Is it the CIA's turn?
For weeks, the FBI has been excoriated for having failed to follow 9/11-related leads unearthed by field agents months before the airliner attacks. In response to the criticism, FBI Director Robert Mueller III was recently compelled to announce an extensive reorganization of the FBI and to embrace Coleen Rowley, an FBI agent in Minneapolis, who wrote Mueller a scorching letter--later leaked--that detailed numerous problems within the bureau. (The changes at the FBI will provide more latitude--perhaps too much--to field agents, even though a key foul-up occurred because FBI headquarters failed to coordinate two different field investigations.)
While Mueller and the FBI have been in the hot seat, other key agencies that contributed to the US government screw-up on September 11--most notably, the CIA and the Pentagon--have not drawn much fire. The Agency failed to act on intelligence from the mid-90s indicating Osama bin Laden's network was interested in a 9/11-type plot. The Pentagon did not prepare for such an assault. But George Tenet and Donald Rumsfeld, and their respective bureaucracies, escaped crucifixion, let alone harsh words. There were no demands for reorganization or an examination of the bureaucratic culture at either CIA headquarters or the Pentagon.
Now comes the news the CIA engaged in its own boneheaded move. As first reported by Newsweek this week, the CIA, having spied on a meeting of al Qaeda operatives in Kuala Lumpur in January 2000, tracked one of these suspected terrorist to the United States and discovered another already possessed a multiple-entry visa allowing him to enter and leave the United States at will, and the agency did nothing with this information. The two men--Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar--went about their business in the United States for months, opening bank accounts and obtaining driver's licenses in their own names, enrolling in aviation schools, before they walked on to Flight 77 on September 11 and presumably helped crash it into the Pentagon.
For about nineteen months, according to Newsweek, the CIA did not notify the FBI, the State Department or the Immigration and Naturalization Service about the pair. The two men were not added to the watch list used by the State Department and INS to screen visa applicants. Neither name was red-flagged until August 23, 2001--when the CIA did contact the other agencies about Almihdhar, who, by then, was already in the United States. (Almihdhar's visa had expired in late 2000, but the State Department, left clueless by the CIA, had okayed a new one for him.) The FBI only then began searching for the two men, not realizing it had but nineteen days to locate them.
Before the latest news broke, it was publicly known that Almidhdar had been at the terrorist summit in Malaysia. Apparently his attendance there was not sufficient to place him on the watch list. Yet the new report notes the CIA was aware Alhazmi had flown from the meeting to Los Angeles, and the CIA later learned Almihdhar had done the same. It also knew then that Almihdhar had frequently entered the United States--a factor that could have qualified him for placement on the watch list.
The day after the Newsweek story made front-page headlines, the CIA struck back. Citing internal email, unnamed CIA officials, speaking to The Washington Post, noted that the agency had routinely told an FBI counterterrorism contact in January 2000 that Almihdhar was on his way to the al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia and that he possessed a US visa that would permit multiple entries. (This information, though, presumably was not shared with the State Department and the INS.)
The Post placed the CIA's rebuttal on the front-page. But the CIA's defense contained several holes. By its own account, it still had not informed the FBI that Almihdhar flew to the United States right after the Kuala Lumpur confab. Nor did the CIA tell the FBI that Alhazmi was in the United States, after the agency learned that in March 2000 from a foreign intelligence service. "No one picked up on that," a senior official told the Post. The headline on the Post article--"CIA Gave FBI Warning On Hijacker"--was slightly misleading. It turns out the CIA had passed a piece of information--not a warning--to the bureau about one of the two men. But the agency had not told the FBI that either were in the United States. The headline could have as easily read, "CIA Failed To Follow Intelligence on 9/11 Hijacker."
The United States, it seems, missed out on two possible actions that might have changed the course of events. Had the CIA told the FBI that two foreign nationals who had attended a terrorist convention had entered the United States, the bureau could have attempted to track the men and uncovered who-knows what. During their time in the United States, Alhazmi and Almihdhar had frequent contacts with at least five other 9/11 hijackers, two of whom had their 9/11 airline tickets purchased by alleged mastermind Mohamed Atta. Perhaps a close watch of the two would have led the bureau to suss out something was up. That is, if the bureau could have effectively handled such an investigation.
The other action the United States never had the opportunity to take was to deny Alhazmi and Almihdhar entry to the United States after they had participated in the terrorist get-together. Maybe bin Laden and Atta would have replaced them easily. Maybe not.
This latest revelation prompted an inevitable round of recriminations. "There's no question we could have tied all 19 hijackers together," an unnamed FBI official told Newsweek. The not-too-hidden message: we at the bureau are not the only ones who messed up. But a senior intelligence official huffed to the Post, "The notion that we were withholding information from the FBI is absurd." On ABC's This Week, Attorney General John Ashcroft said, "The information we now have does not indicate that there was a substantial likelihood of detecting this." Note his prudent, CYA use of the word "substantial." How about a "reasonable chance"? It would have been nice if the United States law enforcement, intelligence and security apparatus had had a fighting chance against the 19 mass-murderers of September 11. But Ashcroft was echoing the official line. In February, Tenet testified before Congress that the CIA had done no wrong and that 9/11 was not due to a "failure of attention, and discipline, and focus, and consistent effort." Except for Senator Richard Shelby, a Democrat-turned Republican from Alabama, few members of Congress have raised any 9/11-linked questions about the CIA and Tenet's leadership there.
Would Tenet now say the CIA deserves no criticism for mishandling the Alhazmi/Almihdhar leads? Will the congressional intelligence committees force him to explain this episode publicly? For years, the spies have received an easier ride on the Hill than their comrades-competitors in the bureau. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has long had the FBI in his crosshairs. He's called for an investigation of senior FBI officials and has said "their heads should roll," if it turns out they failed to properly warn Mueller, who took over the bureau a week before 9/11. What of the CIA? Will there be a similar accounting of actions in Langley?
To date, the Bush White House has done nothing but embrace Tenet and has not encouraged a vigorous investigation of the intelligence community's pre-9/11 performance. Majority Leader Tom Daschle says that both President Bush and Vice President Cheney asked him to oppose any inquiry into pre-9/11 intelligence failures. The White House denies this and claims it supports the mostly-secret probe by the congressional intelligence committees. But even if that is true, there is no indication that after September 11, Bush was dismayed by the intelligence community's pre-9/11 record and ordered an examination of its failings. He's the President, he doesn't have to wait for or rely upon Congress. He could have instructed the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, the Intelligence Oversight Board or the CIA's own inspector general to assess what had happened. As far as we know, he took a pass and decided to concentrate on the war at hand. In his view, it didn't matter whether--and how--the $30-billion-a-year intelligence community had botched its primary mission, not even as billions in extra dollars were being appropriated for the CIA and other agencies.
As a dazed and confused FBI attracted flak for months, the senior managers at CIA headquarters--officially dubbed the George Bush Center for Intelligence in 1999--skated by. Now they have hit a rough patch. Let's see how much political protection comes from naming a building for the president's father.
On March 25, during a Pacifica radio interview, Representative Cynthia McKinney, a Georgia Democrat, said, "We know there were numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11.... What did this Administration know, and when did it know it about the events of September 11? Who else knew and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered?" McKinney was not merely asking if there had been an intelligence failure. She was suggesting--though not asserting--that the US government had foreknowledge of the specific attacks and either did not do enough to prevent them or, much worse, permitted them to occur for some foul reason. Senator Zell Miller, a conservative Democrat from her state, called her comments "loony." House minority leader Dick Gephardt noted that he disagreed with her. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer quipped, "The congresswoman must be running for the Hall of Fame of the Grassy Knoll Society." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called her a "nut." Two months later, after it was revealed that George W. Bush had received an intelligence briefing a month before September 11 in which he informed told Osama bin Laden was interested in both hijacking airplanes and striking directly at the United States, McKinney claimed vindication. But that new piece of information did not support the explosive notion she had unfurled earlier--that the Bush Administration and/or other unnamed parties had been in a position to warn New Yorkers and had elected not to do so.
With her radio interview, McKinney became something of a spokesperson for people who question the official story of September 11. As the Constitution's editorial page blasted her, its website ran an unscientific poll and found that 46 percent said, "I think officials knew it was coming." Out there--beyond newspaper conference rooms and Congressional offices--alternative scenarios and conspiracy theories have been zapping across the Internet for months. George W. Bush did it. The Mossad did it. The CIA did it. Or they purposely did not thwart the assault--either to have an excuse for war, to increase the military budget or to replace the Taliban with a government sympathetic to the West and the oil industry. The theories claim that secret agendas either caused the attacks or drove the post-9/11 response, and these dark accounts have found an audience of passionate devotees.
I learned this after I wrote a column dismissing various 9/11 conspiracy theories. I expressed doubt that the Bush Administration would kill or allow the murder of thousands of American citizens to achieve a political or economic aim. (How could Karl Rove spin that, if a leak ever occurred?) Having covered the national security community for years, I didn't believe any government agency could execute a plot requiring the coordination of the FBI, the CIA, the INS, the FAA, the NTSB, the Pentagon and others. And--no small matter--there was no direct evidence that anything of such a diabolical nature had transpired.
Hundreds of angry e-mails poured in. Some accused me of being a sophisticated CIA disinformation agent. Others claimed I was hopelessly naive. (Could I be both?) Much of it concerned two men, Michael Ruppert and Delmart "Mike" Vreeland. Ruppert, a former Los Angeles cop, runs a website that has cornered a large piece of the alternative-9/11 market. An American who was jailed in Canada, Vreeland claims to be a US naval intelligence officer who tried to warn the authorities before the attacks. Ruppert cites Vreeland to back up his allegation that the CIA had "foreknowledge" of the 9/11 attacks and that there is a strong case for "criminal complicity on the part of the U.S. government in their execution." My article discounted their claims. But, I discovered, the two men had a loyal--and vocal--following. They were being booked on Pacifica stations. Ruppert was selling a video and giving speeches around the world. (In February, he filled a theater in Sacramento.) I decided to take a second--and deeper--look at the pair and key pieces of the 9/11 conspiracy movement.
The Ex-Cop Who Connects the Dot
By his own account, Ruppert has long been a purveyor of amazing tales. In 1981 he told the Los Angeles Herald Examiner a bizarre story about himself: While a cop in the 1970s, he fell in love with a mysterious woman who, he came to believe, was working with the mob and US intelligence. Only after she left him, Ruppert said, did he figure out that his girlfriend had been a CIA officer coordinating a deal in which organized crime thugs were transporting weapons to Kurdish counterrevolutionaries in Iran in exchange for heroin. In an interview with the newspaper, the woman denied Ruppert's account and questioned his mental stability. Whatever the truth of his encounter with this woman, the relationship apparently extracted a toll on Ruppert. In 1978 he resigned from the force, claiming that the department had not protected him when his life was threatened. According to records posted on Ruppert's site, his commanding officer called his service "for the most part, outstanding." But the CO also said Ruppert was hampered by an "over-concern with organized crime activity and a feeling that his life was endangered by individuals connected to organized crime. This problem resulted in Officer Ruppert voluntarily committing himself to psychiatric care last year.... any attempts to rejoin the Department by Officer Ruppert should be approved only after a thorough psychiatric examination."
In 1996 Ruppert showed up at a community meeting in Los Angeles concerning charges that the CIA had been in league with crack cocaine dealers in the United States. There Ruppert claimed the agency had tried to recruit him in the 1970s to "protect CIA drug operations" in South Central Los Angeles--an allegation that was missing from the guns-and-drugs story published in 1981. In 1998 he launched his From the Wilderness alternative newsletter, which examines what he considers to be the hidden currents of international economics and national security untouched by other media. On March 31 of last year, for instance, he published a report on an economic conference in Moscow where the opening speaker was a fellow who works for Lyndon LaRouche, the conspiracy-theorist/political cult leader. "I share a near universal respect of the LaRouche organization's detailed and precise research," Ruppert wrote. "I have not, however, always agreed with [its] conclusions." Ruppert claims that twenty members of Congress subscribe to his newsletter.
Ruppert is not a reporter. He mostly assembles facts--or purported facts--from various news sources and then makes connections. The proof is not in any one piece--say, a White House memo detailing an arms-for-hostages trade. The proof is in the line drawn between the dots. His masterwork is a timeline of fifty-one events (at last count) that, he believes, demonstrate that the CIA knew of the attacks in advance and that the US government probably had a hand in them. Ruppert titled his timeline "Oh Lucy!--You Gotta Lotta 'Splaining To Do."
In the timeline he notes that transnational oil companies invested billions of dollars to gain access to the oil reserves of Central America and that they expressed interest in a trans-Afghanistan pipeline between 1991 and 1998. He lists trips made to Saudi Arabia in 1998 and 2000 by former President George Bush on behalf of the Carlyle Group investment firm. On September 7, 2001, Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed an order restructuring the state's response to acts of terrorism. There's a German online news agency report from September 14 claiming that an Iranian man had called US law enforcement to warn of the attack earlier that summer. The list cries out, "Don't you see?" Oil companies wanted a stable and pro-Western regime in Afghanistan. Warnings were not heeded. Daddy Bush had dealings in Saudi Arabia. Brother Jeb was getting ready for a terrible event. It can only mean one thing: The US government designed the attacks or let them happen so it could go to war on behalf of oil interests.
Space prevents a complete dissection of all Ruppert's dots. But in several instances, he misrepresents his source material. Item number 8 says that in February 2001, UPI reported that the National Security Agency had "broken bin Laden's encrypted communications." That would suggest the US government could have picked up word of the coming assault. But the actual story noted not that the US government had gained the capacity to eavesdrop on bin Laden at will but that it had "gone into foreign bank accounts [of bin Laden's organization] and deleted or transferred funds, and jammed or blocked the group's cell or satellite phones." Item number 9, based on a Los Angeles Times story, says the Bush Administration gave $43 million in aid to the Taliban in May 2001, "purportedly" to assist farmers starving since the destruction of their opium crop. Purportedly? Was the administration paying off the Taliban for something else? That is what Ruppert is hinting. The newspaper, though, reported that all US funds "are channeled through the United Nations and international agencies," not handed to the Taliban. Unless Ruppert can show that was not the case, this dot has no particular significance. What if Washington funded international programs assisting Afghan farmers? With his timeline, Ruppert implies far more than he proves. It is a document for those already predisposed to believe that world events are determined by secret, mind-boggling conspiracies of the powerful, by people too influential and wily to be caught but who leave a trail that can be decoded by a few brave outsiders who know where and how to look.
The "Spy" Who Tried To Warn Us?
Ruppert can claim one truly original find: Delmart "Mike" Vreeland. He is the flesh on the bones of Ruppert's the-dots-show-all timeline. On December 6, 2000, Vreeland, then 34, was arrested in Canada and charged with fraud, forgery, threatening death or bodily harm, and obstructing a peace officer. At the time, he was wanted on multiple warrants in the United States--for forgery, counterfeiting, larceny, unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, narcotics, reckless endangerment, arson, and grand theft. Months earlier, the Detroit News, citing law enforcement authorities, had reported that Vreeland was an experienced identity thief. While Vreeland was in jail in Toronto, law enforcement officials in Michigan began extradition proceedings.
On October 7, 2001, Vreeland, who was fighting extradition, submitted an exhibit in a Canadian court that he says shows he knew 9/11 was coming. And, Ruppert argues, this is proof that US intelligence was aware of the coming attacks. The document is a page of handwritten notes. There is a list that includes the World Trade Center, the Sears Tower and the White House. Below that a sentence reads, "Let one happen--stop the rest." Elsewhere is a hard-to -decipher collection of phrases and names. Vreeland claims he wrote this in mid-August 2001, while in prison, and had it placed in a locked storage box by prison guards. He says the note was opened on September 14 in front of prison officials. Immediately, his lawyers were summoned to the prison, according to one of them, Rocco Galati, and the jail officials dispatched the note to Ottawa.
Vreeland's believers, including Ruppert, refer to this note as a "warning letter." It is no such thing and, though tantalizing, holds no specific information related to the 9/11 assaults. There is no date mentioned, no obvious reference to a set of perpetrators. In a telephone interview with me, Vreeland said this document was not written as an alert. He claimed that throughout the summer of 2001, he was composing a thirty-seven-page memo to Adm. Vernon Clark, Chief of Naval Operations, and that this page contains the notes he kept during this process. What of the memo to Clark? Vreeland won't share it, maintaining that he wrote in such a manner that only its intended recipient would truly understand what it said. Who can confirm the note was indeed what he had placed in storage prior to September 11? Is it possible some sort of switch was pulled? Vreeland maintains that during court proceedings, five officials of the Canadian jail affirmed that he had passed this document to the guards prior to September 11. When I asked for their names, Vreeland said the judge had sealed those records. Kevin Wilson, a Canadian federal prosecutor handling the extradition case, and Galati, Vreeland's lawyer, say no seal has been ordered.
The note is one small piece of Vreeland's very big Alias-like story. He claims he was a US naval intelligence officer sent to Russia in September 2000 on a sensitive mission: to obtain design documents related to a Russian weapon system that could defeat a US missile defense system. He swiped copies of the documents and altered the originals so the Russian system wouldn't work. As one court decision states, "According to [Vreeland], he was sent to Russia to authenticate these documents because he had originally conceived of the theory behind this [anti-Star Wars] technology, when working for the US Navy in 1986." While in Moscow, he also snagged other top-secret documents that, he claims, foretold the September 11 attacks. And now the US government, the Russian secret police, organized crime and corrupt law enforcement officials are after him. As one Canadian judge noted, "No summary of the complex allegations of multiple concurrent conspiracies...can do justice to [Vreeland's] own description."
Ruppert and Vreeland assert that Canadian court records back up Vreeland. But court decisions in his case have questioned his credibility. In one, Judge Archie Campbell observed, "There is not even a threshold showing of any air of reality to the vast conspiracy alleged by the applicant." Judge John Macdonald wrote, "I find that the Applicant is an imaginative and manipulative person who has little regard for the truth.... the testimony that he developed the theory for anti-Star Wars technology in 1986, based on high school courses, personal interest and perhaps a law clerk's course and a 'Bachelor of Political Science' degree is simply incredible." Nor did he he believe Vreeland was a spy or that he had smuggled documents out of Russia. Macdonald, though, did state that the US records submitted in court regarding Vreeland's criminal record were "terse, incomplete and confusing," and he noted that the sloppiness of the filing might suggest the Michigan criminal charges were "trumped up." But he was not convinced of that, explaining "I see no reasonable basis in the evidence for inferring that the Michigan charges are 'trumped up.'"
It's not surprising those records might be a mess. After I first wrote about Vreeland, I received an e-mail from Terry Weems, who identified himself as Vreeland's half-brother. He claimed Vreeland was a longtime con man who had preyed on his own family. Weems sent copies of police reports his wife had filed in Alabama accusing Vreeland of falsely using her name to buy office supplies and cell phones in August 2000. Weems provided me a list of law enforcement officers who were pursuing Vreeland in several states. I began calling these people and examining state and county records. There was much to check.
According to Michigan Department of Corrections records, Vreeland was in and out of prison several times from 1988 to 1999, having been convicted of assorted crimes, including breaking and entering, receiving stolen property, forgery and writing bad checks. In 1997 he was arrested in Virginia for conspiring to bribe a police officer and intimidating a witness, court records say. He failed to show up in court there. In Florida he was arrested in 1998 on two felony counts of grand theft. In one instance he had purchased a yacht with a check written on a nonexistent account. He was sentenced to three years of probation. The Florida Department of Corrections currently lists him as an absconder. In 1998 he was pursued by the Sheffield, Alabama, police force for stealing about $20,000 in music equipment. Charges were eventually dismissed after some of the property was recovered and Vreeland agreed to pay restitution. In the course of his investigation, Sheffield Detective Greg Ray pulled Vreeland's criminal file; it was twenty pages long. "He had to really try to be a criminal to get such a history," Ray says. A 1999 report filed by a Michigan probation agent said of Vreeland, "The defendant has 9 known felony convictions and 5 more felony charges are now pending in various Courts. However, the full extent of his criminal record may never be known because he has more than a dozen identified Aliases and arrests or police contacts in 5 different states."
Michigan state police records (sent to me by Weems, Vreeland's half-brother) show that in 1997, while Vreeland was in jail after being arrested on a bad-check charge, he wrote a letter to the St. Clair Shores Police Department warning that his brother-in-law was going to burn down his own restaurant. The letter was dated five days prior to a fire that occurred at the restaurant, but it was postmarked three days after the fire. "Do you see a pattern here?" Weems asks.
Judge Campbell called Vreeland a "man who appears on this evidentiary record to be nothing more than a petty fraudsman with a vivid imagination." But Ruppert dismisses Vreeland's past, noting he has "a very confusing criminal arrest record--some of it very contradictory and apparently fabricated." When I interviewed Vreeland, he said, "I have never legally been convicted of anything in the United States of America." And, he added, he has never been in prison.
There are two odd bounces in this case. Vreeland claims that in Moscow he worked with a Canadian Embassy employee named Marc Bastien. Unfortunately, this cannot be confirmed by Bastien. He was found dead in Moscow on December, 12, 2000--while Vreeland was in jail in Toronto. At the time of his death, Canadian authorities announced Bastien died of natural causes, but Vreeland later claimed Bastien had been murdered. Then, this past January, the Quebec coroner said Bastein died after drinking a mixture of alcohol and clopazine, an antidepressant, and he noted that Bastien may have been poisoned--or may have been offered the medication to fight a hangover. Had Vreeland really known something about this death, or had he made a good guess about a fellow whose death was covered in the Canadian media? And during a courtroom proceeding, at Vreeland's insistence, the judge allowed his counsel to place a call to the Pentagon. The operator who answered confirmed that a Lieutenant D. Vreeland was listed in the phone directory. Afterward, Canadian prosecutors claimed that information from the US government indicated that a person purporting to be Lieutenant D. Vreeland had earlier sent an e-mail to a telephone operator at the Pentagon, saying he would temporarily be occupying a Pentagon office and requesting that this be reflected in the listings. Could a fellow in a Toronto jail have scammed the Pentagon telephone system?
In March the Canadian criminal charges against Vreeland were dropped, and he was allowed to post bail. Explaining why charges were removed, Paul McDermott, a provincial prosecutor, says his office considered the pending extradition matter the priority. Vreeland's extradition hearing is scheduled for September.
To believe Vreeland's scribbles mean anything, one must believe his claim to be a veteran intelligence operative sent to Moscow on an improbable top-secret, high-tech mission (change design documents to neutralize an entire technology) during which he stumbled upon documents (which he has not revealed) showing that 9/11 was going to happen. To believe that, one must believe he is a victim of a massive disinformation campaign, involving his family, law enforcement officers and defense lawyers across the country, two state corrections departments, county clerk offices in ten or so counties, the Canadian justice system and various parts of the US government. And one must believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of detailed court, county, prison and state records have been forged. It is easier to believe that a well-versed con man got lucky with the Bastien death/murder, was able to arrange a stunt with the Pentagon switchboard and either wrote a sketchy note before September 11 that could be interpreted afterward as relevant or penned the note following the disaster and convinced prison guards he had written it previously. Michigan detective John Meiers, who's been chasing Vreeland for two years, says, "The bottom line: Delmart Vreeland is a con man. He's conned everyone he comes into contact with. That's why he's wanted.... He keeps going back into court for hearings because he doesn't want to come back here. He knows he's going to prison, and he's fighting. In the interim, he's coming up with a variety of stories."
The Rest of It
The Vreeland case--despite the attention it has drawn--is not the centerpiece of all 9/11 conspiracy theories. There is much more: A CIA officer supposedly met with bin Laden in July 2001 in Dubai. Before September 11, parties unknown engaged in a frenzy of short-selling involving the stock of American Airlines, United Airlines and dozens of other companies affected by the attacks. The Pentagon was not actually hit by an airliner. Flight 93--the fourth plane--did not crash in Pennsylvania; it was shot down. The Bush Administration, in talks with the Taliban, warned that war was coming. And that's not a complete run-down.
Some of the lingering questions or peculiar facts warrant more attention than others. There was a boost in short-selling. But does that suggest the US government ignored a clear warning? Or might the more obvious explanation be true--that people close to Osama bin Laden were tipped off and took advantage of that inside information? Ronald Blekicki, who publishes Microcap Analyst, an online investment publication, says most of the short-selling occurred overseas--and escaped notice in the United States. If that type of trading had happened in the US markets, he explains, it would have stirred rumors about the companies involved. "Everyone on the exchanges would have known about it," he explains. "My best guess is that the people who profited were reasonably wealthy individuals in the inner circle of bin Laden and the Taliban." What is curious, though, is that news of the investigations into the short-selling has taken a quick-fade. Neither the Securities and Exchange Commission nor the Chicago Board Options Exchange will say whether they are still investigating trading practices prior to September 11. And there has been no word from Congress or the Bush Administration on this topic. Suspicious minds, no doubt, can view the public absence of government interest as evidence of something amiss. In this instance, the lack of a credible official investigation creates much space for the disciples of conspiracy theories.
No airliner at the Pentagon? You can find websites devoted to that thesis. Another site, called www.flight93crash.com, offers a sober look at the anomalies that have led people to wonder if that last plane, the one in Pennsylvania, was blasted out of the sky.
The alleged CIA-bin Laden meeting in Dubai has attracted intense notice in alternative-9/11 circles. The story first appeared In Le Figaro, a French newspaper, on October 31, 2001, in an article by freelancer Alexandra Richard. Citing an unnamed "partner of the administration of the American Hospital in Dubai," she maintained that bin Laden was treated at the hospital for ten days. Her story also asserted that "the local CIA agent...was seen taking the main elevator of the hospital to go to bin Laden's hospital room" and "bragged to a few friends about having visited bin Laden," but she provided no source for these details. The hospital categorically denies bin Laden was there. Even if a meeting occurred, that would not necessarily indicate the CIA was aware of bin Laden's plot. Such news, though, would be a huge embarrassment and prompt many awkward questions. But the meeting's existence--unattached to a single identifiable source--can only be regarded as iffy.
Two French authors, Jean-Charles Brisard, a former intelligence employee, and Guillaume Dasquie, a journalist, have written a book, Bin Laden; the Forbidden Truth, in which they maintain that the 9/11 attacks were the "outcome" of "private and risky discussions" between the United States and the Taliban "concerning geostrategic oil interests." As they see it, Washington, driven by fealty to Big Oil, threatened the Taliban with military action and replacement, as it was pursuing Osama bin Laden and seeking a regime in Afghanistan that would cooperate with oil firms. In response to Washington's heavy-handed tactics, the two suggest, bin Laden and the Taliban decided to strike first. This double theory--it's-all-about-oil and Washington provoked the attack--has resonated on anti-Bush websites. To prove their case, the French men attach sinister motives to a United Nations initiative to settle the political and military strife in Afghanistan. Citing a UN report, they depict this effort as "negotiations" between the Taliban and the United States, in which the Americans aimed to replace the Taliban with the former King. Yet a fair reading of the UN report shows that the endeavor--conducted by the UN Special Mission to Afghanistan--was a multilateral attempt to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan that involved discussions with the various sides in that country. It was not geared toward reinstalling ex-King Mohammad Zahir Shah.
Brisard and Dasquie's most dramatic charge is that former Pakistani foreign minister Niaz Naik, who attended one of a series of international conferences held by the UN Special Mission to Afghanistan, says that at the July 2001 meeting a "US official" threatened the Taliban, "Either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs." (This portion of the book is similar to an earlier article in the British Guardian, in which Naik additionally noted that the Pakistani government relayed Naik's impression of this US threat to the Taliban.) The Taliban, though, were not present at the session, which was held in Berlin, and the three American representatives there were former US officials. One of the reps, Tom Simons, a past US Ambassador to Pakistan who spent thirty-five years in the foreign service, recalls no such threat but acknowledges that the Americans did note that if Washington determined bin Laden was behind the USS Cole bombing in Yemen, the Afghans obviously could expect the Bush Administration to strike bin Laden. That would hardly have been a remark to cause bin Laden to arrange quickly a pre-emptive assault. Simons--who says he was not interviewed by the French authors--believes Naik misheard the Americans on this point. Whether Naik did or not, the French authors, at best, suggest a line of inquiry rather than come close to validating their contention. (Brisard and Dasquie also argue--without offering an abundance of evidence--that the United States, by design, did not vigorously pursue bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network because doing so clashed with other diplomatic priorities, most notably, cozying up to the oil autocrats of Saudi Arabia.)
Official accounts ought not to be absorbed without scrutiny. Clandestine agendas and unacknowledged geostrategic factors--such as oil--may well shape George W. Bush's war on terrorism. And there are questions that have gone unaswered. For example, on September 12, 2001, a brief story in Izvestia, the Moscow-based newspaper, citing unnamed sources, reported that Moscow had warned Washington of the 9/11 attacks weeks earlier. Was such a warning actually transmitted? If so, who issued the warning and who received it? But questions are not equivalent to proof. As of now, there is not confirmable evidence to argue that the conventional take on September 11--bin Laden surprise-attacked America as part of a jihad, and a caught-off-guard United States struck back--is actually a cover story.
Without conspiracy theories, there is much to wonder about September 11. The CIA and the FBI had indications, if not specific clues, that something was coming and did not piece them together. Government agencies tasked to protect the United States failed. US air defenses performed extraordinarily poorly--even though there had been signs for at least five years that Al Qaeda was considering a 9/11-type scheme. Afterward, neither the Bush Administration nor Congress rushed to investigate. In fact, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle maintains that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney both told him in January they opposed any Congressional investigation of 9/11. (The White House denies this.) Congress finally greenlighted an inquiry, but the investigation bogged down as the Congressional investigators complained that the CIA and the Justice Department were impeding their efforts.
One problem with conspiracy theorizing is that it can distract from the true and (sometimes mundane) misdeeds and mistakes of government. But when the government is reluctant to probe its own errors, it opens the door wider for those who would turn anomalies into theories or spin curious fact--or speculation--into outlandish explanation. Not that all who do so need much encouragement. September 11 was so traumatic, so large, that there will always be people who look to color it--or exploit it--by adding more drama and intrigue, who seek to discern hidden meanings, who desire to make more sense of the awful act. And there will be people who want to believe them.
It is no secret that grassroots Democrats around the country oppose the free-trade regimen advocated by the Bush administration and the corporate lobbyists who have shaped the debate on trade issues inside the beltway.
The Democratic party's core constituencies well understand that the North American Free Trade Agreement, the normalization of trade relations with China and other corporate free-trade initiatives have led to the shuttering of American factories, depressed prices for family farmers and the use of trade policy to assault laws protecting the environment in the U.S. and abroad. Even the most conservative estimates suggest that NAFTA has cost at least 360,000 Americans their jobs -- and that is merely the easiest measure of the impact of free-trade agreements that allow multinational corporations, as opposed to citizens and their elected officials, to write the rules for protection of workers, farmers and the environment.
Recognizing the flaws in a corporate-dictated free-trade system, groups with a history of good relations with the Democratic party have been among the loudest foes of the Bush administration's attempts to gain Fast Track authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement that critics refer to as "NAFTA on steroids."
The AFL-CIO and its affiliate unions have actively opposed Fast Track, as have the Sierra Club and other major environmental groups, and the National Farmers Union and organizations that represent family farmers as opposed to corporate agribusiness interests. So too have human rights and religious groups concerned about poverty and social justice in the U.S. and internationally.
In the House of Representatives, where Fast Track passed by a 215-214 margin in December, 194 Democrats opposed the legislation while just 23 backed it.
In the Senate, however, where Democrats are in charge, a marginally modified version of the Fast Track legislation won passage Thursday by a 66-30 margin. While 25 Democrats opposed Fast Track, 24 Democrats and one Independent who caucuses with the Democrats -- Vermont's Jim Jeffords -- backed the legislation. (The last Democrat, Hawaii's Daniel Inouye missed the vote.)
So who were the free-trade Democrats in the Senate? Many were southern conservatives such as Georgia's Zell Miller, but many more were Democrats who portray themselves as friends of labor, family farmers, environmental groups and other Democratic constituencies that lobbied against Fast Track. Indeed, several of the Fast Track-backing Democrats are potential contenders for the party's 2004 presidential nomination.
Among those voting for Fast Track was Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D- South Dakota. Joining Daschle in voting for the measure was Connecticut's Joseph Lieberman, who in recent weeks has stepped up efforts to position himself as a 2004 contender, North Carolina's John Edwards and Delaware's Joe Biden. Even Massachusetts' John Kerry, who sought to add a good amendment to the legislation, ultimately joined the vast majority of Senate Republicans in backing Fast Track.
Among senators whose names have been floated as potential 2004 Democratic presidential contenders, only Connecticut's Chris Dodd and Wisconsin's Russ Feingold voted against Fast Track. They were joined by another senator whose name is often mentioned but who regularly takes herself out of contention -- Hillary Clinton.
Fast Track was amended sufficiently in the Senate to mean that it will go to a House-Senate conference committee, where a compromise version of the legislation is expected to be be crafted and then sent back for votes in both chambers. Fast Track could yet get beat in the House, where opposition could actually grow in an election year.
Most of the Democratic senators who harbor presidential ambitions are no doubt hoping that the House will clean up the Fast Track mess. Then they will be able to continue to collect contributions from corporate interests that want unregulated free trade, while publicly presenting themselves as contenders who are in touch with the party's base.
The Democratic party's base would do well to remember how the voting went when the Senate could have derailed Fast Track, however. It is a good measure of how reliable a Democratic president might be the issues that workers, farmers, environmentalists and supporters of international human rights take a lot more seriously than do many Democratic senators.
The question is not the 1970s cliché, What did the President know and when did he know it? The appropriate query is, What did US intelligence know-and what did the President know and do about that?
The flap over the August 6, 2001, intelligence briefing of George W. Bush-in which he was told that Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network was interested in hijackings and looking to strike the United States directly-should not have focused on whether the President ignored that information and missed the chance to prevent the September 11 strikes. Still, a political dust-up ensued, as the White House, overreacting to the overreaction of the Democrats, went into full-spin mode. The crucial issue was broached when National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice stated, "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center."
Actually, it was predicted, and the recent hullabaloo called attention to the sad fact that the Clinton and the Bush II national security establishments did not heed hints going back to 1995. In that year a terrorist arrested in the Philippines said bin Laden operatives were considering a plot to bomb airliners and fly a plane into CIA headquarters-information shared with the United States. Two weeks before that arrest, Algerian terrorists linked to Al Qaeda hijacked a plane, hoping to crash it into the Eiffel Tower (French commandos killed the hijackers at a refueling stop).
From 1995 on, US intelligence and the military should have taken steps to detect and prevent a 9/11-like scheme. There was enough information in the system to cause the US air command to draw up plans for dealing with an airliner-turned-missile and to prompt the CIA and the FBI (and other intelligence outfits) to seek intelligence related to plots of this type. Apparently nothing of the sort happened. Not even when terrorism experts continued to raise airliner attacks as a possibility. In 1998 terrorism analysts briefed Federal Aviation Administration security officials on scenarios in which terrorists flew planes into US nuclear plants or commandeered Federal Express cargo planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the White House, the Capitol and other targets. In 1999 a report prepared for the National Intelligence Council noted that Al Qaeda suicide bombers could fly an aircraft filled with explosives into the Pentagon, CIA headquarters or the White House.
In 2001 the FBI-not looking for signs of a suicide-bombing plot-failed to recognize the significance of information its agents received while investigating foreign students at a Phoenix flight school and Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national enrolled in a Minnesota aviation school, later charged with participating in the 9/11 conspiracy. In July Italian authorities warned the United States that bin Laden agents might try to attack Bush and other Western leaders at the Genoa summit using an airliner.
True, these leads were small pieces of data among the massive amounts of material swept up by the sprawling intelligence system. But what's the point of spending more than $30 billion annually on spies and high-tech eavesdropping if the system can't sort out the valuable nuggets? Hindsight is indeed easy. The Bush and Clinton administrations, based on what's now known, don't deserve to be faulted for not discovering the 9/11 plot. But both failed to oversee the intelligence and law-enforcement communities and make sure they were pointed in the right direction.
There is evidence that the Bush team didn't move quickly on the counterterrorism front. Newsweek reported that Attorney General John Ashcroft prodded the FBI to concentrate on violent crime, drugs and child porn more than on counterterrorism (a story the JusticeDepartment denied). And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld threatened to veto a move that shifted $600 million from the anti-ballistic missile program to antiterrorism. Was there a counterterrorism policy delay? Other questions linger. In July 2001 Richard Clarke, then the National Security Council official in charge of counterterrorism, put out an urgent alert, placing the government at its highest state of readiness for a possible terrorist attack. The alert faded six weeks later. What triggered it? What caused the stand-down? Should there have been a follow-up?
The multiple failures of policy, imagination and coordination over two administrations should be investigated. To assign blame? Accountability does have its place in a democracy. The public has a right to know who messed up and to be assured that those who did aren't in a position to commit further mistakes. The point, of course, is to learn from those mistakes and to be able to tell the public the failures have been addressed. Does the intelligence system deserve more billions, as Bush has requested, without demonstrating that it can use the money wisely?
After 9/11 the Bush Administration didn't rush to examine what went wrong. We're too busy fighting the war, it said, while urging Congress not to pursue the matter. Belatedly, Congress authorized a joint investigation by the House and Senate intelligence committees, two panels that traditionally have been cozy with the intelligence crowd. That probe has gotten off to a terrible start-the investigators fighting among themselves over whether to examine government failures or to concentrate on how best to reorganize the intelligence system and accusing the CIA and the Justice Department of not cooperating. One positive consequence of the maelstrom over the August 6 briefing is that it has prompted more calls for an independent commission, which Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman have been advocating. Yet so far no inquiry is committed to mounting a no-holds-barred examination and to conducting as much of it as possible in public.
"I don't have any problem with a legitimate debate over the performance of our intelligence agencies," said Vice President Cheney. But he has opposed sharing the August 6 briefing with Congress. How can there be worthwhile debate without information? After all, the recent tussle began when the press sensed that the White House had withheld a significant-or intriguing-fact. And how can there be information without investigation? The issue is not what Bush knew-but why he didn't know, and whether his Administration took sufficient steps before and after that awful day to deal with the failings of the agencies that are supposed to thwart and protect.
In April, U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., got in a whole heap of trouble after she called for a thorough investigation of what George W. Bush knew before September 11 about the potential for the sort of terrorist attacks that would shake the nation and the world on that fateful day.
McKinney is one of the most outspoken members of the current Congress and her statements were typically blunt. "We know there were numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11th," she told a radio interviewer. "What did this administration know and when did it know it, about the events of September 11th? Who else knew, and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered? . . . What do they have to hide?"
McKinney's call for a real investigation of what Bush knew -- along with her parallel suggestion that it was necessary to conduct a review of possible war profiteering by members of the Bush administration and corporations with close ties to the president -- drew a firestorm from pundits and partisans.
"The American people know the facts, and they dismiss such ludicrous, baseless views," grumbled White House spokesman Scott McLellan. "The fact that she questions the president's legitimacy shows a partisan mind-set beyond all reason." The Washington Post declared in a news story that McKinney "seems to have tapped into a web of conspiracy theories." National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg, in a piece headlined "Representative Awful: Cynthia McKinney?s insanity and hypocrisy" went on at length about how the five-term representative was spouting "paranoid, America-hating, crypto-Marxist conspiratorial delusions" -- and Goldberg's jabs were restrained compared to the hits the congresswoman took hour after hour after hour from the Fox News Channel punditocracy.
McKinney was even accused by her hometown newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, of buying into a "wacko left-wing version of paranoid hatred of the president." For good measure, Journal-Constitution editorial page editor Cynthia Tucker added, "McKinney has made herself too easy a target for mockery. She no longer deserves serious analysis."
Barely one month after McKinney was so condemned, the headline of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution read: "Bush warned by U.S. intelligence before 9/11 of possible bin Laden plot to hijack planes." The Washington Post front page announced: "Bush Was Told of Hijacking Dangers." The Fox News Channel was repeating the big story of the day: "Bush Was Warned of Hijack Plot."
McKinney clearly feels a measure of vindication. "Today's revelations that the administration, and President Bush, were given months of notice that a terrorist attack was a distinct possibility points out the critical need for a full and complete congressional investigation," she said in a statement issued Thursday morning. "It now becomes clear why the Bush Administration has been vigorously opposing congressional hearings. The Bush Administration has been engaged in a conspiracy of silence. If committed and patriotic people had not been pushing for disclosure today's revelations would have been hidden by the White House."
The news that President Bush was told a month before September 11 that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network might hijack American airplanes does not confirm each and every concern expressed by McKinney in April. For instance, White House aides were quick to assert on Wednesday that the president and U.S. intelligence agencies were not aware of the precise plans of the suicide hijackers to use commercial jetliners as missiles in attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
That assertion is significant, as it argues Bush did not know that a specific terrorist attack was coming on September 11 or the form that such an attack might take. Thus, there will continue to be serious -- and legitimate -- debate about whether the "numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11" could actually have been read so specifically. Additionally, the recent revelations to not point to a conclusion that the Bush administration intentionally failed to warn "the innocent people of New York." America is, at most, only at the beginning of what could well be a very long examination of the question of whether the president, his aides and the intelligence community could have put the pieces of information together in a way that might have prevented the September 11 attacks.
So Bush has not exactly been caught holding a smoking gun. And it is still quite reasonable for McKinney's political critics -- as well as her allies -- to suggest that much of the speculation in which McKinney engaged in April will not pan out. In fairness to the representative, however, she can claim to have acknowledged as much at the time. It is notable that McKinney expressed many of her concerns in the form of questions, rather than the sort of over-the-top statements that Republican representatives made when they used to call for investigations of Bill Clinton.
What is equally notable is that, two months after McKinney was subjected to one of the most withering attacks ever directed at a sitting member of Congress, a lot of people who official Washington treats with respect are echoing her call "for transparency and a thorough investigation."
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri, said Wednesday that Congress needs to hold public hearings that examine "what the president and what the White House knew about the events leading up to 9-11, when they knew it and, most importantly, what was done about it at that time."
Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who has worked closely with the Bush administration on intelligence and domestic security issues, was asked whether a more engaged response to the threat of hijackings might have averted the September 11 attack. "Well, it might have been if this had been seen in the context of other information, which indicated that there was a potential conspiracy to use commercial airliners as weapons of mass destruction. That could have started a chain of events, which would have disrupted September 11..." the senator said.
Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican who serves as vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, echoed Graham. "There was a lot of information," Shelby said Thursday. "I believe, and others believe, if it had been acted on properly, we may have had a different situation on September 11."
Is official Washington beginning to suffer from "paranoid, America-hating, crypto-Marxist conspiratorial delusions"? Have top members of Congress "tapped into a web of conspiracy theories"? Are the White House aides who confirmed that Bush knew of the hijacking threat before September 11 expressing a "wacko left-wing version of paranoid hatred of the president"?
Or are they, perhaps, beginning to recognize that, at the very least, McKinney was making a reasonable point when she argued in April that: "We deserve to know what went wrong on September 11 and why. After all, we hold thorough public inquiries into rail disasters, plane crashes, and even natural disasters in order to understand what happened and to prevent them from happening again or minimizing the tragic effects when they do. Why then does the Administration remain steadfast in its opposition to an investigation into the biggest terrorism attack upon our nation?"
Since Sept. 11, George W. Bush?s political team and their Republican allies have used every trick to exploit the tragedy for political advantage. Just this week, they were trying to raise campaign money by hawking photos of Bush taking instructions from Vice President Dick Cheney on that fateful day.
The crass politicization of a national tragedy may have offended Bush?s critics. But the image of Bush as the serious-minded battler against threats to homeland security was too good a political tool to surrender. And they planned to keep hammering the Democrats with it through November.
Then the hammerhead flew off.
Two days of revelations about how the president was told a month before Sept. 11 that Osama bin Laden?s terrorist network might hijack American airplanes provided a reminder that exploiting tragedy is a dangerous political game.
It can fairly be said that May 16 was the first day since Sept. 11 that the terrorist threat was not being played for advantage by the Bush camp. In fact, the Bush team was on defense - trying, not very successfully, to explain why neither the president, nor his national security advisers, nor his hand-picked intelligence aides were able to put together pieces of information that, in hindsight, seem to fit together so obviously.
They were not being helped by Republican allies in Congress, who after years of attacking Bill Clinton?s administration for failing to fight terrorism effectively suddenly found themselves trying to explain away their own team?s inability to "connect the dots."
"There was a lot of information," said Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Richard Shelby, R-Ala. "I believe, and others believe, if it had been acted on properly, we may have had a different situation on Sept. 11."
Ouch! Coming from a senior Republican senator, that hurts.
Make no mistake, Bush has been hurt by revelations regarding his response to the warnings of terrorist threats before Sept. 11. It is not just that the revelations play on a weakness of the president - the sense that he is not exactly the real-life equivalent of "West Wing?s" all-knowing President Bartlett. As troubling is the evidence that the administration obviously worked to keep details of what the president knew before Sept. 11 secret.
Ever since Richard Nixon?s presidency, the most devastating question that can be asked of a chief executive is: "What did he know and when did he know it?" Nixon was done in by that question. Bill Clinton was almost finished by it.
Now House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., is asking "what the president and what the White House knew about the events leading up to 9-11, when they knew it and, most importantly, what was done about it at that time."
Those questions should have been asked last September. But Democratic Congressional leaders blew their role as a loyal opposition then.
Now the question is whether the Democrats will blow that role again.
They will do just that if they mirror the crass partisanship of the Bush camp. If Democrats in Congress attempt to use revelations about the run-up to Sept. 11 simply to score political points, they will ultimately be foiled.
Partisan wrangling favors the Bush team. They want Americans to think criticism of the president is nothing more than politics.
The action on these issues will be in the Senate, where Democrats are in charge, not in the Republican-controlled House -- where Florida Rep. Porter Goss, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee is already grumbling that, "It is not news that the president of the United States is briefed about Osama bin Laden and hijackings. That?s just not news."
However, Democrats in the Senate will make little progress if they handle this issue as they have most others since taking charge of the Senate a year ago.
The smart strategy is to focus on supporting a serious Senate inquiry, probably led by Shelby -- who has shown a measure of independence from the administration -- and Florida Democrat Bob Graham, the chair of the Intelligence Committee. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, who is great at drawing Republican fire but not very good at actually challenging the administration, would be wise to step back.
Daschle should allow members of his caucus who have expertise in intelligence matters and in the investigation of presidential misdeeds take the lead. It is notable that, since September, some of the most thoughtful and pointed criticism of the Bush administration?s approach to the war on terrorism and related issues has come from senior members of the Senate such as West Virginia?s Robert Byrd and South Carolina?s Ernest Hollings. With more experience and less to lose, they have been far tougher on the Bush camp than their poll-obsessed younger colleagues. This fact ought not be lost of Democrats: As with past investigations of White House wrongdoing have taught, the wisest approach to let the point people be senators who are not entertaining notions of making their own presidential runs.
Instead of going straight for the jugular this time, it is better for Democrats to go for the truth. A full frontal assault for purely partisan purposes will be turned back. On the other hand, if the Bush administration did conspire to withhold essential information from the American people before and after Sept. 11, and if Senate Democrats mount a well-focused effort to get the whole story, it is indeed possible that the current president will suffer the fate of past Oval-Office occupants who failed the "what did they know and when did they know it" test.
By the way, we, uh, forgot to mention, that in August of 2001, while the President was taking a long vacation at his ranch in Crawford, the CIA told him that, uh, Osama bin Laden might be planning to hijack an airliner as part of some, who-knows-what terrorist action against the United States.
That is, in essence, how the Bush White House confirmed the CBS News report that broke this story Wednesday night. The White House was quick to say the CIA intelligence did not refer to anything as diabolical as a quadruple-hijacking that transformed airliners into weapons of mass destruction. That's probably true. But this latest news follows recent reports that an FBI agent in Phoenix in July 2001 had written a classified memo noting a "strong connection" between a group of Middle Eastern aviation students he was investigating and bin Laden's al Qaeda, and that one of the FBI agents trying to figure out the intentions of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested at a flight school in August 2001, had speculated he might be planning to fly an airliner into the World Trade Center.
Before conspiracy theorists run away with this latest revelation, it is important to note its true significance.
First, the news raises an obvious question, is there anything else the White House is not telling us? Bush and his lieutenants kept word of the CIA briefing secret for eight months. Why did they not disclose this earlier? In January and February, The Washington Post published an eight-part series by Bob Woodward and Dan Balz on how the President and his aides responded to the September 11 attacks. The articles--a mostly positive account--were largely drawn from interviews with Bush and senior officials. Funny, none of them mentioned that a month before the attacks, the CIA had told the President, via the daily briefing it prepares for him, there was reason to worry about a bin Laden action. It is a good bet that at one point on that awful day the President or the other aides who generally have access to the CIA's daily briefing--Vice President Dick Cheney, CIA director George Tenet, national security adviser Condoleeza Rice, and chief of staff Andrew Card--recalled that warning.
The Post series did report, "Through much of the summer, Tenet had grown increasingly troubled by the prospect of a major terrorist attack against the United States. There was too much chatter in the intelligence system and repeated reports of threats were costing him sleep....Everywhere he went, the message was the same: Something big is coming. But for all his fears, intelligence officials could never pinpoint when or where an attack might hit." But in this administration-provided account, there was no sign the CIA had informed Bush it was on the lookout for a bin Laden hijacking. Presumably, none of Woodward and Balz's insider-sources felt that was worth sharing.
Once again, the Bush crowd has demonstrated its fondness for secrecy. And for spinning. When Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, facing a combative press corps, was asked why the adminstration had not revealed that Bush received this warning, he reminded the reporters the real issue was that "the fault lies with Osama bin Laden and the terrorists." Later in the day, Rice, up against the White House reporters, repeatedly depicted the CIA briefing as an unexceptional act during which Bush was merely told that bin Laden could be interested in hijacking. It's common sense that a terrorist might be considering a hijacking, she added. But CIA daily briefings are supposed to include noteworthy material for the President, not obvious, generalized information. Let's hope the CIA is not wasting the President's time by reminding him terrorists sometimes hijack airplanes.
Certainly, there was an understandable reason for the White House to be mum until now. If the public had learned of the briefing, questions would be asked. Which brings us to the other significance of this disclosure: it provides Congress an additional--and well-defined--avenue for its investigation of the national security community's performance prior to September 11.
Belatedly, Congress in February moved to have the intelligence committees of the House and Senate conduct a joint investigation into what went wrong before the attacks. (The decision came after the Bush White House earlier asked Congress not to pursue this topic quickly.) In doing so, Congress eschewed the suggestion made by Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman that a blue-ribbon panel outside Congress conduct the investigation. Instead, the mission was handed to committees that have traditionally maintained cozy relations with the intelligence services. And the probe has gotten off to a slow and bumpy start. The first lead investigator, Britt Snider, quit the post, after getting into an internal tussle for not alerting the committees he had hired someone under investigation for failing a CIA lie-detector exam. (Snider, a former CIA inspector general, may not have been the right fellow for the job, since he is a longtime friend and colleague of Tenet, and Senator Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, has had Tenet in the crosshairs since September 11.) Then news leaked that the Justice Department and the CIA were not fully cooperating with the investigation.
Assuming the inquiry gets on track, the committee investigators should thoroughly examine that August intelligence briefing. They ought to be able to trace it backward and determine what went into this report. What was the sourcing? How did the CIA gather this information? How did it follow up? Did it make a serious effort to learn more about this hijacking plot? If so, what was done? If not, why not? This is an important trail for the investigators to follow, inch by inch. Perhaps the CIA did everything it could and, still, was unable to unearth a clear tip-off. But maybe opportunities were missed. The public deserves to know.
Second-guessing is easy, but it is tragic that the Phoenix FBI report (suspects in a terrorist investigation linked to al Qaeda are attending flight school), the mysterious Moussaoui case (a suspicious fellow, enrolled in a flight school, is up to something, maybe crashing an airliner into the World Trade Towers), and the CIA warning (bin Laden is planning a terrorist action) were never placed side-by-side on the same desk. Had they been, that might not have spelled out what was coming. But it could have made other information seem more relevant or helped the CIA and FBI locate additional pieces of this secret puzzle. The inability of the intelligence community to coordinate its information streams--not even within the FBI was the Phoenix report passed to the office investigating Moussaoui--is troubling. Is there a point to spending $30 billion-plus dollars a year for a sweeping intelligence system--and Congress is in the process of approving a multibillion dollar boost--if that system cannot discern and efficiently handle the nuggets it does manage to obtain?
After the U.S. House of Representatives voted by one vote last December to grant President Bush Fast Track authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas, the White House was convinced that the issue was settled. So too were many of activists who had poured their time and energy into opposing Fast Track.
Because they are much more likely to feel the brunt of grassroots lobbying at the district level, House members have since the early 1990s been more dubious about trade deals than members of the Senate. So when the House buckled under intense rally-round-the-flag pressure from the White House in December, it appeared to many Washington observers that Bush would have what Bill Clinton did not: free reign to negotiate away workers rights, family-farm protections, environmental regulations and basic democratic principles in order to create a corporation-friendly free trade zone encompassing most of the entire western Hemisphere.
But appearances were deceiving. Fast Track ended up on the slow track in a Senate controlled by Democrats who were in no rush to do Bush any major favors. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, and Senate Finance Committee chair Max Baucus, D-Montana, generally side with Wall Street against Main Street on trade issues. But they resisted White House pressure for quick action on the issue just long enough to allow critics of corporate-dictated free trade schemes to raise serious objections to letting Bush negotiate a voluminous FTAA arrangement and then force the Congress to accept or reject the deal in a simple up-or-down vote.
Even Daschle and Baucus were surprised this week when the appeal of those objections became evident. By a voice vote Tuesday, the Senate approved a major amendment to the Fast Track resolution that the Bush administration had warned could earn a presidential veto.
The amendment, written by Minnesota Democrat Mark Dayton and Idaho Republican Larry Craig, was described by its sponsors as a move to preserve the right of American businesses, workers, and farmers to challenge unfair and illegal trade practices that threaten their livelihoods and their ability to enjoy the benefits of free and fair trade. It does this by creating an exception to the bar on congressional changes to trade agreements contained in the expedited Trade Promotion Authority ratification procedure that -- despite efforts by the Bush administration to change the name -- is still broadly described as "Fast Track."
Under the Dayton-Craig exception, senators would be allowed to strike any part of an FTAA pact that changes U.S. "trade remedy" rules. Often referred to as "anti-dumping laws," trade remedy rules allow the U.S. government to protect U.S.-based producers against unfair competition from foreign corporations that "dump" goods on the U.S. market at below the price of production. The Bush administration angered many senators when, after more than 60 senators signed a letter opposing the surrender of such protections, United States Trade Representative Robert Zoellick volunteered to do just that at last year's World Trade Organization ministerial in Qatar.
This week, Zoellick pulled out all the stops to kill the Dayton-Craig amendment. In addition to lobbying Congress, he organized a press briefing at which he and other free-trade advocates said the amendment would undermine the ability of the administration to reach meaningful trade agreements using the Fast Track authority. "You can't be for this amendment and for free trade," squealed Zoellick.
The problem for Zoellick is that he is no longer a trusted figure in the Senate. After volunteering in Qatar that he was willing to negotiate away protections for U.S. industrial workers and farmers, even Republican senators are wary of entrusting the Enron advisor with the authority to negotiate a trade agreement that would include every western Hemisphere country except Cuba and cover an area stretching from the Tundra to Tierra del Fuego.
Conscious of the credibility gap Zoellick had opened, the administration pulled in the second string -- Commerce Secretary Donald Evans and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman joined Zoellick in dispatching threatening to recommend that President Bush veto Fast Track legislation if it includes the Dayton-Craig amendment. "If the Senate declares trade laws 'off-limits' for negotiations, the United States will not be able to press other countries to bring their trade laws up to U.S. standards," the Bush aides warned. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer dutifully declared that the president might indeed refuse to sign a trade bill that actually directed Zoellick not to negotiate away protections for U.S. workers and farmers.
"It essentially emasculates trade promotion authority and renders all of our work useless," grumbled Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, a group that -- despite its name -- promotes the interests of multinational corporations first and U.S. manufacturers second.
Senators were not swayed by any of the threats or warnings. Arguing against the administration's demand that it be given complete control over the definition of what goes into trade agreements, Dayton replied: "Under our Constitution, we do not permit one person -- no matter who he or she is -- to bargain away our laws. No one, not even the president, has that authority. No one who understands our Constitution should seek that authority."
While that principle was asserted strongly in the debate, it was a more specific distrust for the Bush administration's push to ditch protections for U.S. workers and farmers that brought a number of Republicans with records of voting for free-trade measures into alliance with progressive Democratic critics of corporate-dictated trade policies. The odd coalition held together when administration allies in the Senate attempted to kill the Dayton-Craig amendment. That move was thwarted by a 61-38 margin, and the Senate quickly adopted the measure by a voice vote.
The next day, the Senate added two more amendments the administration doesn't like -- one by Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone to require a study of the impact of free trade on labor conditions, and another by North Carolina's John Edwards to provide additional aid for textile communities in the Carolinas that have been ravaged by free trade. These amendments -- along with an earlier one sponsored by North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan directing the U.S. Trade Representative to renegotiate portions of the North American Free Trade Agreement that allow corporations to use trade rules to undermine U.S. laws -- mean that the Senate version of Fast Track is likely to be exceptionally unattractive to the White House.
So, will Fast Track now be stabbed to death by George W. Bush's veto pen? Not necessarily.
The Senate is still debating Fast Track, and additional amendments could be added. Next week, the Senate will probably give approval to a version of Fast Track that is substantially different from the one passed by the House. Then a House-Senate Conference committee will try to reconcile the bills. Montana Democrat Baucus, who is all-but-certain to have a place on the conference committee, voted to kill the Dayton-Craig amendment. Baucus can be expected to work with House Republicans to try and craft a new version of Fast Track that significantly weakens or eliminates the Dayton-Craig provision. The version of the bill that comes out of the conference committee will go back to the House and the Senate for new votes.
The key here is that prospect of another House vote. The Bush administration pulled out all the stops last fall to gain a one vote majority in the House for Fast Track. That win for the White House came after Republican representatives from the Carolinas were pressured personally by the president to back the measure. Now that several of those representatives are facing tough reelection fights --in large part because they sided with the administration -- they are unlikely to vote again for Fast Track.
The prospect of a new House vote has coalitions of labor, environmental, religious and human rights groups mobilizing opposition in Washington and around the country. Suddenly, the issue is back in play. And the prospect that Congress might yet thwart the Bush administration's chief initiative on behalf of its corporate contributors seems real enough to merit a major ramping up of activism by the AFL-CIO and other groups.
The first test will be the Senate vote on Fast Track. And while that may be the highest hurdle, some activists are trying to leap it.
On Tuesday, in Burlington, Vermont, local activists occupied the office of U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords, Independent-Vermont, in an effort to convince the senator to abandon his support for Fast Track. They locked themselves down in the office and, after talking with Jeffords by phone, were arrested by local police on trespassing charges.
Referring to Jeffords' decision a year ago to quit the Republican Party and caucus with the Democrats, Vermont organic farmer S'ra DeSantis, one of the activists, said, "It is appalling to me that a so-called 'Independent Senator' who did so much to take power away from the President and the Republicans is now giving back that power for the sake of free trade. If Senator Jeffords votes in favor of Fast Track he will be giving power to the president and big corporations and further undermine democracy in this country. A vote against Fast Track is a vote for democracy, family farmers, environmental protection, and working people."
A few days ago, I was on a television show arguing there was nothing wrong with ex-President Jimmy Carter visiting Cuba, and the host kept exclaiming, "But they're making biological weapons, they're making biological weapons." Credit the Bush administration with a job well done--propaganda job, that is.
Several days before Carter's trip, John Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control, in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said, "The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort" and has "provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states."
Those certainly are fighting words. If Cuba is indeed developing such weaponry and sharing it with the "axis of evil," that would make it a target in George W. Bush's war on terrorism. After all, why bother first with Iraq, if a rogue-sympathizer is producing weapons of mass destruction 90 miles from Miami? Such a threat should compel immediate attention.
But the Bush administration provided no evidence. When President John Kennedy took a stand against Cuba for accepting Soviet nuclear missiles in 1962, he produced overhead reconnaissance photos showing the missile bases. Bolton merely says the United States "believes" Cuba is developing these weapons. The issue of "dual-use" items (which can be used for weapon or non-weapon purposes) is often a slippery matter. Trucks, to be simple about it, can carry bombs or humanitarian relief. Incubators can cook up life-saving vaccines or deadly germs.
Cuban defector Jose de la Fuente, who was director of the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana, has said Cuba sold sophisticated biotechnology to Iran that could be used to treat heart attacks and viral diseases and develop vaccines. And he has been concerned Iran could try to use these biotechnologies to develop weapons, But, according to the Miami Herald, de la Fuente also said that he had no cause to question the Cubans' intent in this transaction and could not say the technology sold had been used for anything other than medical purposes.
When the Bush administration hurls such an explosive charge, it should offer proof, or, at least, further explanation. How advanced is any Cuban bioweapons program? Is it offensive, rather than defensive, in nature? (Who knows where the still-at-large American anthrax culprit will strike next?) What "dual-use" technology sales pose problems? Does the Bush administration know more than de la Fuente?
The fact that it was Bolton who unleashed this allegation does not inspire confidence. He is the conservative mole in Colin Powell's otherwise not-so-rightwing State Department. He recently led the effort to have the administration renounce the United States' endorsement of the International Criminal Court. Earlier this year, he single-handedly tried to change a cornerstone of US nonproliferation policy by declaring the administration no longer believed it was important to state that the United States, in general, would not use nuclear weapons against nations that do not possess such weapons. A State Department spokesman had to rush to the rescue and assert that Bolton had not really said what he said. [See Capital Games: "Bush's New Nuclear Weapons Plan: A Shot at Nonproliferation". And to learn how Bolton recently escaped a scandal, see Capital Games: "Taiwangate: A Fallout-Free Scandal".]
If the Bush Administration had truly wanted to convince the public--and had the goods to do so--it could have had Colin Powell raise the subject and share the reasons for fretting. Even though Powell did support Bolton's comments, after a dust-up ensued, cynics still had ample cause to believe the goal was to throw a handful of sand in Carter's face before he hit Havana. Powell, according to the Orlando Sentinel, told reporters the Bush administration was "concerned" because Cuba "has the capacity and capability to conduct such research." Possessing the capability is different from doing the deed.
Last year, Ken Alibek, a senior scientist who defected from the Soviet Union's biological weapons program, told a congressional committee that he believed Cuba, with its advance biotech abilities, could produce genetically modified germ weapons. But he did not claim this was being done. In a 1999 book, Alibek said his boss in the Soviet weapons program thought Cuba was engaged in bioweapons activities, but Alibek acknowledged that was unconfirmed opinion. When Alibek's book came out, the State Department said, "We have no evidence that Cuba is stockpiling or has mass-produced any BW [biological warfare] agents."
Carter maintains that before his visit, he repeatedly asked Bush administration officials if any evidence showed Cuba "has been involved in sharing any information to any other country on Earth that could be used for terrorist purposes." He says, "the answer from our experts on intelligence was no."
There may well be cause for worry. Perhaps there have been recent developments. Carter visiting a biotech site and saying he saw no sign of weapons activities does not mean much. But the manner in which the administration has handled this topic smacks more of Florida-centric politics than national security. It also is reminiscent of a tactic used by the Reagan administration: the Exaggerated Claim. (I am being polite by not using the more common but cliched term, the Big Lie.) During the 1980s, when the Reaganites were supporting the anti-Sandinista contras in Nicaragua and the leftist-fighting armies of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, they often made wild allegations that proved to be untrue. At one news conference, President Reagan claimed the Sandinistas had forced "the entire Jewish community" to flee. Not true--said Jews in Managua. Reagan claimed "top Nicaraguan officials are deeply involved in drug trafficking." His own Drug Enforcement Administration said otherwise. When reporters at The Washington Post and The New York Times revealed (all-too accurately) that the El Salvador military had massacred hundreds of peasants, the Reagan administration denied the reports and tried to discredit the journalists. With plenty of former Reaganite warriors holding positions in the Bush the Second administration--including Bolton--the Bush gang does not deserve to be taken at its word on these sort of hot-button controversies. As Reagan famously said, "Trust, but verify."
After Bolton's speech, The Washington Post reported, "Some administration officials, convinced that Cuba has an active germ warfare program, have been pressing to make the evidence public, but guardians of the information have worried that its release would compromise US intelligence sources, according to more than one official." This is common for Washington. We'd like to tell you, but we can't. It is also a dodge for governing responsibly. As with Iraq, should the Bush administration be inclined to lead the nation into confrontation with another country--and justify its actions before the world--it has to offer more than words, more than "we believe." If the US government declares another nation a threat to Americans, it ought to present a case, not merely an assertion. Fidel Castro may be able to rule by proclamation. George W. Bush--and John Bolton--should not.
U.S. Rep. Tom Sawyer, who broke with other industrial-state Democrats to back free trade measures such as NAFTA, suffered a stunning defeat in an Ohio's May 7 Democratic primary. And, despite the best efforts of Sawyer's old friends in the business-funded Democratic Leadership Council to try and explain away the eight-term incumbent's rejection at the hands of home-state voters, the message from Ohio was a blunt signal for Democrats who side with Wall Street against Main Street.
Trade issues have long been views by labor and environmental activists as the canary-in-the-coal mine measures of corporate dominance over Congress. Most, though not all, Republicans back the free-trade agenda pushed by major multinational corporations and Republican and Democratic presidents. Most Democrats oppose that agenda. Since the early 1990s, trade votes in the House of Representatives have tended to be close, however. That has meant that the margins of victory for the corporate trade agenda has often been delivered by a floating pool of Democrats -- including Sawyer -- who have been willing to vote with free-trade Republicans on key issues such as NAFTA, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and normalization of trade relations with China. Most of the free-trade Democrats are associated with the New Democrat Coalition, a DLC-tied House group that was formed in 1997 with Sawyer as a charter member.
Patrick Woodall, research director for Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, says Sawyer's defeat must be read as very bad news for those free-trade Democrats.
"If all you do is hang around at think tanks in Washington, you might think that everyone loves free trade. But, when you get outside Washington, you start running into Americans who have seen factories closed and communities kicked in the teeth by the North American Free Trade Agreement and all these other trade bills," explains Woodall, one of the savviest followers of trade fights in Washington and around the country. "Tom Sawyer's defeat ought to be a wake-up call for Democrats who think they can get away with voting for a free-trade agenda that does not protect workers, farmers and the environment. Tom Sawyer found out on Tuesday that there are consequences."
Of course, there will still be Democrats who don't quite "get it." Even as Thursday's edition of Roll Call, the Capitol Hill-insider publication, carried a Page One headline reading "NAFTA Stance Hurt Sawyer," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., were cutting a deal to give President Bush Fast Track authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreements that critics describe as "NAFTA on steroids."
But if some top Democrats were having trouble figuring out the politics of trade, Sawyer top aide was no longer suffering under any delusions. The congressman's chief of staff, Dan Lucas, said after his boss lost: "The big issue was NAFTA." And the big loser was the argument that, given a choice, Democrats from blue-collar districts will stick with members of Congress who vote the Wall Street line on trade issues. As Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee executive director Howard Wolfson delicately explained, "(In) some districts in this country a free trade position is not helpful."
Sawyer was not the first Democrat in recent years to discover those consequences. After voting for a previous version of Fast Track, California Rep. Matthew Martinez was defeated in a 2000 primary by labor-backed challenger Hilda Solis. And Rep. Ken Bentsen, a Houston Democrat who voted for the current Fast Track proposal when it came before the House last December, lost a March Democratic primary for an open U.S. Senate seat after his opponent, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, said he would have opposed Fast Track.
But, by any measure, Sawyer's defeat is the most significant so far for a free-trade Democrat in the House.
Since his 1993 vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement, Sawyer had been held up by backers of free trade as living proof that it was safe for Democrats from industrial states to break with organized labor and vote for corporate-friendly trade legislation. Despite lots of griping over his NAFTA vote, Sawyer was reelected several times by voters in a district made up of Akron -- a city where he had served as mayor -- and white-collar Cleveland-area suburbs.
In the redistricting process following the 2000 Census, Sawyer's district lines were altered. He kept much of the Akron area but took in Youngstown and Mahoning Valley towns represented by U.S. Rep. Jim Traficant. After his conviction on 10 felony counts including racketeering and bribery, Traficant decided to skip the Democratic primary and Sawyer was supposed to be safe. By far the biggest name in the race, Sawyer collected a campaign bankroll that drawfed those of his opponents. And he did not hesitate to spend that money freely on slick television commercials that filled the airwaves in the weeks before the primary.
Sawyer and his Democratic challengers agreed on most issues. But trade was the dividing line. And trade mattered -- especially in Youngstown and other hard-hit steel-mill communities up and down the Mahoning Valley. Though Sawyer had voted with labor on some trade issues -- including the December Fast Track test -- he is known in Ohio as the Democrat who backed NAFTA, and for unemployed steelworkers and their families NAFTA invokes the bitterest of memories.
"Sawyer's vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement killed him in the valley, observers agree. Even though Sawyer had a strong pro-labor voting record, that one vote was all that mattered," the Akron Beacon-Journal newspaper observed. "Mahoning Valley voters hate free trade, especially the North American Free Trade Agreement," echoed the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. ``That NAFTA vote (by Sawyer) added fuel to the fire," said William Binning, chairman of the political science department at Youngstown State University.
The fire was stoked by several of Sawyer's lesser-known opponents, who strongly opposed NAFTA. But the line from the pundits held that, even if trade turned out to be an issue, the NAFTA foes would split the labor vote, allowing Sawyer to prevail with ease. As it turned out, one of the challengers, State Sen. Tim Ryan, broke from the pack by wrapping himself in the banner of the labor movement.
Though a number of national unions backed Sawyer because he looked like a winner, Mahoning Valley unions went with Ryan, a 28-year-old Democrat who had once worked for Traficant. And, unlike Democrats who collect campaign checks from labor and then quickly scramble away from their blue-collar backers, Ryan wore his hometown union support as a badge of honor. His homey television commercials featured the song "Swing, Swing, Swing" as the names of unions that had endorsed him flashed across the screen.
Ryan didn't put many commercials on TV, however. The young candidate was outspent 6-1 by Sawyer. And most of the money Ryan did spend went into the sort of grassroots, down-at-the-union-hall campaigning that is rarely seen in American politics these days. One of the Ryan campaigns biggest expenditures was for t-shirts for his supporters. ``He defies the modern campaign,'' Binning says of Ryan.
On election night, Ryan defied expectations. He won 41 percent of the vote to 28 percent for Sawyer. Another 20 percent of the vote went to State Rep.Anthony Latell, who like Ryan identified himself as a strong foe of NAFTA.
Ryan still faces a November contest that against a Republican legislator. In addition, Traficant is running as an independent, along with Warren Davis, a veteran United Auto Workers union official. By week's end, however, there was speculation that Traficant might be in a jail cell and Davis might be out of the race by November -- creating the prospect that Ryan could end up as an easy winner in the overwhelmingly Democratic district.
No matter what happens, however, Tom Sawyer will be leaving Congress. With him should go the assumption that Democratic voters will always forgive and forget free-trade votes of Democratic members of Congress.