Truth Squad

The rumors began almost at once.

It was 10:06 a.m. on September 11, 2001, when United Airlines' Flight 93 -- the last of the four hijacked jets -- plowed into a field in rural Pennsylvania. Within hours the coffeehouses of the Arab world were abuzz with speculation that the attacks were the work of the Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad. At the same time, former CIA Director James Woolsey, an exemplar of American neoconservatism, was already claiming that Baghdad was behind the attacks.

Such fantasies persist, even today.

"I have no doubt that al-Qaeda actually did it. ... [But] was it a knife-edge someone else was holding?" asked Al-Jazeera TV, suggesting that all might not be as it seemed in the network's own interview with attack planner Ramzi Binalshibh, who had just laid out for viewers in chilling detail how al-Qaeda had carried out the operation. Vice President Dick Cheney claimed as recently as last September that the attackers were based in Iraq. And in Europe, conspiracy theories continue to proliferate; a poll last year by the German weekly Die Zeit found that almost one out of three German respondents under 30 believed the U.S. government itself was behind the attacks.

These theories are fed by a lot of things. Some doubtless have difficulty believing that the mighty United States -- the most powerful nation on earth -- was brought to its knees, its president sent scuttling around the country in his armored aircraft like a cockroach when the lights are switched on, by the actions of a few religious fanatics armed only with knives, mace, and will.

But more important is the absence of a definitive, authoritative narrative of the attacks and their aftermath. "If my husband had died in a traffic accident that day," says Kristen Breitweiser, widowed by the attacks on the World Trade Center, "I would know everything there is to know about it by now. As it is, I know almost nothing."

Even the basic time line -- who did what and when -- from the agencies charged with responding appears unreliable in many cases. Official accounts, based on records generated in the mayhem of that day and the sleepless days and nights that followed it, are often incomplete or contradictory. Take one -- apparently simple -- fact: What time did Air Force One land at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana? Four different times, between 11:48 a.m. and 12:16 p.m., are listed in official documents.

The September 11 commission was supposed to dispel the myths and set the record straight -- and lay to rest the ghosts of uncertainty that still haunt the families of so many victims. But the commission is also supposed to lay to rest the ghosts of failure -- the failure of policies and of people. The nation's policy-makers want to find out what went wrong with the nation's counterterrorism and intelligence machinery, and what, if anything, can be done to fix it. The families want those whose ineptitude they say left the country defenseless named and, at the very least, shamed.

The commission's report is due at the end of July, in the heat of an election summer where the question of leadership in the attacks' aftermath is likely to be front and center. The stakes could not be higher. But the prospects for success, alas, are decidedly mixed at best.

So far, the commission has picked a great deal of low-hanging fruit. Every government agency it has publicly investigated failed more or less completely -- and more or less obviously -- to protect citizens that day. The Federal Aviation Administration ignored repeated hijacking threats over the summer. The hijackers fooled consular officers and immigration inspectors with fraudulent documents. NORAD's radar only looked outward. The CIA didn't follow through on tips about the plot, and on and on.

But when it comes to individual accountability, the panel hasn't earned its spurs yet. Commission member John Lehman -- a wiry, Reagan-era Navy secretary who has made himself the panel's scourge of political correctness and bureaucratic commonsense failures -- is fond of pointing out that "the only person that's been disciplined since 9-11 has been John Poindexter." Poindexter, of course, was fired by the Pentagon when it "closed" (the technology is still being studied) his Total Information Awareness project last year after revelations that it would trawl data about millions of U.S. citizens in an effort to find patterns of suspicious behavior. Lehman's line, which recently drew applause from the audience at a commission public hearing, is almost correct. Jane Garvey, who presided over an FAA that let the hijackers board with their weapons, was allowed to resign gracefully -- though many senior security officials from her tenure now hold equivalent or higher posts at the new Transportation Security Administration. But more or less everyone else is still warming the seat he or she was sitting in on September 11.

Commissioners, with the vocal support of the relatives, have asked some very pointed public questions of some officials. Garvey tied herself in such verbal knots under questioning last year that FAA staff had to issue a "clarification" after she spoke. And Mary Ryan, who as head of consular affairs at the State Department led the office that issued the hijackers their visas, left in a hurry after a recent hearing, clearly upset and ignoring reporters' questions.

But these are small fish and there are bigger ones the commission has yet to pursue. George Tenet remains the director of central intelligence, despite his leadership during a series of disasters for the intelligence community, culminating most recently, of course, with the Iraq debacle. And the White House seems committed to keeping him there -- at least until after the next election, when the rumor mill says he will be replaced by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss. Two weeks after the September 11 attacks, President Bush visited the CIA's Langley, Virginia, headquarters to declare, "I've got a lot of confidence in [Tenet] and I've got a lot of confidence in the CIA," and to tell a national TV audience -- to loud applause from the assembled agency employees -- that the country had "the best intelligence [it] can possibly have thanks to the men and women of the CIA." One figure familiar with the inner workings of the Bush White House told me he believed the decision to keep Tenet in place must have been made well before then, "perhaps within hours" of the attacks, and would have been "a no-brainer" given the disruption entailed by any attempt at replacing him -- especially at the moment when the CIA was needed more than ever. "When the team is headed for a high-stakes game," that person says, "you don't fire the quarterback."

Of course, the commission lacks the power to hire and fire. But so far it has not demonstrated the will to make judgments about the fitness of individuals to hold the public trusts they do. Tenet, along with Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, and their Clinton-era predecessors, is scheduled to give evidence at a hearing in March, when the commission will have the chance to show that, if it is not conducting a witch-hunt, neither is it allowing the guilty to get away with murder by negligence.

To date, the commission has generally chosen to pull its punches, avoiding confrontation wherever possible. Even on basic questions, like the dispute between NORAD and the FAA about when the military was warned that multiple hijacking attacks were in progress, or how well the front-line agencies in New York responded, the commission hung back for months before issuing the subpoenas it needed.

At the very first public hearing, which the commission held in New York at the end of March 2003, it became obvious that the Big Apple was not going to play nice. The hearing schedule called for Mayor Michael Bloomberg to make a few welcoming remarks that morning and for his chiefs of police and fire to appear the next day for detailed question-and-answer sessions about their agencies' responses to the attack. Instead, Bloomberg -- whose appearance was confirmed only that same morning by his office -- arrived with both Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta in tow, gave an opening statement, and then said that all three would be happy to answer questions. The following day, Kelly and Scoppetta were no-shows.

Commission officials said their whole relationship with New York and its agencies was colored from the beginning by the city's fear of lawsuits alleging that it had been disastrously ill-prepared before the attacks and had played down the lingering environmental effects afterward. Concerned that anything they provided the panel might end up being used against them in court, city officials clammed up. "It's terrible," is how one senior commission staffer described the city's cooperation at the time. Yet no subpoenas were issued until late November. By then commission staffers had negotiated access to most of what they needed anyway.

The delay -- any delay -- was potentially disastrous because the commission is so short of time. It was originally given just 18 months to do its work, making the whole project a race against the clock from the beginning, and the panel recently had to fight for extra time to finish its inquiries against the opposition of House Speaker Dennis Hastert and stalling by the White House.

The administration eventually conceded and gave the commissioners the two months they said they needed. That pattern -- delay until the last moment, then cave -- has been characteristic of the administration's attitude from the get-go. It was only after a series of public appearances last summer -- at which the commission's affable chairman, former GOP New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, repeatedly complained about foot-dragging by officials and singled out certain agencies for criticism -- that White House Chief of Staff Andy Card finally pressured cabinet secretaries to make sure that their departments responded to document requests in a timely fashion. "You wouldn't think this is the way they'd behave if they had nothing to hide," says Mindy Kleinberg, who lost her husband, Alan, in the attacks on New York.

Despite that suspicion, the commission's propensity for punch pulling has been most evidently apparent in its dealings with the White House. Commissioner Tim Roemer, a former Democratic representative from Indiana who sat on the earlier, more narrowly focused joint congressional inquiry into pre-9-11 intelligence failures, says he knew from the start that access to White House officials and documents would be a problem. Roemer, who as the commission's most outspoken member has become something of a thorn in the administration's side, had good reason to know: So poor was the access that the joint congressional inquiry was granted to White House officials and documents that the panel included a whole appendix on it in its report.

Last July, almost the halfway point in the commission's appointed time, Kean gave a rare press briefing, saying that the commission had already been granted access to documents that had been denied to the joint congressional inquiry. But he added that "conditions of access," like "the number of staff ... the place in which the access would occur, note taking, and what happens to note taking," were still being negotiated. His deputy, Washington wise man and former House Intelligence Committee veteran Lee Hamilton, always the more measured and cautious of the two, was quick to stress -- in what has since become something of a mantra for commission staff -- that "no requested access has been denied."

But while it may be true that the White House has never actually said "no" to anything the commission has asked for, the commission -- in a classic piece of Washington Kabuki -- has always been very careful about how it phrases its requests, and its negotiations with the White House, launched in the first few months of 2003, have dragged on for nearly a year.

In November 2003, the commission announced that it had reached agreement on the terms of access to the administration's intelligence crown jewels: the Presidential Daily Briefings. The briefings, the CIA's summary of the most important threats to the nation circulated to the president and a handful of top aides every morning, are the most closely held intelligence documents in existence. The terms of the deal were complex -- items from the briefings, not the documents themselves, were divided into two categories, each of which could be reviewed by a different subcommittee of commissioners and staff -- and appeared obscure. The subcommittee members could take notes, but the White House had the right to "review" those notes before they were communicated to the full commission for inclusion in the report. Did this mean that the White House had the right to edit them? "Yes," said some; "no," declared others.

Much of the ambiguity was due to the extraordinary fact that this deal -- reached between bureaucrats and lawmakers and negotiated by lawyers -- did not appear to be properly written down anywhere. "It is in the form of a series of communications between us and the White House," executive director Philip Zelikow told me at the time of the agreement, declining to give any more details.

Partly as a result, the deal -- heralded by commission spokesman Al Felzenburg as "the end of the last outstanding process issue" -- quickly broke down. By the beginning of February this year it proved merely to have shifted the terrain of negotiations from the abstract (i.e., what access should the commission have) to the concrete (i.e., which of the notes produced by the subcommittees can be seen by other commissioners). What followed was what Zelikow describes as "a lot of back and forth ... of 'Please use this word not that one.' ... We ended up addressing [the notes] in a way that the review team found satisfactory and that the White House was content with." The final bargain was struck a few days later. The result? A 17-page summary of what the subcommittee members learned, which Zelikow says is a "much more detailed report [on the briefings] than the White House expected." According to Roemer, it's a "strained, edited, vetted report" that will not allow commissioners to make a measured judgment.

The families are highly critical of the way the commission has handled the administration, but especially the White House. "They let the negotiations drag on interminably," says Breitweiser, "then turn around and tell us there isn't enough time to issue a subpoena, because if the White House wants to fight it, they can tie the commission up in court until the investigation is over. Well, whose fault is that?"

More disturbingly, other critics privately charge that Zelikow, an unassuming, bespectacled historian, has deliberately soft-pedaled the inquiry to protect the administration, and in particular his close former colleague, national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice, whom he helped to establish a new, streamlined structure for the Bush National Security Council during the transition. They accuse him of plotting behind the scenes with Bush political supremo Karl Rove.

When asked about these allegations, Felzenburg explained that it's not commission policy to allow Zelikow to deny them personally. The spokesman dismissed conflict-of-interest allegations. "Anyone who has any real knowledge of the business [of intelligence and foreign policy] has worked in the field before and will have these kind of issues," he said. "We have every confidence in him." Felzenberg said that Zelikow has never spoken with Rove about the inquiry. Privately, commission officials say that the telephone conversations with Rove relate solely to the job from which Zelikow has taken a leave of absence to work on the commission: director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

Zelikow's role in shaping the Bush National Security Council is important because the structure of the national-security bodies are at the heart of the commission's inquiry into counterterrorism policy.

In May 2002, after a slew of press reports, Rice acknowledged that one briefing, delivered to the president on August 6, 2001, during his "working holiday" on the family ranch in Crawford, Texas, had discussed the possibility that al-Qaeda might try to attack the United States. The briefing was no "smoking gun" -- though there may have been other, more specific warnings -- but it is interesting because of what it tells us about the way intelligence officials processed information for the president. "Whatever the next attack is," says Dale Watson, former head of the FBI's counterterrorism operations, "I guarantee you somebody's already written about it. But how does that help you? There are people writing about every conceivable mode of attack." This is what analysts call the "signal-to-noise-ratio" problem -- separating relevant information from chaff -- and it lies at the center of the questions about the nation's intelligence capabilities that the commission must address.

"What did the president know and when did he know it?" is the wrong question to ask. The point is that the machinery that was supposed to make sure the president knew what he needed to was so broken he could not see that the country was staring down the barrel of a huge new threat.

And the process of fixing that machinery appears to be stuck in the morass of election-year bickering and recrimination over Iraq. The vast majority of intelligence-policy reforms recommended by the joint congressional inquiry in December 2002 remain unimplemented, a fact that is likely to become unignorably -- even embarrassingly -- obvious at Senate hearings planned for this spring. The commission's report is likely to fare little better, not only because it, too, will be caught in the partisan crossfire of the approaching election but because whatever public recommendations it makes will not profoundly affect the real process of intelligence and counterterrorism policy reform -- a process that began on September 12, 2001, but in secret and behind closed doors.

These reforms -- some of which are not even publicly acknowledged -- include the repeal of bans on U.S. intelligence agencies carrying out assassinations and working with torturers, murderers, and drug dealers; the extra-legal seizure and indefinite detention of terrorist suspects; the "rendition" (i.e., international transfer with extradition or other legal process) of nationals from friendly countries like Canada and Germany for torture in the dungeons of allies in the war on terrorism like Syria and Saudi Arabia; the massive expansion of the role of U.S. Special Forces and military intelligence. The list goes on.

Far from the public hearings, the commission is part of the debate over these reforms as well. Senior staff members, according to Zelikow, plan to write a series of monographs about needed changes to intelligence and counterterrorism policy, appendices to the commission's public report that are, as he put it, "too detailed to be of interest to the non-specialist reader." Some would be classified, he said.

If the commission cannot fire those who failed, and cannot be part of a meaningful public debate about how to protect the country, all that is left to it is the production of a credible narrative, one strong enough to overcome the inconsistencies inevitably plaguing any time line of those chaotic hours. If it fails at that task, dubious alternative theories about that day's events will spread like fungus in the cracks between the facts. If the commission cannot win the trust of the public -- specifically of key constituencies like the organized relatives of the September 11 victims -- it may end up like the Warren Commission, feeding the very conspiracy theories it was set up to debunk. In that case, there is a serious danger that the amateur history of the September 11 attacks will end up as involuted and prone to farcical excess as that of the Kennedy assassination.