Wanted: a commission to investigate the 9/11 commission
OPINION: If you want to know everything wrong with America's official 9/11 commission in a single soundbite, consider this from Al Felzenberg, their designated spokesman, speaking last Wednesday: "There was no way that Atta could have been in the United States at that time, which is why the staff didn't give this tremendous weight when they were writing the report. This information was not meshing with the other information that we had."
In fairness to Felzenberg, he was having a bad week, and a hard time staying on top of the commission's ever-shifting version of events.
It emerged a few days ago that a group from Special Operations Command had fingered Mohammed Atta - the guy who ploughed Flight 11 into the first World Trade Center tower - well over a year before before 9/11.
Or, as the Associated Press puts it: "A classified military intelligence unit called 'Able Danger' identified Atta and three other hijackers in 1999 as potential members of a terrorist cell in New York City."
Unfortunately, their superiors decided they would be unable to tell the FBI because of the so-called government "wall" that prevented one agency sharing information with another agency if the persons involved were "US persons" - which means not just US citizens, but persons in the US legally.
The official position of US immigration is that Mohammed Atta was not in the country in 1999 or early 2000, which means presumably he was there illegally, which means he wasn't covered by the rules preventing info-sharing.
But, of course, we're not talking about precise rules here, so much as the prevailing culture of the 1999/2000 period when Al Gore was going around boasting that his first act as president would be to sign a law preventing local cops from racial profiling in highway stops - or, as he put it, pulling someone over for "driving while black". And the collapsed investigation of Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwan-born scientist at Los Alamos accused of leaking nuclear secrets to the Chinese, had prompted a press storm of headlines like "Investigator Denies Lee Was Victim Of Racial Bias" (San Francisco Chronicle).
The last thing anyone at the FBI wanted was to look into any other identity groups, even certain ones who seemed to be spending a lot of time at pilot-training schools.
Who needs Al Gore breathing down your neck huffing about discriminating against folks for "flying while Muslim"?
Still, the news that military intelligence had Atta in its sights back then is less shocking than the 9/11 commission's reaction to it. When the story broke last week, the commissioners denied they knew anything about "Able Danger": "The September 11th commission did not learn of any US government knowledge prior to 9/11 of surveillance of Mohammed Atta or of his cell," insisted Lee Hamilton, the Democratic co-chair.
"Had we learned of it obviously it would've been a major focus of our investigation."
But within 48 hours this version was non-operative. Hamilton remembered that he had known about it, but decided it was no big deal.
As the AP subsequently reported: "The September 11th commission knew military intelligence officials had identified lead hijacker Mohamed Atta as a member of al-Qaeda who might be part of a US-based terror cell more than a year before the terror attacks but decided not to include that in its final report, a spokesman acknowledged Thursday."
So, far from being a "major focus" that they just happened to miss, it turns out they knew about it but "decided not to include" it. How'd that happen? Well, as Felzenberg says so disarmingly, "this information was not meshing with the other information".
As a glimpse into the mindset of the commission, that's astonishing: 9/11 happened, in part, because the various Federal bureaucracies involved were unable to process information that didn't "mesh" with conventional wisdom.
Now we find that the official commission intended to identify those problems and ensure they don't recur is, in fact, guilty of the very same fatal flaw. The new information didn't "mesh" with the old information, so they disregarded it.
But, hey, let's not have a philosophical discussion, let's keep it practical: there was "no way" that Atta could have been in the US except when the official INS record says he was?
Actually, there's plenty of ways. Forget the southern border, insofar as there is such a thing. Fact: on America's northern border, no record is kept of individual visitors to the US. Fact: the only Islamist terrorist attack prevented by the US government in the period before 9/11 was the attempt to blow up LAX (Los Angeles international airport) by Ahmed Ressam, a Montrealer caught on the Washington/British Columbia frontier by an alert official who happened to notice he seemed a little sweaty.
A different guard, a cooler Islamist, and it might just have been yet another routine unrecorded border crossing.
So, when the 9/11 commission starts saying that there's "no way" something can happen when it happens every single day of the week, you start to wonder what exactly is the point of an official investigation so locked in to pre-set conclusions.
9/11 was a total government fiasco: CIA, FBI, INS, FAA, all the hotshot acronyms failed spectacularly.
But appoint an official commission and let them issue an official report and suddenly everyone says, oh, well, this is the official version of 9/11; if they say something didn't happen, it can't possibly have happened.
Readers may recall that I never cared for the commission. There were too many showboating partisan hacks who seemed more interested in playing to the rhythms of the presidential election season.
There was at least one person with an outrageous conflict of interest: Clinton justice department honcho Jamie Gorelick, the guardian of that "wall" of separation, shouldn't have been on the commission but instead a key witness appearing in front of it. And there were far too many areas where the members appeared interested only in facts that supported a predetermined outcome.
Maybe we need a 9/11 "commission commission" to investigate the 9/11 commission. A body intended to reassure Americans that the lessons of that terrible day had been learned - instead of engaging in what, at best, was transparent politicking and collusion in posterior-covering and, at worst, was something a whole lot darker and more disturbing.
The problem pre-9/11 was always political - that's to say, no matter how savvy individual operatives in various agencies may have been, the political culture of the day meant that nothing would happen except a memo would get typed up and shovelled into a filing cabinet.
Together with other never fully explained episodes - like the discovery that Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger was smuggling single-copy classified documents out from the national archives in his pants - the "Able Danger" story makes one thing plain: the problem is still political.