by Zafar Bangash (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 38, No. 7, Ramadan, 1430)
Officials in the Bush administration are struggling to explain embarrassing revelations: that the president was informed as early as August 6, 2001, about a possible terrorist attack in the US but did nothing to prevent it. When the admission was first made by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on May 15, he tried to deflect criticism by alleging that the administration believed it would be hijacks "in the traditional sense". The same expression was used by Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor, at a press conference the following day. That two senior government officials should use identical language means that there was close coordination between them about what they should say when the storm broke.
While George Bush refused to answer questions about what he knew and when, vice-president Dick Cheney denounced criticism of the government’s handling as "thoroughly irresponsible. He even raised the spectre of another, more devastating attack in an attempt to silence critics. "Without doubt a very real threat of another perhaps more devastating attack still exists," Cheney said on May 16. He repeated much the same line on television interviews on May 19.
Such attempts, however, have been dismissed both by democratic congressmen and members of the media, who until the admissions on May 15 had acted as cheerleaders for the Pentagon’s propaganda.Dan Rather, chief anchor of CBS Evening News, was scathing in his criticism of "patriotism run amok," according to an interview he gave to the BBC programme Newsnight on May 16, which was also carried by the Guardian on May 17. Soon after September 11, Rather had declared that he was prepared to don a military uniform if the commander-in-chief (i.e. George Bush) ordered him to do so.
Now Rather was telling the BBC that "patriotism run amok" was in danger of trampling the freedom of American journalists to ask tough questions. He has confessed that he had personally shrunk from taking on the Bush administration over the "war on terrorism". He described the pressures to conform that built up after September 11. "It is an obscene comparison - you know I am not sure I like it - but you know there was a time in South Africa that people would put flaming tyres around people’s necks if they dissented. And in some ways the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tyre of lack of patriotism put around your neck," he said. "Now it is that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions." But he blamed the White House for its failure to provide adequate information about the war. "There has never been an American war, small or large, in which access has been so limited as this one," he said about the war on Afghanistan.
Democrats in the US Congress demanded a thorough investigation into whether intelligence warnings before September 11 were properly handled, while the Republicans, in an attempt to discourage too close a scrutiny, accused them of playing politics. "We need an inquiry, we need to know what information was given to the White House and what they did with it," House minority leader Dick Gephardt said on May 17. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle urged Bush to turn over all intelligence information that might have warned of the attacks to a congressional investigation. "A pattern was developing" of documents warning of terrorist actions filed by various branches of the US intelligence community, some of which are only now coming to light, senator Richard Durbin said. He cited a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) memo dated July 10 on terrorists who were linked with Usama bin Ladin training as pilots on US soil, as one of three issues that concerned him. This alone discredits the claim that hijacks in the "traditional sense" would be carried out: people would not need to train as pilots to carry out "traditional hijacks."
Fleischer’s admission that Bush had been warned was first reported by Ron Fournier of the Associated Press on May 15. Fournier quoted Fleischer as saying that the warning was communicated to the "appropriate agencies". The issue of prior government knowledge was also raised by Georgia Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney in a radio interview on April 14, when she demanded that the government reveal which of its agencies knew what about the attacks before they occurred. She was immediately denounced as "unpatriotic" and a "conspiracy theorist." Similar allegations were levelled by many others, including some Muslim "moderates" against other Muslims who had asked how such massive attacks could be coordinated and carried out by individuals without the involvement or foreknowledge of the intelligence agencies.
Two other pieces of information are important: on July 26, 2001, attorney general John Ashcroft was warned by the FBI not to use commercial flights because of hijack threats, according to Agence France Presse and Reuters reports of May 17. Similarly, Newsweek magazine reported on September 24, 2001, that senior US military officials had, on September 10, cancelled their flights scheduled for September 11 because of "security concerns." What these "security concerns" were, and why the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which deals with airline and airport security, was not notified, has not been explained. Indeed, why was the public not alerted to these concerns?
As early as June of last year the German intelligence agency, the BND, had notified the CIA that commercial airliners would be hijacked in September and used to target American and Israeli landmarks, according to a report in a German newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, on September 14, 2001. On September 15 Russian president Vladimir Putin, in an interview on MSNBC, an American television station, said that under his specific instructions the Russian intelligence agency had notified the Americans in August about a terrorist attack in the US involving the hijacking of commercial airliners. This is further corroborated by the massive "put options" trading in American Airlines and United Airlines shares in the days before the attacks. No other airlines were traded in such a manner.
Some of the hijackers may have entered the US from Canada. In December 2000 Delmut "Mike" Vreeland, an American citizen, was arrested in Toronto under advisement from American officials. Vreeland was accused of being an impostor claiming to be a US naval intelligence officer, and of having committed credit-card fraud. Some time in mid-August 2001, while in jail in Toronto, Vreeland handed a sealed envelope to the Canadian authorities for safe-keeping; what it contained was not then known.
During his court appearance on September 14, Vreeland’s lawyer contacted the US naval intelligence headquarters on an open courtroom phone and got confirmation that his client was a lieutenant; the operator also confirmed his extension number, which was the same as that given by Vreeland to the court beforehand. Then, upon his request, the sealed envelope he had handed over to the Canadian authorities was opened in court. It contained the astonishing statement that on September 11 commercial airliners will be hijacked and will target the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon, the US Congress and so on. How did Vreeland know all that in August, and how is it possible that other, more senior US officials did not know what he seems to have known?
In May of last year a well-publicised visit by US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage to India coincided with a secret visit by CIA director George Tenet to Islamabad. Tenet is reported to have had a "very long meeting" with Musharraf, obviously aimed at pressuring Pakistan to force the Taliban to hand Usama bin Ladin over to the US. In June and July there was even more CIA activity in Pakistan. Tenet had become "nearly frantic" since June 22 about a possible terrorist attack. A written intelligence summary for Rice said on June 28: "It is highly likely that a significant Al-Qaeda attack is in the near future, within several weeks" (Toronto Star, May 18, 2002). Tenet reportedly asked Lieutenant General Mahmud Ahmad, the director of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), to visit Washington for further discussions. Mahmud was in Washington on September 11, and in his meetings with US officials, including Tenet, Armitage et al, was put under pressure to "come clean" on the Taliban. Mahmud was forced to resign within a few weeks of returning to Pakistan, clearly a victim of Musharraf’s policy of joining America’s anti-Taliban and anti-Osama crusade.
There is also another question that the Americans have not yet answered: why US air force planes were not scrambled to intercept the "hijacked" planes, when it was known within minutes of the first plane going off course that something was amiss. By 8:55 am — 10 minutes after the first plane struck the World Trade Centre — the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had sent a message to the Pentagon that they were under terrorist attack. In almost every country of the world, air-defence units are on 24-hour standby to deal with such emergencies. Within 10 to 30 minutes’ flying time of New York and Washington DC there are numerous air bases where air force jets can be scrambled at short notice. Given the magnitude of the problem on September 11, when not one but four aircraft went off course, and the FAA and Air Traffic Control both knew that all four had broken off contact, that not a single US air force plane took off raises troubling questions.
Emperor’s Clothes, an internet website (www.tenc.net), managed to download the US air force’s website for September 11, in which it had stated that two squadrons of F-15s and F-16s at Andrew’s Air Force Base (a few minutes’ flying time from Washington DC) were about to scramble when they received orders to remain on standby for further instructions. Then, according to Emperor’s Clothes, the air force website was taken off the Internet and did not reappear until some time in October, minus this crucial information. Who ordered the air force planes not to take to the air? And who ordered that the US air force website be taken off the internet and edited?
CBS Evening News reported on September 14 that "its own sources" had learned that air force planes had been scrambled from Langley Air Force base in Virginia (130 miles away, instead of from Andrew’s Air Force base, which is only 10 miles from Washington DC) but failed to reach the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Emperor’s Clothes commented that this must have come as a "pleasant surprise" to the air force, because no such thing had ever happened.
The US government’s carefully crafted story about what happened on September 11, and its claims that it knew nothing in advance about the attacks, is unravelling. It appears now that there is much more to this saga than meets the eye. We may yet hear a great deal more about who knew what and when, as well as what diabolical plots were being hatched in the higher echelons of the American establishment. That Western officials might allow the murder of thousands of their own citizens should help people to "wise up" to the reality that they cannot be expected to feel any compunction about killing people in other parts of the world, should it suit their interests to do so.