President Bush gave a radio address on December 17 in which he explained why he had to use illegal wiretaps.
As usual, he returned to the events of 9/11. He said:
"Two of the terrorist hijackers who flew a jet into the Pentagon, Nawaf al Hamzi and Khalid al Mihdhar, communicated while they were in the United States to other members of al Qaeda who were overseas.
But we didn't know they were here, until it was too late.
To the contrary. It was secrecy -- and incompetence -- that let al Hazmi board that plane on 9/11:
"... The activities I have authorized make it more likely that killers like these 9/11 hijackers will be identified and located in time."
The tragedy of 9/11 was a result of the failure to see the facts that were in front of us.
On April 1st, 2001 Oklahoma State Trooper C. L. Parkins stopped one of the future hijackers, Nawaf al Hazmi, for speeding. Al Hazmi had been photographed at an Al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia. He was known to the CIA as a terrorist. They suspected that he might be in the US illegally. The CIA was, theoretically, looking for al Hazmi. Parkins ran al Hazmi's California license through the computer and checked for warrants. Nothing came back. The CIA had not distributed the information.
Trooper Parkins wrote al Hazmi two tickets totaling $138 and let him continue his journey.
--Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin, Larry Beinhart. Nation Books, 2005, page one.
That was neither the first nor the last time that al Hazmi and al Mihdhar could have been stopped:
Nawaf al Hazmi set off the alarms for both the first and second metal detectors and was then hand-wanded before being passed [to board the plane they were about to hijack] ...
Khalid al Mihdhar, and Majed Moqed were flagged by CAPPS.The Hazmi brothers were also selected for extra scrutiny by the airline's customer service representative at the check-in counter. He did so because one of the brothers did not have photo identification nor could he understand English, and because the agent found both of the passengers to be suspicious. ...
Mihdhar and Moqed placed their carry-on bags on the belt of the X-ray machine and proceeded through the first metal detector. Both set off the alarm, and they were directed to a second metal detector. Mihdhar did not trigger the alarm and was permitted through the checkpoint.
... We asked a screening expert to review the videotape of the hand-wanding, and he found the qual- ity of the screener's work to have been "marginal at best." The screener should have "resolved" what set off the alarm; and in the case of both Moqed and Hazmi, it was clear that he did not.
The 9/11 Commission Final Report
The 9/11 Commission even produced a boxed set of missed opportunities to have grabbed the terrorists based on information that was known but not shared.
The 9/11 Commission drew the logical conclusion -- less secrecy, not more secrecy.
1. January 2000: the CIA does not watchlist Khalid al Mihdhar or notify the FBI when it learned Mihdhar possessed a valid U.S. visa.
2. January 2000: the CIA does not develop a transnational plan for tracking Mihdhar and his associates so that they could be followed to Bangkok and onward, including the United States.
3. March 2000: the CIA does not watchlist Nawaf al Hazmi or notify the FBI when it learned that he possessed a U.S. visa and had flown to Los Angeles on January 15, 2000.
4. January 2001: the CIA does not inform the FBI that a source had identified Khallad, or Tawfiq bin Attash, a major figure in the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, as having attended the meeting in Kuala Lumpur with Khalid al Mihdhar.
5. May 2001: a CIA official does not notify the FBI about Mihdhar's U.S. visa, Hazmi's U.S. travel, or Khallad's having attended the Kuala Lumpur meeting (identified when he reviewed all of the relevant traffic because of the high level of threats).
6. June 2001: FBI and CIA officials do not ensure that all relevant information regarding the Kuala Lumpur meeting was shared with the Cole investigators at the June 11 meeting.
7. August 2001: the FBI does not recognize the significance of the information regarding Mihdhar and Hazmi's possible arrival in the United States and thus does not take adequate action to share information, assign resources, and give sufficient priority to the search.
8. August 2001: FBI headquarters does not recognize the significance of the information regarding Moussaoui's training and beliefs and thus does not take adequate action to share information, involve higher-level officials across agencies, obtain information regarding Moussaoui's ties to al Qaeda, and give sufficient priority to determining what Moussaoui might be planning.
9. August 2001: the CIA does not focus on information that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a key al Qaeda lieutenant or connect information identifying KSM as the "Mukhtar" mentioned in other reports to the analysis that could have linked "Mukhtar" with Ramzi Binalshibh and Moussaoui.
10. August 2001: the CIA and FBI do not connect the presence of Mihdhar, Hazmi, and Moussaoui to the general threat reporting about imminent attacks.
What all these stories have in common is a system that requires a demonstrated "need to know" before sharing. This approach assumes it is possible to know, in advance,who will need to use the information. Such a system implicitly assumes that the risk of inadvertent disclosure outweighs the benefits of wider sharing. Those Cold War assumptions are no longer appropriate.
What the 9/11 Commission would not do, for political reasons, was make the point that the leaders of the country in the months prior to 9/11 adamantly refused to focus on Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and potential terrorist attacks on the United States. When information was put in front of them, they ignored it, brushed it off, or rebuffed it. They were adamantly focused on finding an opportunity to invade Iraq. They let their subordinates know both positions. Which presumably had a trickle down effect that said, in effect, "don't tell me about Al Qaeda, no one wants to know! Bring me the head of Saddam Hussein!"
The facts -- that we knew about Nawaf al Hamzi and Khalid al Mihdhar, that we knew that they were international villains, that we knew enough to have stopped them -- have not only been published, they have been published in the official record of the events. Yet nobody appears to have checked the record and then challenged the president on his claim.
The facts are there. But lost in the fog.
Larry Beinhart is the author of Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin, Robert McChesney called it the book on the subject "against which all others will be measured." His novels include Wag the Dog, on which the film was based, and The Librarian which Rolling Stone described as "John Grishom meets Jon Stewart." He was a Fulbright Fellow, he's won an Edgar, been nominated for two more, a Gold Dagger, an Emmy. He's been a political consultant, made commercials, lectured at Oxford and he's a part time ski instructor. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.