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The Failure of the 9/11 Commission

Decision Not to Explore Quashed FBI Investigations Prior to 9/11 Tarnishes Hearings

by BRYAN SACKS

At the twelfth and final public session of the 9/11 commission hearings this week in the NTSB building in Washington, DC, the disappointment was palpable among family members of the 9/11 deceased. A less-than distinguished panel of FBI and CIA agents took turns praising the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Al-Qaeda, and offered little hope that future efforts would be successful in stopping terrorism. But give the CIA and FBI this: they can still recognize a marketing opportunity when they see it.

Apparently unfamiliar with the concept of shame, representatives from two of the agencies whose failures bear clear responsibility for the events of 9/11 saw the morning session as an opportunity to shill for ‘patience’ and, tacitly, more money. One after another, in front of the surviving family members, many of whom clutched pictures of their dead sons, daughters, husbands and wives, the agents fawned over the incredible resourcefulness, commitment and dedication of Al Qaeda operatives (in one notable exchange, Al Qaeda was glowingly described as “innovative,” “creative” and “entrepreneurial”—why not just say you were outsmarted?) The CIA agents referred familiarly to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Osama Bin Laden as ‘KSM’ and ‘UBL’. The uninitiated might have gotten the impression they were speaking of protégés, and not hated enemies. Earlier, in a jaunty tone completely incongruous with the substance of his statement, the CIA’s Dr. Kay told the commission that “(Al-Qaeda) may strike next week, next month or next year, but it will strike.” The agencies took no responsibility for the attacks, and they were not challenged to.

But the nadir of the morning session came when commissioner James Thompson asked all of the panelists how best to combat the new type of stateless enemy Al-Qaeda represents. FBI special agent Mary Deborah Doran answered last. She had already warned the Commission in her introductory remarks that, as a “street agent”, she was removed from the “policy and administrative decision-making processes” that determined the scope of the FBI’s investigation of Al Qaeda, and thus could not speak to them (no one did that day, including Executive Assistant FBI Director John Pistole, seated to her right). Her answer to Thompson’s question was: "I think what we need to do . . at the FBI street-agent level, is to continue what we’ve always done, and that is to pursue all the information that we do get. . . to its logical end. . ."

Here, in classic doublespeak fashion, Doran gives an answer that is a non-answer. She had to be aware that several FBI “street-level” investigations into the activities of the 9/11 terrorists were stymied by higher-ups in the weeks prior to 9/11, each under strange circumstances, and well before the street-level agents felt like they had reached their “logical end”. Consider the following cases, all drawn from mainstream news sources, summarized in David Ray Griffin’s well-researched expose, "The New Pearl Harbor":

1) Ken Williams of the Phoenix FBI office sent a now-famous July 10, 2001 memo to the counterterrorism division of the FBI suggesting that the organization institute a national program to keep tabs on suspicious flight-school students. This came just a few weeks after the CIA learned that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 plot and a well-known terrorist at that time who the CIA was monitoring, was recruiting jihadists to come to the US to take part in attacks here. Williams, who had previously been transferred to an unrelated arson case despite tracking the hijackers for more than a year, had been back on the case for about a month when he wrote the memo, which also warned of a possible “effort by Osama bin Laden to send students to the US to attend civil aviation universities and colleges” (Fortune, May 22, 2002). His suggestion for a national program was ignored before 9/11;

2) FBI agent Robert Wright of the Chicago field office, who had been investigating a suspected terrorist cell for three years, was informed in January 2001 that the case was being closed. This despite Wright’s contention that his case was growing stronger. His investigation included individuals from the notorious Ptech, a software company which provided product for the White House, Congress, FBI, CIA, IRS, Army, Navy, and FAA and which was raided by federal agents in December 2002.

Three months before September 11, Wright wrote a stinging internal memo charging that the FBI was not interested in thwarting a terrorist attack, but rather "was merely gathering intelligence so they would know who to arrest when a terrorist attack occurred." (UPI, May 30, 2002, cited in Griffin, p. 83);

3) Legal officer Colleen Rowley worked in the FBI’s Minneapolis field office when agents arrested Zacarias Moussaoui in August of 2001. The commission made repeated mention of the fact that Moussaoui, by that time, was considered a very dangerous person capable of crashing a plane into the World Trade Center. The Minneapolis felt so strongly about the need to detain him that a request was sent to FBI headquarters to search Moussaoui’s laptop computer under the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Approximately 10,000 requests under FISA over the past 20 years had been made without a single request being turned down, but the Minneapolis agency’s request never got out of the FBI. The request had been excised of the critical intelligence that made the case for Moussaoui’s connection to Al Qaeda in Chechnya on its path to FBI headquarters. Excised of that justification, the request was never forwarded for FISA consideration, spurring Rowley to charge that the FBI was "sabotaging" the case, and another agent to charge that headquarters was "setting this up for failure." (Senate Intelligence Committee, October 17, 2002; Time, July 21 and July 27, 2002 and Sydney Morning Herald July 28, 2002, each cited in Griffin, p. 81);

4) On Aug 28, 2001 the New York FBI office requested opening a criminal investigation in soon-to-be hijacker Khalid Almihdhar based on evidence he had been involved in the USS Cole bombing. The request was turned down, on the basis that, as Griffin puts it, "Almihdhar could not be tied to the Cole investigation without the inclusion of sensitive intelligence information." This led one frustrated FBI agent to write in an email that "someday someone will die–and. . . the public will not understand why we were not more effective." (Congressional Intelligence Committee, cited in Griffin, p. 83). Perhaps Doran, a New York FBI agent herself, knew something about this? She was not asked directly.

What these examples make clear is that FBI “street agents” and translators don’t have the power to follow their investigations to their logical ends when they are obstructed by their superiors. In light of these facts, Doran’s breezy recommendation that the FBI street agents “keep doing what we’ve always done” is entirely inadequate, and inspires no confidence. Neither Thompson nor any other commissioner pressed for a better answer. And while the FBI’s “unprecedented transformation” after 9/11 testified to by FBI Executive Assistant Director For Counterterrorism John Pistole on April 14 may sound impressive to some, it does not explain nor address the past obstruction of promising investigations. Factor in the erosion of civil liberties required for its execution, and the “unprecedented transformation” appears to be of dubious value.

There are several other aspects about the FBI’s behavior pre- and post-9/11 that scream out for further investigation. One of the most bizarre cases still unfolding involves the targeting of former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds, who was fired by the agency shortly after reporting a number of complaints to her superiors. According to a June 7, 2004 story in The New Republic, those complaints included the charge that a fellow FBI translator, Can Dickerson, tried to recruit Edmonds into a foreign organization whose documents Dickerson had been translating and which had been under investigation by the FBI. Edmonds then filed a wrongful termination suit and took her grievance to Senators Charles Grassley and Patrick Leahy, as well as the television program “60 Minutes,” which aired an interview with her in 2002.

But the FBI has since gone to extraordinary lengths to silence Edmonds. In May, the Bureau re-classified all of the information it presented to Sens. Grassley and Leahy, nearly two years after it had become public. It even violated its own rules for reclassification in doing so. The reclassification has had the effect of silencing Grassley and Leahy on the matter, too, who had been pressing the Bureau for a fuller account of the matter. Now they were limited to writing classified letters to the FBI.

Edmonds, meanwhile, has seen her wrongful termination suit delayed for two years and most recently was informed by Judge Reggie Walton on June 14 that her hearing was delayed once again (for the fourth time), with no date set for a rescheduling. The delays result from an effort from Attorney General John Ashcroft to invoke the State Secrets Privilege, which can quash lawsuits on the basis that their continuation would damage national security. Judge Walton is still waiting for the government to make its case for the invoking of the States Secrets Privilege. In the meantime, as the New Republic notes, while Edmonds herself is not gagged, she is not permitted to reference any of the now-classified information that could substantiate her claims.

At her June 14 press conference outside the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse in Washington, DC, Edmonds summarized her charges clearly, stating that for more than two years, “John Ashcroft has been relentlessly engaged in actions geared toward covering up my report and investigations into my allegations. His actions. . . .include gagging the United States Congress, blocking court proceedings on my (wrongful termination suit) by invoking the State Secrets Privilege, quashing the subpoena for my deposition on information regarding 9/11, withholding documents requested under the Freedom Of Information Act and preventing the release of the Inspector General’s report of its investigations into my report and allegations.”

She threw down a gauntlet to all citizens, members of Congress and federal officials that so far have not spoken out, saying, “To become an American citizen, I took the citizenship oath. In taking this oath, I pledged I would support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Therefore, not only do I have the right to challenge John Ashcroft’s anti-constitution(al) and un-American actions, but as an American citizen I am required to do so. So are you.”

Edmonds did testify with the 9/11 commission behind closed doors, but a host of disturbing questions still remain before the commission:

• Why weren’t any of the agents mentioned above called to testify in the commission’s public hearings? What legitimate claim to a thorough investigation can be made without their public testimony?

• Were the FBI agents who saw their investigations stymied at least deposed in private sessions?

• Why was Robert Wright’s investigation derailed, and why did the government move to block significant portions of his book in 2002, such that it remains unpublished to this day?

• Why was the information connecting Moussaoui’s connection with rebels in Chechnya excised before it reached the FBI Deputy General?

• And why have lower-level agents been demoted and/or punished for doing their jobs while their superiors, who spiked, obstructed or otherwise compromised their promising investigations been rewarded?

In sum, the day’s hearings played as a commercial for supporting the efforts of the country’s intelligence agencies without additional public scrutiny of them. We’ve seen that show before, and we know how it ends. If the commission’s report fails to adequately address Sibel Edmonds’ charges, and fails to address the obstructed FBI investigations prior to 9/11, the unanswered questions which haunt the 9/11 Inquiry will grow louder and more insistent, and neither the 9/11 families nor the concerned citizens of this country will have the closure they deserve.

BRYAN SACKS is an adjunct instructor of philosophy for Immaculata University. He can be reached at bksacks@yahoo.com

Works Referred to:

1.David Ray Griffin, The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions about the Bush Administration and 9/11. Northampton: Olive Branch Press, copyright 2004.