On Wednesday, the 9/11 Commission released new reports outlining details of the al Qaeda terrorist network and the planning that resulted in the Sept. 11 attacks. The attacks were originally envisioned as an assault involving 10 jetliners on the east and west coasts, but the plan was scaled back and was nearly derailed on several occasions by setbacks and squabbling among senior al Qaeda officials, according to one report. A separate report concluded that the commission found "no credible evidence" that al Qaeda collaborated with Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq on the Sept. 11 strikes or any other attacks on the United States.
Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Thursday, June 17 at Noon ET, to discuss the newly released details.
Robert G. Kaiser
(The Washington Post)
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
I suspect that many of the chatters today are going to assert that President Bush claimed a connection between 9/11 and Iraq as a basis for going to war. It might be a useful service if you could dredge the Post's archives to find some of the occasions when he made such statements.
Obviously, this is a trick question; he never made such statements, and he publicly disagreed with Cheney when Cheney made such a statement.
Certainly, Bush told Richard Clarke to investigate for an Iraqi connection shortly after 9/11, but presumably no one is suggesting that it was wrong even to investigate.
Robert G. Kaiser: Good day to all. This first question is typical of quite a few posted already. And the questioner is correct. Who exactly said what about Iraq, terrorism and Al Qaeda is often lost in the swirl of spin and accusation.
But we do know that a substantial majority of Americans continues to believe that Iraq was involved in 9/11. Polls show this every time they ask. President Bush has issued an explicit statement, now months ago, saying there was NO such connection. But then other administration officials, including the Vice President, repeatedly imply that there was, or might have been.
I'll come back to all this in responding to other questions.
The 9/11 report is hardly surprising. We were not ready for this attack and when you operate in an environment of business-as-usual, it is extremely difficult to act in the most appropriate fashion. Even after so many months, years after 9/11 we still have major cities who can't communicate with each other and few states who have really adequate plans to respond to any type of emergency.
Can't we also admit that this attack was a masterful plan-- sure it even faltered and almost didn't happen because of internal disputes among its planners, but it worked quite well. The point is to catch us off guard, so that we can't respond quickly enough, and they succeeded at doing that.
Despite all the knowledge we're learning about through these hearings, the next plan is probably already in works. However, it will focus on our greatest vulnerabilities at the moment. While were preparing to prevent the last terrorist attack, they've already figured out the next-- which will be completely different and equally surprising.
I'd appreciate your thoughts.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for your good comment, with which I agree, with one caveat. I think it may, repeat MAY, be a mistake to assume that another 9/11 plot is already in the works. The first one took years. It also took incredible luck, on top of great skill and determination. And it was concocted against no serious opposition, we now know--we weren't on the lookout as we should have been, they had the element of surprise at every turn, etc.
The Commission's new reports suggest Al Qaeda is in rough shape--not defeated, but not strong, not as rich as it was, not certainly able to coordinate as it once did. Let's not automatically assume the worst.
Is there any way to take the commission's declaration that Iraq and al Qaeda weren't linked in a light that is anything but disastrous for the Bush administration? What will their spin likely be?
Robert G. Kaiser: We're talking politics here, so you need to be more precise: disastrous with whom? Will it cost Bush the election? I don't think so. Will it contribute to the doubts some voters have about the administration's credibility? Sure. But I don't think it's a straw that could break a camel's back. Do you?
With the myriad of absolute failures attributed to the FBI, CIA, NSA, the Pentagon, FAA, INS, etc. which allowed the attacks of Sept. 11th has there been one person -- anyone -- that has been held accountable and suffered some consequence as a result? And if not why not?
Robert G. Kaiser: I can't think of an individual who has been "held accountable." President Bush's poor standing in the polls today suggests he MIGHT be the one, but not until November, obviously. And I am not predicting the election result today. Too much can happen between now and then to make any prediction now irrelevant.
Why has no one been held accountable? BEcause we have developed a bottom-covering culture in modern America where such accountability is in fact rare. The 9/11 Commission will, I expect, challenge this culture in its report next month.
Please don't consider me to be void of feelings! Yet from time to time, I wonder just why United States government is having to pay victims and families of the horrendous disaster of 9/11 when it clearly was not the government who did the dastardly deed, but rather al Qaeda. Was this the case in the Oklahoma bombing of the Murrah building?
Robert G. Kaiser: I do not consider you devoid of feelings. This is a very good question, and it touches on an important point that I think gets too little attention.
The previous question was about accountability. In fact, I'd bet that every senior official of the government, from the president down, realized on 9/11 or soon afterward that each of them might somehow be considered responsible for what happened. Think about it. For the first time since 1812, a foreign enemy pulled off a devastating attack on the American homeland, causing great loss of life as well as national humiliation. If you had been president that day, how would you have felt?
I have long believed that the feelings engendered in our leaders that day -- private feelings, about which they never spoke -- help explain events since. I believe, analytically, that Bush and Cheney were both drawn to the idea of a war with Iraq that day, not because they were certain that Iraq had anything to do with the attacks, but because they felt, as many Americans felt, that we had to do something dramatic to respond, if only to show the world that America would not take such an event lying down.
Of course the first response was to invade Afghanistan and go after Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But I've always suspected that the enthusiasm for hitting Iraq also came from this sense that it was obligatory to respond fiercely, and dramatically, to 9/11, and that knocking off Saddam's regime was seen, at least by some officials, as an appropriate reply. And many ordinary Americans obviously thought it was, too.
Robert G. Kaiser: Sorry, I ended the previous answer too quickly. I would say finally that the reason the government in Washington jumped to offer generous government-financed compensation to the families of 9/11 victims is related to this same sense. The administration and the Congress, with reason, both felt guilty that this attack had happened on their watch. They expressed that guilt with the generous compensation program. Or so it seems to me.
I know, I know; The Post's news and editorial page staffs are quite separate. But isn't today's "Iraq Sideshow" editorial inexcusable? Cheney and Bush, on the basis of next to no evidence, continue to blur the distinction between Saddam and al Qaeda, leading the underinformed to conclude that the invasion of Iraq was and is seamlessly connected to the "war on terror." When opponents of the administration point to this dishonesty, how does the Post respond? "The accusation is nearly as irresponsible as the Bush administration's rhetoric has been." What Newspeak definition of "responsibility" is in use here?
washingtonpost.com: An Iraq Sideshow, (Post, June 17)
Robert G. Kaiser: Many questions about this editorial, to which we have provided a link.
Once again, I note that the news department of The Post, where I work, is in no way connected to the editorial page staff, and vise versa. They are independent of us, we of them. Their opinions have no impact whatsoever on news coverage.
I cannot answer questions about editorials. Write a letter to the editor if you want to comment on one.
What is amazing and frightening is how little cash it took to run the operation for two years up until the event. They opened checking accounts and got money from overseas through ATMs.
"Following the money" and shutting it down seems like one approach to monitor and suppress al Qaeda. Do you know what the status of that is and how successful we've been in shutting down their finances?
Robert G. Kaiser: There is conflicting information about how effective we have been. A U.N. committee reported some months ago that Al Qaeda still had plenty of resources, but the new 9/11 Commission reports suggest they aren't so flush. We have closed down a large part of the financial network that existed before 9/11. But I'm personally concerned that we don't know what we don't know about their money.
Bill Maher lost his job following his post-9/11 comments. I
think that's it, so far.
Robert G. Kaiser: good point.
Reading the Commission's report today, I am reminded of the wonderful job the people on the front lines did on 9/11, namely the landing of all the planes in American airspace without incident. This is truly an accomplishment, and I don't know that we as a nation have ever properly acknowledged it. Whatever failures occurred of the leadership that day, let's remember that there were remarkable people who kept their head that day and safely landed thousands of passengers. Thanks.
Robert G. Kaiser: thank you.
Is the 9/11 Commission going to damage Bush politically? What other surprises might await us in the months between now and the election?
Robert G. Kaiser: There is a lot to come later this summer and fall. The Senate Intellegence Committee's report on the intel failures before 9/11 is written. The CIA is in the process of "clearing" it for publication. This process is going slowly, and Senators are angry about it. The report will be damaging to the administration, I am told by good sources.
Then the 9/11 Commission will report. I don't know what it will say, but I don't think it will be patting the administration on the back.
The turnover of sovereignty, so-called, in Iraq will open a new situation there. Our colleagues in Iraq are pessimistic about what will happen later in the summer and in the fall. Might civil war begin? Might assassinations of key Iraqis continue? Alas, these and other horrific possibilities cannot be ruled out. But nor are they destined to happen. We'll just have to wait and see.
Events that haven't yet occurred will determine the result of this election. This is a cliche, but like so many cliches, it is rooted in truth, I think.
I still don't understand why our Air Force did not intercept the planes that were being hijacked on Sept. 11th. We had hijackings going on for 30 years before and it was policy that all planes more than 15 minutes off their scheduled path were to have an Air Force jet on their wing tips. This happened with Payne Stewart's plane when he went off course.
Why do you think this is not being investigated and someone held accountable?
Robert G. Kaiser: Hey, this IS being investigated, by the 9/11 Commission, which devoted much of its hearing this morning to the question...
Santa Barbara, Calif.:
I continue to be amazed and not a little bit disturbed by the administration's insistence (the latest by Cheney a few days ago) that Saddam Hussein had ties to al Qaeda, when all evidence that's been uncovered indicate to the contrary. Which brings up two points: What does the administration know that it has not told the public or the 9/11 Commission, and if Cheney et al. don't have any hidden knowledge, why do they continue on insisting on the tie? They both seem like dangerous paths to tread.
Robert G. Kaiser: At this stage I think it is fair to assume that there is no hard evidence in the administration's possession that we don't know about. Yesterday, senior CIA and FBI officials at the 9/11 Commission hearing confirmed the report's conclusion that there was no evidence of an active connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda.
Just a comment to say how much I enjoy your chats even if I don't always agree with you. Your balanced, informed approach is so different from so many of the chatters.
Robert G. Kaiser: I thank you for the nice words, and hope we aren't related.
Given the finding of the 9/11 Commission that there was no operative link between Iraq and al Qaeda, and the fact that despite this the administration continues to try to insinuate an operative link -- it seems more important than ever that the Iraq Intelligence Investigation present at least a preliminary report prior to the election. How else is the electorate to make an informed decision on the credibility of the White House? What do you think the chances are?
Robert G. Kaiser: You are referring to the commission chaired by former Senator Robb and retired Appeals Court Judge Silberman, appointed by Bush but given a mandate to report next year. I don't think there's any chance its timetable will be advanced.
Why are we all so willing to give W such a pass? Quoting from Froomkin's excellent column today:
"In a letter to Congress on March 19, 2003 -- the day the war in Iraq began -- Bush said that the war was permitted under legislation authorizing force against those who 'planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001."
washingtonpost.com: White House Briefing, (post.com, June 17)
Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for posting. Froomkin is doing a great job with his column.
Falls Church, VA:
I have watched a lot of the 9-11 commission questioning and in my opinion, Mr. Ben-Veniste keeps asking questions to undermine the current administration. Why is no one else complaining about his obvious partisan tone? The questions that he asks preclude that the Bush presidential administration is directly responsible for 9-11. He keeps asking about the PDB that clearly did not give any specific evidence of an attack in the US. His goal is clear, to attempt to embarrass and put doubt in the current administration. His tone would definitely be different if it were the Gore administration being questioned.
Robert G. Kaiser: This raises what I think is an interesting question. In our poisoned political atmosphere in Washington, it is impossible for anyone to do anything that is not then seen by people who disagree with it as a partisan act.
I don't know Ben Veniste, and I don't know how political he may be, but I do think that members of this commission, given their mandate and the circumstances of the events they are investigating, ought to be tough as nails with the officials responsible, no matter what administration they served in or how they vote. Thousands of Americans lost their lives because terrorists easily did things that day that were supposed to be impossible. Government was supposed to have made those things impossible. It did not. This is a simple fact; it has no partisan connotations whatseover.
I personally hope this commission will hold individual officials responsible for the things that went wrong on and before 9/11. I hope we at The Post can contribute to that effort as well. That is our constitutional duty as I understand it.
Even if there's was no cooperation between Iraq and al Qaeda and the planning of the 9/11 attack, there's certainly a link in that our invasion of Iraq has caused the Arab world to hate us even more than before 9/11 and caused droves of Arab men to sign up with al Qaeda. I feel like the Iraq war has made us more susceptible to terrorist attacks than before. What do you think?
Robert G. Kaiser: I fear that you could be right, but haven't actually seen evidence to confirm your view.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.:
The crawfishing by the generals this morning at the 9/11 Commission hearings this morning is just AWFUL! My dad was career Air Force with over 20 years in service retired as as Senior Master Sergeant and now dead 20 years. I'm glad he didn't live long enough to see this shameful testimony. Because when we were kids we were issued one response to pointed questions: No excuses, Sir.
I'm sorry that the command structure of our armed services never learned the lessons we did in childhood.
Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for posting.
For the first time since 1812:
Except for Pearl Harbor in 1942 and the occupation of two Aleutian Islands in WWII, that is. One could also count possession/occupation of US territories in WWII as attacks upon the homeland.
One thing we know, Americans are lousy at history and geography.
American Samoa is the USA. Check the currency and the flag that flies there.
Robert G. Kaiser: Not exactly. The homeland is the United States. Hawaii was not a state when Pearl Harbor was attacked, as I'm sure (?) you know. Samoa belongs to the USA, but it is not part of the United States of America, is it?
Why did the Republicans on this bi-partisan commission agree to issue this portion of the report at this time?
Had I been a member, I would have insisted on issuing a dissenting report or insisted on waiting until after the election.
What is going on here politically?
Robert G. Kaiser: Another example of what I wrote about a moment ago in re our poisoned political atmosphere.
Do you, sir or madam, really think politics is more important than trying to find out how and why 9/11 happened? The election should take precedence over that?
What is really the purpose of the 9/11 commission? To blame everyone except bin Laden? All of this to basically say that we were not prepared for this kind of an attack. Well, duh, why in the world would we be prepared for this, nobody had any idea this would ever happen. And to blame Rudy Guiliani for failing to respond properly is just outrageous. I think its outrageous on the money we have spent on the commission.
Why don't we blame the real culprits?
Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for your comment.
Wilson, N.C. :
Good morning and thank you for taking my question. I awoke this morning and read your article before I went to the fields. As I was working I had time to think about what you boys said this morning in your editorial. I would like to share a couple of thoughts with you and your editorial staff.
1. War is never a side show! As a citizen who lives in the heart of military bases of several different branches and as a person who has a brother in law in the military enlisted man I would ask those of you in the Beltway to try to empathize with our pain when we see our loved ones coming home in boxes over bad intelligence and misleading statements. This is not a political game!
2. When will we hold the administration to the same standards as our children? In my house a lie is a lie. If I ask my babies a question and they try toweasell their way out of it they still get a spanking.
The thing you fellas don't get is that these boys, girls, fathers, grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers all have lives to live after all of this. They signed up to protect their country. They trusted that their leaders would error on the side of caution and only put their lives in danger if absolutely neccessary. This is why the vice presidents words are so reckless.
Please refrain from lumping all people who have problems with Iraq as Bush haters. Many of us have been made wary of him and his policies not by hate but by his words and deeds. Thanks for letting me write this.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you for this posting
Silver Spring, Md.:
There is a very basic question I do not understand. During the Clinton administration there was a specialprosecutorr appointed to investigate whether the president lied to Congress about a sexual affair. Please correct me if I am wrong but I do not believe that 500 to 1,000 lives were lost as a result of these sexual acts, I do not believe that hundreds of billions of dollars were spent as a result of these acts, I do not believe that we made enemies around the world as a result of these sexual acts. It seems that there is a real possibility (notice I said possibility) that our current President lied about Iraq having WMD, that Iraq had any ties with Al Qaeda, and we know for certain it was totally false about Iraq trying to buy plutonium from African countries to make WMAD. Now we know that our forces have been torturing Iraqi prisoners but do not know how far up the "chain of command" these orders were either approved or given their "blessings". Please explain to me why there has been no special prosecutor appointed to look into all of this? I know that the President has set up some special committee that is to give its findings after the elections but isn't this miserably too little to late considering the reasons for special prosecutors in the past? Is the real reason partisan politics where the Democrats are too wimpish to press the issue and the Republicans want to avoid the truth because there is a Republican President? Thank you.
Robert G. Kaiser: I confess questions like this get me down. The law that authorized independent counsels is no longer on the books; Congress let it lapse. But you are mixing up apples and pineapples; even under the old law there was no way to appoint a special counsel to investigate policy decisions like one to go to war.
Even if fighters had been scrambled in time, does anyone seriously think that the order would have been given to shoot down four civilian airliners? Remember, until the attacks began, we had no way of knowing for sure that this was more than just an ordinary hijacking, that they intended to crash these planes into buildings. The Government would have been pilloried for shooting them out of the air without attempting a peaceful resolution of the hijacking.
Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for posting
Chevy Chase, Md.:
I work in economic development. In 1981 I was trapped inside a Pakistan International Airways (PIA) plane for 13 days in Kabul and Damascus in the world's longest hijacking at the time. On Day Five a Pakistani lieutenant was executed right in front of me. I came within minutes of the same fate on Day Eleven. On Day Six I was forced at gunpoint to do a radio message to the Control Tower and I spent an hour with the lead hijacker in the cockpit. This morning I was riveted watching the testimony and color graphics of the actual flight paths of the four planes of 9/11 and hearing the gripping radio "miscommunications" between the FAA and NORAD, and Mohammed Atta's voice for the first time. A family friend of ours died in Flight AA77 that was crashed into the Pentagon. Did you see the testimony today? Few people, know what it is like to be caught inside a hijacked plane for a very long time, in an "airborne cell" that can crash at any moment. There is a difference between reporting events and observing them first-hand! In your long and distinguished journalism career, of the situations you write so well about, what proportion have you been able to observe first-hand?
Robert G. Kaiser: Very good question. I have never covered a terrorist act, hijacking or such myself. I covered the Vietnam war as an eye-witness. I spent three years in the old Soviet Union, writing often about things i couldn't see, and also about things I observed myself. Experiences like yours always send a chill down my spine. I've never had one. Thanks for sharing yours here.
Much of the "inside" information on al Qaeda's preparations appears to be drawn from the interrogations of the few al Qaeda operatives in U.S. custody, many of them held overseas. Given what we have heard about treatment of such prisoners, and the emerging suggestions that abuse goes well beyond Abu Ghraib, can we put much stock in such evidence?
Robert G. Kaiser: Important question, which I cannot answer. I was struck by the fact that the two key sources relied on by the 9/11 Commission staff, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, gave conflicting accounts to their interrogators about the role of Zacarias Moussaoui, the man arrested in Minneapolis in August, 2001, who was trying to learn to fly. KSM said he was going to be used in a subsequent, post-9/11 attack, but Binalshibh said he could have been a pilot on 9/11. These two guys should not have had different info about Moussaoui, in my view. Does this suggest they aren't being completely honest with their interrogators? Might they have been tortured into saying untrue things? We may never know, of course.
Once again, the chatters here are using your Washington Post forums to bash Bush. And I am sure that your PC-Liberal editorial staff doesn't mind that at all. We should note that Democratic President Clinton, when he finally decided to go to war in Kosovo, picked an easy one with virtually no casualties. Bush was more willing to take risks, and stare down the liberal Europeans, than wimpy Democrat Presidents.
Robert G. Kaiser: another fan heard from...
Takoma Park, Md.:
If there is no hard evidence of a link between al Qaeda and Iraq, how did the Administration convince Colin Powell to publicly state that the link exists? With his reputation for integrity, I would have thought that he'd demur if he didn't think the link existed -- particularly following the debacle re: his U.N. speech.
Robert G. Kaiser: What, Oh What, is "A Link?" It is a meaningless term. Isn't the real issue whether or not Iraq did anything to help Al Qaeda, and particularly help it attack the U.S.? Isn't another issue whether or not Saddam actively backed or financed or otherwise supported terrorists going after us or our interests?
Fort Worth, Tex.:
Why has no one been held accountable? Have you
considered that in may not be, in your words, because
"we've developed a bottom-covering culture," but because
it was the convergence of extremely large-scale, broad-
based and complex failures which developed over decades
and many administrations? Rather than a "bottom-
covering" culture, I think we've developed a TV-drama
culture in which we have one hour to develop and solve a
plot. Heck, we think "Law & Order" is complex (have you
ever tried to keep up with the details of its cases?). This is
infinitely larger. We've got to get off the blame game and
start solving things. We should not have had these
hearings while a presidential election is going on.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the good comment. I only disagree with the last sentence, for reasons indicated above. Why should the fact of an election suspend inquiries into such an enormously important event?
OK, this is kind of unfair, but still...
Robert Kaiser writing in The Washington Post on Oct. 30, 1983: "The United States has a myopic, ideological foreign policy that really isn't a policy at all, but a collection of maneuvers produced by prejudice and instinct. The men responsible for American diplomacy, it seems, often fail to grasp they have put us into grave trouble around the world?. [The President] has angered and undermined his closest ally in Europe, [the British Prime Minister], and he has aggravated the gravest problem facing the United States, a problem symbolized by the largest protest demonstrations in Europe since World War II."
I'm not trying to give you a hard time necessarily, just wondering if the above should humble one before confidently carrying on about the enormous damage caused by the current President's foreign policy.
Robert G. Kaiser: All is fair in love, war and journalism, I guess. Readers can judge for yourselves whether I was all wet in October, '83, when we had just conducted the bizarre invasion of Grenada and lost 230 marines in Beirut, and scared the bejeezus out of the russianswith aa military exercise they misunderstood. Later, with George Shultz at the helm, U.S. foreign policy was righted; what looked then (to me at least) like a recipe for disaster turned out much better, especially after the Russians changed course radically under Mikhail Gorbachev.
Do those of us lucky enough to pontificate in print ina great newspaper always say things that will look prescient 21 years later? Of course not. But you haven't caught the worst of my boners, not by a longshot! In fact, as indicated, I'd stick by this one.
As to how past mistakes affect us years later, I can only say that I hope that I learn every year and get wiser. But that is a good definition of eternal optimism, isn't it?
Buzzard Point, Washington, D.C.:
RE: Compensation of victims
Don't forget, one of the main reasons for the compensation fund was to prevent the airlines/airport authorities from getting sued into bankruptcy and oblivion. Although the government footed the bill, having two major U.S. carriers go under would have been more costly in the long run...
Robert G. Kaiser: thanks.
How could we possibly claim to be conducting a global war on terror had we not removed Saddam from power. The man openly supported the PLO and suicide bombers there. I believe Americans have died in those attacks over the years. Isn't the lesson of 9/11 that we can't wait to respond until we get hit big at home (ala the Cole bombing) it was only a matter of time before things escalated out of control with Saddam not leaving his fingerprints
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. This and the next comment will be the last of the day...
South Milwaukee, WI:
Doesn't the assertion that we simply need to "blame the real culprit" over simplify what happened on September 11? Of course terrorists are responsible for their actions, but my government and my president had a responsibility to prevail in preventing terrorists from succeeding, and the Commission's report is clearly revealing serious mistakes, some honest and some not so honest.
Robert G. Kaiser: And thanks for this as well. Another good discussion with our wonderful readers. Thanks to all.