The Secrets of September 11
Michael Isikoff and Mark 0aHosenball
Wednesday 30 April 2003
The White House is battling to keep a report on the terror attacks 0asecret. Does the 2004 election have anything to do with it?
Even as White House political aides plot a 2004 campaign plan designed 0ato capitalize on the emotions and issues raised by the September 11 terror 0aattacks, administration officials are waging a behind-the-scenes battle to 0arestrict public disclosure of key events relating to the attacks.
At the center of the dispute is a more-than-800-page secret report 0aprepared by a joint congressional inquiry detailing the intelligence and 0alaw-enforcement failures that preceded the attacks-including provocative, if 0aunheeded warnings, given President Bush and his top advisers during the summer 0aof 2001.
The report was completed last December; only a bare-bones list of findings with virtually no details was made public. But nearly six months 0alater, a working group of Bush administration intelligence officials assigned 0ato review the document has taken a hard line against further public disclosure. 0aBy refusing to declassify many of its most significant conclusions, the 0aadministration has essentially thwarted congressional plans to release the 0areport by the end of this month, congressional and administration sources tell 0aNEWSWEEK. In some cases, these sources say, the administration has even sought 0ato reclassify some material that was already discussed in public testimony-a 0amove one Senate staffer described as ludicrous. The administration s stand has 0ainfuriated the two members of Congress who oversaw the report-Democratic Sen. 0aBob Graham and Republican Rep. Porter Goss. The two are now preparing a letter 0aof complaint to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Graham is increasingly frustrated by the administration s unwillingness to release what he regards as important information the public 0ashould have about 9-11, a spokesman said. In Graham s view, the Bush 0aadministration isn t protecting legitimate issues of national security but 0ainformation that could be a political embarrassment, the aide said. Graham, 0awho last year served as Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, recently told 0aNEWSWEEK: There has been a cover-up of this.
Graham s stand may not be terribly surprising, given that the Florida 0aDemocrat is running for president and is seeking to use the issue himself 0apolitically. But he has found a strong ally in House Intelligence Committee 0aChairman Goss, a staunch Republican (and former CIA officer) who in the past has 0aconsistently defended the administration s handling of 9-11 issues and is 0aconsidered especially close to Cheney.
I find this process horrendously frustrating, Goss said in an 0ainterview. He was particularly piqued that the administration was refusing to 0adeclassify material that top intelligence officials had already testified about. Senior intelligence officials said things in public hearings that they [administration officials] don t want us to put in the report, said Goss. That s not something I can rationally accept without further public 0aexplanation.
Unlike Graham, Goss insists there are no political gotchas in the 0areport, only a large volume of important information about the performance and 0ashortcomings of U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies prior to 0aSeptember 11.
And even congressional staffers close to the process say it is unclear 0awhether the administration s resistance to public disclosure reflects fear of 0apolitical damage or simply an ingrained culture of secrecy that permeates the 0aintelligence community-and has strong proponents at the highest levels of the 0aWhite House.
The mammoth report reflects nearly 10 months of investigative work by a 0aspecial staff hired jointly by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and 0aoverseen by Eleanor Hill, a former federal prosecutor and Pentagon inspector 0ageneral. Hill s team got access to hundreds of thousands of pages of classified 0adocuments from the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and other executive-branch 0aagencies. The staff also conducted scores of interviews with senior officials, 0afield agents and intelligence officers. (They were not, however, given access to 0asome top White House aides, such as national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice 0aor other principals like Secretary of State Colin Powell or Secretary of Defense 0aDonald Rumsfeld.) The team s report was approved by the two intelligence 0acommittees last Dec. 10. But because the document relied so heavily on secret 0amaterial, the administration working group, overseen by CIA director George 0aTenet, had to first scrub the document and determine which portions could be 0adeclassified.
More than two months later, the working group came back with its 0adecisions-and some members were flabbergasted. Entire portions remained 0aclassified. Some of the report-including some dealing with matters that had been 0aextensively aired in public, such as the now famous FBI Phoenix memo of July 0a2001 reporting that Middle Eastern nationals might be enrolling in U.S. flight 0aschools-were reclassified. Hill has since submitted proposed changes to the 0aworking group, pointing out the illogic of trying to pull back material that was 0aalready in the public domain. But officials have indicated the review process 0ais likely to drag on for months-with no guarantees that the working group will 0abe any more amenable to public disclosure.
A U.S. intelligence official cited international distractions as at 0aleast one reason for the delays. In case you hadn t noticed, there have been 0atwo wars going on, the official said. The official added: We re working this [report] to try to get it out without putting lives at risk and without 0aendangering sources and methods. Asked why the working group was refusing to 0apermit disclosure of material that had already been made public, the official 0asaid: Just because something had been inadvertently released, doesn t make it 0aunclassified.
The administration s tough stand, some sources say, doesn t augur well 0afor the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks-which is conducting its own 0ainvestigation into the events of 9-11. Already, flaps have developed on that 0afront, as well. When one commissioner, former congressman Tim Roemer, last week 0asought to review transcripts of some of the joint inquiry s closed-door 0ahearings, he was denied access-because the commission staff had agreed to a 0aWhite House request to allow its lawyers to first review the material to 0adetermine if the president wants to invoke executive privilege to keep the 0amaterial out of the panel s hands.
I think it s outrageous, says Roemer, who plans to raise the matter 0aat a commission hearing this week. But a commission staffer says he expected the 0aWhite House review to be finished by the end of the week, and it was unclear 0awhether the president s lawyers would try to invoke executive privilege-a stand 0athat would almost certainly provoke a major legal battle with the panel.
The tensions over the release of 9-11 related material seems especially 0arelevant-if not ironic-in light of recent reports that the president s political 0aadvisers have devised an unusual re-election strategy that essentially uses the 0astory of September 11 as the liftoff for his campaign. The White House is 0adelaying the Republican nominating convention, scheduled for New York City, 0auntil the first week in September 2004-the latest in the party s history. That 0awould allow Bush s acceptance speech, now slated for Sept. 2, to meld seamlessly 0ainto 9-11 commemoration events due to take place in the city the next week.
Some sources who have read the still-secret congressional report say 0asome sections would not play quite so neatly into White House plans. One portion 0adeals extensively with the stream of U.S. intelligence-agency reports in the 0asummer of 2001 suggesting that Al Qaeda was planning an upcoming attack against 0athe United States-and implicitly raises questions about how Bush and his top 0aaides responded. One such CIA briefing, in July 2001, was particularly chilling 0aand prophetic. It predicted that Osama bin Laden was about to launch a terrorist 0astrike in the coming weeks, the congressional investigators found. The 0aintelligence briefing went on to say: The attack will be spectacular and 0adesigned to inflict mass casualties against U.S. facilities or interests. Attack 0apreparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning.
The substance of that intelligence report was first disclosed at a 0apublic hearing last September by staff director Hill. But at the last minute, 0aHill was blocked from saying precisely who within the Bush White House got the 0abriefing when CIA director Tenet classified the names of the recipients. (One 0asource says the recipients of the briefing included Bush himself.) As a result, 0aHill was only able to say the briefing was given to senior government 0aofficials.
That issue is now being refought in the context over the full report. 0aThe report names names, gives dates and provides a body of new information about 0athe handling of many other crucial intelligence briefings-including one in early 0aAugust 2001 given to national-security adviser Rice that discussed Al Qaeda 0aoperations within the United States and the possibility that the group s members 0amight seek to hijack airplanes. The administration working group is still 0arefusing to declassify information about the briefings, sources said, and has 0aeven expressed regret that some of the material was ever provided to 0acongressional investigators in the first place.
A NEW HAND IN HOMELAND SECURITY
The White House is once again shuffling the deck in the staffing of top 0aterrorism jobs, NEWSWEEK has learned. Gen. John A. Gordon-who has wielded broad 0aif largely unseen powers as deputy national-security advisor in charge of 0acombating terrorism-is moving up to become White House homeland-security 0aadviser, a post formerly held by Tom Ridge. The new job is expected to give the 0abrusque and secretive Gordon even more power as a principal with direct access 0ato Bush. (Ridge is now secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.) 0aSources say Gordon beat out ex-FBI official James Kallstrom-an old ally of 0aformer FBI director Louis Freeh-for the key post.
The elevation of Gordon is the latest sign of the increasing prominence 0aof intelligence-community veterans throughout the upper reaches of the 0agovernment under Bush. (FBI director Robert Mueller, for example, recently 0areached outside the ranks of his law-enforcement agents to select Maureen A. 0aBaginski, a former National Security Agency deputy director, to oversee FBI 0aintelligence efforts.) For his part, Gordon was a former deputy CIA director 0awith a reputation as a a results-oriented guy who has little patience for 0abureaucratic procedures, according to one former government official who has 0aworked with him.
Gordon s departure, however, leaves vacancies at the two top White 0aHouse counterterrorism jobs: Gordon s old post and that of his former deputy, 0aRand Beers, who resigned the week the war in Iraq began. On the surface, the 0avacancies seem conspicuous in an administration that has made combating 0aterrorism the centerpiece of its policies. But sources say a vigorous search has 0abeen underway and replacements are likely to be named shortly.
9/11 Panel, Blocked
By Kristen Breitweiser
New 0aYork Times | Letter to the Editor
Wednesday 1 May 2003
To the Editor:
As a 9/11 widow who fought very hard for the creation of the 0aindependent commission to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks, I am particularly 0aupset by your news article discussing the Justice Department's attempts to 0areview and delay the release of certain documents to the commission ("Justice 0aDept. Seeks Sept. 11 Transcripts," April 26).
This delay is nothing more than a stalling tactic by the White House to 0aprepare its spin on whatever information is eventually revealed by the 0atranscripts.
The 9/11 families and the country have waited long enough for answers. 0aEach day of delay is another day that this country remains vulnerable and 0aperilously at risk to another terrorist attack.
Atlantic Highlands, N.J.
April 0a26, 2003
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)