Politics & Policy

Reading The 9/11 Report

What to look for.

The 9/11 Commission’s much ballyhooed final report has just been released. It’s voluminous, and it would be foolish to analyze it before reading it. A few things, however, bear careful watching.

The first is reliability. The commission’s report is said to be heavy on factual analysis and tentative on policy recommendations. This is as it should be. The commission’s primary task was to compile a comprehensive report on the circumstances that preceded the 9/11 attacks, including national preparedness. It would be difficult to imagine how this could be done without some thought to how things could have worked better, and for that reason it will be worth considering the recommendations the commission makes, including any proposal for a new national intelligence directorate. On balance, I think this is a bad idea that has a better chance of exacerbating the real problem–a bloated, sclerotic, disorganized intelligence bureaucracy–by adding more bureaucracy. But that’s an argument for another day, and the commissioners’ contrary views will certainly be worth weighing.

More important for present purposes will be the reliability of the factual, analytical product. On that, there is great reason to be skeptical, and pessimistic.

First, the commission’s sloppy, headline-grabbing practices have not been conducive to a worthy fact-finding process. Because we consider a jury trial an almost sacral “search for truth,” we follow certain prophylactic measures to protect the integrity of the process. Jurors are constantly admonished to keep an open mind, and avoid arguing the case with one another, until they have heard all of the evidence. Why? You know the answer from your everyday experience. Once you have publicly planted your feet on an issue, your objectivity–i.e., the asset that caused you to be chosen to analyze the facts in the first place–is a distant memory. It becomes much harder to refine your understanding evenhandedly as new facts emerge.

Imagine a murder trial in which witness A gives an eyewitness account that you, a juror, find suspect–say, that A claims to have seen the defendant shoot from 60 feet away even though it was night-time. Let’s say you then go out and tell people: That’s ridiculous, A’s lying, she couldn’t have seen that. The next day, B, the investigating officer, comes to court and testifies that the spot A said the defendant was standing in was under a powerful streetlight; he points out that “60 feet away” may sound like a lot, but it’s the same distance at which a pitcher can easily see that the catcher is putting down two fingers for a curveball instead of one for a fastball. If you had stayed responsibly silent and deliberative, you’d have no trouble objectively saying, “Oh, now I understand how A saw the shooting.” But, instead, you’re now in a bind–you’ve already pronounced A a liar; you can’t change your mind without eating crow.

People don’t like to eat crow, and ambitious politicians like it even less. The 9/11 commissioners have imprudently allowed themselves to be interviewed here, there and everywhere as their investigation proceeded. Commissioner Bob Kerrey wrote an op-ed claiming 9/11 could have been prevented (the final commission report is said to take no position); Commissioner Jamie Gorelick penned an op-ed accusing John Ashcroft, the sitting Attorney General of the United States of giving sworn testimony that was “simply not true.” It will be interesting to study how this disturbing tendency affects the final product.

Especially, that is, when that tendency is considered in conjunction with a second problem: the sometimes blatant politicization of the commission’s work. Some of the commissioners’ grandstanding with the media no doubt owed to the familiar political impulse to be the center of attention. But far more disturbing was the agenda-driven shenanigans. Commissioners Gorelick, Richard BenVeniste and Timothy Roemer did nothing to dispel reports in the Wall Street Journal back in March that they were regularly caucusing together, and regularly consulting with Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, to coordinate a political strategy: to use the commission as a political opportunity to suggest that the Bush administration had been asleep at the switch in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks. Gorelick and BenVeniste dramatically, and repeatedly, took to referring to 2001’s “Summer of Threat”–a thinly veiled device to conjure the image of obvious warning signs being ignored. This, they studiously contrasted with another phrase repeated ad nauseum: “battle stations”–the condition in which super-competent Clinton officials, during late 1999, were portrayed as tirelessly monitoring the threat environment and thwarting the Millennium attack.

Of course, it turns out that the 1999 performance wasn’t so impressive after all. The Millennium attack was prevented by sheer luck: an alert Customs agent, who knew nothing of the uninformative “battle stations”-generated warnings–stopped Ahmed Ressam (because she thought he might be a drug dealer) and discovered his explosives arsenal. An after-action review, reportedly highly critical of the Clinton administration’s performance, was prepared by Richard Clarke. Thus far, it remains classified and undisclosed, but it is reportedly at the heart of criminal investigation of former Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, who is said to have pilfered highly classified drafts of the after-action review from the National Archives. How does that after-action review stack up against the commission testimony of Berger and Clarke, against the histrionics of Gorelick and BenVeniste? It will be interesting to see what the commission’s final report has to say about the subject.

The agenda-driving was, at times, obvious to the point of embarrassing. There was, for example, great teeth-gnashing following Clarke’s testimony about the need for national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice to appear. After all, Clarke had directly contradicted some of her account of the run-up to 9/11. Indignant speechifying was had about the epic importance of the commission’s work: No purported matter of principle (in that instance, constitutional separation of powers) could be allowed to interfere with that. Except, it turned out, a principle as trivial as the commission protecting its own more than sufficed. When Attorney General John Ashcroft gave testimony on the critical matter of structural barriers to intelligence sharing that made manifest the already palpable fact that Gorelick had played a central role in creating those barriers, no commissioner called for her testimony. Remarkably, when Gorelick, as noted above, took to the airwaves and the op-ed pages and publicly made unsworn allegations that Ashcroft had given untrue testimony, utter silence remained the tack of the same grandstanders–except to lash out at critics who dared point out the hypocrisy.

The episode demonstrated not only brass-knuckles partisanship but a distinct lack of seriousness: if the commission’s work was as important as claimed, both Rice and Gorelick should have testified, and Gorelick should have stepped down as a commissioner. If not, they should have closed up shop, left Rice alone, and saved us all the time and money.

Gorelick’s conflict presents another troubled ingredient. Fact-finding processes with integrity do not combine the role of judge and witness. But that’s what Gorelick is. There is no issue considered by the commission–not a single one–more critical than intelligence sharing, the so-called imperative to “connect the dots.” They can talk about “battle stations” all they want; incontestably, the most important hindrance to detection of terrorist activities from 1995 through 2001 was the erection of a self-imposed, structural wall between intelligence agents on one side and criminal investigators and prosecutors on the other. If the 9/11 Commission had probed nothing but that, its time would have been well spent. But, the commission barely touched it–and reluctantly at that–because Gorelick was neck-deep in it. Did her conflict become the commission’s conflict? Does the commission’s final report give the wall the significance and attention it deserved? We’ll see.

Finally, there is the basis for the commission’s fact-finding to consider. Less than two weeks ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a blistering critique of the CIA and the U.S. intelligence community. How much of what the commission says it has learned comes from this source? The commission, for example, has previously discounted the possibility that chief hijacker Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague five months before the 9/11 attacks. Did the commission interview the eyewitness directly? Or is it relying on an assessment by the intelligence community? If it’s the latter (it is–bet on it), how much hard information is that based on? We know we had no good sources in Iraq. Why should we think this is not more of the same discredited intelligence community “group think” and unsupported theorizing we heard about two weeks ago?

If the 9/11 Commission’s work is so vital, and the commission freely relies on the intelligence community, and we are told we should accept that, then why do we keep hearing that the intelligence community needs radical reformation? Will the commission explain Atta’s pair of 2000 trips to Prague–right before he left for the U.S. to begin preparing for the 9/11 attacks? What will it have to say about Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, the likely Iraqi operative who escorted at least one hijacker (Khalid al-Midhar) to a 9/11 planning meeting in Kuala Lampur in January 2000?–a meeting the intelligence community knew about but over which it somehow forgot to put al-Midhar (and his sidekick, Nawaf al-Hazmi) on the terrorist watch list that would have kept him out of our country.

The commissioners and their staff are comprised of some smart, dedicated, earnest people. What they find after all this careful study should not be dismissed out of hand. But there’s reason to be highly skeptical. Oh, and did I mention that the Democratic National Convention starts Monday?

Andrew C. McCarthy, who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is an NRO contributor. McCarthy is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.

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