Tag Archives: September 11

On 9/11, Rumsfeld Fiddled While Cheney Ran the Country

In her interview with last night with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, author of a new autobiography, Diane Sawyer asked him about a tough decision he had to make on the morning of 9/11. Was it not difficult, she asked, to order military pilots to shoot down passenger jets that the government believed to be hijacked and headed targets in Washington–maybe the White House, maybe the Capitol. For a moment, Rumsfeld dropped his generally arrogant stance, and instead looked as if he were about to cry as he recalled the agony he went through in making the decision.

It might have been a poignant moment, were it not for the fact that Rumsfeld didn’t make the decision. It was Vice President Dick Cheney who made the decision. And it was Cheney who was running the country with a confused Rumfeld watching from the sidelines.

When the nation is threatened, it is the President, the  Commander-in-Chief who must make the decision to engage the military. Under the law, he orders the Secretary of Defense to implement his commands down through the military chain of command.  While President Bush was being shuttled around from bunker to bunker, on the morning of September 11, 2001, supposedly out of cell phone contact at times, Rumsfeld was next in line. But Rumsfeld’s role on 9/11 has always been a mystery. In his new book, on page 339, the former secretary of Defense casts a little light on what he did that morning .

Feeling the Pentagon shake when American Airlines Flight 77 hit at 9:38, and seeing the smoke, Rumsfeld, by his own report, rushed into the Pentagon parking lot, which was in chaos amid frantic rescue efforts and treating the wounded.  Then he returned to his office. He  spoke briefly to Bush, who was on Air Force One flying around somewhere in the southeast, who wanted to know about the damage to the Pentagon. From there Rumsfeld went to the military command post in the basement. And there, he writes, heeding the advice of General Dick Myers, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who wa also in the room, he raised the threat level to a state of alert, and launched  fighters to protect Air Force One. Rumsfeld was supposed to be removed to a secret site, but he says he was “unwilling to be out of touch during the time it would take  to relocate me to the safe site.’’  

Shortly afterwards, he writes, “the Vice President reached me by phone.’’ Cheney reportedly told Rumsfeld, “There’s been at least three instance here where we’ve had reports of aircraft approaching Washington…A couple were confirmed hijacked. And pursuant to the President’s instructions I gave authorization for them to be taken out.”

In fact, there is considerable doubt as to when Cheney actually received “the President’s instructions,” and considerable evidence that he acted on his own volition, as even the timid 9/11 Commission report makes clear. But in any case, his orders clearly violated the military chain of command–something Rumsfeld failed to point out, according to his own account of the subsequent conversation.

“Yes, I understand,” I replied. “Who did you give that direction to?”

“It was passed from here through the [operations] center at the White House,” Cheney answered.

“Has that directive been transmitted to the aircraft?”

“Yes, it has,” Cheney replied.

“So we’ve got a couple of aircraft up there that have those instruction at  this present time?” I asked.

“That is correct,” Cheney answered. Then he added, “[I]t’ my understanding they’ve already taken a couple of aircraft out.”

“We can’t confirm that,” I told him. We had not received word that any US military pilots had even contemplated engaging and firing on a hijacked aircraft.

“We’re told that one aircraft is down,” I added, “but we do not have a pilot report…”

As it turned out the only other aircraft that crashed had not been shot down. It was  United Airlines Flight 93, a hijacked plane that went down in a field near Shankville, Pennsylvania.’’

This from the man directly charged under the law with putting into action the orders from the Commander-in-Chief. The Vice President is nowhere listed in the chain of command and has no authority to act. In the above passage, Rumsfeld himself describes how he essentially was a bystander that morning, with little or no input in the crisis. Our multi-billion-dollar Defense Department and its chief were unprepared, incompetent, and  ignored as Cheney seized the reins and ran the country.

Later, before the 911 commission, Rumsfeld  provided a rather astonishing explanation for his behavior:

The Department of Defense…did not have responsibility for the borders. It did not have responsibility for the airports….And the fact that I might not have known something ought not to be considered unusual. Our task was to be oriented out of this country…and to defend against attacks from abroad. And a civilian aircraft was a law enforcement matter to be handled by law enforcement authorities and aviation authorities. And that is the way our government was organized and arranged. So those questions you’re posing are good ones.And they are valid and they ought to be asked. But they ought to be asked of people who had the statutory responsibility for those things.

In his book, Rumsfeld laments the fact  he did not resign after Abu Ghraib. In truth, he should have resigned or been fired for failing to protect the nation in the face of the worst attack since Pearl Harbor.

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.”

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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.