There Will Be No Patrick Fitzgerald for the 9/11 Attacks

by James Ridgeway

Members of the 9/11 Commission made news this week by including serious criticisms of the Bush Administration in their latest "progress report." At a public forum on November 14, former 9/11 Commissioners chastised the White House for failing to implement recommendations aimed at preventing another terrorist attack, made some 16 months ago in the 9/11 Commission Report. They also pointed to new problems -- including the mistreatment of detainees, which they say might aid in terrorist recruitment. “The flames of extremism undoubtedly burn more brightly when we are the ones who deliver the gasoline,” said Commission member Richard Ben-Veniste.

Such criticisms may seem relatively tame, but they sound quite tough-minded compared with the careful, timid statements made by the 9/11 Commission in its July 2004 report. Were the Commissioners, along with most of the media, waiting for the President’s approval ratings to drop before jumping on the anti-Bush bandwagon? Or are they only able to show some moxie when they no longer have any real power to influence the political life of the nation?

Perhaps it should come as little surprise that the 2004 9/11 Commission Report failed to assign any real blame or demand any real accountability for the terrorist attacks. After all, the formation of the Commission itself was more or less a political accommodation, taken up reluctantly and only after the tireless lobbying by the families of 9/11 victims. And the chosen Commissioners, both Republicans and Democrats, were political insiders, unlikely to ask questions that might seriously threaten the White House or any other political or economic institution.

In the area of intelligence failures, for example, the Commission's mandate was to carry forward the investigations already launched by the Joint Inquiry of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, chaired by former Florida Senator Bob Graham. But the Commission failed to act on several potentially explosive findings made by Graham and his staff.

Investigators for the Congressional Joint Inquiry had stumbled across documents within the San Diego FBI office that showed an FBI informant in the local Muslim community had hosted and even rented a room to two hijackers in 2000. When the Inquiry sought to interview the informant, the FBI at first balked, then refused outright, and then hid him in an unknown location. Later, according to Bob Graham's own account in his book INTELLIGENCE MATTERS, a high-level FBI official told him these blocking maneuvers were undertaken under orders from the White House. While the 9/11 Commission managed to speak with the informant once, it made scant mention of him in its report.

The Commission was more dismissive still when it came to a Saudi national living in San Diego who appeared to be channeling funds to the same two hijackers. The Congressional Joint Inquiry had discovered a paper trail that traced these funds back to sources within Saudi government agencies and the Saudi royal family itself (which has now-famous ties to both Presidents Bush). But the 9/11 Commission found the same evidence inconclusive, and relegated the episode to one of their report’s 1,742 footnotes.

Weaker still was the Commission’s response to negligence by the airlines. At one of its public hearings, the Commission and its audience listened to the emotional tape-recorded words of Betty Ong, one of two flight attendants on American Airlines Flight 11 who had calmly provided blow-by-blow accounts of the first hijacking as it happened. As their phone calls were relayed to American Airlines headquarters, they were met first with disbelief, and then with warnings from AA managers to “keep this quiet” and “keep this among ourselves.” American did not immediately alert the FAA, local flight control centers, the military, the FBI, or even its own pilots. This was before the other planes were seized, and before one of them had even left the ground. It was long before workers in the World Trade Tower Two were told not to evacuate because they were in no danger from the “accidental” plane crash at the other tower.

How many hundreds or thousands of lives might have been saved if the airline had quickly passed on the information provided by these courageous flight attendants? And why, for that matter, had the airlines not taken action to prevent or respond to such hijackings, even after receiving countless warnings in the spring and summer of 2001? The 9/11 Commission staff made copious inquiries into what happened at American Airlines. These inquiries are mentioned in passing in the report’s footnotes. The full contents of these staff inquiries were classified and will not be made public for years. One scathing staff study on the subject was finally released, but only after the 2004 presidential election.

The list of the Commission’s failings goes on and on, and leads right up to the door of the White House. Reading between the lines of the 9/11 Commission Report, it is clear that even many Commissioners and staff members more than suspected that the Vice President violated the Constitution by seizing command on 9/11, issuing unauthorized orders to shoot down planes (including a misidentified medevac helicopter). But the Commission failed to press the point—and indeed, agreed to have an informal, unrecorded meeting with Bush and Cheney, rather than demanding on-the-record testimony.

Likewise, Commissioners were remarkably soft on Donald Rumsfeld. Second only to the President in the military chain of command, Rumsfeld was AWOL while the nation was under attack. Apparently, he spent a good deal of time wandering around the Pentagon parking lot, but the Commission dutifully relayed his statement that he was “gaining situational awareness.” Rumsfeld also testified that attacks on American soil by commercial aircraft were a “law enforcement matter,” and no business of the Department of Defense; this outrageous statement passed by the Commission with only a brief demur.

After all of this, should it be any wonder to the former Commissioners that the Bush Administration doesn’t take them seriously--and feels no need to submit its own policy objectives to the 9/11 Commission’s “recommendations”? If the Commission had ever really meant business, heads would have rolled at the FBI, the CIA, the FAA, and the airlines, not to mention the highest levels of the White House and the Pentagon.

Instead, the 9/11 Commission’s much-anticipated report has, to this day, had absolutely no consequences for those responsible for the attacks. And while there may be new 9/11 rumbling’s from Democrats in Congress—again, apparently in response to a weakened Bush—the opportunity for real accountability probably ended with the 9/11 Commission Report.

There will be no Patrick Fitzgerald for the 9/11 attacks. Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson at least have the satisfaction, incomplete as it may be, of seeing Scooter Libby under indictment and out of a job. For the victims of 9/11, living and dead, there is no such whiff of justice. (James Ridgeway, 11.17.2005)


James Ridgeway is a columnist for the Village Voice and author of The Five Unanswered Questions About 9/11: What the 9/11 Commission Report Failed to Tell Us, a BuzzFlash premium.

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