Probing 9/11

Probing 9/11

A bipartisan commission is at work, but how tough it will be is still unknown.


Bruce DeCell was sitting at the far end of the third row in a Senate hearing room. He held a photograph of a smiling man in formal attire so the important people on the dais before him could see it. Next to the image was a name: Mark Petrocelli. A caption read, Tower I–92nd Floor. We Love You. We Miss You. Petrocelli was his 28-year-old son-in-law. He had worked for a commodities firm across the street from the World Trade Center. Days before September 11, he had been promoted from phone clerk to trader and was in Tower One that morning for his first meeting as a broker.

DeCell, a 53-year-old retired New York City cop who lives on Staten Island, was grim-faced as he watched–or witnessed–the second round of public hearings held by the independent 9/11 Commission, created by Congress to investigate what happened before and on that awful day. While Democrats and Republicans in Congress have been squabbling over whether to investigate the missing (so far) weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the 9/11 Commission has been getting on with its work. On this day in May, Bogdan Dzakovic, an aviation security expert and whistleblower, was testifying before the ten commissioners about airline security problems that existed on September 11–and continue. These weaknesses, he said, have often gone unfixed because federal authorities cave in to pressure from the airline industry. While Dzakovic spoke–“It’s only a matter of time before terrorists figure out [the new security arrangements] and blow up fifty planes in one day”–DeCell had a thousand-mile stare, but he was intently listening. “If I did anything like this as a policeman,” he muttered, “and killed 3,000 people, with this much evidence against me, I’d spend 100,000 years in jail.”

DeCell wasn’t just speaking about airline security screw-ups that permitted nineteen people to hijack four airliners and turn three of them into deadly weapons. He meant everything that had gone wrong on and before September 11. Bad intelligence. Inadequate law enforcement. Lousy immigration procedures. Insufficient air defense preparation. Poor emergency planning. After the attacks, there was no wholesale examination of all that, almost no responsibility assessed for mistakes. And there has been no government-wide review to determine whether post-9/11 changes in policies and procedures have been effective. The House and Senate intelligence committees did conduct a joint inquiry that examined the intelligence failures of 9/11, but the investigation’s final report has been bottled up for months, with the Administration battling to keep parts of it classified. The 9/11 Commission’s mission is to go beyond the joint inquiry, compile the authoritative account of 9/11 and issue recommendations that will help the nation avert a future catastrophe.

Six months after its birth, it is unclear whether this bipartisan commission is on a path to success. Washington is littered with the remains of blue-ribbon panels that were more bust than blast. This commission could be overwhelmed by its task. It could end up thwarted by an Administration more eager to stonewall than to share information. And its independence has been questioned. But it does have fifty staff members digging away and exploring various 9/11 questions. Perhaps it will be a rare exception: a Washington commission willing to confront Washington.

The commission’s takeoff was not smooth. This past November, George W. Bush, who opposed the creation of the commission until he got the right to name its chairman, appointed Henry Kissinger. Under fire for refusing to reveal the clients of his consulting firm, Kissinger quit two weeks later. Bush then selected former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, a Republican with a reputation as a moderate but no obvious experience in national security matters. Congressional Democrats chose as co-chairman former Representative Lee Hamilton, who had chaired the House Intelligence Committee and the joint Iran/contra committee. The four other Democrats on the commission are lawyer Richard Ben-Veniste, former Senator Max Cleland, former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick and former Representative Tim Roemer, who led the fight for the commission. The Republicans are former Senator Slade Gorton, former Navy Secretary John Lehrman, former Illinois Governor James Thompson and lawyer Fred Fielding–most recently in the news for being accused of having been “Deep Throat” during Watergate. It’s a pretty typical composition for a Washington commission–mostly established and accomplished players, not mavericks, and several with strong ties to the current or previous Administrations–the targets, in a sense, of the commission. “It’s been a problem throughout to get commissioners and staff who are truly independent,” says Stephen Push, a co-founder of Families of September 11. And three of the commissioners–Ben-Veniste, Gorelick and Thompson–have had to recuse themselves from matters involving commercial aviation security because they are associated with law firms that represent airlines. “This is what happens when you pick talented people with expertise in Washington,” says one commission source. “Do you want people who have no experience at all?”

The commission was nearly two months old before it had an executive director, and the person hired for the post–Philip Zelikow–symbolized the difficulty of assembling an independent outfit. Zelikow, an accomplished historian, worked with Bush National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in the National Security Council during the first Bush Administration. The two then collaborated on a book. And in October 2001, Bush appointed Zelikow to his Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a group of prominent citizens who offer advice on intelligence topics and occasionally investigate controversies. “Philip is a certified Republican but not an ideologue,” says a longtime colleague who is a Democrat.

Zelikow will be guiding an investigation that presumably will scrutinize the actions of Rice, his friend and co-author. And given the Administration’s penchant for secrecy, it’s reasonable to assume that the commission will sooner or later clash with the White House over access to secret information, perhaps the records of Rice’s NSC. The White House, for instance, has previously refused to disclose information on at least two key briefings that Bush and his national security aides received before 9/11. Can Zelikow, a Bush I and Bush II appointee, go toe to toe with his former colleague if a battle ensues? “It concerns me,” says one commission official. “Rice is one of the key people we need to independently evaluate and talk to.” And Push remarks, “I’m not crazy that Philip Zelikow has such a close relationship to Rice and other people the commission is investigating.”

Zelikow concedes that he has to prove his independence. He notes that he was retained at the initiative of the commission’s Democrats, who were fully aware of his past. “My job,” he says, “is to get the information. The commission has a heavy burden of demonstrating to a lot of suspicious and cynical people that we can get the information we need. We know that.”

It took several months for the commission to rev up. Funding issues had to be resolved. More important, there was an early tussle over access to information. When Roemer, who had served on the Congressional 9/11 joint inquiry, tried to review records of that investigation, he was told he could not see the material until the Administration had vetted it. Since the commission was supposed to build upon the work of the joint inquiry, this procedure–agreed to by the commission’s leadership–seemed at best an unnecessary impediment and, at worse, an Administration attempt to control part of the commission’s work. After Roemer complained, commissioners and their staff were granted full access–as long as they were willing to trek to a secured office in a House annex. “There was no question we were off to a slow start,” Roemer says. “This has not been a speedy locomotive, but a spitting, coughing automobile.”

Speed is important. The law establishing the commission granted it only eighteen months of life, and the clock began ticking on December 2. It now has less than a year to conduct its investigation and write its final report. The staff has been divided into nine investigative teams that have begun exploring nine separate areas: Al Qaeda and terrorism, the intelligence community, US counterterrorism policy, terrorist financing, border control and terrorist watch lists, domestic law enforcement and intelligence, aviation and transportation security, the emergency responses to the attacks, and the White House’s and federal government’s reactions to the strikes.

Several of these topics on their own could occupy a single commission for a year. Within these nine domains, the 9/11 Commission has to examine why fighter jets didn’t scramble sooner on 9/11, what the Bush and Clinton administrations were told about threats from Osama bin Laden and how they responded, whether Congressional oversight of the spy services has been adequate, how the 9/11 murderers were financed, why the CIA failed to place two of the 9/11 hijackers on a terrorist watch list, whether the airlines place profits ahead of security precautions, whether a suspicious pattern of stock transactions occurred before the attacks. And that’s only a partial list. Then the commission is supposed to consider how to better protect the country. Is the Department of Homeland Security working out? Has the FBI gotten its counterterrorism act together? Are the computers finally up to par at the INS? Is the government ready for the next attack?

While the investigators are investigating, the commission has held two rounds of hearings. In addition to providing a forum for gut-wrenching statements from relatives of the 9/11 dead, these sessions produced valuable testimony about issues the commission has to address. Senator Joseph Lieberman, a presidential candidate who, with Senator John McCain, sponsored the legislation that created the commission, testified that “too many of the failures we have already identified are unchanged to this day, a full twenty months after the attacks.” McCain blasted “excessive Administration secrecy on issues related to the September 11th attacks.”

The hearings provided further cause to believe airlines have sacrificed security for revenue–and may still be doing so. Michael Canavan, a former Federal Aviation Administration security chief, noted, “We were under intense pressure from the industry.” The airlines, he added, would pile up huge fines for security violations, and then their lawyers would negotiate lower settlements. Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead testified that “cost-benefit analysis” has often played too large a role in the consideration of security measures, and said that security involving cruise ships and cargo on passenger flights remains poor.

The hearings and the commission’s work have not received extensive media notice, which is odd, since the panel is seeking to explain the most traumatic moment in recent US history. The New York Times did not cover the commission’s last set of hearings, nor did most cable and network news shows. But “the families” and a handful of others are closely watching the commission, which, to its credit, has been attentive to the suggestions and concerns of the relatives.

There is much wreckage for the commission to sift through. Will the Administration cooperate fully? The White House fight with the joint inquiry over the release of its final report is not encouraging. “I have some concerns about how committed the Administration is to seeing this through,” says Push. “Three thousand people died–you can’t play games.” But by responding slowly or uncooperatively to information requests from the commission, Administration officials or bureaucrats can gum up the works rather easily. “Agencies are very much cognizant of how much time is left for the commission,” says an investigator who worked on the joint inquiry. And Roemer comments, “The independent commission needs to make very clear, you cannot abuse or overuse the classification issue to keep potentially embarrassing information from reaching the sunlight.” But that is what the Bush Administration has done in other instances.

Both Kean and Hamilton say they will do what is necessary to pry sensitive information from the government. “I spent a good part of my life trying to get information into the public record,” Hamilton remarked after the May hearings. “I’m not going to reverse course now.” Less reassuring was Kean’s confession that he had not yet read the joint inquiry’s final report. Both men acknowledged that the task ahead is massive. “The question on my mind,” Hamilton said, “is, How do we get our hands around this?”

After watching the commission’s hearing, DeCell noted that he was “impressed with the sincerity” of its members. Still, he feared they were on the short end of long odds. “The Administration,” he says, “and most politicians, really don’t want to get to the bottom of it, because they’re all implicated in some way, in too many different areas, for too many years.” Moments later, Kean, speaking about the committee’s as yet unimpressive progress, said, “Please be patient.” DeCell said he was willing to wait–as long as his wait ends with answers and accountability.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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