Dual Loyalties

My opinion on the people who shape our world

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Why Were Bush and Rumsfeld AWOL on 9-11?

B E L L A C I A O - Why Were Bush and Rumsfeld AWOL on 9-11? -: "Why Were Bush and Rumsfeld AWOL on 9-11?
Who's in Charge Here?

What the 9-11 Commission Report does not explain is why, on the morning of September 11, 2001, President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and other top officials were essentially missing in action.

By Gail Sheehy

"Who's our quarterback" in case of a future terrorist attack? "Who's in charge?" That was the core question members of the 9-11 commission put to every government official they interviewed. "The reason that you're hearing such a tone of urgency in our voices is because the answer to the question was almost uniform," said commissioner Jamie Gorelick at the press conference following today's release of the 600 page final 9-11 Commission Report. The person in charge, she said the commissioners had been told over and over again, would be the president.

"It is an impossible situation for that to remain the case," Gorelick observed. Impossible, because the commission's report clearly shows that on the morning of September 11, 2001, the president and the other top officials in charge of the systems to defend the country from attack were, in essence, missing in action: They did not communicate, did not coordinate a response to the catastrophe, and in some cases did not even get involved in discussions about the attacks until after all of the hijacked planes had crashed.

Yet, even though the commission's report paints a stark portrait of opportunities lost in defending against terrorism, many observers-especially the families of some 9/11 victims, who pushed hard for the commission's creation-were disappointed in its failure to provide a timeline of the actions of the nation's top leaders that morning. Such an analysis, they believe, would have shown conclusively that blame for failing to defend against the attacks goes all the way to the top.

My involvement with the families goes back almost three years to my first interviews with the four widows who became known as "the Jersey girls." They were among the families I followed to write my book, Middletown, America. As early as April, 2003, three of the widows-- Lorie Van Auken, Mindy Kleinberg, and Kristen Breitweiser--had been aghast to discover that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appeared to have effectively sat out one of the worst foreign assaults on the American homeland in the nation's history. In what may be one of the most remarkable statements in the report, the commission concludes that "[t]he Secretary of Defense did not enter the chain of command until the morning's key events were over."

Rumsfeld's public testimony before the commission last March was bizarre. When Gorelick asked the Secretary of Defense what he had done to protect the nation-or even the Pentagon-during the "summer of threat" preceding the attacks, Rumsfeld replied simply that "it was a law- enforcement issue." (So, observers were left to wonder, should the FBI be out with shoulder-launched missiles?)

"We still don't have a full accounting of Rumsfeld's whereabouts and knowledge on the morning of 9-11," Gorelick acknowledged after the commission's final public hearing. "We don't have answers to the questions that you're asking. But I'm going to make sure it's nailed down," she promised. Yet the final published report offers no further details on Rumsfeld's inactions or the reason he was "out of the loop" (as the secretary himself put it) that morning.

The National Military Command Center (NMCC) inside the Pentagon was the nerve center of the military's response to the attacks on 9-11. But the lead military officer that day, Brigadier General Montague Winfield, told the commission that the center had been leaderless."For 30 minutes we couldn't find [Secretary Rumsfeld]." Where was Rumsfeld on 9-11? I put the question to the commission's vice chair, Lee Hamilton, following the release of the report the commissioners call "the definitive account of 9-11."

"We investigated very carefully Mr. Rumsfeld's actions," said Hamilton. "He was having breakfast with Congressional leaders, and they hear a plane has hit the Pentagon, and he runs out."

"He had to have been told before the Pentagon was hit that two trade centers were hit and the country was under attack," I suggested.

Was the commission comfortable with the fact that the country's Secretary of Defense was not in the chain of command or present in the Pentagon's command center until all four suicide hijacked planes were down?

"I'm not going to answer that question," said Hamilton, and turned away. The commission did provide some detail on the movements of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, but none that offers much reassurance. The report shows that nothing Bush and Cheney did or said that day had any effect on the devastation planned by 19 suicide hijackers and their lethal leader-despite warnings going back to 1996 that bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network were an urgent threat to America's national security.

When President Bush finally agreed to have a "conversation" with the 9-11 commissioners--provided it was not under oath, not recorded, and Cheney was at his side--the account the two top leaders gave was murky and unverifiable. On the crucial matter of whether fighters should be sent up to protect the nation's capital, for example, the final report says that "the Vice President stated that he called the President to discuss the rules of engagement for ordering [air cover]." But, it continues, the two did not order air cover because it would "do no good unless pilots had instructions on whether they were authorized to shoot if the plane would not divert." The job of issuing such instructions belonged to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.

The commission's staff report had earlier cited the legal chain of command in case of hijackings: "If a hijack was confirmed, procedure called for "the President to empower the Secretary of Defense to send up a military escort, and if necessary, give pilots shoot- down orders." The final report confirms the same chain of command and adds this detail: "The president apparently spoke to Secretary Rumsfeld for the first time that morning shortly after 10:00"--more than an hour after the first World Trade Center tower was hit, 20 minutes after the Pentagon was attacked, and moments before Flight 93 was wrestled to the ground by passengers. And even in this brief conversation, the urgent question at hand doesn't seem to have come up: The report states that "no one can recall the content of this conversation but it was a brief call in which the subject of the shootdown authority was not discussed."

The President emphasized to the commissioners that he had authorized the shootdown of hijacked aircraft. But the final report states flatly that "there is no documentary evidence for this call." It notes that neither Cheney's chief of staff nor his wife Lynne, both of whom were taking notes that morning, made note of a call between the President and Vice President. Only when a military aide rushed into the White House bunker to announce--erroneously, as it turned out--that Flight 93 was 80 miles away from Washington, did Cheney apparently take it upon himself to give the order for fighter aircraft to engage the inbound plane.

Don Rumsfeld is known as a take-charge kind of guy. Why was he so uncharacteristically passive in the face of terrorists who were able to kill nearly 3,000 Americans in one morning? It is impossible to answer, and now that the commission has rolled up its report, there will be no forum for follow-up questions. But it is worth noting the ideological context: For years, the secretary had focused on what he considered to be America's most pressing national security need--and it wasn't fighting Al Qaeda.

Even before the 2000 presidential election, Rumsfeld commissioned a "blueprint for maintaining global U.S. pre-eminence" along with his future deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, and future-Vice President Cheney, as well as President Bush's brother, Florida governor Jeb Bush. The plan shows that Bush intended to take military control of Persian Gulf oil, whether or not Saddam Hussein was in power, and intended to retain control of the region even if there was no threat.

The report, written by the neo-conservative think tank Project for the New American Century, also advocated "regime change" in China, North Korea, Libya, Syria, and Iran. An unnamed British member of Parliament was quoted as saying of the report: "This is a blueprint for U.S. domination--a new world order of their making." The report also complained that the changes it recommended were likely to take a long time, "absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event-like a new Pearl Harbor." In the summer of 2001, when security agencies were regularly warning of a catastrophic attack by Al Qaeda, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's office "sponsored a study of ancient empires-Macedonia, Rome, the Mongols-to figure out how they maintained dominance," according to the New York Times.

Hours after the 9/11 attacks, Rumsfeld was given information that three of the names on the airplane passenger manifests were suspected al-Qaeda operatives. The notes he composed at the time asserted that he wanted the "best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] at same time. Not only UBL. [Usama bin Laden] Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not." He presented the idea to Bush the next day. Counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke later wrote in his book Against All Enemies, "At first I was incredulous that we were talking about something other than getting Al Qaeda. Then I realized with almost a sharp physical pain that [Defense Secretary] Rumsfeld and [Assistant Defense Secretary] Wolfowitz were going to try to take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq."

Shortly after 9/11, Rumsfeld set up "a small team of defense officials outside regular intelligence channels to focus on unearthing details about Iraqi ties with al- Qaeda and other terrorist networks." In May, 2002, Time reported that "Rumsfeld has been so determined to find a rationale for an attack that on 10 separate occasions he asked the CIA to find evidence linking Iraq to the terror attacks of September 11. The intelligence agency repeatedly came back empty-handed."

Gail Sheehy is the author of 14 books, the most recent being Middletown, America, about the families of 9/11 victims. She covered the 9/11 commission hearings for Pacifica Radio. "