Five years after the attacks of 9/11 and President Bush’s promise to get Osama bin Laden “dead or alive,” the mastermind of the operation is still free and issuing widely publicized video and audio threats. By contrast, the C.I.A.’s unit set up to find him, code-named “Alec Station,” was recently, and quietly, disbanded after 10 years of failure. In the Middle East, America has become bogged down in an endless war and occupation in Iraq while Israel, backed by the United States, is now involved in a bloody war in Lebanon. Calling the invasion of Iraq “a godsend to Osama bin Laden,” the former Alec Station chief Michael Scheuer warned that American foreign policy in the region was playing directly into his hands. “It validated so much of what he has said and told Muslims: that the Americans want Arab oil; that the Americans will destroy any Muslim regime that appears to be powerful; the Americans will destroy any country that appears to be a threat to the Israelis; and they’re willing to invade any Muslim country if it suits their interests.”
As the Middle East becomes an incubator for an army of future bin Ladens, it is a good time to look back at where, for Americans, it all began. The most comprehensive examination of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was conducted by the 9/11 Commission, chaired by Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton. Now Kean, a former governor of New Jersey, and Hamilton, a former congressman from Indiana, have written “Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission.” Told in a dry, colorless style, like the report itself, the book offers little new information on the actual attacks, but provides a keyhole view of the commission’s bureaucratic war with a White House obsessed with secrecy and control. Months after the commission’s creation, the staff was still battling the White House and the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee to get a look at an earlier 9/11 investigation by Congress, the Joint Inquiry report, protected under a dubious claim of “congressional privilege.” “This was frustrating,” the exasperated Kean and Hamilton complain, “particularly since we were a creation of Congress.” They add, “We were hung up with both Congress and the Bush administration over the documents that were mandated to be the starting point of our investigation.” Things only got worse.
The man standing at the gate was Alberto Gonzales, then the White House counsel and now the attorney general. In public, George W. Bush was a president deeply concerned about getting to the bottom of the most deadly attack on American soil in the country’s history. But in private, he ordered his lawyer to throw up every roadblock possible. In shirtsleeves behind the coffee table of his second-floor West Wing office, Gonzales spoke to the members of the commission as if they were bringing an insurance claim. “He never referred to the president by name or title,” Kean and Hamilton report, “but rather always said ‘client’ — ‘Let me take this back to my client,’ or ‘I’ve got to protect my client.’” The biggest battle came over access to the White House morning intelligence report, the President’s Daily Brief, especially the one dated Aug. 6, 2001, barely a month before the attack. Titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,” the document noted that the F.B.I. was investigating suspicious Qaeda activity on American soil “consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.” When finally asked to provide the commission with his own testimony, the president said at first that he could spare only an hour of his time — and then with just the two chairmen. Later it was made clear that no recordings or transcripts would be permitted.
But throughout the life of the commission, as this book indicates, the real power resided not in the commissioners themselves, largely don’t-rock-the-boat Washington insiders, but with the families of the victims of the attack who had mobilized into a collective force known as the Family Steering Committee. “Pressure grew on the White House to loosen its restrictions,” Kean and Hamilton say. “The 9/11 families were adamant that all 10 commissioners be present; indeed, they wanted the president and vice president to testify in public, under oath.”
The White House gave in to the demand to meet with the full membership, but there was no way the president was going to testify publicly, or under oath. In fact, he insisted that he and Vice President Dick Cheney appear together, a move that led many skeptics to speculate that they wanted to ensure they kept their stories straight. Because of the insistence on secrecy, whatever was said in the room was largely lost to history. Unfortunately, Kean and Hamilton shed little additional light on the event, which is one of the problems with the book: an overabundance of self-censorship by the authors.
Another major failure of the commission was its inability directly to question people in United States custody who played key roles in the plot, because of a decision by the director of central intelligence, George Tenet. At a lunch meeting in his C.I.A. office, “Tenet opened by saying, ‘You’re not going to get access to these detainees,’” the authors write, adding “Lee, who has known Tenet for 25 years, could tell from Tenet’s demeanor that there would be no give in his position on the matter.” The decision probably had less to do with the security of the detainees than with the fact that many of them were being held in secret foreign prisons and subjected to such torture as waterboarding. “At one point,” Hamilton and Kean note, “we were told that even the president of the United States did not know where these top Al Qaeda detainees were.” The commission decided to appeal Tenet’s denial, but once again the commissioners came up against Gonzales and his stonewalling. The best they could do was to send their questions to the C.I.A.
Talking to the detainees was especially important because the commission was charged with explaining not only what happened, but also why it happened. In looking into the background of the hijackers, the staff found that religious orthodoxy was not a common denominator since some of the members “reportedly even consumed alcohol and abused drugs.” Others engaged in casual sex. Instead, hatred of American foreign policy in the Middle East seemed to be the key factor. Speaking to the F.B.I. agents who investigated the attacks, Hamilton asked: “You’ve looked [at] and examined the lives of these people as closely as anybody. . . . What have you found out about why these men did what they did? What motivated them to do it?”
These questions fell to Supervisory Special Agent James Fitzgerald. “I believe they feel a sense of outrage against the United States,” he said. “They identify with the Palestinian problem, they identify with people who oppose repressive regimes and I believe they tend to focus their anger on the United States.” As if to reinforce the point, the commission discovered that the original plan for 9/11 envisioned an even larger attack. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the strategist of the 9/11 plot, “was going to fly the final plane, land it and make ‘a speech denouncing U.S. policies in the Middle East,’” Kean and Hamilton say, quoting a staff statement. And they continue: “Lee felt that there had to be an acknowledgment that a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was vital to America’s long-term relationship with the Islamic world, and that the presence of American forces in the Middle East was a major motivating factor in Al Qaeda’s actions.”
Given the Bush administration’s current policies in the region, another 9/11-style attack is less a matter of if than when.