The apparent misdeeds and cover-ups of the administration of George W. Bush related to the terrorist attacks of 2001 remain in historical limbo. Neither presidents, nor the Congress, nor the media have gotten to the bottom of these tragic events. (The 9/11 Commission Report, while providing hundreds of useful details, did not ask fundamental questions and so must be considered in effect a cover-up.) As a result, the American public has not come to closure on the 9/11 attacks or on the anthrax mailings of 2001, nor is there a shared understanding of such a critical issue as the real reasons that the US attacked Iraq in 2003.
These failures have left the field open to wild speculations regarding these events, generally termed “conspiracy theories”, though this term obscures the crucial distinction between elaborate prospective plots involving many actors (silly in the context of an open society) and retrospective cover-ups that government officials who have made embarrassing mistakes are all too prone to engage in (very realistic and plausible). However, it is also true that simple prospective plots involving two or three individuals can occur.
Failure to reach a full, shared understanding of major events that led to unending wars and occupations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia as well as to the undermining of civil liberties has helped to alienate Americans from their government and media, a triumph for America’s enemies. So we must make every effort to establish a clear common interpretation of what actually happened.
For the record, the interpretation of this writer, a professional historian and former State Department intelligence analyst, is that:
1. The correct diagnosis of President George W. Bush’s performance in the run-up to the 9/11/2001 attacks is: criminal negligence. He was repeatedly warned that an al Qaeda attack was coming, yet he did nothing to protect the American people, which was his duty. The 9/11 Commission staff covered up Bush’s negligence by deliberately failing to ask him the obvious questions: what did he know and when did he know it? It appears that the Democrats on the Commission staff were eager to cover up mistakes Bill Clinton had made in dealing with al Qaeda during his presidency, and so by tacit agreement the Democrats and Republicans on the staff avoided asking tough questions about either Clinton or Bush.
2. Aware of his deep negligence, Bush sought to distract public and media attention by whipping up sentiment for attacking Iraq. Thus Bush’s need to distract attention from his negligence became one of the two main reasons for the U.S. attack on Iraq, the other being the efforts of Israel supporters, spearheaded by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, to use U.S. troops against Israel’s enemies. These were the necessary and sufficient causes of the attack; all other alleged reasons for the attack were insignificant compared to these. In a crucial way, therefore, the war against Iraq was a War of Distraction.
3. The notorious manipulation of intelligence by Wolfowitz and his close associate I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby1 in pushing for the Iraq War after 9/11 must raise in turn the question of whether Wolfowitz and Libby, backed by Vice President Cheney, had previously sought to obtain a provocation that would lead to a U.S. military intervention against Israel’s enemies. For many years following the events of 2001, this writer resisted any notion of conspiracy in the run-up to 9/11. But he has finally decided that a simple Curling Conspiracy (sweeping the pathway clear ahead of the oncoming al Qaeda attack) makes much more sense than any other explanation of the anomalous failure of the U.S. Government to guard against an amply reported impending attack. According to the serious literature on the 9/11 attacks,2 Wolfowitz and Libby used five techniques: 1) they acted as if palpably obvious intelligence about al Qaeda’s intent and preparations to attack was not obvious; 2) Wolfowitz belittled al Qaeda, which CIA had identified as by far the greatest terrorist threat to the U.S.; 3) he promoted proven phony intelligence about an Iraqi threat; 4) Wolfowitz had U.S. officials who were sounding the warning about al Qaeda muzzled, removed, and/or fired; and 5) Libby engaged in delay tactics. White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke’s characterization of Wolfowitz’s actions in Against All Enemies (New York: Free Press, 2004) is especially damning. Clarke correctly considered Wolfowitz an enemy of the American people.
4. The Defense Department’s Able Danger intelligence program successfully identified several intending al Qaeda attackers including Mohamed Atta more than a year before the September 11, 2001 attacks. The later efforts by the Defense Department’s inspector general’s investigation to deny the assertions of military officers and others that they recalled Atta’s presence on the chart displaying the findings of Able Danger and that they were repeatedly stymied in their efforts to bring their findings to the attention of FBI and others cannot be taken seriously in view of the indications that the investigation’s report was a cover-up. The Department destroyed extensive evidence and took reprisals against the whistle blowers. The Senate Committee on Intelligence report on Able Danger, which largely echoed the DoD report, was also a cover-up. Deputy National Security adviser Stephen Hadley, the last person known to have a copy of the chart in his possession, has never been questioned about it and may have destroyed it.
5. In 2004 FBI correctly identified Abderraouf Jdey as the Anthrax Mailer of September and October, 2001, and then shoebomber of American Airlines Flight #587 on November 12, 2001. President Bush and FBI Director Robert Mueller conspired to cover up the Jdey identification because it was terrifically embarrassing: FBI and other U.S. Government agencies had permitted an al Qaeda operative whom FBI had released from detention to carry out two major terrorist attacks. U.S. Army scientist Bruce Ivins seems to have prepared the anthrax before 2001 in order to test vaccines. An Al Qaeda sympathizer appears to have stolen some of this anthrax from a DARPA project at George Mason University. Under pressure from FBI, Ivins committed suicide. Then FBI asserted that he was the Mailer, while someone appears to have destroyed the alibi evidence for Ivins.3 See Was Abderraouf Jdey the Anthrax Mailer?
In other words, even though presidents, the Congress, and the media have refused or failed to investigate properly or provide satisfactory explanations of these tragic and transformative events, the correct stories, at least in terms of summary characterizations, are knowable.4 Sufficient information is available to reach “much more likely than not” conclusions, if not “beyond a reasonable doubt” ones; and reaching such conclusions arguably represents a more realistic goal than the likely futile task of seeking to “pry the lids off” cover-ups. In effect, the American people can tell their Government: “Keep your supposedly secret but in fact embarrassing and at times incriminating documents. We already know enough to judge this case.” So the problem becomes one of talking things over among ourselves, reaching a shared understanding, making sure that every American learns of it, and insisting that the perpetrators of these shocking and outrageous crimes be brought to justice. As a tiny interim step, this writer is boycotting the think tanks where Wolfowitz and Libby are based, the American Enterprise Institute and the Hudson Institute, respectively.
Arriving at an accurate diagnosis is a key step on the path to healing.
Kenneth J. Dillon is an historian who writes on science, medicine, and history. See the biosketch at About Us.