On Thursday, the 9/11 Commission is scheduled to release its final report on the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The nearly 600-page report is a broad indictment of the government's efforts to combat al Qaeda before the 2001 attacks, but is also expected to address issues including weapons-proliferation policies and the United States' treatment of detainees captured in the war on terrorism
Washington Post Managing Editor Steve Coll will be online Thursday, July 22, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the report and its findings.
Coll is the author of "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001." He is also the winner of a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism, has been managing editor of The Washington Post since 1998 and covered Afghanistan as The Post's South Asia bureau chief between 1989 and 1992.
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.
Ultimately, the commission bowed to political realities and blamed no one. Was that the right way to go, do you think?
Steve Coll: Welcome everybody. I'm in the perverse position this morning of hosting a discussion about a report that none of us has read. At 600 pages or so, even if we all agreed to sign off, read, and come back, we probably wouldn't make a lot of progress today. So I'm going to have to punt repeatedly when questions involve what the report says and does not say. We have a sense of a few of its general conclusions but little beyond that. It's true that from the interim staff reports the commission has signalled that it is not going to blame one administration, one political party, or one institution for failing to prevent 9/11. My sense of the history is that the failures did accumulate across two decades and involved many individuals and institutions.
Does the report address the Administration's highly questionable tactic of attacking Iraq after 9/11 when Osama bin Laden was most likely in either Iran or Pakistan? Or the fact that this action consumed vital resources which should have been spent on the hunt for al Qaeda? Does it call Congress to account for not serving as a check and a balance against Bush's drive to war?
Steve Coll: See punt policy above. I saw that Richard Clarke quoted this morning complaining that he thought the commission was going to pull its punches on whether the Iraq war was a strategic mistake in the war on terrorism. I don't know whether the final report addresses that issue one way or another -- Clarke certainly did raise it in his testimony. On Congress, our "preview" reporting in the Post, matched in other publications, suggests that the commission does train a critical eye on failures of Hill oversight, but again, we'll all have to read to judge how, exactly, they handle that.
I loved your book. In it you talk of 9/11 sort of like a fruit of the "toxic alliances" we had with nations like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
In your view, has anything substantially changed in our relationships with these two "allies?" I certainly see the same toxicity, if you will.
Steve Coll: Thanks. Tough question to answer briefly. Also, I've done a lot less reporting about the current texture of the alliances than I did about the way they worked before September 11. Obviously a lot has changed on the ground in both countries: Al Qaeda-affiliated operatives are trying to kill Musharraf in Pakistan and have been trying to overthrow the royal family in Saudi Arabia. This has certainly galvanized those two governments to cooperate against al Qaeda in ways they did not before. Yet some of the toxicity -- sympathy for al Qaeda inside important government institutions in both countries, and even some active collaboration -- apparently continues to some degree. I just am not sure how much is changing in that respect because I haven't had the chance to walk around and report it out for myself recently.
What, if anything, do you think will result from this report? It seems like it has already become a partisan volleyball.
Steve Coll: The report seems likely to kick forward the bubbling debate about whether the bureaucracy of intelligence ought to be changed and rearranged to combat terrorism. Decisions about such proposals -- for a national intelligence director, for a new government-wide counterterrorism center, for new approaches to terrorism inside the FBI -- probably won't be made until after the election. Between now and then, as you say, the report's findings will certainly become part of the presidential campaign -- as its investigation already has been -- with candidates picking up pieces that they think work in their favor and using them to argue for votes.
The issue of centralizing intelligence analysis appears to be a real budget issue that follows the golden rule. He who has the gold rules. Since the DoD has the budget, the DoD rules. Do any of the recommendations suggest centralizing the budget for intelligence? If this is done won't the DoD have a legitimate fit, since the DoD needs battlefield intelligence. Related to this did any of the recommendations aim at dissolving the office Feith set up that made intelligence non battlefield recommendations without proper coordination from the CIA.
Steve Coll: I haven't studied them in detail, but my sense is that there are several different versions of the intelligence czar proposal. There's a bill sponsored by Sen. Feinstein on the Hill. There are some blue-ribbon commission versions. Now there's the 9/11 commission. Budget authority is one of those devil-in-the-details aspects that will define the power of the czar if one is ever created. Your question identifies the basic conflict as people inside the system see it. On the one hand, the current system is seen as broken because the DCI doesn't control most of the intelligence budget. On the other hand, the reason for that is partly that Congress and successive presidents have put most of the resources with the Pentagon for the purpose of fighting wars and defending the nation, etc. So how do you square that circle with one intelligence director? How, if tat all, would such a czar be accountable to the Secretary of Defense in wartime? People who live with these questions have debated them from a lot of angles and there is not much consensus that I come across.
Did the 9/11 Commission staff or members interview "Anonymous," author of "Through Our Enemies' Eyes" and "Imperial Hubris?" Does the report of the commission to be issued today address any of the issues raised by "Anonymous" in his two recent books?
Steve Coll: I believe they did interview Anonymous. I'm not sure how much of the material and arguments made in his two books will be taken on by the commission. See earlier about whether the Iraq war was a strategic error in the war on terrorism, as alleged by Clarke (and also by Anonymous).
After reading the commission's "Outline of the Plot"
for the 9/11 attacks, which seem quite detailed and
convincing, I can understand how the earlier Bojinka
plot to crash hijacked planes into each other,
simultaneously in mid-Atlantic, might have been
carried out. Over the ocean it would have been
unlikely they'd be intercepted.
Flights over the U.S. are a different matter, and I still
have difficulty understanding why so many flights
were not intercepted on 9/11. Surely the hi-jackers
believed they would be brought down before they
reached their targets.
What do you think, and do you know whether Khalid
Sheikh Mohammed was questioned about this
possibility? What convinced him that the hi-jackers
would be able to complete their mission?
Steve Coll: Interesting question. (For those of you who are not al Qaeda nerds, the Bojinka plot was the plan cooked up by Ramzi Yousef and his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohmamed, to blow up in sequence a series of U.S. airliners flying over the Pacific. These would not have been suicide hijackings, however, but bombings using delay timers.) I don't know if KSM has been questioned about this. The 9/11 commission's interim reports about the air defense system and the scrambling attempts to intercept the four hijacked planes are excruciating. The system was not erected to respond to an attack of this kind, and as it tried to adapt on the fly, it broke down, the commission found.
San Antonio, Tex.:
Anonymous states in his book, "Imperial Hubris": ...political, intelligence, military and media... want to avoid national security debates that need to focus on such politically sensitive issues such as religion, Israel and Saudi perfidy. Do you see these necessary debates ever taking place? If so, when, and in what context? How can the United States not address these important topics?
Steve Coll: Well, here we are, talking about them. That at least is different from a few years back, in many respects.
New Orleans, La.:
I am curious as to the timing of the release of the 9/11 report. I am afraid that presidential politics will overwhelm the initial release of the report, with each side cherry-picking information so as to support their position. What, if any, constructive steps do you think will be taken between now and the election? It is my feeling that any steps taken by the administration will be attacked as a political ploy used to sure up votes, while any constructive criticism by the Democrats will be seen as political hyperbole. I may only be in my 20's, but it seems like the current political environment has brought the policy goals of the country as a whole to a standstill, as both sides stake out their respective positions. What ever happened to making security decisions in order to advance the good of the country? I hope I don't sound too cynical, but unfortunately this is a difficult time in our political history to see the glass as being half full.
Steve Coll: A comment and question worth reading. Hard to answer on the terms asked -- except to agree that it's unlikely that the big reform recommendations will be addressed before November. That's not necessarily a bad thing. After the election the political direction of the country will be much clearer; the president, whoever he is, will be in a much stronger position; the Congress will know who is in charge for a while. That is when a reform package is most likely to come together politically, if one is to be adopted.
Thank you for taking questions today. Mine is an easy one -- where will we be able to read the full report? I assume it will be available online and I've heard that it might be available in bookstores.
We'll have a link to it online as soon as it is available electronically.
Steve Coll: The publishers Norton have arranged to place the full report -- bound like a paperback book -- in bookstores all over the country, beginning today, I believe. The commission has a web site that perhaps our friends at washingtonpost.com can link to here. It will be overwhelmed with traffic today, I suspect, but in addition to the final report it already has posted past testimony, transcripts, interim reports, and so on.
New York, N.Y.:
Do we have a sense whether the report will directly address U.S. foreign policy as a factor in why we were attacked? Obviously support for Israel is a sore spot, but we seem to keep talking around it as an issue.
Same goes for how we supported the Mujahideen in the 1980s. One thing that struck me reading your book was how we were funding, via the ISI in Pakistan, the training of thousands of terrorists during the Afghanistan wars. It's a bit horrifying to think that there are a lot more of these guys out there than just these 19 and that we had a hand in training and arming them. I'd like to see the consequences of our foreign policy addressed more, and hope the commission mentions it.
Steve Coll: Again, I don't have much of a sense of what's in the final report at this hour. Judging by the interim staff reports, yes, foreign policy will be a part of their work, I suspect. How much so and in what way I don't know.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia :
News reports say that the Commission has not recommended the creation of a domestic spy agency, modelled on Britain's MI5. Why do you think this is so?
Steve Coll: Yes I've seen the same news reports. If true, it would seem that the commission was persuaded by FBI arguments that it could achieve the same goals within the existing bureau structure, by creating an agency-within-the-agency. An Mi5-type agency would have attracted resistance from both the left and right, which tend to share suspicion of national police and intelligence powers when applied domestically, i.e. the current debate over the Patriot Act.
In general and/or historical terms, does Congress or the president have more influence in implementing the recommendations of such reports? In this case, the president resisted the creation of the panel submitting the report -- do you think that equates to a similar lack of motivation about taking it forward?
Steve Coll: The kinds of government restructuring being discussed would require congressional legislation. Generally and historically, it's very hard to push such bills through when a president is adamantly opposed. So both the White House and the Congress will have to be persuaded that some reform is necessary, and the final result would then evolve from their negotiations and from internal congressional debate.
There was an article in the Guardian (U.K.) today that talks about a "cover-up" by the 9/11 Commission of an alleged Pakistan connection: The Pakistan Connection, (The Guardian, July 22)
Basically it is about a payment of $100,000 to ringleader Mohammed Atta orchestrated by then Pakistani spy chief Gen.Mahmood Ahmed.
Do you have any comment on this?
Steve Coll: Reports of this kind have been around for a while. I've seen no evidence to support them. The commission has not credited them in any of its interim reports. I don't know whether that has changed in the final report, but I don't have any indication that it has.
Has it been verified to a certainty that the drafts of the millenium response document bearing the hand-written comments and proposed revisions of top Clinton officials -- which were reportedly removed by Sandy Berger and lost/destroyed by him -- were copies only, and that the Commission had the opportunity to review not only the "final version" of the millenium report, but the original drafts bearing those tantalizing "revisions" and "comments?" Thanks.
Steve Coll: I don't think anything about those facts has been verified to a certainty yet. The question you ask obviously is an important one.
washingtonpost.com: Full Report (PDF File)
Do you know what they say specifically about the report that Bush received regarding bin Laden plans to hijack planes?
I'm wondering what they say about the 2000 terror threat (Millennium plot). I've heard conflicting stories: one that the Clinton administration (and Sandy Berger) did a brilliant job, the other version that it was an alert agent who happened to catch the perps.
Steve Coll: I don't know what the final report says. Of course, the commission has already published in full the August intelligence article provided to Bush that described what was known about bin Laden's ambition to strike inside the United States, including possibly by hijackings. On the Millennium, the facts are pretty clear, but different people offer different interpretations. I would only say that the two possibilities you allude to are not necessarily contradictory. An alert customs agent did catch Ahmed Ressam on her own. But that does not necessarily mean Berger failed to do his part back in Washington. He was pretty active during this period. It would be interesting to read all the drafts of the after-action reports assessing his performance and that of the wider government, however. See above.
Do you have a sense that even if 9/11 didn't happen we would have still gone to war in Iraq?
Steve Coll: Impossible for me to say. Unfortunately it's hard now to imagine a world without 9/11. For one thing, Al Qaeda would presumably still be in Afghanistan, trying to come up with something like 9/11.
washingtonpost.com: Executive Summary, (PDF File)
Live Now: Panel Chairmen Discuss Report, (Video)
Yesterday's news showed the 9/11 highjackers passing through security at the airport -- a timely reminder about improvements made to airport security. This also happens to be where most Americans encounter homeland security. Is there anything in the report noting improvements made to port security or the security of U.S. nuclear and chemical plants? Can the American people feel more secure about the homeland?
Steve Coll: I don't know what the report says about those questions, or how far it goes in addressing specific vulnerabilities such as the ones you list.
Tenet has resigned, but how many others have stepped down or been fired as a result of government incompetence relating to 9/11?
Steve Coll: Unless I'm forgetting something, none to my knowledge. Tenet of course would not accept that he was resigning because of Iraq or 9/11. If anything, the intelligence failures in Iraq put the greater pressure on him politically, in comparison to 9/11, where he had been warning two administrations that al Qaeda was a big deal.
What about the role of Pakistan in facilitating the 9/11 attacks? If Iran is blamed for allowing the 9/11 hijackers to pass through to and from Afghanistan, then how about Pakistan's ISI which allegedly ran the training camps like the ones where the hijackers trained?
Steve Coll: Yes I've heard important commission members comment in public that al Qaeda had a lot more contact and engaged in much more collaboration with the government of Pakistan before 9/11 than with the government of Iraq. I don't know what the final report will say about this, if anything.
How much of the report is going to address the issue "Some things are the government's job; but government's ministerial functions (things it's required to do) can be hampered by lack of a political base to do them."
Before 9/11, the possibility of a serious terrorist attack on American soil that wasn't home-grown (like McVeigh) just wasn't something many voters -- and hence many politicians -- think was a priority. Therefore, there weren't many resources available to prevent it.
There are plenty of other government ministerial functions -- social security solvency, preventing illegal immigration, rebuilding infrastructure and enforcing securities laws -- that are not being prioritized because they're not on the minds of voters.
Shouldn't 9/11 be interpreted partly as a call to voters that funding government work has to be part of the political landscape?
Steve Coll: Interesting comment.
When I hear that President Bush and former President Clinton won't shoulder the blame, I can't help but wonder if the members of the committee jointly agree that if we don't point the finger at my guy, we won't point it at yours, we'll blame the "infrastructure," leaving no visible scapegoat to be hammered by the media.
Steve Coll: It was a bipartisan commission, and the failures it investigated crossed Republican and Democratic administrations. That did help constrain the partisan aspects of the commission's work. An advantage was that it allowed them to concentrate on facts, wherever they led. A potential disadvantage, says Richard Clarke at least, is that it may have led the commission to shy away from some of the most controversial questions, which in this election year are inevitably partisan.
Why in the world would this report address the reasons for going to war in Iraq? That is completely outside the scope of the Commission's charge, and probably is a question that they would not be equipped to answer.
Steve Coll: True, the commission was charged to discover why 9/11 happened, what might have prevented it, and what reforms or policy changes would strengthen the country against terrorist attacks in the future. I suppose that, as he did in his hearing testimony, Clarke wants the reform debate to involve broad questions about what the war on terrorism should be about, and so for him the decision to invade Iraq fits in that discussion. I doubt the commission felt that it could or should go very far down that road, for some of the reasons you suggest.
The great thing about the 9/11 Commission report is it will provide tenure to a vast number Ph.D's and result in vast number of very boring articles and books by a journalists and Ph.Ds. This will benefit the economy and add to the tax base. Monday morning quarterbacking is always perfect!
Steve Coll: Mea culpa.
An "intelligence czar" overseeing all U.S. intelligence -- isn't that what the DCI was supposed to be? Isn't the real problem that the DOD has worked hard to set up its own fiefdoms that are independent of the civilian DCI? I'm really skeptical at this point that DOD intel agencies are really worth all the money they're getting -- some 90 percent of all intel spending, right?
Steve Coll: It is what the DCI was supposed to be, except he/she doesn't have budgetary authority or hire-fire authority at the Pentagon, so that has made it difficult in real life to exercise influence at DOD intel agencies. Not sure the exact percentage of intel money at the Pentagon, but yeah, it's something on that order of magnitude.
Join The Post's Robert G. Kaiser at Noon ET to continue the discussion of the 9/11 Commission report.
Kendall Park, N.J.:
Do you expect that, like the Butler Report in the U.K. and the Senate Intelligence Committee Report, this report will be a "whitewash" for the Bush administration? In other words, will partisan concerns of some members of the committee and its supervisor result in muted criticism of the Bush administration?
Steve Coll: I don't know how to judge that right now. Which is a good way to end this discussion -- time to go read the actual report. Many thanks to all for writing in.