February 8, 2002

9/11 COVER-UP?
Behind the biggest intelligence failure in US history

While the attorney general is taking off after the Tali-boy, what about the truly criminal negligence of US law enforcement agencies, who clearly experienced some kind of massive intelligence meltdown? As Howard Kurtz points out in the Washington Post today [Thursday]:

"For five long months, almost no one has wanted to gripe about it out loud. The shock had not yet worn off. It was a matter for another time, another place. First we had to bury the dead, heal the wounded, hail the rescuers, win the war. But yesterday the subject resounded across the marble halls of Congress: How could we not have known?"


Unfazed by such matters as propriety, or good taste, I didn't wait until the entire structure of the World Trade Center had hit the ground before asking, on September 12, [2001],

"But how could that be, when so many millions and so much rhetoric has been expended in the war on terrorism? No expense was spared, either in terms of tax dollars or basic civil liberties – and still it happened."


Not that I expect the grand and glorious Washington Post to notice this column's lowly existence, and, besides, the unwritten addendum to Kurtz's phrasing is "For five long months, almost no one in Washington has wanted to gripe about it out loud." Out here in the real world, however, it was naturally the first thing out of many mouths as we stared in shock and sheer amazement at the smoking ruin of the Pentagon: "How in h*ll did that happen?"

And just as naturally, that is the kind of question government officials don't want to hear. Kurtz, to his great credit, has started asking them anyway, which journalists should've given voice to starting on Day Two of the post-9/11 era:

"How is it that America was totally blindsided by the Sept. 11 attacks? Was it a massive intelligence failure? Were there missed warning signs?"


If CIA director George Tenet has his way, we'll never know: Tenet declined to discuss any "details" on the opening day of the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings on the subject, where he got practically a free pass – except for this zinger from Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama):

"Why were we utterly unaware of the planning and execution of the Sept. 11 attacks? In other words, what went wrong?"

"Whatever went wrong, Mr. Tenet said, it was not because of laziness or lack of attention within the C.I.A.," reports the New York Times. "'Intelligence will never give you 100 percent predictive capability.'"


You want 100 percent predictive capability? Okay, then, how's about this: government officials responsible for the biggest and deadliest intelligence failure in American history will continue to evade, stonewall, and in effect take the fifth when it comes to answering the key question relating to 9/11: why did we fail to detect a plot that was years in the making, in spite of billions spent on "anti-terrorism" programs? The question will not be answered any time soon – not in the next 50 years, at least – and on that you can count 100 percent.


An intelligence failure? Oh, how can you say that? "The director objected to the very word 'failure' in connection with the intelligence-gathering ahead of the devastating surprise attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon," reports the Times. "‘Failure means no focus, no attention, no discipline,' Mr. Tenet said, waving his finger for emphasis.'"

Let Tenet wave his finger where the sun don't shine: failure, in this case, means 3,500 dead human beings buried in the burning rubble of the World Trade Center – and the beginning of a war we may never see the end of. If that isn't an intelligence failure, then what is? What's more, Tenet's definition of failure – not the inability to intercept threats, but the failure to focus on them in the first place – is distinctly odd. Is he saying that they were paying attention, and that they did know something was up prior to 9/11? Which evokes an old phrase out of our dark Nixonian past: What did they know and when did they know it?


As Kurtz points out, Tenet skirted this and other essential questions, and, instead, "warned of more terrorist attacks, always a natural headline-grabber." News reports of the hearings confirm the efficacy of this strategy: most echoed his ominously vague warning about the continuing threat of a terrorist attack on US territory, (although not in all cases). But Kurtz wants to know "how can we prevent future attacks if we don't understand how we missed the last one?"

Americans outside the Washington Beltway would tend to agree with Kurtz on that one, but the politicians apparently don't see it that way. Vice President Cheney's call to Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle must have done the trick. Instead of being grilled, Tenet was treated with great "deference," according to the Times, and Kurtz concurs: "Carefully, gingerly, without Enron-like sensationalism, lawmakers are trying to scrutinize this century's Pearl Harbor."


Why such caution? This strange lack of investigative enthusiasm, by the way, is not limited to lawmakers, but also includes Kurtz's fellow journalists, who have shown remarkably little interest in pursuing the biggest story of the past few decades. Of the few leads we have, none have been followed up on. A four-part series by Fox News reporter Carl Cameron on possible Israeli foreknowledge of the 9/11 atrocity dropped into the news ether and vanished – literally. The first report raised the possibility that nearly 200 Israelis arrested in the US in the weeks prior to 9/11 were part of a huge intelligence operation and then drew this stunning conclusion:

"There is no indication that the Israelis were involved in the 9-11 attacks,but investigators suspect that the Israelis may have gathered intelligence about the attacks in advance, and not shared it. A highly placed investigator said there are – quote – ‘tie-ins.' But when asked for details, he flatly refused to describe them, saying, – quote – "evidence linking these Israelis to 9-11 is classified.'"

Subsequent Fox News reports, detailing the incredible extent to which Israeli intelligence has penetrated US communications and security systems, were foreshadowed in Cameron's on-air dialogue with Brit Hume as they discussed the implications of the initial story:

HUME: "Carl, what about this question of advanced knowledge of what was going to happen on 9-11? How clear are investigators that some Israeli agents may have known something?"

CAMERON: "It's very explosive information, obviously, and there's a great deal of evidence that they say they have collected – none of it necessarily conclusive. It's more when they put it all together. A bigger question, they say, is how could they not have known?"


At the core of these "leaks" – coming straight from law enforcement sources – is the allegation that Israeli intelligence operatives, working under cover in the US, were hot on the trail of Al Qaeda, doing what our own law enforcement and intelligence agencies conspicuously failed to do. Is this the kind of thing now being discussed behind closed doors in Senate chambers? Inquiring minds want to know: and, what's more, they have every right to know. Cameron reports that his sources, in fear of their jobs, chose to remain anonymous. Let them receive immunity from the Senate committee, and a guarantee that there will be no retaliation as long as they tell all they know – for all the world to hear.


And another thing: what about those big profits made on "put options" and other complicated financial devices, taken out against airline stocks, particularly American and United, shortly before 9/11? Remember the flurry of stories about terrorist insider trading? It turned out that an inordinate number of such options –in which one bets bet that a stock will go down – were taken out against certain 9/11-connected stocks in the hours before the catastrophe. The pattern of these transactions strongly implied some foreknowledge of the horrific event, but the last time we heard about the much-promised SEC investigation was months ago – and now the story has gone down the Memory Hole, along with the Fox News revelations.


Not a single Senator on the committee looking into 9/11 asked a question relating to any of the above, nor will such an inquiry ever be made – at least, not in public. As to what people are saying in private – oh well, we all know how prone the common people are to "conspiracy theories." But since we're too sophisticated to believe anything of the kind, let's all just move along, now, because there's nothing to see here…

A whole school of post-9/11 thought has grown up around the proposition that the Wahabi sect of Islam amounts to a worldwide terrorist conspiracy against America: the clear implication of this theory is that the terrorist trail leads directly to Saudi Arabia, where our closest Arab-Muslim allies in the region conceived and planned the 9/11 attacks. While conservatives in the US have taken out after the Saudis, in France the publication of a book with this same thesis, written from a left perspective, has caused a trans-Atlantic sensation: Bin Laden: The Forbidden Truth accuses the Bush administration of de facto complicity in the attacks, having turned a blind eye to the subversion of their oil-rich Saudi friends and corporate allies.

The extravagant conspiracy theories of right-wing anti-Wahabists, and the equally arcane "they did it to themselves" school of thought, now fashionable on the French left (and the American far left fringe), seem improbable, at best. The few fragmentary facts we have – the Fox News leaks, and suspicious pre-9/11 financial shenanigans – point in a different direction entirely.


The Senate Intelligence Committee is indeed charged, as Howard Kurtz put it, with scrutinizing "this century's Pearl Harbor." That is turning out to be true in more ways than one. As the cumulative investigation undertaken, over the years, by George Morgenstern, John T. Flynn, Harry Elmer Barnes, and, most recently, Robert Stinnett, has proved, the last century's Pearl Harbor was covered up and shrouded in mystery from the beginning. It took 50 years before Stinnett, utilizing the Freedom of Information Act, uncovered US government documents that show what FDR knew, and when he knew it. Will we have to wait half a century before we find out the truth this time around?

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.


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