While the media has focused in recent months on issues such as whether Senator John Kerry took fire while saving the life of a fellow swift boat crew member more than 30 years ago and whether President George W. Bush's commanding officer wrote memos bearing his name, an issue of at least equal importance -- whether the Bush administration lied to the 9-11 Commission and to the American people about the events of September 11 -- has been almost completely ignored. *
In fact, were reporters to devote anything approaching the time and energy consumed by the disputed CBS memos to the 9-11 Commission's conclusions, they would find strong evidence that the administration has misled the country regarding one of the most catastrophic days in our country's history. In a review of the 9-11 Commission report in The New York Review of Books, regular contributor Elizabeth Drew noted several examples of Bush administration distortions and apparent lies, of which the report provides strong evidence. Following are two of the most flagrant.
Bush administration officials said no one could predict terrorists would use airplanes as missiles
As Slate.com has reported, several prominent Bush administration officials have asserted that there was no way the government could have known that terrorists would attempt to hijack airplanes and crash them into buildings, as they did at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. In May 2002, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said: "I don't think anyone could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center"; then-White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer echoed Rice's remarks: "Never did we imagine what would take place on September 11 where people use those airplanes as missiles and weapons."
In her testimony before the 9-11 Commission, though, Rice retreated from her remarks, stating, "I probably should have said, 'I could not have imagined'" such an occurrence, but she only conceded that she couldn't promise that there "might not have been a report here or a report there that reached somebody in our midst." USA Today reported a similar remark by President Bush on April 18: "Nobody in our government, at least, and I don't think the prior government, could envision flying airplanes into buildings on such a massive scale." CNN noted on March 24 that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the Commission: "I knew of no intelligence during the six-plus months leading up to September 11 to indicate terrorists would hijack commercial airlines, use them as missiles to fly into the Pentagon or the World Trade Center towers."
However, as the 9-11 Commission report documented, such a "possibility was imaginable, and imagined," citing an August 1999 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Civil Aviation Security intelligence office report that warned on the potential of a "suicide hijacking operation," and that the North American Aerospace Defense Command had "developed exercises to counter such a threat." The commission reported that an August 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," which was received by Bush, stated that although the FBI had "not been able to corroborate" a 1998 report that Osama bin Laden was seeking to "hijack a US aircraft," "FBI information since that time indicate[d] patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York."
Just weeks before 9-11, the Commission report also noted, the Central Intelligence Agency warned British and French officials of "'subjects involved in suspicious 747 flight training' that described [Al Qaeda operative Zacarias] Moussaoui as a possible 'suicide hijacker.'" And the week before the terrorist attacks, a Minneapolis FBI agent told the FAA that Moussaoui was "an Islamic extremist preparing for some future act in furtherance of radical fundamentalist goals" related to flight training he had received. The commission also documented that on August 23, 2001, then-Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet "was briefed about the Moussaoui case in a briefing titled 'Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly.'"
The Bush administration's claims of ignorance are cast into even greater doubt by a report that a hypothetical event resembling the actual events of September 11 was the subject of a military training exercise less than a year before 9-11. As United Press International documented, on October 24, 2000, the Pentagon ran a "mass casualty exercise, which simulated crisis response in a scenario where a hijacked aircraft crashed into the Pentagon."
Cheney and Bush claimed Cheney received Bush's approval to shoot down hijacked planes on 9-11
Both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have maintained, and testified to the 9-11 Commission, that the order to shoot down airplanes hijacked by Al Qaeda on the morning of September 11 was authorized by the president himself. But the commission's report indicated that the commission found no evidence to support such a claim based on the review of an array of documentary sources from that day.
The report noted Bush and Cheney's account of the events in question: Cheney "stated that he called the President to discuss the rules of engagement" for shooting down the hijacked airplanes if they would not divert their path on the morning of September 11, Cheney "said the President signed off on that concept," and "[t]he President said he remembered such a conversation."
But the commission found "no documentary evidence for this call." The report includes a caveat that "the relevant sources are incomplete," but does not say specifically what information the commission lacked. The commission cited the following sources in reaching its conclusion that there was no evidence for Bush and Cheney's claim: "(1) phone logs of the White House switchboard; (2) notes of Lewis Libby [Cheney's chief of staff], Mrs. [Lynne] Cheney, and Ari Fleischer; (3) the tape (and then transcript) of the air threat conference call; and (4) Secret Service and White House Situation Room logs, as well as four separate White House Military Office logs (the PEOC Watch Log, the PEOC Shelter Log, the Communications Log, and the 9-11 Log)."
The report then noted that after Cheney twice ordered the "authorization to engage," he called President Bush to obtain authorization at the behest of White House deputy chief of staff Joshua Bolten. According to the report, Bolten wanted Cheney to "confirm the engage order" and "make sure the President was told" Cheney had executed it, and Bolten "said he had not heard any prior discussion on the subject with the President." The hijacked planes crashed before the authorization order was put into effect.
Drew, in her New York Review of Books review, noted that in response to the commission's suggestion that Cheney made the order without Bush's authorization, "the White House reacted in a lengthy letter to the commission ... propos[ing] substitute language that portrayed the President's performance that morning in a more positive light." And, she wrote that Cheney "made a vehement phone call to the chairman, Thomas Kean, and vice-chairman, Lee Hamilton, protesting the staff report's implication that he had taken charge and ordered the planes shot down." Despite the protests by the White House, Drew noted, the commission's report maintained an account of the events that suggests Cheney, not Bush, made the order.
* An MMFA LexisNexis database search on September 24 of the "All News" directory for media coverage -- after the 9-11 Commission report's July 22 release -- of Bush administration assertions that were contradicted by the evidence amassed in the report produced minimal results. Relevant results were defined as articles that note the inconsistencies between the Bush administration accounts and the 9-11 Commission report findings:
A search for "rice and predict! and airplane and slam and world trade center and date is after July 20, 2004" produced six relevant results.
A search for "Fleischer and imagine and airplanes as missiles and date is after July 20, 2004" produced zero relevant results.
A search for "rice and I could not have imagined and date is after July 20, 2004" produced zero relevant results.
A search for "Bush and envision flying airplanes into buildings and date is after July 20, 2004" produced zero relevant results.
A search for "9/11 Commission and imaginable and imagined and date is after July 20, 2004" produced zero relevant results.
A search for "cheney and (shoot /20 plane or airplane) or (rules of engagement) or (9/11 commission and documentary evidence and call) and date is after july 20, 2004" produced two relevant results.