Sense and Nonsense About September 11

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Did Osama bin-Laden outwit US intelligence agencies in a deadly game of decoy or double bluff? CounterPunch has learned from two sources that a) three weeks before the attack of September 11 security at the World Trade Center was abruptly heightened and that b) six weeks before the attack a US army base in New Jersey was placed on top security alert.

As regards the heightened security at the Trade Center, we are told that according to a businessman working in World Trade Building number 7 (the 41-story structure that collapsed after having been evacuated) “security was heightened three weeks ago, including the introduction for the first time of sniffer dogs and the physical search of all trucks prior to their being waved into the entrance from the street.

The US army base in New Jersey is the Arsenal at Picatinny. Our informant says that at the start of July the Arsenal was placed at a very state of alert, with some staff locked in their offices for a period.

Set this information against the fact that Osama bin Laden, now prime suspect, said in an interview three weeks ago with Abdel-Bari Atwan, the editor of the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, that he planned “very, very big attacks against American interests.” On the night of September 11 Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts told CNN that CIA director George Tenet informed him before the attack that the Agency had recently thwarted an attack by bin Laden’s organization.

So, was there an attempted attack some time in August, or was it merely a feint by the bin Laden units, to prompt an alert, then a relaxation of US security procedures?

US intelligence agencies, stung with charges that they are responsible for a failure of catastrophic proportions, are successfully pressing for bigger funding, with the likelihood that the present $30 billion outlay will soar upward.

The September 11th onslaughts on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are being likened to Pearl Harbor and the comparison is just. From the point of view of the assailants the attacks were near miracles of logistical calculation, timing, courage in execution and devastation inflicted upon the targets.

The Pearl Harbor base containing America’s naval might was thought to be invulnerable, yet in half an hour 2000 were dead, and the cream of the fleet destroyed. This week, within an hour on the morning of September 11, security at three different airports was successfully breached, the crews of four large passenger jets efficiently overpowered, the cockpits commandeered, navigation coordinates reset.

In three of the four missions the assailants attained successes probably far beyond the expectations of the planners. As a feat of suicidal aviation the Pentagon kamikaze assault was particularly audacious, with eyewitness accounts describing the Boeing 767 skimming the Potomac before driving right through the low lying Pentagon perimeter, in a sector housing Planning and Logistics.

The two Trade Center buildings were struck at what structural engineers say were the points of maximum vulnerability. The strength of the buildings derived entirely from the steel perimeter frame, designed ? so its lead architect said only last week – to withstand the impact of a Boeing 707. These buildings were struck full force on the morning of September 11 by Boeings 767s, with fuel tanks fully loaded for the long flights to the West Coast. Within an hour of the impacts both buildings collapsed. By evening, a third 46-story Trade Center building had also crumbled.

Not in terms of destructive extent, but in terms of symbolic obliteration the attack is virtually without historic parallel, a trauma at least as great as the San Francisco earthquake or the Chicago fire.

Here is bin-Laden, probably the most notorious Islamic foe of America on the planet, originally trained by the CIA, planner of other successful attacks on US installations such as the embassies in East Africa, carrying a $5 million FBI bounty on his head proclaiming the imminence of another assault, and US intelligence was impotent, even though the attacks must have taken months, if not years to plan, and even though CNN has reported that bin-Laden and his coordinating group al-Qa’ida had been using an airstrip in Afghanistan to train pilots to fly 767s.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when hijacking was a preoccupation, the possibility of air assaults on buildings such as the Trade Center were a major concern of US security and intelligence agencies. But since the 1980s and particularly during the Clinton-Gore years the focus shifted to more modish fears, such as bio-chemical assault and nuclear weapons launched by so-called rogue states. This latter threat had the allure of justifying the $60 billion investment in Missile Defense aka Star Wars. The national security budget is grotesquely tilted towards high tech, costly items, and this is reflected in the procurement policies of the intelligence agencies which have poured money into satellites, spy planes and snooping technologies, (which are so incompetent they even failed to detect India’s nuclear detonations in June of 1998), all at the expense of human intelligence.

One of the biggest proponents of the bio-chemical threat was Al Gore’s security advisor, Leon Fuerth, who wailed plaintively amid the rubble of the Pentagon that “In effect the country’s at war but we don’t have the coordinates of the enemy.”


In the aftermath of the attack, calls for retribution mounted rapidly, few with more venom that the oration in Congress from the junior senator from New York, who was positively blood curdling in contrast to Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s commendable performance as a leader and as a public voice counseling against over-hasty identification of the attackers.

The phrases “faceless coward” and “faceless enemy” have been bandied about. This phrase has a savage resonance to those who recall its use in America’s war in Vietnam. In 1965 CIA officer George Carver wrote an infamous article in Foreign Affairs titled “The Faceless Vietcong”, which rationalized the US campaign of assassination and torture of civilians in South Vietnam that came to be known as the Phoenix Program.

The lust for retaliation traditionally outstrips precision in identifying the actual assailant. By early evening, September 11, America’s national security establishment was calling for a removal of all impediments on the assassination of foreign leaders. Led by President Bush, they were endorsing the prospect of attacks not just on the perpetrators but on those who might have harbored them. From the nuclear priesthood is coming the demand that mini-nukes be deployed on a preemptive basis against the enemies of America.

The targets abroad will be all the usual suspects: rogue states, (most of which, like the Taleban or Saddam Hussein, started off as creatures of US intelligence). The target at home will be the Bill of Rights. Less than a week ago the FBI raided Infocom, the Texas-based web host for Muslim groups such as the Council on Islamic Relations, the Islamic Society of North America, the Islamic Association for Palestine, and the Holy Land Foundation.

Declan McCullagh, political reporter for Wired, has described how within hours of the blast FBI agents began showing up at internet service providers demanding that they place “Carnivore system” traces to track e-mail traffic on their systems. In some cases the FBI offered to underwrite the costs of installing “Carnivore”. McCullagh quotes one Microsoft engineer as saying that Microsoft “officials have been receiving calls from the San Francisco FBI office since mid-Tuesday morning and are cooperating with their expedited request for information about a few specific accounts. Most of the account names start with the word ‘Allah’ and contain messages in Arabic.”

Palestinians have been denied visas, and those in this country can, under the terms of the Counter-Terrorism Act of the Clinton years, be held and expelled without due process. The explosions were not an hour old before terror pundits like Anthony Cordesman, Wesley Clark, Robert Gates and Lawrence Eagleburger were saying that these attacks had been possible “because America is a democracy”, adding that now some democratic perquisites might have to be abandoned. What might this mean? Increased domestic snooping by US law enforcement and intelligence agencies; ethnic profiling; another drive for a national ID card system.

The aftermath of the attacks did not offer a flattering exhibition of America’s leaders. For most of the day the only Bush who looked composed and in control was Laura, who happened to waiting to testify on Capitol Hill. Her husband gave a timid and stilted initial reaction in Sarasota, Florida, then disappeared for an hour before resurfacing Barksdale airbase in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he gave another flaccid address with every appearance of bring on tranquilizers. He was then flown to a bunker in Nebraska, before someone finally had the wit to suggest that the best place for an American president at time of national emergency is the Oval Office.

Other members of the cabinet were equally elusive. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has managed to avoid almost every site of crisis or debate was once again absent from the scene, in Latin America. Defense Secretary Donald Runsfeld remained invisible most of the day, even though it would have taken him only a few short steps to get to the Pentagon pressroom and make some encouraging remarks. When he did finally appear the substance of his remarks and his demeanor were even more banal and unprepossessing than those of his commander in chief. At no point did Vice President Cheney appear in public.

Some presidential contenders make haste to present themselves to the press.. John McCain curdled the air with threats against America’s foes, as did John Kerry, who immediately blamed bin-Laden and who stuck the knife firmly into CIA director George Tenet, citing Tenet as having told him not long ago that the CIA had neutralized an impending attack by bin-Laden. Orrin Hatch told CNN, “This looks like the signature of Osama bin-Laden. We’re going to find out who did this and we’re going after the bastards. Yes, this is the same Hatch who was a senior Republican on the senate intelligence committee when the CIA was arming bin-Laden and the Afghan rebels. In 1998 Hatch told MSNBC that he would support the fundamentalist Afghan rebels again even if he knew that it would create another bin Laden. “It was worth it”, Hatch said.

Absent national political leadership, the burden of rallying the nation fell as usual upon the TV anchors, all of whom seem to have resolved early on to lower the emotional temper, though Tom Brokaw did lisp a declaration of War against Terror. One of the more ironic sights was Dan Rather talking about retaliation against bin Laden. It was of course Rather, wrapped in a turban, who voyaged to the Hindu Kush in the early 1980s to send back paeans to the Mujahiddeen (trained and supplied by the CIA in its largest ever operation), which ushered onto the world stage such well trained cadres as those now deployed against America.

The eyewitness reports of the collapse of the two Trade Center buildings were not inspired, at least for those who have heard the famous eyewitness radio reportage of the crash of the Hindenberg zeppelin in Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937 with the anguished cry of the reporter, “Oh the humanity, the humanity”. Radio and TV reporters these days seem incapable of narrating an ongoing event with any sense of vivid language or dramatic emotive power.

The commentators were similarly incapable of explaining with any depth the likely context of the attacks. It was possible to watch the cream of the nation’s political analysts and commentating classes, hour after hour, without ever hearing the word “Israel”, unless in the context of a salutary teacher in how to deal with Muslims. One could watch hour after hour without hearing any intimation that these attacks might be the consequence of the recent Israeli rampages in the Occupied Territories that have included assassinations of Palestinian leaders and the slaughter of Palestinian civilians with the use of American aircraft; that these attacks might also stem from the sanctions against Iraq that have seen upward of a million children die; that these attacks might in part be a response to US cruise missile attacks on the Sudanese factories that had been loosely fingered by US intelligence as connected to bin-Laden.

In fact September 11 was the anniversary of George W. Bush’s speech to Congress in 1990, heralding war against Iraq. It was also the anniversary of the Camp David accords, which signalled the US buy-out of Egypt as any countervailing force for Palestinian rights in the Middle East. One certain beneficiary of the attacks is Israel. Polls had been showing popular dislike here for Israel’s recent tactics, which may have been the motivation for Colin Powell’s few bleats of reproof to Israel. We will be hearing no such bleats in the weeks to come. The attackers probably bet on that too, as a way of making the US’s support for Israeli intransigence even more explicit, finishing off Arafat in the process.

“Freedom,” said George Bush in Sarasota in the first sentence of his first reaction, “was attacked this morning by a faceless coward.” That properly represents the stupidity and blindness of almost all of the mainstream political commentary. By contrast, the commentary on economic consequences was more informative, even though the possibility of a deep plunge in the world economy was barely dealt with. Yet before the attacks the situation was extremely precarious, with the possibility of catastrophic deflation as the 1990s bubble bursts, and the stresses of world over-capacity and lack of purchasing power take an ever-greater toll.

Worst hit, and therefore most likely precipitate of a wider crash, is the insurance industry, whose predicament is now desperate, with an exposure that is, in the words of a spokesman for Swiss Re, the world’s second largest reinsurer, “completely inestimable” . Likely outfall in the short-term: hiked energy prices, a further drop in global stock markets. George Bush will have no trouble in raiding the famous lock-box, using Social Security Trust Funds to give more money to the Defense Department. That about sums it up. Three planes are successfully steered into three of America’s most conspicuous buildings and America’s response will be to put more money in missile defense as a way of bolstering the economy. CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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