Four 9/11 Moms Battle Bush
In mid-June, F.B.I. director Robert Mueller III and several senior agents in the bureau received a group of about 20 visitors in a briefing room of the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, D.C. The director himself narrated a PowerPoint presentation that summarized the numbers of agents and leads and evidence he and his people had collected in the 18-month course of their ongoing investigation of Penttbom, the clever neologism the bureau had invented to reduce the sites of devastation on 9/11 to one word: Pent for Pentagon, Pen for Pennsylvania, tt for the Twin Towers and bom for the four planes that the government had been forewarned could be used as weapons-even bombs-but chose to ignore.
After the formal meeting, senior agents in the room faced a grilling by Kristen Breitweiser, a 9/11 widow whose cohorts are three other widowed moms from New Jersey.
"I don't understand, with all the warnings about the possibilities of Al Qaeda using planes as weapons, and the Phoenix Memo from one of your own agents warning that Osama bin Laden was sending operatives to this country for flight-school training, why didn't you check out flight schools before Sept. 11?"
"Do you know how many flight schools there are in the U.S.? Thousands," a senior agent protested. "We couldn't have investigated them all and found these few guys."
"Wait, you just told me there were too many flight schools and that prohibited you from investigating them before 9/11," Kristen persisted. "How is it that a few hours after the attacks, the nation is brought to its knees, and miraculously F.B.I. agents showed up at Embry-Riddle flight school in Florida where some of the terrorists trained?"
"We got lucky," was the reply.
Kristen then asked the agent how the F.B.I. had known exactly which A.T.M. in Portland, Me., would yield a videotape of Mohammed Atta, the leader of the attacks. The agent got some facts confused, then changed his story. When Kristen wouldn't be pacified by evasive answers, the senior agent parried, "What are you getting at?"
"I think you had open investigations before Sept. 11 on some of the people responsible for the terrorist attacks," she said.
"We did not," the agent said unequivocally.
A month later, on the morning of July 24, before the scathing Congressional report on intelligence failures was released, Kristen and the three other moms from New Jersey with whom she'd been in league sat impassively at a briefing by staff director Eleanor Hill: In fact, they learned, the F.B.I. had open investigations on 14 individuals who had contact with the hijackers while they were in the United States. The flush of pride in their own research passed quickly. This was just another confirmation that the federal government continued to obscure the facts about its handling of suspected terrorists leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.
So afraid is the Bush administration of what could be revealed by inquiries into its failures to protect Americans from terrorist attack, it is unabashedly using Kremlin tactics to muzzle members of Congress and thwart the current federal commission investigating the failures of Sept. 11. But there is at least one force that the administration cannot scare off or shut up. They call themselves "Just Four Moms from New Jersey," or simply "the girls."
Kristen and the three other housewives who also lost their husbands in the attack on the World Trade Center started out knowing virtually nothing about how their government worked. For the last 20 months they have clipped and Googled, rallied and lobbied, charmed and intimidated top officials all the way to the White House. In the process, they have made themselves arguably the most effective force in dancing around the obstacle course by which the administration continues to block a transparent investigation of what went wrong with the country's defenses on Sept. 11 and what we should be doing about it. They have no political clout, no money, no powerful husbands-no husbands at all since Sept. 11-and they are up against a White House, an Attorney General, a Defense Secretary, a National Security Advisor and an F.B.I. director who have worked out an ingenious bait-and-switch game to thwart their efforts and those of any investigative body.
The Mom Cell
The four moms-Kristen Breitweiser, Patty Casazza, Mindy Kleinberg and Lorie van Auken-use tactics more like those of a leaderless cell. They have learned how to deposit their assorted seven children with select grandmothers before dawn and rocket down the Garden State Parkway to Washington. They have become experts at changing out of pedal-pushers and into proper pantsuits while their S.U.V. is stopped in traffic, so they can hit the Capitol rotunda running. They have talked strategy with Senator John McCain and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. They once caught Congressman Porter Goss hiding behind his office door to avoid them. And they maintain an open line of communication with the White House.
But after the razzle-dazzle of their every trip to D.C., the four moms dissolve on the hot seats of Kristen's S.U.V., balance take-out food containers on their laps and grow quiet. Each then retreats into a private chamber of longing for the men whose lifeless images they wear on tags around their necks. After their first big rally, Patty's soft voice floated a wish that might have been in the minds of all four moms:
"O.K., we did the rally, now can our husbands come home?"
Last September, Kristen was singled out by the families of 9/11 to testify in the first televised public hearing before the Joint Intelligence Committee Inquiry (JICI) in Washington. She drew high praise from the leadership, made up of members from both the House and Senate. But the JICI, as the moms called it, was mandated to go out of business at the end of 2003, and their questions for the intelligence agencies were consistently blocked: The Justice Department has forbidden intelligence officials to be interviewed without "minders" among their bosses being present, a tactic clearly meant to intimidate witnesses. When the White House and the intelligence agencies held up the Congressional report month after month by demanding that much of it remain classified, the moms' rallying cry became "Free the JICI!"
They believed the only hope for getting at the truth would be with an independent federal commission with a mandate to build on the findings of the Congressional inquiry and broaden it to include testimony from all the other relevant agencies. Their fight finally overcame the directive by Vice President Dick Cheney to Congressman Goss to "keep negotiating" and, in January 2003, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States-known as the 9/11 Commission-met for the first time. It is not only for their peace of mind that the four moms continue to fight to reveal the truth, but because they firmly believe that, nearly two years after the attacks, the country is no safer now than it was on Sept. 11.
"O.K., there's the House and the Senate-which one has the most members?"
Lorie laughed at herself. It was April 2002, seven months after she had lost her husband, Kenneth. "I must have slept through that civics class." Her friend Mindy couldn't help her; Mindy hadn't read The New York Times since she stopped commuting to Manhattan, where she'd worked as a C.P.A. until her husband, Alan, took over the family support. Both women's husbands had worked as securities traders for Cantor Fitzgerald until they were incinerated in the World Trade Center.
Mindy and Lorie had thought themselves exempt from politics, by virtue of the constant emergency of motherhood. Before Sept. 11, Mindy could have been described as a stand-in for Samantha on Sex and the City . But these days she felt more like one of the Golden Girls . Lorie, who was 46 and beautiful when her husband, Kenneth van Auken, was murdered, has acquired a fierceness in her demeanor. The two mothers were driving home to East Brunswick after attending a support group for widows of 9/11. They had been fired up by a veteran survivor of a previous terrorist attack against Americans, Bob Monetti, president of Families of Pan Am 103/Lockerbie. "You can't sit back and let the government treat you like shit," he had challenged them. That very night they called up Patty Casazza, another Cantor Fitzgerald widow, in Colt's Neck. "We have to have a rally in Washington."
Patty, a sensitive woman who was struggling to find the right balance of prescriptions to fight off anxiety attacks, groaned, "Oh God, this is huge, and it's going to be painful." Patty said she would only go along if Kristen was up for it.
Kristen Breitweiser was only 30 years old when her husband, Ron, a vice president at Fiduciary Trust, called her one morning to say he was fine, not to worry. He had seen a huge fireball out his window, but it wasn't his building. She tuned into the Today show just in time to see the South Tower explode right where she knew he was sitting-on the 94th floor. For months thereafter, finding it impossible to sleep, Kristen went back to the nightly ritual of her married life: She took out her husband's toothbrush and slowly, lovingly squeezed the toothpaste onto it. Then she would sit down on the toilet and wait for him to come home.
Kristen was somewhat better-informed than the others. The tall, blond former surfer girl had graduated from Seton Hall law school, practiced all of three days, hated it and elected to be a full-time mom. Her first line of defense against despair at the shattering of her life dreams was to revert to thinking like a lawyer.
Lorie was the network's designated researcher, since she had in her basement what looked like a NASA command module; her husband had been an amateur designer. Kristen had told her to focus on the timeline: Who knew what, when did they know it, and what did they do about it?
Once Lorie began surfing the Web, she couldn't stop. She found a video of President Bush's reaction on the morning of Sept. 11. According to the official timeline provided by his press secretary, the President arrived at an elementary school in Sarasota, Fla., at 9 a.m. and was told in the hallway of the school that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. This was 14 minutes after the first attack. The President went into a private room and spoke by phone with his National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, and glanced at a TV in the room. "That's some bad pilot," the President said. Bush then proceeded to a classroom, where he drew up a little stool to listen to second graders read. At 9:04 a.m., his chief of staff, Andrew Card, whispered in his ear that a second plane had struck the towers. "We are under attack," Mr. Card informed the President.
"Bush's sunny countenance went grim," said the White House account. "After Card's whisper, Bush looked distracted and somber but continued to listen to the second graders read and soon was smiling again. He joked that they read so well, they must be sixth graders."
Lorie checked the Web site of the Federal Aviation Authority. The F.A.A. and the Secret Service, which had an open phone connection, both knew at 8:20 a.m. that two planes had been hijacked in the New York area and had their transponders turned off. How could they have thought it was an accident when the first plane slammed into the first tower 26 minutes later? How could the President have dismissed this as merely an accident by a "bad pilot"? And how, after he had been specifically told by his chief of staff that "We are under attack," could the Commander in Chief continue sitting with second graders and make a joke? Lorie ran the video over and over.
"I couldn't stop watching the President sitting there, listening to second graders, while my husband was burning in a building," she said.
Mindy pieced together the actions of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He had been in his Washington office engaged in his "usual intelligence briefing." After being informed of the two attacks on the World Trade Center, he proceeded with his briefing until the third hijacked plane struck the Pentagon. Mindy relayed the information to Kristen:
"Can you believe this? Two planes hitting the Twin Towers in New York City did not rise to the level of Rumsfeld's leaving his office and going to the war room to check out just what the hell went wrong." Mindy sounded scared. "This is my President. This is my Secretary of Defense. You mean to tell me Rumsfeld had to get up from his desk and look out his window at the burning Pentagon before he knew anything was wrong? How can that be?"
"It can't be," said Kristen ominously. Their network being a continuous loop, Kristen immediately passed on the news to Lorie, who became even more agitated.
Lorie checked out the North American Aerospace Defense Command, whose specific mission includes a response to any form of an air attack on America. It was created to provide a defense of critical command-and-control targets. At 8:40 a.m. on 9/11, the F.A.A. notified NORAD that Flight No. 11 had been hijacked. Three minutes later, the F.A.A. notified NORAD that Flight No. 175 was also hijacked. By 9:02 a.m., both planes had crashed into the World Trade Center, but there had been no action by NORAD. Both agencies also knew there were two other hijacked planes in the air that had been violently diverted from their flight pattern. All other air traffic had been ordered grounded. NORAD operates out of Andrews Air Force Base, which is within sight of the Pentagon. Why didn't NORAD scramble planes in time to intercept the two other hijacked jetliners headed for command-and-control centers in Washington? Lorie wanted to know. Where was the leadership?
"I can't look at these timelines anymore," Lorie confessed to Kristen. "When you pull it apart, it just doesn't reconcile with the official storyline." She hunched down in her husband's swivel chair and began to tremble, thinking, There's no way this could be. Somebody is not telling us the whole story.
The 9/11 Commission wouldn't have happened without the four moms. At the end of its first open hearing, held last spring at the U.S. Customs House close to the construction pit of Ground Zero, former Democratic Congressman Tim Roemer said as much and praised them and other activist 9/11 families.
"At a time when many Americans don't even take the opportunity to cast a ballot, you folks went out and made the legislative system work," he said.
Jamie Gorelick, former Deputy Attorney General of the United States, said at the same hearing, "I'm enormously impressed that laypeople with no powers of subpoena, with no access to insider information of any sort, could put together a very powerful set of questions and set of facts that are a road map for this commission. It is really quite striking. Now, what's your secret?"
Mindy, who had given a blistering testimony at that day's hearing, tossed her long corkscrew curls and replied in a voice more Tallulah than termagant, "Eighteen months of doing nothing but grieving and connecting the dots."
Eleanor Hill, the universally respected staff director of the JICI investigation, shares the moms' point of view.
"One of our biggest concerns is our finding that there were people in this country assisting these hijackers," she said later in an interview with this writer. "Since the F.B.I. was in fact investigating all these people as part of their counterterroism effort, and they knew some of them had ties to Al Qaeda, then how good was their investigation if they didn't come across the hijackers?"
President Bush, who was notified in the President's daily briefing on Aug. 6, 2001, that "a group of [Osama] bin Laden supporters was planning attacks in the United States with explosives," insisted after the Congressional report was made public: "My administration has transformed our government to pursue terrorists and prevent terrorist attacks."
Kristen, Mindy, Patty and Lorie are not impressed.
"We were told that, prior to 9/11, the F.B.I. was only responsible for going in after the fact to solve a crime and prepare a criminal case," Kristen said. "Here we are, 22 months after the fact, the F.B.I. has received some 500,000 leads, they have thousands of people in custody, they're seeking the death penalty for one terrorist, [Zacarias] Moussaoui, but they still haven't solved the crime and they don't have any of the other people who supported the hijackers." Ms. Hill echoes their frustration. "Is this support network for Al Qaeda still in the United States? Are they still operating, planning the next attack?"
The hopes of the four moms that the current 9/11 Commission could broaden the inquiry beyond the intelligence agencies are beginning to fade. As they see it, the administration is using a streamlined version of the tactics they successfully employed to stall and suppress much of the startling information in the JICI report. The gaping hole of 28 pages concerning the Saudi royal family's financial support for the terrorists of 9/11 was only the tip of the 900-page iceberg.
"We can't get any information about the Port Authority's evacuation procedures or the response of the City of New York," complains Kristen. "We're always told we can't get answers or documents because the F.B.I. is holding them back as part of an ongoing investigation. But when Director Mueller invited us back for a follow-up meeting-on the very morning before that damning report was released-we were told the F.B.I. isn't pursuing any investigations based on the information we are blocked from getting. The only thing they are looking at is the hijackers. And they're all dead."
It's more than a clever Catch-22. Members of the 9/11 Commission are being denied access even to some of the testimony given to the JICI-on which at least two of its members sat!
This is a stonewalling job of far greater importance than Watergate. This concerns the refusal of the country's leadership to be held accountable for the failure to execute its most fundamental responsibility: to protect its citizens against foreign attack.
Critical information about two of the hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, lay dormant within the intelligence community for as long as 18 months, at the very time when plans for the Sept. 11 attacks were being hatched. The JICI confirmed that these same two hijackers had numerous contacts with a longtime F.B.I. counterterrorism informant in California. As the four moms pointed out a year ago, their names were in the San Diego phone book.
What's more, the F.B.I.'s Minneapolis field office had in custody in August 2001 one Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national who had enrolled in flight training in Minnesota and who F.B.I. agents suspected was involved in a hijacking plot. But nobody at the F.B.I. apparently connected the Moussaoui investigation with intelligence information on the immediacy of the threat level in the spring and summer of 2001, or the illegal entry of al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi into the United States.
How have these lapses been corrected 24 months later? The F.B.I. is seeking the death penalty for Mr. Moussaoui, and uses the need to protect their case against him as the rationale for refusing to share any of the information they have obtained from him. In fact, when Director Mueller tried to use the same excuse to duck out of testifying before the Joint Committee, the federal judge in the Moussaoui trial dismissed his argument, and he and his agents were compelled to testify.
"At some point, you have to do a cost-benefit analysis," says Kristen. "Which is more important-one fried terrorist, or the safety of the nation?" Patty was even more blunt in their second meeting with the F.B.I. brass. "I don't give a rat's ass about Moussaoui," she said. "Why don't you throw him into Guantánamo and squeeze him for all he's worth, and get on with finding his cohorts?"
The four moms are demanding that the independent commission hold a completely transparent investigation, with open hearings and cross-examination. What it looks like they'll get is an incomplete and sanitized report, if it's released in time for the commission's deadline next May. Or perhaps another fight over declassification of the most potent revelations, which will serve to hold up the report until after the 2004 Presidential election. Some believe that this is the administration's end game.
Kristen sees the handwriting on the wall: "If we have an executive branch that holds sole discretion over what information is released to the public and what is hidden, the public will never get the full story of why there was an utter failure to protect them that day, and who should be held accountable."
Whistleblower Coming In Cold From the F.B.I.
Sibel Edmonds says she was shocked at the lack of security in the F.B.I.'s counterintelligence squad when she went to work there shortly after Sept. 11. But when she spoke up, she was canned. Gail Sheehy tells her story.
Last Friday, the four women from New Jersey who have faced down the F.B.I. on its failures in preventing the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that claimed their husbands' lives were personally invited to the bureau's Hoover Building offices in Washington, D.C., for a second visit. Their host was none other than F.B.I. director Robert Mueller.
Cordial and fully engaged, Mr. Mueller introduced the newly appointed head of the Bureau's Penttbom investigation ( Pent for Pentagon, Pen for Pennsylvania, tt for the Twin Towers and bom for the four planes that the government was forewarned could be used as weapons-even bombs-but ignored).
The new Penttbom team leader, Joan-Marie Turchiano, politely suggested the widows present their questions.
"O.K." said Kristin Breitweiser, the group's hammerhead, "have you solved the crime yet?"
The Penttbom leader said they had been investigating the 19 hijackers and had run down every connection. Ms. Breitweiser recalls her next words indelibly: "As far as our investigations are concerned, we can say the hijackers had no contacts in the United States."
But the scathing 800-page report on intelligence failures produced by a joint congressional investigation had already revealed that the F.B.I. had open investigations on four of the 14 individuals who allegedly had some kind of contact with the hijackers while they were in the U.S.
The Four Moms from New Jersey, or "the girls" as they refer to themselves, waste little time on niceties these days. They were the firecrackers behind the creation of the 9/11 commission, which after a year of meager progress, is finally ready to call key administration officials to testify in public hearings on some of the most important questions we have before us as a nation.
But White House delays and circumventions have hampered the effort, and the four moms see the commission flagging in its use of subpoena power to call in key Clinton and Bush administration officials for their testimony. Personal connections between commission members-like executive director Philip Zelikow and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice-undermine the commission's purported independence. As the commission's work draws close to its May dissolution, it appears the main question they were tasked to answer will remain unanswered: Did our guardians of national security have enough information to prevent 9/11? Why did all of our officials who swore an oath of office to lead, protect, and serve, fail to do so on the morning of 9/11?
Last Monday Ms. Breitweiser, along with three other members of the Family Steering Committee, met with commissioner John Lehman about the need for an extension of the Commission's May deadline-after House Speaker Dennis Hastert had already declared such an extension dead in the water. Exiting the meeting, the family members were hopeful that he would join the majority of commissioners-all five Democrats, chairman Thomas Kean and one other Republican, Slade Gorton-in supporting a postponement. More recently, as Democratic presidential candidates burnish their credentials in intelligence and national security issues against Bush's 2004 campaign, the extension of that deadline is becoming a heated issue.
While fighting a mostly losing battle for a transparent investigation, the Moms are winning on another score: Whistleblowers from agencies culpable in the failures of 9/11-long silent-are being attracted to their mission.
Sibel Edmonds read an article published in these pages last August about the 9/11 widows' bold confrontation with Director Mr. Mueller in a private meeting last summer, and recognized kindred spirits.
"This was the first time I'd heard anybody ask such direct questions to Mr. Mueller," said Ms. Edmonds, a Turkish-American woman who answered the desperate call of the F.B.I. in September, 2001 for translators of Middle Eastern languages. Hired as contract employee a week after 9/11, without a personal interview, Ms. Edmonds was given top-secret security clearance to translate wiretaps ordered by field offices in New York, Los Angeles, and other cities by agents who were working around the clock to pick up the trail of Al Qaeda terrorists and their supporters in the U.S. and abroad. Working in the F.B.I.'s Washington field office, she listened to hundreds of hours of intercepts and translated reams of e-mails and documents that flooded into the bureau. In a series of intimate interviews, she told her story to this writer.
When she arrived, her enormous respect for the F.B.I. was initially confirmed.
"The field agents are wonderful, but they were terribly exasperated with the D.C. office," she said.
While the news was full of reports of heaps of untranslated material languishing inside the F.B.I.'s counterterrorism unit, Ms. Edmonds has claimed that translators were told to let them pile up. She said she remembers a supervisor's instructions "to just say no to those field agents calling us to beg for speedy translations" so that the department could use the pileup as evidence to demand more money from the Senate. Another colleague she recalls saying bitterly, "This is our time to show those assholes we are in charge."
F.B.I. translators are the front line for information gathered by foreign-language wiretaps, tips, documents, e-mails, and other intercepted threats to security. Based on what they translate and the dots they connect, F.B.I. field agents act against targets of investigation-or fail to act-in a timely manner. As an agent later told the Judiciary Committee which oversees the F.B.I., "When you hear a suspect say 'The flower will bloom next week,' you can't wait two weeks to get it translated."
During her six months of work for the Bureau, Ms. Edmonds said she grew increasingly horrified by the lack of internal security she saw inside the very agency tasked with protecting our national security.
In papers filed with the F.B.I.'s internal investigative office, the Department of Justice, the Senate Judiciary Committee, and most recently with the 9/11 Commission, she has reported serious ongoing failures in the language division of the F.B.I. Washington Field Office. They include security lapses in hiring and monitoring of translators, investigations that have been compromised by incorrect or misleading translations sent to field agents; and thousands of pages of translations falsely labeled "not pertinent" by Middle Eastern linguists who were either not qualified in the target language or English, or, worse, protecting targets of investigation.
Nothing happened. Undaunted, Ms. Edmonds took her concerns to upper management. Soon afterward she was fired. The only cause given was "for the convenience of the government." The F.B.I. has not refuted any of Ms. Edmonds' allegations, yet they have accounted for none of them.
On the morning Ms. Edmonds was terminated, she said, she was escorted from the building by an agent she remembered saying: "We will be watching you and listening to you. If you dare to consult an attorney who is not approved by the F.B.I., or if you take this issue outside the F.B.I. to the Senate, the next time I see you, it will be in jail." Two other agents were present.
"I know about my constitutional rights, but do you know how many translators would be intimidated?"
Shortly after her dismissal, F.B.I. agents turned up at the door of the Ms. Edmonds' townhouse to seize her home computer. She was then called in to be polygraphed-a test which, she found out later, she passed. A few months after her dismissal, accompanied by her lawyer on a sunny morning in May 2002, Ms. Edmonds took her story to the Senate Judiciary Committee. As her high heels glanced off the marble steps of Congress she sensed two men ascending right behind her. Turning, she recognized the agent walk, the Ray-Bans, the outline of a weapon, and the deadest giveaway of all-a cell phone pointed straight at her, transmitting. "They weren't secretive about it, they wanted me to know they're there," she said. After being shadowed in plain sight many more times, she said with dark humor, "I call them my escorts."
After her meeting, Senator Chuck Grassley, the Republican vice-chair of the Judiciary Committee to whom Ms. Edmonds appealed, had his investigators check her out. Then they, along with staffers for Senator Patrick Leahy, called for a joint briefing in the summer of 2002. The F.B.I. sent a unit chief from the language division and an internal security official.
In a lengthy, unclassified session that one participant describes as bizarre, the windows fogged up as the session finished; it was that tense, "None of the F.B.I. officials' answers washed, and they could tell we didn't believe them." He chuckles remembering one of the Congressional investigators saying, "You basically admitted almost all that Sibel alleged, yet you say there's no problem here. What's wrong with this picture?"
The Bureau briefers shrugged, put on their coats, and left. There was no way the F.B.I. was going to admit to another spy scandal only months after being scorched by the Webster Report on one of the most dangerous double agents in F.B.I. history, Robert Hanssen.
"I think the F.B.I. is ignoring a very major internal security breach," said Grassley, "and a potential espionage breach."
Unlike those whistleblowers whose cause is redress of personal grievances, Ms. Edmonds impressed Grassley as passionately patriotic.
"The basic problem is, heads don't roll," Sen. Grassley said. "The culture of the F.B.I. is to worry about their own public relations. If you're going to change that culture, somebody's got to get fired." He is not optimistic, however, that Congress will act aggressively. "Nobody wants to take on the F.B.I."
The translator had filed a complaint with the Inspector General of the Department of Justice on March 7, 2002. She was told then that an investigation would be undertaken and she could expect a report by the fall of 2002. Twenty-one months later, she is still waiting. She also filed a First Amendment case against the Department of Justice and the F.B.I. And a Freedom of Information case against the F.B.I. for release of documents pertaining to her work for the Bureau, to confirm her allegations. The F.B.I. refused her FOIA request. Their stated reason was the pending investigation by Justice, which, her sources in the Senate tell her, will probably be held up until after the November election.
When Ms. Edmonds wouldn't go away or keep still, F.B.I. Director Mueller asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to assert the State Secrets Privilege in the case of Ms. Edmonds versus Department of Justice. Mr. Ashcroft obliged.
The State Secrets Privilege is the neutron bomb of legal tactics. In the rare cases where the government invokes it to withhold evidence or to block discovery in the name of national security, it can effectively terminate the case. According to a 1982 Appeals Court ruling. "Once the court is satisfied that the information poses a reasonable danger to secrets of state, even the most compelling necessity cannot overcome the claim of privilege ._"
In interviews conducted over recent weeks with a senior F.B.I. agent who worked closely with Ms. Edmonds, former F.B.I. counterterrorism agents, and with current and former members of Congress involved in national security issues, a picture emerged of the dark undercurrents that run beneath our best counterterrorism efforts, and the punishments meted out to those who dare to expose it.
Does Ms. Edmonds pose a danger to secrets of state? Or do the secrets buried in the nerve center of the F.B.I.'s counterterrorism squad pose a danger to Americans living under the politics of dread?
Edmonds was seen as a jewel when the F.B.I. found her only a week after September 11, 2001. With reports of stacks of untranslated "chatter" from Middle Eastern suspects and their supporters, the embarrassed Bureau couldn't wait to hire this Turkish-American graduate student who speaks four languages, not only Turkish, Farsi (the Iranian language) and Azerbaijani, but perfect American-English. The graduate student was carrying five courses in preparation for her Master's degree and was in mourning for her father's recent death. "But I felt like I was being called to duty."
Inside the F.B.I.'s Washington field office roughly 200 translators sit hip to hip in one large room that is a linguistic cacophony of chatter from 185 different countries. The few Arabic translators may be flanked by a Farsi speaker on one side, an Urdu speaker on the other, and a translator of Chinese chatter behind them.
In a security briefing she was told that any documents marked "Top Secret" had to be locked up when employees went to lunch. Laptops had to be kept in a safe. Any contacts with foreign people, even social, had to be reported. She also signed a document promising to report any suspicious activities of other translators. She was impressed with the stringency of F.B.I. rules.
The Translation Department is treated by the F.B.I. as highly sensitive. Yet her badge allowed her and other translators to enter and exit the building without passing through security, and within the sanctum itself they could pass freely from floor to floor and to any agent's office. Ms. Edmonds saw several different individuals leave the building with documents or audio tapes in their gym bags. When she called security to report it, nothing was done.
She was one of three Turkish translators working on real time wiretaps, e-mails, and documents related to 9/11 investigations. One of her colleagues was an unassuming immigrant whose first employment on entering the U.S. was as a busboy. Ms. Edmonds was dismayed to learn that he had been hired despite failing to pass the English equivalency exam. When he was chosen to go to Guantánamo Bay, to translate interrogations with the half-dozen Turkish detainees in America's war on terror, she remembers with both compassion and disgust hearing her colleague wail, "I can't do this!"
But it was her other colleague who gave her the greatest cause for concern-and her reports to her superiors as well as an alphabet soup of government commissions and agencies remain unanswered.
Melek Can Dickerson was a very friendly Turkish woman, married to a major in the U.S. Air Force. She liked to be called informally "Jan."
The account that follows, which comes from extended interviews with Ms. Edmonds, was related in testimony to the Senate Judiciary committee.
"I began to be suspicious as early as November, 2001" said Ms. Edmonds. "In conversation Jan mentioned these suspects and said 'I can't believe they're monitoring these people.'"
"How would you know?" Ms. Edmonds remembers saying. She said Dickerson told her she had worked for them in a Turkish organization; she talked about how she shopped for them at a Middle Eastern grocery store in Alexandria.
Ms. Edmonds has told the Judiciary Committee that soon after, Ms. Dickerson tried to establish social ties with her, suggesting they meet in Alexandria and introduce their husbands to each other.
When Sibel invited the visitors in for tea, she said, Major Dickerson began asking Matthew Edmonds if the couple had many friends from Turkey here in the U.S. Mr. Edmonds said he didn't speak Turkish, so they didn't associate with many Turkish people. The Air Force officer then began talking up a Turkish organization in Washington that he described, according to the Edmondses, as "a great place to make connections and it could be very profitable."
Sibel was sickened. This organization was the very one she and Jan Dickerson were monitoring in a 9/11 investigation. Since Sibel had adhered to the rule that an F.B.I. employee does not discuss bureau matters with one's mate, her husband innocently continued the conversation. Ms. Dickerson and her husband offered to introduce the Edmondses to people connected to the Turkish embassy in Washington who belonged to this organization.
"These two people were the top targets of our investigation!" Ms. Edmonds said of the people the Dickersons proposed to introduce them to.
"My husband keeps thinking he's talking about promoting business deals," Ms. Edmonds later said of the encounter. "He has no idea the man is talking about criminal activities with some semi-legitimate front."
These are classic "pitch activities" to get somebody to spy for you, according to a Judiciary Committee staffer who investigated Ms. Edmonds' claims.
"You'd think the F.B.I. would be jumping out of their seats about all these red flags," the staffer said.
The targets of that F.B.I. investigation left the country abruptly in 2002. Later, Ms. Edmonds discovered that Ms. Dickerson had managed to get hold of translations meant for Ms. Edmonds, forge her signature, and render the communications useless.
"These were documents directly related to a 9/11 investigation and suspects, and they had been sent to field agents in at least two cities." By accident, Ms. Edmonds discovered the breach-up to 400 pages of translations marked "not pertinent"-and insisted that those classified translations be sent back so she could retranslate them
"We discovered some amazing stuff," she remembered.
The first half-dozen translations were transcripts from an F.B.I. wiretap targeting a Turkish intelligence officer working out of the Turkish embassy in Washington, D.C. A staff-member of the Judiciary committee later confirmed to this writer that the intelligence officer was the target of the wiretap Ms. Dickerson had mistranslated, signing Ms. Edmonds' name to the printouts. Ms. Edmonds said she found them to reveal that the officer had spies working for him inside the U.S. State Department and at the Pentagon-but that information would not have reached field agents unless Ms. Edmonds had retranslated them. She only got through about 100 more pages before she was fired.
"I didn't go out and blow the whistle," Ms. Edmonds said. She said she first reported these breaches both verbally and in writing to a supervisor, who assured her that the F.B.I. had done a background check on Ms. Dickerson, and the matter was put to an end.
Her further inquiries to counterintelligence agents raised a small alarm. Ms. Edmonds was told that Ms. Dickerson hadn't disclosed any links to the Turkish organization in her employment application. But nothing happened. Ms. Edmonds, despairing to another superior in the counterintelligence squad, remembers the agent saying: "I'll bet you've never worked in government before. We do things differently. We don't name names, and we usually sweep the dirt under the carpet."
She said another special agent warned: "If you insist on this investigation, I'll make sure in no time it will turn around and become an investigation about you."
The F.B.I., contacted with these allegations, would not comment; Ms. Dickerson could not be reached for comment, but has previously dismissed Ms. Edmonds' story as "preposterous." The F.B.I. has also previously said that it did not believe that Ms. Dickerson acted maliciously, though members of the Judiciary committee have expressed dissatisfaction with the F.B.I.'s investigation.
Going by the book was not without personal sacrifice for Ms. Edmonds. She remembered her erstwhile tea companion, Ms. Dickerson, threatening: "Why would you make such a fuss over translations? You're not even planning to stay here. Why would you put your life and your family's lives in danger?"
Ms. Edmonds said that after she reported this threat to Dale Watson, then executive assistant director of the F.B.I., she learned from friends in Turkey that plainclothes agents went to her sister's apartment in Istanbul with an interrogation warrant.
Ms. Edmonds had already brought her sister and mother to Washington in anticipation of such reprisals by Turkish intelligence. But her younger sister, a totally apolitical airline employee, hasn't spoken to her since.
After two years of futile efforts as an F.B.I. whistleblower, Ms. Edmonds
figured the widows were her last resort. The former translator had information relevant to the commission that nobody else seemed to want to hear. Shortly after the Christmas holidays, in the leer of a nationwide orange alert based on a "sustained level of intelligence chatter," she contacted Mindy Kleinberg, the only mom whose telephone number is listed. Kleinberg rallied her cohorts, Kristen Breitweiser and Patty Casazza (their fourth member, Lori Van Aucken, was taking a brief "sabbatical"). The three moms jumped in an S.U.V. and gunned it down the Garden State to meet up with Ms. Edmonds halfway to D.C. at an anonymous roadside hotel. She gave them the outlines of her story, and asked "the girls" if they could get her an audience with the 9/11 commission. Her letter and follow-up calls to Tom Kean, the chairman, had gone unanswered for a year. The moms were so disturbed by all the security lapses she described, they slipped back into the sleepless agitation that was so familiar from the months after watching on TV while their husbands were turned to ash by terrorists in the World Trade Center attack. But they eagerly agreed to help.
Last week, Ms. Edmonds met with a New York attorney, Eric Seiff, a veteran of both the New York District Attorney's office and the State Department. He finds her case extraordinary.
"We're familiar with people in big bureaucracies putting job security over doing the right thing, but not at this dramatic level-putting job security above national security," said Seiff. He is appalled at the invocation of State Secrets Privilege "It's the Attorney General saying to the judiciary, 'Not only don't we answer to Ms. Edmonds, we don't answer to you."
The last resort, Ms. Edmonds concluded, was the federal 9/11 commission. Maybe they would live up to their mandate to do a truly independent investigation of the security lapses that allowed our country to be invaded by terrorists supported by foreign powers, who have yet to be exposed or held accountable.
She sent a full report to one of the Democratic commission members. When this writer asked him about the commission's interest in the issues raised by Ms. Edmonds' report, he said: "It sounds like it's too deep in the weeds for us to consider, we're looking at broader issues."
It has not deterred her. And neither snow nor sleet nor mini child disasters could deter the moms from keeping their dates in Washington last Friday to do battle for Ms. Edmonds. When the 9/11 commission seemed close-minded, they met with Judiciary Committee staffers, echoing Sibel's pleadings that Senator Grassley hold his own hearings. Senator Grassley had told this writer that his hands were tied, because, "Senator Hatch is now chairman of the Oversight Committee." The staffers said they had written to both Mueller and Ashcroft several times, asking them to come in and talk about Ms. Edmonds' allegations. No reply. Sibel was surprised to hear them admit, 'Senator Hatch has been an obstacle on everything we've tried to do.'
Then a brainstorm. What if the Senate Intelligence Committee held a joint hearing with the Judiciary Committee? Breitweiser enthused, "Great, we've already talked to Senators Roberts and Rockefeller [co-chairs of the Senate Intelligence Committee]. We were told by Senator Roberts that the translation issue remains 'a serious problem.' They said they would like to hold hearings in February of this year."
The moms' final meeting was their hour-and-a-half private session at the J. Edgar Hoover Building. Ms. Edmonds was not welcome there. But Director Mueller, said Breitweiser, seemed genuinely interested in what the moms had to say. Asked about the Ms. Edmonds case, Mueller said he had handed it over to the Inspector General's office. Pressed, he said, "I can't investigate myself." Yes, but, the Moms nudged, had he looked into problems in the translation department? Mueller appeared to brush off the matter as anything but important.
"Then, I don't understand why you asked that State Secrets Privilege be asserted here?" Kleinberg piped up. "If her case was that important, why isn't it important enough to deserve a report?"
For the first time, the director did not look cordial. So Breitweiser switched back to an earlier subject - his cooperation with a Senate hearing on the translation issue. "So, Director Mueller, I just want to get you on the record," said Breitweiser. "If the Senate asks you to testify, we have your word you'll go?"
The square-jawed chief spook smiled at the girls' grasp of strategy. "You have my word," they all remember his saying, "if Senator Hatch invites me to testify, absolutely I will be there."
Now all they have to do is move the immovables. But they've done it before. And there is one motto shared by the Four Moms from New Jersey and the translator from Turkey: We're not going away.
Bob Kerrey Says 9/11 Group Meets With Condoleezza
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice has agreed to be interviewed by the bipartisan 9/11 commission on Feb. 7, after weeks of resistance from the White House to the bipartisan panel's requests, The Observer has learned.
In a Feb. 3 interview the newly minted commission member Bob Kerrey, the former Senator from Nebraska, now the president of the New School University, said that Ms. Rice's interview will not be held under oath, and the results of the interview are not to be made public.
But as the Bush administration fights to limit the scope and time allotted to the independent commission investigating a broad array of failures leading up to and during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Kerrey is emerging as a strong antagonist to their efforts to contain the political damage.
Mr. Kerrey, the commission's unlikely new spitfire, told The Observer he would lobby the comission to request sworn, public testimony from Bush's embittered national security advisor.
"I'm very much interested in following up on the statement Condoleezza Rice made at her famous press conference in '02, that 'I don't think anybody could have predicted … that they would try to use an airplane as a missile,'" Mr. Kerrey said. "I don't believe that."
The commissioners are divided on whether or not to press the point-and to use a subpoena if she refuses.
"We're not there yet," said former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, the committee's chairman.
But with the independent 9/11 commission spinning out of the White House's control, the fight by Republicans against the panel's request for an extension of its deadline may hurt the Bush administration more than it will help it, according to Mr. Kerrey.
"Given the administration's current behavior, which is an unwillingness to allow witnesses to come forward and a reluctance to allow documents to be seen, other narratives will prevail, and the final report is apt to be a more negative story for them," he said.
Mr. Kerrey also revealed to this writer that the scope of the 9/11 commission will take in "about half of what the President was doing in the pre-9/11 situation in Iraq. He alleged that there were Al Qaeda and terrorist connections, and that's very much part of what we're examining."
Mr. Kerrey is dismayed by the President's decision this week to create another commission to examine the intelligence failures in assessing Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction before the war. It's a mission that overlaps with investigations the 9/11 panel is already doing, he claims.
"When the Bush administration began in January of '01, their transition team rearranged the Clinton national-security agenda. The question is: Did they continue the anti-terrorism effort? Where did they put Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden on their list of national-security threats?"
The formation of a new comittee to investigate U.S. intelligence on Iraq is a neat divide-and-conquer ploy for the Bush administration: it will barely have begun its work by Election Day.
The 9/11 commission didn't even get fully staffed or adequately funded for its first six months-and still has several hundred more interviews to do to complete its investigation-the consensus of the commissioners is that they need at least another two months to complete a thorough investigation.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert has insisted that the commission "live within the current deadline," which is the end of May. But significant numbers of Senate Republicans, Mr. Kerrey believes, "have figured out that the best delay for them is a six-month delay, to get our report beyond the election."
What's good for the goose, of course, may be good for the gander. The Family Steering Committee is adamant about wanting a six-month extension-the very length that Senate Republicans, according to Mr. Kerrey, are pushing for behind the scenes.
"We were patient and waited 12 months to get the hard-hitting, investigative hearings they promised us after the New Year," said Kristen Breitweiser, one of the widowed Four Moms from New Jersey previously profiled by this writer as the dominant force behind the very creation of the 9/11 commission. Ms. Breitweiser said they were promised a public hearing on all 12 topics in the commission's mandate.
"They've already scrapped one public hearing in January and two sets in February," she said. (A spokesman for the commission confirmed the decision to hold fewer public hearings.) "If the commission has to issue more subpoenas to get access to the people and documents they need, we don't want time to run out while lawyers argue," Ms. Breitweiser added.
When George Bush replaced Henry Kissinger, his first choice as chairman of the 9/11 commission, with New Jersey's former Republican governor, the White House may have thought that the mild-mannered, aristocratic Mr. Kean would be a pushover. He is not. The White House may be relying on its five Republican appointees to the commission to ease over the rough patches for the President. But having been dissed, crawfished, starved for funds and now denied access even to the notes made by four commission members chosen to see a key Presidential briefing-the one at which Mr. Bush learned, five weeks before 9/11, that Osama bin Laden and his terrorists were an imminent threat-at least some of the commissioners feel insulted. They must all know that someday they will be questioned, perhaps by their grandchildren, about conspiracy theories certain to spring forth from the murk of facts selectively plucked by agencies and officials under the umbrella of a nervous Bush White House.
Among the 10 white faces arrayed on a raised dais in a Senate hearing room last week, only one belonged to a woman: Jamie Gorelick. A former deputy attorney general of the United States under President Clinton, Ms. Gorelick's dimpled smile, casual turtlenecks and cocoa-warm voice obscure the steel core of a corporate litigator. Ms. Gorelick was grilling Claudio Manno, the security chief of the F.A.A., who was charged with regulating America's air carriers.
"Our briefings have told us that in the spring-summer of 2001, the hair of the intelligence community was on fire," Ms. Gorelick said. "A high-high state of alert existed. Did you take any enhanced security measures?"
No, came the answer from Mr. Manno, testifying for the F.A.A.. When a passenger going through security during this high state of alert set off the magnetometer, were inspectors directed to open the carry-on bag for inspection? No, came the answer. That explains why the passenger-screening program was a failure, despite having flagged five of the hijackers when they or their hand luggage set off the magnetometers.
The F.A.A.'s only requirement for security screeners at that time was to look at any knife or other object and, if it looked "menacing," designate it as a weapon. It was the "common-sense" test. So the security screeners ran the five men through a second, less sensitive computerized magnetometer and hand-wanded them-but they never opened their carry-ons. Thus the hijackers on three of the four planes all managed to smuggle on bombs (whether real or fake) and compressed chemical sprays. Both items, obviously, were illegal.
Commissioners became exasperated as one official after another pleaded ignorance of any "specific or credible" threats of terrorism in this country.
"We know from classified brief-ings that our government was tracking Middle Eastern terrorist suspects since the year 2000 and the millennium plot to blow up LAX was foiled," Ms. Gorelick reminded them. That catastrophe had been averted by a female Customs agent, Deanna Dean, one of the many women warriors who rose to the occasion and risked their jobs, if not their lives, in the cause of fighting a war on terrorism before the American government declared it.
Next, Ms. Gorelick drilled down through the gelatinous responses of Jane Garvey, the former F.A.A. administrator who headed the agency during both the highly tense run-up to the millennium and in September 2001.
"Again, did you take any increased measures to respond to the high-high state of alert in the spring-summer of 2001?"
"I don't recall any," Ms. Garvey said. "I'd have to go back and look."
Ms. Garvey had already stalled the commission, which had to subpoena documents from the F.A.A. At this hearing, the commission learned that the F.A.A. itself had sent out a CD-ROM in July 2001 to some 700 airline executives and airports, even putting it in the Federal Registry :
"Members of foreign terrorist groups … and radical fundamentalist elements from many nations are present in the US, recruiting others for terrorist activities and training them to use explosives and airplanes. This increased threat to civil aviation abroad and within the United States exists and needs to be countered and prevented."
The head of the F.A.A. said she had not seen that information until after 9/11.
Meanwhile, a wintry Mr. Kerrey-now silver-haired but still surly-lipped-brought new fire and outrage to the commission's first hard-hitting hearings last week.
"One of the presumptions that keeps surfacing is that an attack on our homeland was incredible," Mr. Kerrey said at one point during the hearings. "Yet there was a pattern beginning with the World Trade Center bombing in '93, followed by a much more sophisticated attack on Americans in our embassies in Africa in August '98 and the terrorist attack on the Cole in October 2000, which we knew was Al Qaeda. The possibility of a terrorist strike on our soil was obvious. Do they have to send you a memo?! You people ought to be coming to the microphone and saying, 'We failed miserably, and it cost us like hell.' What is this: 'We couldn't have imagined … '? These people defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan, for Godsakes!"
Mr. Kerrey, though new to the issues, has shown a keen interest in the same vital but minutely detailed questions that have bothered the families of 9/11 victims for over two years now-questions that are still unanswered.
It remains to be seen, so early in his tenure, whether Mr. Kerrey will be capable of mastering the thousands of pages of documents and monitoring the selection of interviews that are so important to the commission's success.
Part of the problem, family members say, is that the witnesses that come before the commission appear to be cherrypicked to provide testimony that paints a rosier picture of the Bush administration's intelligence operations before Sept. 11.
"When the commissioners insist they're doing a thorough, independent investigation, but their staff turns away valuable whistle-blowers like Sibel Edmonds [profiled in a Jan. 26 Observer story], claiming time problems, we worry about the picture the commissioners are getting," said Ms. Kleinberg.
Nevertheless, as the commission gets angrier, it's becoming a serious thorn in the side of the administration-especially in an election year hypercharged with security and intelligence concerns.
While things heat up, it is difficult for the Four Moms to take much comfort.
An essential part of the healing process after a trauma of this proportion is getting at the truth, however unpleasant. As the Four Moms watched the January hearings on C-Span, they saw proof of the power of a public airing of the evidence. They want more of the same. "For things to work in government, it's kind of like religion-you have to go on blind faith," Ms. Kleinberg said. "We don't have that anymore. They have to understand that part of their job is to restore the faith in government. They sometimes forget they work for the people. Well, we're the people."
Four 9/11 Moms Watch Rumsfeld And Grumble
In the predawn hours of Tuesday, March 23, Kristen Breitweiser, Lorie Van Auken, Mindy Kleinberg and Patty Casazza dropped off their collective seven fatherless children with grandmothers and climbed into Ms. Breitweiser's S.U.V. for the race down Garden State Parkway to the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. It's a journey that they could now make blindfolded-but this one was different. On March 23, testimony was to be heard by the commission investigating intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, among others.
These four moms from New Jersey are the World Trade Center widows whose tireless advocacy produced the broad investigation into the failures around the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that now has top officials from both the Clinton and Bush administrations duking it out in conflicting testimonies at this week's high-drama hearings in the Hart Office Building before the 9/11 commission.
After two and a half years of seeking truth and accountability, they had high hopes for this week's hearings, which are focused on policy failures. Instead, packed into the car at 4 a.m. in what has become a ritual for them, their hearts were heavy.
The Four Moms had submitted dozens of questions they have been burning to ask at these hearings. Mr. Rumsfeld is a particular thorn in their sides.
"He needs to answer to his actions on Sept. 11," said Ms. Kleinberg. "When was he aware that we were under attack? What did he do about it?"
When the widows had a conference call last week with the commission staff, they asked that Secretary Rumsfeld be questioned about his response on the day of Sept. 11. They were told that this was not a line of questioning the staff planned to pursue.
They were not especially impressed with his testimony. In Mr. Rumsfeld's opening statement, he said he knew of no intelligence in the months leading up to Sept. 11 indicating that terrorists intended to hijack commercial airplanes and fly them into the Pentagon or the World Trade Center.
It was his worst moment at the mike. Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste ran through a list of at least a dozen cases of foiled plots using commercial airliners to attack key targets in the U.S. and elsewhere. Mr. Ben-Veniste cited the "Bojinka" plot in 1995, which envisioned blowing up Western commercial planes in Asia; that plot was foiled by the government and must have been on the mind of C.I.A. director George Tenet, who was having weekly lunches with Mr. Rumsfeld through 2001. In 1998, an Al Qaeda–connected group talked about flying a commercial plane into the World Trade Center.
"So when we had this threatened strike that something huge was going to happen, why didn't D.O.D. alert people on the ground of a potential jihadist hijacking? Why didn't it ever get to an actionable level?" the commissioner asked.
Mr. Rumsfeld said he only remembered hearing threats of a private aircraft being used. "The decision to fly a commercial aircraft was not known to me."
Mr. Ben-Veniste came back at him: "We knew from the Millennium plot [to blow up Los Angeles International Airport] that Al Qaeda was trying to bomb an American airport," he said. The Clinton administration foiled that plot and thought every day about foiling terrorism, he said. "But as we get into 2001, it was like everyone was looking at the white truck from the sniper attacks and not looking in the right direction. Nobody did a thing about it."
Mr. Rumsfeld backed off with the lame excuse, "I should say I didn't know."
He said that on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he was "hosting a meeting for some of the members of Congress."
"Ironically, in the course of the conversation, I stressed how important it was for our country to be adequately prepared for the unexpected," he said.
It is still incredible to the moms that their Secretary of Defense continued to sit in his private dining room at the Pentagon while their husbands were being incinerated in the towers of the World Trade Center. They know this from an account posted on Sept. 11 on the Web site of Christopher Cox, a Republican Congressman from Orange County who is chairman of the House Policy Committee.
"Ironically," Mr. Cox wrote, "just moments before the Department of Defense was hit by a suicide hijacker, Secretary Rumsfeld was describing to me why … Congress has got to give the President the tools he needs to move forward with a defense of America against ballistic missiles."
At that point, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, the Secret Service, the F.A.A., NORAD (our North American air-defense system), American Airlines and United Airlines, among others, knew that at least three planes had been violently hijacked, their transponders turned off, and that thousands of American citizens had been annihilated in the World Trade Center by Middle Eastern terrorists, some of whom had been under surveillance by the F.B.I. Yet the nation's defense chief didn't think it significant enough to interrupt his political pitch to a key Republican in Congress to reactivate the Star Wars initiative of the Bush I years.
"I've been around the block a few times," Mr. Rumsfeld told the Congressman, according to his own account. "There will be another event." Mr. Rumsfeld repeated it for emphasis, Mr. Cox wrote: "There will be another event."
"Within minutes of that utterance, Rumsfeld's words proved tragically prophetic," Mr. Cox wrote.
"Someone handed me a note that a plane had hit one of the W.T.C. towers," Mr. Rumsfeld testified on March 23. "Later, I was in my office with a C.I.A. briefer when I was told a second plane had hit the other tower."
The note didn't seem to prompt any action on his part.
"Shortly thereafter, at 9:38 a.m., the Pentagon shook with an explosion of a then-unknown origin," he said.
He had to go to the window of his office to see that the Pentagon had been attacked? Now the moms were getting agitated.
"I went outside to determine what had happened," he testified. "I was not there long, apparently, because I was told I was back in the Pentagon, with the crisis action team, by shortly before or after 10 a.m.
"Upon my return from the crash site, and before going to the Executive Support Center," he continued, "I had one or more calls in my office, one of which I believe was the President."
Then commission member Jamie Gorelick, who served as deputy attorney general and general counsel for the Department of Defense in the Clinton administration, had her turn with Mr. Rumsfeld.
"Where were you and your aircraft when a missile was heading to the Pentagon? Surely that is your responsibility, to protect our facilities, our headquarters-the Pentagon. Is there anything we did to protect that?"
Mr. Rumsfeld said it was a law-enforcement issue.
"When I arrived at the command center, an order had been given-the command had been given instructions that their pilots could shoot down any commercial airlines filled with our people if the plane seemed to be acting in a threatening manner," he said.
Ms. Gorelick tried to get Mr. Rumsfeld to say whether the NORAD pilots themselves knew they had authority to shoot down a plane.
"I do not know what they thought," he answered. "I was immediately concerned that they knew what they could do and that we changed the rules of engagement."
One of the hardest things for the families to hear was how every witness defended how he had done everything possible to combat the threat of terrorism. No one said, "We fell short."
Secretary of State Colin Powell complained that the Bush administration was given no military plan by the Clinton administration for routing Al Qaeda. He then described how Condoleezza Rice undertook a complete reorganization of the failed responses of the Clinton years-not too much more than a series of meetings that took up the next eight months.
"Then 9/11 hit, and we had to put together another plan altogether," said Mr. Powell.
He also claimed that "we did not know the perpetrators were already in our country and getting ready to commit the crimes we saw on 9/11."
Some of the widows groaned. In fact, the Moms had learned, the F.B.I. had 14 open investigations on supporters of the 9/11 hijackers who were in the U.S. before 9/11.
And after the Clinton administration foiled the Millennium plot to blow up LAX, the C.I.A. knew that two Al Qaeda operatives had a sleeper cell in San Diego. F.B.I. field officers tried to move the information up the line, with no success.
What's more, most of the 9/11 hijackers re-entered the U.S. between April and June of 2001 with blatantly suspicious visa applications, which the Four Moms had already obtained and shown to the commission. The State Department had 166,000 people on its terrorist watch list in 2001, but only 12 names had been passed along to the F.A.A. for inclusion on its "no-fly list." Mr. Powell had to admit as much, though he said that State Department consular officers had been given no information to help them identify terrorist suspects among the visa applicants.
One of the key questions that the Moms expected to be put to Mr. Powell was why over 100 members of the Saudi royal family and many members of the bin Laden clan were airlifted out of the U.S. in the days immediately following the terrorist attacks-without being interviewed by law enforcement-while no other Americans, including members of the victims' families, could take a plane anywhere in the U.S. The State Department had obviously given its approval. But no commissioner apparently dared to touch the sacrosanct Saudi friends of the Bush family.
When Republican commissioner James Thompson asked Mr. Powell: "Prior to Sept. 11, would it have been possible to say to the Pakistanis and Saudis, 'You're either with us or against us?'", Mr. Powell simply ignored the issue of the Saudi exemption and punted on Pakistan.
Fox in the Chicken House
To the Moms, the problems with the 9/11 commission were always apparent. But the disappointing testimony from Mr. Rumsfeld was especially difficult to bear. The Moms had tried to get their most pressing questions to the commission to be asked of Mr. Rumsfeld, but their efforts had foundered at the hands of Philip Zelikow, the commission's staff director.
Indeed, it was only with the recent publication of Richard Clarke's memoir of his counterterrorism days in the White House, Against All Enemies , that the Moms found out that Mr. Zelikow-who was supposed to present their questions to Mr. Rumsfeld-was actually one of the select few in the new Bush administration who had been warned, nine months before 9/11, that Osama bin Laden was the No. 1 security threat to the country. They are now calling for Mr. Zelikow's resignation.
Ms. Gorelick sees their point.
"This is a legitimate concern," Ms. Gorelick said in an interview, "and I am not convinced we knew everything we needed to know when we made the decision to hire him."
But despite her obvious discomfort at the conflicts of interest apparently not fully disclosed by Mr. Zelikow in his deposition by the commission's attorney, Ms. Gorelick believes that the time is too short to replace the staff director.
"We're just going to have to be very cognizant of the role that he played and address it in the writing of our report," she said.
That doesn't satisfy the Four Moms. They point out that it is Mr. Zelikow who decides which among the many people offering information will be interviewed. Efforts by the families to get the commission to hear from a raft of administration and intelligence-agency whistleblowers have been largely ignored at his behest. And it is Mr. Zelikow who oversees what investigative material the commissioners will be briefed on, and who decides the topics for the hearings. Mr. Zelikow's statement at the January hearing sounded to the Moms like a whitewash waiting to happen:
"This was everybody's fault and nobody's fault."
The Moms don't buy it.
"Why did it take Condi Rice nine months to develop a counterterrorism policy for Al Qaeda, while it took only two weeks to develop a policy for regime change in Iraq?" Ms. Kleinberg asked rhetorically.
Dr. Rice has given one closed-door interview and has been asked to return for another, but the commissioners have declined to use their subpoena power to compel her public testimony. And now, they say, it is probably too late.
"That strategy may not turn out well for the Bush administration," Ms. Gorelick said.
Bob Kerrey, the commissioner who replaced Max Cleland, expressed the same view in a separate interview: "The risk they run in not telling what they were doing during that period of time is that other narratives will prevail."
The Four Moms have enjoyed some victories along the way. The first was when the White House finally gave up trying to block an independent investigation; the commission was created in December 2002. The Moms shot down to Washington-stopping in traffic to change out of their Capri pants and into proper pantsuits-to meet with the new commissioners, who thanked them for providing the wealth of information they'd been gathering since losing their husbands on Sept. 11. Ms. Gorelick expressed amazement at the research the women had done, and vowed it would be their "road map."
"We were their biggest advocates," said the husky-voiced Ms. Kleinberg. "They asked us to get them more funding, and we did. It could have been a great relationship, but it hasn't been."
Mr. Zelikow's idea of how to conduct the investigation, the Moms said, is to hold everything close to the vest.
"They don't tell us or the public anything, and they won't until they publish their final report," said Ms. Casazza. "At which point, they'll be out of business."
Ms. Kleinberg chimed in: "Why not publish interim reports, instead of letting us sit around for two years bleeding for answers?"
"We have lower and lower expectations," said Ms. Van Auken, whose teenage daughter often accompanies her to hearings; her son still can't talk about seeing his father's building incinerated.
The irony is that two of the Four Moms voted for George Bush in 2000, while another is a registered independent; only one is a Democrat. But until they felt the teeth of the Bush attack dogs, they were either apolitical or determinedly nonpartisan. Now their tone is different.
"The Bush people keep saying that Clinton was not doing enough [to combat the Al Qaeda threat]," said Ms. Kleinberg. "But 'nothing' is less than 'not enough,' and nothing is what the Bush administration did."
An unnamed spokesman for the Bush campaign was quoted as saying of Sept. 11, "We own it." That comment particularly disturbed the Four Moms.
"They can have it," said Ms. Van Auken. "Can I have my husband back now? "
"If they want to own 9/11, they also have to own 9/10 and 9/12," said Ms. Kleinberg. "Their argument is that this was a defining moment in our history. It's not the moment of tragedy that defines you, but what you do afterwards."
If the final report of this 9/11 commission does indeed turn out to be a whitewash, the Four Moms from New Jersey have a backup plan. Provided there is a change of leadership, they will petition the new President to create an independent 9/11 commission. As if one never existed before.
Vigilant Widows Wait For Condi With Suspicion
On the evening of April 5, the television was buzzing with wall-to-wall coverage of the 9/11 commission hearings and the ongoing violence in Iraq. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice (nicknamed the "warrior princess" by White House staff) was scheduled to testify under oath to the commission on April 8, the culmination of a long journey for the Bush administration. Initially rejecting the idea of forming the commission, the White House finally allowed it, even as they thwarted the commission by overclassifying or hiding crucial documents. Initially refusing to allow sworn testimony from White House aides like Ms. Rice (because of important "constitutional principles"), here, too, the White House finally relented. Ms. Rice's testimony is the culmination of what has become the defining narrative of the Bush administration in this election year: whether they did enough to prevent the attacks of Sept. 11, and whether they then used the attacks as a pretext for a long-desired and unrelated war with Iraq.
The same evening, mashing spinach in her kitchen in East Brunswick, N.J., for a family Seder on the first night of Passover, Lorie Van Auken can hardly have looked like one of the driving forces behind these developments as she cradled a telephone in the crook of her neck and spoke with this writer, firing off a list of angry questions that she wants to ask Ms. Rice.
Ms. Van Auken is one of the "four moms," from New Jersey, alll 9/11 widows, whose loud outcry compelled the Bush administration to form the commission in the first place. As the four have taken the national stage, their worlds have been turned upside-down again. The personal loss that motivates them-the loss of their husbands-has led them down this path, to find out the truth about what their country failed to do for them on Sept. 11, and what the White House continues to do to cover it up. But as they sit across nondescript coffee tables from Chris Matthews on Hardball or protest the President's exploitation of Ground Zero images on the Today show, they have found themselves targets as well: accused of being toadies for the Kerry campaign by Bush campaign aides (even though two of the moms voted for Mr. Bush); of being delusional and naïve by Mr. Matthews, like the women who launched America's failed effort to locate their loved ones in the long cold graveyards of Vietnam.
In the weeks after Sept. 11, the four moms came together, slowly and organically, as each found herself looking for answers that nobody seemed willing to provide. Was investigating and defeating Al Qaeda's network of terrorists a priority for George W. Bush's administration? Googling Ms. Rice's record early on, the 9/11 widows noted that she made no mention of terrorism, much less Al Qaeda, in June 2001, when she addressed the Council on Foreign Relations on the foreign-policy priorities of the Bush administration.
Since then, the moms read with indignation the 900-page final report of the Joint Congressional Inquiry on 9/11, which preceded the current 9/11 commission. In that final report, amidst the great stretches of blank pages from which the White House had redacted material deemed privileged or security-sensitive, the moms found that the following "all-source" intelligence review had been given to top officials on June 28, 2001-the same month that Ms. Rice listed the administration's priorities:
"Based on reporting over the last five months, we believe that UBL [Osama bin Laden] will launch a significant terrorist attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties …. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning. They are waiting us out, looking for a vulnerability."
For them, the question for Condoleezza Rice is not a new one formed in the waning tenure of the commission amid the explosive testimony of former White House counterterrorism ace Richard Clarke. They were questions formed in the fog of grief, and they have only become clearer.
It was this report, in part, that alerted the four moms to the falsehood of the White House claim-made early on in the post-9/11 political environment, and now a continuing refrain from White House officials-that before that fateful day, nobody could have imagined that hijackers would use airplanes as missiles.
That claim persists despite another of the moms' particular efforts. Kristen Breitweiser has given the most trenchant television interviews in the group and is known among them, affectionately-in a personal language that recalls something out of a John Le Carré novel-as "the hammer." It was Ms. Breitweiser who shot down that claim in her stunning testimony before the Congressional panel as its opening witness in September 2002-long before anyone but Internet bloggers and conspiracy theorists seemed to be paying close attention to the administration's claims. Ms. Breitweiser cited more than half a dozen terrorist plots that envisioned slamming commercial planes into landmarks in American cities, or the Eiffel Tower, or blowing up the Los Angeles International Airport-a "Millennium plot" that was foiled by President Bill Clinton's insistence on banging heads together in the daily meetings of all top officials responsible for domestic and foreign security.
This was supposed to be a rare week off from their grueling round trips to Washington in Ms. Breitweiser's S.U.V. to attend hearings or meet with the commissioners.
"Condi Rice threw a wrench into everything," said Ms. Van Auken.
She and her group remember the year, 2002, when Ms. Rice wouldn't agree even to answer written questions from the Congressional panel (her deputy, Stephen Hadley, responded for her). When the White House reversed its two-year standoff against the moms' pleadings to hear from the President's foreign-policy tutor in public, their Holy Week plans went to hell.
"My most pressing need is to make sure the Easter Bunny makes a visit to our house this Sunday," said Ms. Breitweiser, the mother of a 5-year-old. "And to take down my outdoor Christmas decorations."
"That," admonished fellow widow Patty Casazza, "is why I told you not to put them up."
But it gets harder and harder to continue to put life on hold for a slow-moving commission, especially as the four moms' expectations that the commissioners will ask the really tough questions deteriorates.
Commissioner Jamie Gorelick says that Ms. Rice can be questioned on anything she told the panel in her private audience, provided it isn't classified. But the four moms' questions are often more challenging than that.
The latest question on Ms. Van Auken's mind picks up on Ms. Rice's defensive position, articulated earlier in the hearings, that her national-security team was alert only to "traditional" hijackings, in which an airplane is redirected or its passengers held hostage as part of a negotiation.
"Even if that's so, they did nothing to thwart traditional hijacks either," Ms. Van Auken noted.
She ticked off a timeline she knows by heart: By 8:14 a.m. on Sept. 11, F.A.A. flight controllers knew that American Flight 11 was missing. Its transponder was turned off, and they couldn't get a response from the pilot. By 8:22 a.m., fighter jets should have been sent up to trail Flight 11. They could have caught up with it in 10 minutes, or even by 8:40 a.m. Then an F-16 could have rocked its wings and, if it couldn't force the hijacked jet to turn around before it hit the World Trade Center, a fighter plane would have been instructed to crash into it.
She goes on: By 8:43, the F.A.A. had notified NORAD that there was another hijacked jet in the sky (United Flight 175). The other fighter jet could have gone after that plane. Certainly by the time the Pentagon was a target, they could have shot down Flight 77. And, by then, the pilots did have a shoot-down order.
"I'd like to ask Condi Rice: 'If you all say we couldn't have done anything to prevent 9/11, why weren't we able to mitigate the damage?'" said Ms. Van Auken.
It's The Mmes. Smith Go to Washington : Instead of Jimmy Stewart shouting himself hoarse in the well of the Senate, these young suburban widows have banded together to coax and cajole, outwit and outlast their national leaders, until officials face up to their mistakes and forge enough systemic changes to prevent the next terrorist attack-or at least put together a strategy to minimize the death and trauma.
For my book Middletown, America , I followed their journey from the first months of anguish and disbelief, through incoherent anger, to the point in the spring of 2002 when they found a mission to channel their anger and look toward the future with hope.
Lorie Van Auken is the mom who still takes flack for asking her friends, two years ago: "O.K., there's the House and the Senate-which one has the most members?" Now, she speaks authoritatively about wing-rocking and plane transponders.
Her first brush with political activism came in April 2002, when she attended a widows' support group in Princeton, N.J., where a veteran survivor of terrorist murder injected a testosterone-fueled fighting spirit. Bob Monetti, president of Families of Pan Am 103, challenged them: "You can't sit back and let the government treat you like shit."
Ms. Van Auken drove home with another freshly made 9/11 widow, Mindy Kleinberg.
"It was early for us to be introduced to the big picture," said Ms. Kleinberg of that meeting exactly two years ago.
"It was like Eve biting the apple," said Ms. Van Auken.
They called up Patty Casazza, who was in something of a pharmaceutical haze. The events of Sept. 11 had brought back her childhood trauma-her abandonment with her mother and four siblings in a St. Louis hotel by her father. From there she had wiped away the tears, hoisted herself out of poverty and married John Casazza, a Wall Street trader. Now, she was the widowed mother of an 11-year-old boy who still can not speak of the tragedy.
"We have to have a rally in Washington," Ms. Van Auken said to Ms. Casazza.
"Oh, God," Ms. Casazza groaned. "That's huge, and it's gonna be painful."
Ms. Kleinberg goaded her in a girlish voice: "I promise, Patty, this is the last thing we'll ask you to do."
Patty laughed. "You lie a lot," she said.
Ms. Van Auken rushed off an e-mail to Kristen Breitweiser, a 9/11 widow from Middletown, who shot back two words: "Let's rally!"
And so, six months after the women's husbands had been murdered and their families shattered, the four found each other.
Mindy Kleinberg and her three children were still roaming their house at night, unable to sleep. They would try one bed after another, until the 4-year-old would finally pass out, while her 7- and 11-year-olds were still fitful. When Mindy spotted a monstrosity of a bed-a display prop in a furniture store-she bought it out of the window. She and her three children could sleep in it together.
Ms. Kleinberg and Ms. Van Auken commiserated nightly about the mute rage of their young sons. Lorie's son, 14, had been in a science classroom on Sept. 11. "They neglected to turn off the TV, so he watched his father die on TV at school." The boy could not forgive himself. He had heard his father getting ready for work that morning, but had been too sleepy to go downstairs and say goodbye to him.
Mindy was also worried about her 4-year-old. One day he had a meltdown in a store, crying and sobbing and repeating, "Everybody's died except me!"
These lonely suburban moms have banded together as an intentional family. They fit their research and their trips to D.C. in between meetings at a doctor's office to support the one who is having a breast biopsy, or keeping a phone vigil with another mom whose child is making suicidal noises, or taking their collective seven fatherless children away on a holiday weekend-as long as they don't have to fly or take a train.
Since last winter, when I began writing about the four moms for The Observer , I have marveled at the clarity and perspicacity of the questions they keep raising. Lacking subpoena power or a staff of 60 investigators, they are still leagues ahead of the commissioners.
"We always come back to the same guideline," said Ms. Van Auken, "Just do the right thing-not the political thing, not the P.R. thing, not the TV-soundbite thing-just keep asking for truth for the families and the public."
But it is exactly this genuineness, this quest which is all personal and all political at once, that has recently drawn the national spotlight to them.
When Richard Clarke opened his testimony before the 9/11 commission, he said: "Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And your government failed you. I failed you."
Some of the four moms dissolved in tears. These were the words they had been aching to hear any member of their government utter. The wall around Ms. Van Auken's well of sadness, cemented over by activism, crumbled. She sobbed uncontrollably.
Somewhere in the wall-to-wall running commentary on the 24-hour news networks about how much credibility those tears lent Mr. Clarke and his testimony, Ms. Van Auken, her friends and other family members rose and spontaneously walked out to protest the failure of Condi Rice to appear.
"We haven't had any of our questions answered, and the country still isn't safe," Ms. Van Auken said.
And that vacuum, now, as much as the grief, fuels their continuing passion.
Just last week, the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security revealed that they are hearing from their intelligence sources that terrorists are planning new terror attacks in New York City. "We've heard over and over that they want to use suitcase nukes," said Ms. Van Auken. "We've been saying for ages, 'Why don't they check more of our containers coming into U.S. ports? Why don't they dry up the money lines for terrorists?' It's only after Madrid that they're talking about trains. It sounds to me like we're stalled."
Ms. Breitweiser isn't so rattled anymore when the government issues yet another warning that future terrorist attacks are likely.
"If they put out an alert that there could be backpack bombs on trains, and you see a backpack on the floor with wires coming out of it, you won't ignore it," she said. "My husband was in building two of the Trade Center. If he had only known we were under terrorist threat, he wouldn't have thought it was an accident, and he might have run out of the building."