush mentioned 9/11 12 or 13 times," recalls Kristin Breitweiser, whose husband, Ronald, was killed when United Flight 175 slammed into Tower 1. "At the same time, we were having trouble getting funding for the independent commission."

Gabrielle was equally upset: "Bush has never personally met with the [9/11] families to discuss any of this, so for him to use Sept. 11 and its victims to justify his agenda, I myself am disgusted."

In the face of today's public indifference, the victim activists have placed their faith in two investigations they hope will finally answer some key questions. Though the Sept. 11 attacks were arguably one of the decisive moments in U.S. history, both investigations appear mired in a deadly Beltway mixture of bureaucratic morass and political sniping.

The first was a bipartisan joint inquiry conducted by the House and Senate examining intelligence and law-enforcement failures that led up to the Sept. 11 attack. Its relatively narrow scope came about after Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney personally phoned then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., in late January 2002, pressuring him to limit the congressional investigation surrounding Sept. 11.

Despite budget restraints and complaints from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that the White House had "slow-walked and stonewalled" the joint inquiry, the panel's 900-page report was completed late last year. Today it remains stuck in national security limbo as the joint inquiry staff negotiates with the White House and its intelligence agencies over what portions can and cannot be released in the public version of the report. The release date has already been pushed back several times as the declassification process drags on into its seventh month. Even the Republican chairman of the joint inquiry, Rep. Porter Goss of Florida, a former CIA operations officer, has expressed deep frustration at the pace of the process.

"It appears the joint intelligence committee did too good of a job," quips Breitweiser. Indeed, last fall the New York Times reported that "the findings of a joint committee have been far more damaging than most officials at either agency expected when the panel's inquiry began [in early 2002]." The report is expected to detail disturbing lapses in counterterrorism at the CIA and FBI, where warnings about the Sept. 11 attacks went unheeded. They're revelations that are sure to be uncomfortable for the administration.

"I understand when you have national security issues, that's fine," says Breitweiser. "But I hope [the delay] is about national security issues and it's not about embarrassment. Because for people to be holding up making this nation safe because they fear embarrassment, I don't have any time for that. We need to fix the egregious errors of 9/11."

Raising concerns about the joint inquiry review process was the revelation that the administration wanted some information that had already been made public during open hearings to be reclassified in the joint inquiry report. Also alarming was the news from this spring when former Rep. and current 9/11 commissioner Tim Roemer, an Indiana Democrat, tried to read transcripts from the joint inquiry's closed-door hearings. Even though he had actually served on the joint inquiry a year earlier, Department of Justice attorneys refused to let him read the transcripts, insisting that the White House needed five days to decide whether it wanted to exert executive privilege to keep the information under wraps. The White House eventually relented.

"It was upsetting to find out the White House was trying to block the independent commission's access to the joint inquiry information, when we all know the mandate that created the independent commission states clearly that the commission is to use the joint inquiry as a starting-off point," notes Breitweiser, who also voted for Bush in 2000. "So why would they be blocking access to that?"

Today, the negotiating continues over what gets declassified. "We're making some headway. It's a very long, complicated process. But the public deserves to be told as much as we can tell them about what happened on Sept. 11," reports Eleanor Hill, who directed the joint inquiry staff. Asked whether she's happy with the level of cooperation she's receiving from the administration's intelligence community, Hill responded: "I'll reserve judgment on that."

As Breitweiser noted, the joint inquiry report is supposed to serve as a springboard for the independent 9/11 commission, which is charged with taking a much broader view of the terrorist attack -- everything from border security to immigration. (A classified version of the joint inquiry report has already been made available to the commission.)

Known formally as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, the panel has been bogged down by delays in obtaining security clearances, setting guidelines for how the group would handle classified material, and selecting members. The White House first proposed Henry Kissinger to chair the panel, which provoked some bitter complaints. Kissinger eventually withdrew after refusing to make public the list of his consulting clients.

"I would've thought it'd be further along by now," says Gabrielle. "The length of time it's taken to get up and running is astonishing."

Commission spokesman Al Felzenberg calls the panel's inquiry "the most important investigation ever done in American history, given its scope." The final report, due next May, will be "the definitive account of what took place on Sept. 11," he says, "how it could happen and what went wrong, as well as what worked and what did not work and what recommendation would we have for the American government and the American people to make it safer."

But the investigation almost never happened at all.

Family advocates complain it was created virtually in spite of the White House; they point to the extraordinary game of hardball the administration practiced right on the eve of last year's midterm elections when it derailed a bipartisan congressional deal to form the commission, citing concerns with its potential scope and subpoena power. Members of both parties who had already scheduled a press conference to announce the panel were stunned by the turn of events. Weeks after the 2002 election, and following a candlelight vigil by 9/11 victim families held in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House, the independent commission was finally formed, more than a year after the terrorists attacked.

"Bush begrudgingly signed [the commission] into law," complains one family advocate. "Since it was created, he's done everything to take the teeth out of it. His fingerprints and Karl Rove's are all over this."

"If President Bush and the administration are not happy with the independent commission, then it's their own fault because all they had to do was set up a commission on their own," adds Breitweiser. "But they didn't, so it was left to other people to make sure it got done. Undeniably the administration has dragged its feet."

In the past the White House has denied the charge, insisting it's cooperating with the commission. Yet even during hearings, that cooperation has seemed lackluster at best.

Unlike congressional inquiries, the commission's witnesses have not been asked to testify under oath. As a result, federal officials under Bush's command have not always been forthcoming. At their May 23 public hearing in Washington, commissioners were trying to piece together what, if any, defensive measures the government took on the morning of Sept. 11. Specifically, they wanted to know whether the military's North American Aerospace Defense Command, once notified by the Federal Aviation Administration, should have been able to scramble jets in order to intercept some of the hijacked aircraft. Yet 20 months after the attack, 9/11 commissioners still could not get straight answers from NORAD and FAA representatives who testified as to when the FAA notified NORAD about the wayward jets on the morning of 9/11.

Adding to the general confusion that day was baffling testimony by Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta. "I don't think we ever thought of an airplane being used as a missile," he told the commissioners. But it was widely reported last year that several government studies had warned of just such a scenario.

For months, the commission was struggling to get by on a minuscule budget of $3 million. That low funding and the yearlong delay in creating the commission stand in stark contrast to previous panels formed to investigate momentous disasters in American history.

For instance, on April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg, killing approximately 1,500 of its 2,200 passengers. According to historians, Titanic survivors began disembarking in New York at 10 o'clock on the night of April 18. The next morning at 10:30, a special panel of the Senate Commerce Committee was gaveled into session inside the ornate East Room of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.

Last year, when Cheney called Daschle to urge him to limit any hearings into 9/11, the V.P. argued it would drain sources away from the war on terrorism. By contrast, just 11 days after Japanese bombers hit the U.S. with a sneak attack killing nearly 3,000 people, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order creating a commission to "ascertain and report the facts relating to the attack made by Japanese armed forces upon the Territory of Hawaii on December 7, 1941 ... and to provide bases for sound decisions whether any derelictions of duty or errors of judgment on the part of United States Army or Navy personnel contributed to such successes as were achieved by the enemy on the occasion mentioned." It was the first of eight government-led investigations into the Pearl Harbor.

The Warren Commission, headed by Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, was formed just seven days after President Kennedy was assassinated. Last February, after seven astronauts died when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated 200,000 feet above Texas, NASA's Columbia Accident Investigation Board was created 90 minutes after the incident; $50 million was immediately set aside for the probe. And in just four months, the board has already made public significant findings about the crash investigation.

By contrast, nearly two years after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the 9/11 commission only recently opened up its New York City office. The commission's budget has been increased to $14 million, but many experts say that's still far short of the sum needed to do the job right.

Given that perspective, there's a growing sense among some 9/11 advocates that the news media have let them -- and the nation -- down. "I'm very disappointed in the press," says Breitweiser. "I think it's disgusting the independent commission is doing the most important work for this nation and it's not even reported in the New York Times or on the nightly news. I've been scheduled to go on 'Meet the Press' and 'Hardball' so many times and I'm always canceled. Frankly I'd like nothing better than to go head to head with Dick Cheney on 'Meet the Press.' Because somebody needs to ask the questions and I don't understand why nobody is."

Among frustrated family members of Sept. 11 victims, there's a feeling they're losing the battle of time in their struggle to get answers from the Bush administration. "There's a very, very small window to effect changes," says one 9/11 widower, Bill Harvey. "And unfortunately, that window is closing."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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9/11 Al-qaida Dick Cheney Fbi George W. Bush Iraq War John Mccain R-ariz.