Tag Archives: 9/11 Commission

9/11: One Family’s Brave Effort to Expose Airline Culpability

An article in Saturday’s  New York Times describes how all the families suffering losses on 9/11 have now taken settlements, receiving some $7 billion from the government and $500 million in private suits–all the families, that is, save one.

The one holdout is the family of Mark Bavis, a passenger on United Airlines Flight 175, the second plane to strike the World Trade Center. Ever since the family filed suit in 2002, it has spurned efforts to negotiate, despite settlement attempts and a court mediation session.

They recognize that they could have obtained a quicker resolution by settling; they say the case is not about money. They say they want to prove in a public courtroom what they and their lawyers believe was a case of gross negligence by United and other defendants that allowed the hijackers to board Flight 175 and the attacks to occur.

The Bavis family is seeking damages directly from the airlines. Their suit represents the last real possibility for an independent inquiry into the culpability of these private carriers–not to mention the “regulators” at the Federal Aviation Administration, who appeared intent on serving the airlines rather than the public. It’s a long shot perhaps, but the Bavis suit might achieve some of what the expensive, timid, and inconclusive 9/11 Commission Report could not. 

As the Times article points out, they have identified several areas in which the airlines’ negligence contributed to the events of 9/11 (emphasis added):

Donald A. Migliori, a lawyer with Motley Rice, the firm that represents the Bavises and was involved in more than 50 other cases, said the firm’s investigation had focused on failures at airport security checkpoints, flawed cockpit doors, inadequate training and how the industry ignored confidential government warnings about terrorist threats.“The security breaches that day,” he said, “were absolutely known to these defendants before 9/11, and should have been addressed before this could happen.”

My 2005 book, The 5 Unanswered Questions About 9/11, also explores these same areas, and sets out in detail the chain of evidence that demonstrates airline and government negligence leading up to the attacks. A few excerpts, citing factual records, follow. Readers can judge for themselves whether the airlines and government are culpable.

Failures at Airport Security Checkpoints

[In the 1990s], following the Pan Am 103 bombing, the FAA had been directed by Congress to create a “Red Team” to test airport security. A Red Team consists of a handful of people, often drawn from military special operations, to pose as terrorists and attempt to break through airport security–in effect, to stage unannounced mock terrorist attacks, and report on the airlines’ performance in thwarting these attacks…

An October 1998 report by one airline, which was passed around the company offices in the United States, describes a meeting held the previous month with the FAA to discuss security at the San Francisco airport. Among other things, the report noted that the FAA’s Red Team “worked around different areas in SFO airport. They managed to break through different security screenings repeatedly in many different areas. Of 450 times when they were working their way past different security points to get to secure areas they were caught only 4 times.” SFO was one of the airports that had been targeted in the 1993 tests, and cited for a 60 percent failure rate. Five years later, the failure rate was 99.11 percent.

The report stated that the Red Team “managed to get by passenger Xray screening repeatedly (7 times) having on them a gun sealed under their belt-buckle. Also, having an automatic Mac machine gun under their jacket on their back.” The team also easily entered the airlines’ private lounges and put bombs in the passengers’ carry-on luggage, which was not examined before they boarded the plane. Gaining entrance to the ramp area, they entered Skychef catering trucks, and with ease placed whatever they wanted to in the food trolleys. No one questioned them. “Most of the times the catering truck driver was either asleep or reading a book or just looking at the sky or waving a friendly hello,” according to the San Fransisco report. The intruders showed false IDs and then easily drove a van onto the ramp area, although the vehicle had no official plates or security seals. They boarded aircraft at will, and “could easily have placed a bomb on board.”

All of this activity was videotaped by the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Port Hueneme, California, with the idea of using it as a training film for airport security personnel. But when the FAA saw how bad things were, they deep-sixed the video…

According to Andrew Thomas [in his book Aviation Insecurity], “For years, Logan was known throughout the industry as one of the least secure airports in the nation.” In April 2001, Deborah Sherman of Boston’s Fox News station undertook her own investigation of air security at Logan airport, with the help of former Red Team member Steve Elson. Airing on May 6, 2001, her report showed serious security flaws, including knives smuggled through security and unguarded access to secure areas–making Logan clearly vulnerable to terrorist attack.

The report had been instigated by Brian Sullivan, an FAA New England security agent who had retired earlier in the year and was seeking to blow the whistle on what he had observed on the job. On May 7, the day after the program aired, Sullivan sent a tape, along with a detailed and eloquent letter, to Senator John Kerry: “This report once again demonstrated what every FAA line agent already knows, the airport passenger screening system simply doesn’t work as intended. The FAA would like [rather] continue to promulgate a façade of security, than to honestly assess the system. Management knows how ineffective the current system is, but continues to tell Congress that our airport screening is an effective deterrent.”

Flawed Cockpit Doors

There was ample  evidence of how easily cockpits could be breached. As Andrew Thomas reports in Aviation Insecurity, in the two years prior to September 11, 2001, passengers managed to enter the cockpits of commercial airplanes thirty times. In one 2000 case, a passenger aboard a Southwest Airlines flight was suffocated to death—apparently by other passengers—after he made repeated attempts to take over the cockpit. In another case the same year, a deranged passenger entered the cockpit of a British Airways 747, bit the captain’s ear, grabbed the controls, shut off the autopilot, and sent the plane into a 10,000-foot dive before the co-pilot managed to regain control. Lack of cockpit security would, of course, become key to the terrorists’ success in the 9/11 attacks.

Inadequate Training

In 1996, President Clinton appointed a White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, headed by Vice President Al Gore, to examine security within the industry–and especially security against possible terrorist attacks…A preliminary report, released in September 1996, elicited a flurry of unhappy responses from airline lobbyists. Gore quickly capitulated to the airline industry, writing a sheepish letter to Carol Hallet, president of the Air Transport Association, the industry trade group: “I want to make it very clear that it is not the intent of this administration or of the Commission to create a hardship for the air transportation industry,” and suggesting that government and industry could work “in full partnership.” According to a study conducted by the Center for Responsive Politics, during the final weeks of the 1996 election campaign, with Clinton pitted against Bob Dole, the airlines poured $585,000 into the Democratic party coffers.

The Gore Commission did make some 50 recommendations, but many of the most vital proposals were gutted or simply ignored. The Commission recommended criminal background checks for airport security personnel, along with a changed work system that would reward performance, rather than just low costs, for both individual security staff and the security companies used by the airlines. The airlines scoffed that these measures would be too expensive, and the FAA (then under the leadership of Linda Daschle [who later became an airline industry lobbyist]) never pursued them.

One Commission member, Victoria Cummock, widow of a Pan Am 103 victim, wrote to Gore, “I register my dissent with the final report. . . . Sadly, the overall emphasis of the recommendations reflects a clear commitment to the enhancement of aviation at the expense of the Commission’s mandate of enhancing aviation safety and security. I can not sign a report that blatantly allows the American flying public to be regularly placed at unnecessary risk.” Cummock was quoted by CNN as saying, “I don’t know how we could really get a fair commission based on the degree of collusion that I see between the [airline] industry, the FAA, the DOT (Department of Transportation), and Al Gore.”

Industry Ignored Government Warnings About Terrorist Threats

In the six months prior to 9/11, FAA senior officials received 52 intelligence briefings regarding threats from Al Qaeda. “Among the 105 summaries issued between April 1, 2001 and September 10, 2001, almost half mentioned Bin Ladin, Al Qaeda, or both, mostly in regard to overseas threats,” the report said. In addition, the National Security Council’s Counterterrorism Security Group invited the FAA to a “meeting in early July 2001 at the White House to discuss with domestic agency officials heightened security concerns.”

The FAA also sent out informational circulars to warn airports and air carriers about security issues. Seven circulars were sent before 9/11–one on the threat posed by surface to air missiles, five on threats overseas, and one on July 31 mentioning hijacking. Yet while Jane Garvey said “she was aware of the heightened threat during the summer of 2001,” several other top agency officials, as well as senior airline official and veteran pilots, said they were not aware.

“My Name is Betty Ong…”

Take a few minutes to listen to the last phone call of Betty Ong, a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11 before it hit the World Trade Center, eight years ago today on September 11, 2001. Just over four minutes of the phone call were replayed at the 9-11 Commission hearings. The recording stands as a powerful tribute to one of the ordinary people who carried on heroically, doing their jobs and trying to save others, even as top government and military officials were floundering.

Ong is calm and matter-of-fact as she describes what is occuring to skeptical airline personnel on the ground. She is forced to repeat the same basic details again and again: “Ok. Our Number 1 got stabbed. Our purser is stabbed. Nobody knows who stabbed who, and we can’t even get up to business class right now cause nobody can breathe…” Unfortunately, American Airlines chose not to pass on what Ong was telling them to the military or even the FAA. Beginning within minutes of the hijacking, Ong remained on the phone for 23 minutes, calmly relaying information up to seconds before the impact.  Her last words were “Pray for us. Pray for us.”

blue_sky_320

Will We Ever See a New 9/11 Investigation?

In the five years since the 9/11 Commission released its studious but timid report, Americans of all political stripes have advocated for a new investigation into the attacks of September 11, 2001. Since Obama seems intent upon putatively pardoning the Bush Administration for all of its crimes and misdemenors, there is virtually no hope of such an investigation taking place at the federal level. 

An organization called the New York City Coalition for Accountability Now (NYC CAN), which describes itself as “a group comprising 9/11 family members, first responders, and survivors,” has been gathering signatures to place a referendum for a new 9/11 investigation on the November ballot in New York City. The effort passed one hurdle this week, as city lawyers conceded that the group had submitted the 30,000 valid signatures necessary for such a ballot measure. But New York City has a long history of blocking ballot initiatives on the grounds of legal technicalities.  In addition, the measure demands that certain specific people be appointed commissioners, and these include a fair number of pretty far-out conspiracists, as well as some more mainstream members—a fact that will undoubtedly put off some would-be supporters.

But believing that such an investigation is necessary and vital doesn’t require a subscription to any particular conspiracy theory about the attacks. In my 2006 book The Five Unanswered Questions About 9/11: What the 9/11 Commission Report Failed to Tell Us, I focused on straightforward, even obvious questions: Why was the airline industry, with its army of well-connected lobbyists, permitted to resist safety regulations that could have saved lives? How did our foreign policy, and “allies” like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, help pave the way for the attacks? Why did a politically driven, Iraq-obsessed administration ignore repeated warnings of the coming danger? Who was in charge as the attacks unfolded?

rice 911Some of these questions ought to practically answer themselves. Yet in its 664-page report, the 9/11 Commission managed not to answer them—in many cases, by the simple means of not asking them in the first place. The Commissioners themselves announced their limited intentions in the report’s opening pages, where they wrote: “Our aim has not been to assign individual blame. Our aim has been to provided the fullest possible accounting of the events surrounding 9/11 and to identify lessons learned.” The contradiction inherent in these stated aims is obvious: without “blame,” there can be no true accountability, and without accountability, there is nothing to ensure that the “lessons” of 9/11 will be “learned.”

In a just-released book called Ground Truth, John Farmer, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission and now dean of Rutgers Law School, declares that at an early stage in its investigation, the Commission

discovered that what had occurred that morning — that is, what government and military officials had told Congress, the Commission, the media, and the public about who knew what when — was almost entirely, and inexplicably, untrue….At some level of the government, at some point in time … there was a decision not to tell the truth about what happened.

It should come as no surprise that the 9/11 Commission Report reflects these limitations. As I wrote in the conclusion to my own book, when it comes to the September 11 attacks and the lies and obfuscations that followed:

It is not necessary to search for hidden conspiracies, because the conspiracy is right in front of us and all around us, and the conspirators are running the country. Those in power in government and business share a tacit agreement that the system must be preserved at all costs, and institutions such as the 9/11 Commission, by their very existence, sign on to this agreement. Political power must be preserved. Economic and business interests must be protected. Allies who serve us by providing the United States with valuable resources like oil or with strategic positions in the world balance of power must be guarded. These things must be done at all costs, even if it means leaving unanswered questions about a catastrophic attack on the level 9/11, and even if it means leaving the American people vulnerable to another such attack in the future….

Yet, realistic as we are about the intractable power of the “system,” the idea remains that this time, things should have been different. Something as enormous as the 9/11 attacks should demand accountability from those who allowed it to happen. On the morning of September 11, thousands of Americans went to work in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in police stations and firehouses. Hundreds more boarded planes and began their quotidian journeys. Surely even the most skeptical among them must on some level have assumed that their government would protect them from the kind of attack that took place that day. And surely even the most cynical among us must believe that a betrayal of such magnitude should carry consequences. Without consequences, there is no justice for the dead, and no safety for the living. Why has no one been held accountable? This is the last unanswered question about 9/11.

Cheney’s Bunker Mentality: The Vice President, the Constitution, and 9/11

Say what you will about Dick Cheney, at least he’s consistent. While he was in office, the Vice President made a practice of exploiting the fear and loss wrought by the 9/11 attacks to advance his own political agenda–and he’s still doing it now. During his speech at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday, according to Dana Milbank’s calculations in the Washington Post, “Cheney used the word ‘attack’ 19 times, ‘danger’ and ‘threat’ six times apiece, and 9/11 an impressive 27 times.”

In this putative rebuttal to Obama speech on national security, Cheney described how he spent the morning of 9/11 “in a fortified White House command post,” receiving “the reports and images that so many Americans remember from that day,” and then declared:

In the years since, I’ve heard occasional speculation that I’m a different man after 9/11. I wouldn’t say that. But I’ll freely admit that watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities.

Since he’s evoking his experience as a rationalization for torture, this might be a good time to review exactly what it was that Cheney was doing in the bunker on that terrible day. Here again, consistency is the rule: A preponderance of evidence points to the fact that Dick Cheney spent the morning of September 11, 2001, violating the Constitution of the United States.

I wrote about the subject in my 2005 book The Five Unanswered Questions About 9/11. Based on the 9/11 Commission Report and a number of other sources (all of them public), I offered an account of how Cheney swept aside the Constitution, the laws governing military action, and a host of expert advisors, in the atmosphere of a palace coup. While President Bush was being shuttled around on Air Force One, the Vice President took charge of the country. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

Presidential power is supposed to reside not in the Oval Office, but with the man, wherever he happens to be–whether in a remote military bunker or an elementary school classroom, or in the skies aboard Air Force One. But if any locus of government power existed on 9/11, it was not with President Bush, but rather in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC), the bunker beneath the East Wing of the White House, where Vice President Dick Cheney arrived, by his own account, shortly before 10:00 a.m.

Cheney was not alone in the PEOC, but his companions appear to have remained largely silent, deferring in all things to the Vice President. Secretary of Transportation Norman Minetta, who had oversight of the Federal Aviation Administration, made his way to the bunker but didn’t do much there. (He later told the 9/11 Commission that he had ordered all planes grounded at 9:45–but this decision was actually made independently by FAA National Operations Manager Ben Sliney, who was in his first day on the job.) National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, always highly political and extremely deferential, remained low-key during what should have been a pivotal moment for her office. 

The others who joined Cheney in the PEOC were not experts on terrorism, national security, civilian aviation, or military tactics, but a group of key right-wing political operatives. They included conservative media celebrity and then White House “counselor” Mary Matalin and longtime Bush campaign crony and White House Communications Director Karen Hughes, as well as Cheney’s Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby, a leading neocon foreign policy strategist, and Cheney’s wife, Lynne, a powerful conservative ideologue in her own right, who was escorted to her husband’s side by the Secret Service.

Dick Cheney in the White House bunker, speaking to administration officials including (from left) Joshua Bolten, Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin (standing), Condoleezza Rice and I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby. Source: David Bohrer / White House

Dick Cheney in the White House bunker, speaking to administration officials including (from left) Joshua Bolten, Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin, Condoleezza Rice and I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby. Source: David Bohrer / White House

According to “counterterrorism czar” Richard Clarke, a lone holdover from the previous administration, the PEOC was connected by telephone to a videoconference going on in the West Wing’s Situation Room. This conference, at various points, included high-ranking officials from the Defense and State Departments, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Attorney General’s office, CIA, FBI, and FAA. Within half an hour of the second WTC attack, teleconferences had also been established by the FAA and the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center (NMCC).

But the the far more political group in the East Wing’s PEOC seems to have had little use for Clarke’s gathering of experts. In his book Against All Enemies, Clarke reports that someone in the PEOC later told him that attempts to listen in on the West Wing videoconference on speakerphone were impeded “because Mrs. Cheney keeps turning down the volume on you so she can hear CNN . . . and the Vice President keeps hanging up the open line to you.”

The central decision faced by whoever took command that day, after the WTC attacks were a known fact, was a momentous one: Should the United States military be ordered to shoot down commercial airplanes full of civilian passengers, so that they, too, would not be used as missiles–most likely, it appeared, against targets in Washington, D.C.?

Under the law, in this or any other crisis requiring a military response, the decision to engage the military must be made by the President, as Commander-in-Chief. He gives his orders to the Secretary of Defense, who is supposed to implement these orders by passing them on to the relevant battle commands. In this chain of command, the Vice President has no place whatsoever. According to the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, crafted following the Kennedy assassination, the Vice President could claim such a place only if the President were for some reason “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”–and even then, only with the support of the cabinet and concurrence of the Congress.

Even if he’d never read the Constitution, Dick Cheney could not have been ignorant of these rules. The military chain of command is not some remote or obscure formula. Long on the books, it was reinforced and clarified in the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, debated and passed while Cheney was a member of Congress. Cheney also served as Secretary of Defense under the first George Bush–and surely would have paled at the thought of Vice President Dan Quayle giving out orders to shoot down planes.

But Vice President Cheney did, in fact, issue orders for military fighters to shoot down commercial jets on the morning of September 11. He told the 9/11 Commission, and has repeatedly told others, that he was authorized by the President in advance to give these orders. Evidence of this prior authorization is unsubstantiated and contradictory. At their own insistence, Cheney and Bush spoke to the 9/11 Commission together, in private session, and not under oath. And the Commission itself was often timid and circumspect when it came to challenging the administration or getting to the bottom of things. But even the carefully worded account in the 9/11 Commission Report, while it stops short of any conclusions or accusations, nonetheless leaves ample room for doubt.

According to the report, Bush and Cheney kept in touch that morning “not by an open line of communication, but through a series of calls.” The report says Bush told the Commission he was “frustrated with poor communications that morning. He could not reach key officials, including Secretary Rumsfeld, for a period of time. The line to the White House shelter conference room–and the Vice President–kept cutting off.”

Cheney told the Commission that he placed a call to Bush just before 10 a.m., when he arrived in the PEOC bunker. He said that the Air Force was trying to set up a combat air patrol (CAP) over Washington, and that he called to establish the rules of engagement for the CAP. Cheney reported telling Bush that the pilots would need authority “to shoot if the plane did not divert.” The report continues: “He said the President signed off on that concept. The President said he remembered such a conversation, and that it reminded him of when he had been an interceptor pilot. The President emphasized to us that he had authorized the shootdown of hijacked aircraft.”

Press accounts have also quoted Bush’s later recollections of the conversation. After Cheney recommended that he authorize the shootdowns, Bush declared, “I said, ‘You bet.’ There was a little discussion, but not much.”

The only person who remembers hearing the Vice President speak to the President at that time is the ever-faithful Condoleeza Rice. She testified to the Commission that she “remembered hearing him inform the President, ‘Sir, the CAPS are up. Sir, they’re going to want to know what to do.’ Then she recalled hearing him say, ‘Yes, Sir.’”

The Commission delicately concluded: “Among the sources that reflect other important events of that morning, there is no documentary evidence for this call, but the relevant sources are incomplete.” They added that others surrounding the Vice President, including his Chief of Staff and his wife, “did not note a call between the President and Vice President” at that time. According to one report in Newsweek, some of the Commission’s staff “flat out didn’t believe the call ever took place,” and expressed their skepticism in an early draft of their staff report. And one staff member said that pressure from the White House had led to the report being “watered down.”

Shortly after 10:10 a.m., the bunker began receiving reports of a plane headed for Washington. These reports came from the Secret Service, which was getting information directly from the FAA–incorrect information, as it turned out, since the aircraft in question was Flight 93, which at that moment was wobbling through the skies over Western Pennsylvania as its passengers fought their hijackers for control. An aide told Cheney it was only 80 miles away from Washington, and asked him to authorize a shootdown.

According to the 9/11 Report, Cheney’s “reaction was described by Scooter Libby as quick and decisive, ‘in about the time it takes a batter to decide to swing.’” Cheney repeated the shootdown order a few minutes later, after hearing that the plane was now 60 miles out.

The only recorded challenge of any kind to Cheney’s conduct came from Joshua Bolton, then the White House Deputy Chief of Staff. Bolton told the Commission that he “watched the exchanges and, after what he called ‘a quiet moment,’ suggested that the Vice President get in touch with the President and confirm the engage order. Bolton told us he wanted to make sure the President was told that the Vice President had executed the order. He said he had not heard any prior discussion on the subject with the President.” Cheney put through the call at 10:18. This call, made after the order had already been given, is well documented, unlike earlier communications. Bush, of course, concurred with Cheney’s decision.

Due to various communication problems, Cheney’s orders were never received by the pilots over Washington. This is perhaps just as well: Shortly after this episode, at about 10:30, Cheney got word of another plane just five miles away, and immediately gave orders to “take it out.” The Vice President, as it later turned out, had commanded military fighter jets to shoot down a low-flying Medevac helicopter.

In any case, the orders were moot. By the time they were issued, the passengers on Flight 93 had already done what their government failed to do: As their leaders hunkered down in safety, this handful of ordinary Americans had wrestled their plane to a crash landing, sacrificing their own lives in order to protect their nation’s capital and their compatriots on the ground.