Before the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, there was 9/11

A Brief History of the 9/11 Investigations Through  Dec. 2003

The Bush administration has built its waning wartime credibility on a “defensive” response to the attacks of 9/11 once thought to be unassailable. Now its credibility on 9/11 is also beginning to seriously erode.

In January 2002, both Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney individually asked Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle that inquiries be limited to the congressional Intelligence Committees. In February, The House and Senate, controlled by opposing parties, responded by forming a Joint Intelligence Committee, an action which has been called “unprecedented.” [2/12/2002 Washington Post]

On May 22, 2002, amid Joint Committee strife and continuous administration warnings of new terrorist attacks, Daschle called for an independent commission to investigate government action before the Sept. 11 attacks. He said such a panel was needed for greater public scrutiny, involvement, and understanding.'' [5/22/02 NYT]

The Joint Intelligence Committee Investigation:

Slow Walked and Stonewalled

Although Joint Committee Leaders Senator Bob Graham and Representative Porter Goss hoped to make rapid progress, scuffles regarding staffing caused a number of scheduling delays. Attention turned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which revealed a number of FBI irregularities, including Headquarters’ thwarting the recommendations of Phoenix and Minneapolis field agents prior to the September attacks. These embarrassments sparked a war of FBI, CIA, and NSA leaks of 9/11 related information to the press. Revelations included an August 6, 2001 President’s Daily Briefing (PDB) by the CIA and, in response to news reports, the White House acknowledged the briefing suggested Al Qaeda might be planning to hijack aircraft.

The Joint Inquiry finally got underway on June 4, 2002, but was effectively shut down by Vice President Dick Cheney on June 20 when he denounced it as a source of a "National Security Agency leak": News networks reported the texts of two NSA intercepts received the day before 9/11, but not translated until the day after. Even though the White House itself had earlier released this information, the Joint Inquiry was obligated to submit to an investigation by the FBI to determine the source of the “leak.” The FBI counter investigation was only the most visible of extensive administration attempts to control damage. The Administration refused to provide the Joint Committee access to the President’s Daily Briefs, citing executive privilege, [11/08/03 NYT] and also refused to allow test-imony from Defense Secretary Rumsfeld or Secretary of State Colin Powell.

On September 5, 2002, Richard Shelby, the ranking Repub-lican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, expressed doubts that the committee's investigation into 9/11 would accomplish anything, and supported an independent investigation. "You know, we were told that there would be cooperation in this investigation, and I question that. I think that most of the information that our staff has been able to get that is real meaningful has had to be extracted piece by piece." He adds that there is explosive information that has not been publicly released. "I think there are some more bombs out there ... I know that." [9/10/02 NYT ]

Republican Senator John McCain noted the Bush Administration “slow-walked and stonewalled” the inquiry, which issued its final report on December 10, 2002. It was not permitted to tell the full story, to make the president accountable, or to propose legislation for reform. [Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 2003, Slow Walked and Stonewalled by John Prados.]

The National 9/11 Commission: A National Scandal?

Mr. Bush successfully opposed creation of a National Commission for over a year. Then on September 20, 2002, in the wake of the damaging Joint Committee revelations, Mr. Bush reversed course. [Newsweek, 9/22/02] On November 27, 2002, Title VI of Public Law 107-306 established a new Congressional National Commission, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. This commission was to examine and report upon the facts and causes of the attacks; to ascertain, evaluate, and report on the evidence developed by all relevant governmental agencies, and build upon the investigations of other entities. It was to complete this work by the end of May 2004.

Mr. Bush insisted on the right to name its chairman, Henry Kissinger, to “Follow the facts no matter where they lead.” A New York Times editorial suggested the White House initially appointed Henry Kissinger as Commission Chairman “to contain an investigation it has long opposed.”[11/29/02 NYT] Facing questions about potential conflicts of interest, Kissinger resigned from the Commission on Dec. 13.

Publicly, the White House  pledged cooperation with the National Commission, but privately, cooperation was less than obvious. From the commission's inception, commissioners and others say, the White House  put obstacles in its way. [Newsweek

The Commission was originally allotted $3 million. In March 2003 Commission Chairman Tom Kean requested an additional $11 million, based on an analysis of what commissions members believed they needed to provide a staff of 60 for the 18 month study. The initial request was ignored and funding was delayed. [3/26/03 Time] Weeks later, the administration provided $9 million in supplemental budget. This meager funding to investigate why 3000 people died has been compared with the $50 million provided to investigate the Columbia tragedy in which seven people died, and the $50 million provided to investigate Whitewater and “Monicagate.”

While the law establishing the commission required it to build on the classified Joint Intelligence Committee report, the White House initially blocked the commission's access to that report. A declassified version was finally released in July 2003, eight months into the Commission’s 18 month allotted life. On orders of the Bush administration, numer-ous selections were redacted, including a 28-page section dealing with suspected Saudi ties to the 9/11 plot, and NSA Director Michael Hayden’s June 18, 2002 testimony.

Still the declassified report was damaging to the admini-stration. For example, Commissioner Max Cleland, a triple amputee veteran of the Vietnam war and former Democratic Senator from Georgia, learned that “an FBI informant in San Diego … was living with two of the hijackers, and FBI head-quarters didn't even tell him that they should have been … looked at because the CIA didn't tell the FBI.” Cleland further observed: “…the NSA didn't pass it on to the CIA or the FBI. They were picking up intelligence as early as 1994 about a potential attack in this country using aircraft. What we have here [in this report] is a devastating indictment of the intelligence community.” [7/3/03 Bill Moyers Show, PBS:]

At the White House's insistence, an adviser to Attorney General John Ashcroft reviewed all of the commission's requests for documents and interviews sent to federal agencies. Cleland, said the White House was "cherry picking" documents it wanted to withhold. "It's obvious that they're sifting the information to the 9/11 commission now," he says. "We're way, way late here. The picture is not encouraging." [7/7/2003 WSJ]

In July, the Commission acknowledged its work was being hampered by the failure of executive branch agencies, especially the Pentagon and Justice Department, to respond quickly to requests for documents and testimony. Commission Chair Thomas Kean also suggested the administration’s insistence on using “minders” during testi-mony amounted to intimidation of witnesses. [7/8/03 NYT]

Cleland became the first panel member to say publicly that the commission could not complete its work by its May 2004 deadline and the first to accuse the White House of withholding classified information from the panel for purely political reasons. "It's obvious that the White House wants to run out the clock here," he said in a Washington interview. He also said Bush's re-election campaign had reason to fear what the commission was uncovering in its investigation. "As each day goes by, we learn that this gov-ernment knew a whole lot more about these terrorists be-fore September 11 than it has ever admitted." [10/26/03 NYT]

Administration officials acknowledged fear that information in the President's Daily Briefs might “be construed to suggest that the White House had clues before Sept. 11, 2001, that Al Qaeda was planning a catastrophic attack.” [11/13/03 NYT]. Their fears are well founded. At a July 5, 2001 National Security Council White House gathering of the FAA, Coast Guard, FBI, Secret Service and INS, Director of Counter-Terrorism Richard Clarke stated that "something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it's going to happen soon."


In an interview, former Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal said Clarke, who has since left the NSA, “urgently tried to draw the attention of the Bush administration to the threat of al Qaeda. … on August 6, 2001, George W. Bush received his last, and one of the few, briefings on terrorism. I believe he told Richard Clarke that he didn't want to be briefed on this again, even though Clarke was panicked about the alarms he was hearing regarding potential attacks. Bush
was blithe, indifferent, ultimately irresponsible." []

On Nov. 12, 2003, the commission announced that after months of talks and the threat of subpoena it reached agreement for the White House to provide limited access to the President's Daily Briefs. Under the accord only two members of the 10-member commission would have access to the full library of daily briefings prepared in the Bush and Clinton administrations and two other members would be allowed to read just the copies of the briefings the White House deemed relevant to the inquiry. [11/13/03 NY Times]

Although the agreement appeared to have the support of most of the commissioners, it was denounced by two: Timothy J. Roemer and Max Cleland. Mr. Roemer said in an interview that the White House was continuing to place unacceptable limits on access to the Daily Presidential Briefings. "I am not happy with this agreement, and I will not support it." Cleland’s response was much more scathing: "This is a scam, it's disgusting. America is being cheated." [11/13/03 CNN with Wolf Blitzer: 9/11] In an interview with Eric Boehlert of Salon, Cleland noted “The president’s … decision compromised the mission of the 9/11 commission, pure and simple.” "It is a national scandal." [11/21/03]

Immediately after his comments on CNN and Salon, Cleland, was “approved” by Mr. Bush to serve on the board of the Export-Import Bank. Because statutes governing the panel bar anyone who holds a federal job, he had to leave the commission. [Washington Times] The Commission subsequently announced on December 9 that Bob Kerrey, former Nebraska Senator and current President of the New School University of Manhattan NY would replace Cleland. Kerrey has already made it known the commission should not be a vehicle to bash President Bush. The commission will have to do its work “respectfully - but forcefully,” he said, so as “not to embarrass the president." (NY Villager, 12/17/03.) This stance qualifies Mr. Kerrey as a Bush insider, and again compromises the efforts of the commission to carry on an independent investigation.

On Nov. 20, 2003, Commission Deputy Communications Director Al Felzenberg announced that the Commission had selected four representatives to "examine” the Presidential Daily Briefs: Chairman Kean, Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, Commissioner Jamie Gorelick, and Staff Executive Director Philip Zelikow. Only notes are permitted, and only Kean, Hamilton, Gorelick, and Zelikow may view their own notes—and only at the White House. Only Gorelick and Zelikow will have direct access. The other seven commission members will only be able to read a "summary” subject to White House review. The 9/11 Family Steering Committee responded in writing: "This Agreement is replete with varying levels of 'editing' by the White House. It shows a lack of cooperation by the White House in facilitating this Commission's investigation.”

The 9/11 Commission website [] reveals that Jamie Gorelick has close ties with both the CIA and the administration. Zelikow was a member of the transition team from the Clinton to Bush administrations. This transition involved downgrading the importance and visibility of the Counter-Terrorism Security Group. Although he recused himself from involvement in the investigation of the transition, it was revealed on January 15, 2004 that both Zelikow and Gorelick were both still so closely involved in the events under investigation that they have been interviewed as part of the inquiry. "Did he interview himself about his own role in the failures that left us defenseless?" asked Lori Van Auken, the widow of Kenneth. "This is bizarre." [1/15/04 UPI] Further, Zelikow retains close professional and informal ties to members of the Administration, including Condi Rice and Carl Rove. As Executive Director, he retains the power to hire all Commission staff and coordinate the flow of Kean's investigation. He also has access to all testimony—past and present, and manages all upcoming witnesses, document requests and subpoenas. [11/21/03] Victim families complained of Zelikow’s conflicts of interest in an Oct. 3 letter to the Commission, but were rebuffed. [10/14/03 Washington Post] Was it only coincidence that he and Gorelick were the only commission members granted access to all PDBs?

In a striking new development, Chairman Kean disclosed on December 17 that the attacks could and should have been prevented, and is now pointing fingers inside the administration and laying blame. "There are people that, if I was doing the job, would certainly not be in the position they were in at that time because they failed. They simply failed." Kean also promised major revelations in public testimony beginning in January from top officials in the FBI, CIA, Defense Department, National Security Agency and possibly President Bush and former President Clinton. []

Only after almost 11 of its 18 month lifespan, the commission voted unanimously in October 2003 to issue its first subpoena to the Federal Aviation Administration, which has withheld dozens of boxes of Sept. 11 documents. [10/26/03 NYT] After encountering ''serious delays'' in obtaining certain information from the Defense Department, it voted to subpoena the Pentagon for documents, tapes and transcripts involving the actions of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. Commission members also say they want access to information about communications between NORAD and Air Force One, on which President Bush was traveling on Sept. 11. [11/08/03 NYT]

The commission also announced on Nov. 20 that it had issued a third subpoena to New York City for a variety of police tapes and other material related to the attacks. The panel said the city's refusal to hand over the material had "significantly impeded the commission's investigation [NYT 11/21/03]. After initially refusing, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s office abruptly reversed its position, under the condition that on site review and note-taking be permitted, but only edited versions would be released..