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More on a putative Warren Commission meeting with Fidel Castro

By Anthony Summers

Of note today is what CBS has now posted on its website about the alleged meeting between Warren Commission counsel William Coleman and Fidel Castro. There’s a nod to the fact that Coleman first made his claim about having met Castro long since, to me – not only, as he has recently said, to author Philip Shenon.

What’s glaring by omission, however, is that – in a letter, which I shared with CBS and on this blog – Coleman formally retracted what he’d initially told me, denying that he had ever met with Castro.

Making the Castro meeting claim twice (to me), then retracting it, then making it anew (to Shenon) makes Coleman a less than reliable witness on an historically significant matter.

So does the fact that Coleman told me Castro gave him documents to take back to Washington, and that he assumed the record of that to be in the National Archives. Whereas he seems to have told Philip Shenon that there was no documentation.

In a world of proper reporting, this should receive coverage.

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Reflections on the New Yorker and the JFK Assassination

This week’s edition of the New Yorker is on newsstands today – with a shortened version of my comments about Adam Gopnik’s piece of last week in the Letters column. I thought readers of this blog might be interested in seeing the full text before it was edited.


The New Yorker’s piece on John F. Kennedy was brilliant and sweeping in scope – and managed to be both open and closed-minded about the assassination at the same time. As a former British Broadcasting Corporation journalist and the author of a book on the assassination, Not in Your Lifetime, I have for my sins worked on and off on the case for over four decades.

What struck me first in Critic-at-Large Adam Gopnik’s article was what he referred to as the “passionate chaos” and the poetry set loose by the events in Dallas. It reminded me of the irony that the fallen President himself had quoted from Alan Seeger’s poem:

“It may be that he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath…
But I’ve a rendez-vous with Death

Famously, hours before his actual death, in his hotel suite, Kennedy said: “Last night would have been a hell of a night to assassinate a president…Anyone perched above the crowd with a rifle could do it.”

On just how and why the fatal moment came for him, of course, we – and the Gopnik piece – still waver. Respectable polls early this anniversary year indicated that more almost 60% of Americans believed there had been a conspiracy, a cover-up, and that the truth will never be known. The sillier stories aside, how could it be otherwise? The first investigation, the Warren Commission, gave us lone assassin Oswald. The second, the House Assassinations Committee, gave us a “probable conspiracy” finding.

I am not a “conspiracy buff,” to use Gopnik’s term. Nevertheless, having known a number of sensible men and women who doubt the lone assassin version, I think he is less than fair to the doubters he lumps together as “buffs.” No one I respect ever took seriously the notion that LBJ was behind the conspiracy or that Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover, and Nixon were somehow guiltily entwined.

Gopnik dismisses the notion that the Zapruder film was altered to deceive the world. So do I. That is not to say that the argument the Warren Commission made to sustain its lone assassin theory should not be questioned. As recently as 2006, a study by the Livermore National Laboratory under the auspices of the Department of Energy found that calculations “considerably weaken support for the single-bullet theory.” Those doubters are scientists, not buffs. They could be wrong, and they could be right.

Gopnik writes of the belief by veteran journalist Jefferson Morley, that the C.I.A. was “keeping a much sharper eye on Oswald that it ever wanted known”. I think that very possibly is the way to decode major aspects of the case. Aspects of the evidence suggest Oswald was used by the CIA – and possibly others – before the assassination, wittingly or unwittingly, as a low-level pawn in the black propaganda war against Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

This is of course not to suggest that the C.I.A. as an agency had any part in the assassination. There is, however, and has long been, persuasive information leading sane students of the case to suspect that anti-Castro elements and organized crime bosses may have had a hand in it. Both had expressed venomous animosity towards the President. Both, unlike Oswald, had motives to kill him.

In 2007, the former chief counsel of the House Assassinations Committee, latterly Professor of Law Emeritus at Notre Dame Robert Blakey, and I interviewed a witness who gave us what we found – on its face – to be potentially credible identification of a man other than Oswald who admitted before his death that he participated in the assassination. Will the media take notice?

There is something people should be exercised about, meanwhile, that has nothing to with the evidence. Finally, thousands of relevant records, including 1,171 C.I.A. documents classified on the ground of national security, remain withheld. The law requires that all Kennedy-assassination-related records be released by 2017, unless the President rules otherwise. If Oswald was a Leftist loner who upped and killed the president – if that was all there was to it – why?

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Afghanistan: Back When It All Began

  October 11, 2011                                               

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded coalition forces in 2009-10 in Afghanistan, caused a stir last week with his suggestion that the U.S. is only just past the 50% mark in terms of achieving its goals – particularly that of  “creating a legitimate government that the Afghan people believe in, and therefore providing a counterweight to the Taliban.” “I think that’s going to be a hard last percentage to close,” McChrystal added.

Speaking almost ten years to the day since the conflict began, McChrystal charged that the U.S. had gone into that conflict with a “very superficial understanding of the situation and history,” didn’t speak the language or adequately grasp either the number of “forces at play” or the “players”. To the catalogue of early mistakes McChrystal added the burden of having opened a second front in Iraq, which not only stretched resources but fundamentally “changed the Muslim world’s view of America’s effort… much of the Muslim world now questioned what we were doing…”

Really to understand where the general is coming from, it may be useful to turn back the calendar to the closing months of 2001, when the seeds of the  current U.S. predicament were sown.



The way America would react to the Al Qaeda assault on 9/11 had been immediately clear. Evident within forty-five minutes of the first strike on the World Trade Center, when Bush spoke to the nation from the schoolroom in Florida promising to “hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act.” Evident two hours later at an Air Force base in Louisiana, away from the microphones, when he told aides, “We’re gonna get the bastards.” By the end of September, when he addressed a joint session of Congress,  Bush was referring to the coming fight as the “war on terror”.

            The vast majority of the American people agreed that there had to be severe retribution. At a memorial service on September 14th, with four U.S. presidents in the congregation, the National Cathedral had reverberated to the roar of almost a thousand people singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword…the watch fires of a hundred circling camps…the trumpet that shall never call retreat…Let us die to make men free…”

The September 11 onslaught had been judged an act of war, and the response was to be war. Bush made clear from the start that bin Laden and his followers would not be the only targets. In his address to the nation on the night of the attacks, the President had said the U.S. would “make no distinction between those who planned these acts and those who harbor them.” Within an hour of the television appearance, he was discussing what that would mean with the group he was to call his “war council” – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Powell, CIA Director Tenet, Condoleeza Rice, Richard Clarke, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and key generals.

The talk in the Situation Room at the White House was uncompromising. The Taliban were soon to propose trying bin Laden in Afghanistan or handing him over for trial in another Muslim country, but America would turn a deaf ear. “We’re not only going to strike the rattlesnake,” Bush said at this time, “We’re going to strike the rancher.”

The administration never even considered negotiating with the Taliban, Condoleezza Rice said later. Washington was eventually to issue a formal ultimatum – promptly rejected – demanding that Afghanistan hand over the Saudi exile or “share in his fate.”

The weekend following the attacks, after the frenzy of the first fraught days, Bush flew his war council to the calm of the presidential retreat at Camp David.  CIA Director Tenet and his Counterterrorism chief Cofer Black briefed Bush’s team on the Agency’s plan for “Destroying International Terrorism.” They described what they called the “Initial Hook,” an operation designed to trap Al Qaida inside Afghanistan and destroy it.

The objective was to be achieved by a numerically small CIA paramilitary component and U.S. Special Forces, working with Afghan forces that had long been fighting the Taliban. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Shelton, outlined the crucial bomb and missile strikes that would precede and support the operation. “When we’re through with them,” Black had assured Bush, the Al Qaeda terrorists would “have flies walking across their eyeballs.”

On September 20, the CIA’s Cofer Black gathered the team that was to spearhead the covert operation in Afghanistan. He dispensed with any notion of taking the terrorist leader alive. “Gentlemen, I want to give you your marching orders and I want to make them very clear. I have discussed this with the President, and he is in full agreement…I don’t want bin Laden and his thugs captured. I want them dead. Alive and in prison here in the United States, they’ll become a symbol, a rallying point…They must be killed. I want to see photos of their heads on pikes. I want bin Laden’s head shipped back in a box filled with dry ice. I want to be able to show bin Laden’s head to the President. I promised him I would do that.”

In the field, three men led the operations that targeted bin Laden, two veteran CIA officers, and a Special Forces officer with the unit popularly known as Delta Force. Their teams in the early months numbered only some seventy men, including a dozen Green Berets, Air Force tacticians, communications experts, and a small group of elite British commandos.

“The mission is straightforward,” Black told a colleague back in Washington,” “We locate the enemy wherever they are across the planet. We find them and we kill them.”

The first CIA team was on the ground in Afghanistan just two weeks after 9/11, armed with not only their weapons but three million dollars in $100 bills. The cash, lugged around in duffel bags, was used mostly to grease the palms of anti-Taliban warlords. For a mission that targeted the Taliban as much as bin Laden, buying their loyalty was essential. Brilliant American management of the warlords and their forces, combined with devastating use of airpower, would defeat and decimate the Taliban soldiers – though they were often valiant fighters – in little more than two months.

Getting Osama bin Laden was to prove another matter altogether.

In a letter to Taliban leader Mullah Omar written just before the American attack began, bin Laden forecast that the coming U.S. campaign in Afghanistan would cause “great long-term economic burdens”…force America to resort to the former Soviet Union’s only option: withdrawal from Afghanistan…” Two weeks on, with the bombing continuing, the Taliban’s military commander – a longtime bin Laden ally – claimed his soldiers were holding their ground. Bin Laden was “safe and sound…in good spirits.”

The CIA’s team had only poor intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts. There were attempts to persuade them that he had left the country soon after 9/11. Other reports put him either in the Afghan capital, Kabul, or at Jalalabad, nearer to the border with Pakistan. Bin Laden and a large group of fighters were seen arriving in Jalalabad in a convoy of white Toyota trucks. American bombs were already falling on the city, and their stay was brief.

Bin Laden apparently spoke of wanting to stay and fight. He was dissuaded. The convoy – some 300 vehicles – left soon afterward. At least one of those in the group said they were on their way “to their base at Tora Bora.”

Tora Bora, which translates as “Black Widow,” lies almost sixteen thousand feet above sea level on Towr Ghar – the “Black Dust” – a series of rocky ridges and peaks, ten precipitous miles from the border of Pakistan’s Tribal Areas. A legend now, it was at the time a media fantasy. By November 27th a British newspaper was reporting that it was a “purpose-built guerrilla lair…350 yards beneath a solid mountain. There are small rooms and big rooms, and the wall and floor are cemented…It has its own ventilation system and its own power, created by a hydro-electric generator…driven by water from the peaks of the mountains.”

The reality was far more primitive. Bin Laden’s first wife, who had spent time there, remembered a place with no electricity and no running water, where life was hard at the best of times. In the early December of 2001, in the icy Afghan winter, it became a desolate killing ground.

From their base at an abandoned schoolhouse, the pursuing Americans struggled with multiple obstacles. Tora Bora is not one place but a series of natural ramparts and cave complexes, a frustratingly difficult place to attack. Afghan generals, whose troops were key to the mission, were often intransigent, rarely dependable, and partial to negotiating with an Al Qaeda enemy that the Delta Force and CIA commanders wanted only to destroy. The Afghan inhabitants of the mountains were at best uncertain sources of information. The Americans could dole out cash, but these were people who had enjoyed bin Laden’s largesse for years..

            Berntsen, heading the CIA detachment, encountered reluctance when he begged for more U.S. military support. The operation to hunt down bin Laden, the team was told, was “flawed,” too high risk. The reluctance to commit American ground forces was only going to get worse. What the United States did deliver was the bludgeon of pulverizing airpower. Often guided by forward observation teams, waves of bombers flew from bases in the U.S and carriers in the Persian Gulf to bombard the Al Qaeda positions. AC-130 Spectre gunships pounded them by night.

            Decimated but not yet finally broken, bin Laden’s defenders clung on. Intercepts picked up an Al Qaeda commander giving movement orders, ordering up land mines, exhorting his men to “victory or death.”  On the afternoon of December 13th, Delta Force’s Major Fury and his men listened to a voice they were sure was that of bin Laden. “His Arabic prose sounded beautiful, soothing, and peaceful,” Fury recalled, “I paraphrase him…‘Our prayers have not been answered. Times are dire…Things might have been different…I’m sorry for getting you into this battle. If you can no longer resist, you may surrender with my blessing.’”

            According to the ex-Marine expert at recognizing the Saudi’s voice, bin Laden then gathered his men around him in prayer. There was the sound of mules, used for transport in the high mountains, and people moving around. Then silence.

By the time the bombing and the shooting stopped, Tora Bora was devastated, a wasteland of shattered rocks and broken trees. The detritus of war: spent ammunition, bloody bandages, torn fragments of documents in Arabic script – and not a trace of Osama bin Laden.

            Convinced that their quarry escaped, those who risked their lives to kill him cast bitter blame on those from whom they had taken their orders. The Delta Force operatives, Fury said, had not been allowed to engage in “real war fighting.” Had they been, he thought, things could have turned out differently. Being held back had been like “working in an invisible cage.”

The CIA’s Gary Berntsen had in vain requested a force of eight hundred U.S. troops – to block the “back door”, the mountain escape route to Pakistan. “We need Rangers [special operations combat troops] now!,” he had begged with ever-increasing urgency, “The opportunity to get bin Laden and his men is slipping away!” He had been rebuffed every time.

Why were the troops refused, and who was responsible for the refusal? Military decisions were transmitted by the generals, directly to Berntsen by the officer commanding Joint Special Operations Command, Major General Dell Dailey, who in turn answered to General Tommy Franks, Commander in Chief at U.S. Central Command, the man running the Afghanistan operation.

“We have not said,” Franks remarked at a press briefing just before the fighting at Tora Bora, “that Osama bin Laden is a target of this effort.” It was a strange comment, even taking into account security considerations, given what Fury and Berntsen have said of the explicit orders they had been given. In a 2004 memoir, Franks skirted any discussion of the decision not to use U.S. troops to trap bin Laden. As recently as 2009, the general said he had doubted whether bin Laden was even at Tora Bora. Notwithstanding the certainty expressed by the CIA and Delta Force commanders on the spot, he claimed the intelligence had been “conflicting.”

Delta Force’s Major Fury placed responsibility elsewhere. “The generals,” he said, “were not operating alone. Civilian political figures were also at the control panel….I was not in those air-conditioned rooms with leather chairs when they came up with some of the strangest decisions I have ever encountered…at times, we were micromanaged by higher-ups unknown, even to the point of being ordered to send the exact grid coordinates of our teams back to various folks in Washington.”

The two civilian higher-ups involved with Franks in the decision-making were Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and the man ultimately responsible as Commander-in-Chief, President Bush. Bush, who six days after 9/11 had indicated that he wanted bin Laden “dead or alive”.

The President “never took his eye off the ball when it came to bin Laden,” according to General Franks. Through October and into November, Bush had appeared still keen to “get” bin Laden. In late November, at a CIA briefing, he was told Tora Bora had become the focus, that Afghan forces were inadequate to do the job, that U.S. troops were required. “We’re going to lose our prey if we’re not careful,” the CIA briefer warned. The President seemed surprised. In Afghanistan in early December, shortly before the massive BLU-82 bomb was unleashed on Tora Bora, those heading the fight in the field were told that POTUS – the acronym for the President – had been personally “asking for details.”

According to CIA sources, Bush would reportedly remain “obsessed” with the hunt for bin Laden even months after Tora Bora. In public though, far from talking of getting him dead or alive, he seemed to downgrade his importance. “Terror’s bigger than one person,” the President said in March, 2002, “he’s a person who has been marginalized…I don’t know where he is. Nor, you know, I just don’t spend that much time on him really, to be honest with you…I truly am not that concerned about him.”

The record, perhaps, explains the sea change in the priority given to the hunt for Osama bin Laden. On November 21st, a couple of weeks before the final battles in the mountains and bin Laden’s disappearance, the President had taken Rumsfeld aside for a conversation that he insisted must remain secret. He wanted a war plan forIraq, and insisted that General Franks get working on it immediately.

Franks, already up to his eyes dealing with the conflict inAfghanistan, could barely believe what he was hearing. “Goddamn!” he exclaimed to a fellow general, “What the fuck are they talking about?” The huge pressure he was under had been ratcheted up another notch. From then on, not least in early December, when there were repeated appeals for U.S. troops to block bin Laden’s escape route, the general was constantly plagued with requests for plans as to how to attack Iraq. At a crucial stage of the Tora Bora episode, Bush’s primary focus had begun to shift – and a shift in the Commander-in-Chief’s focus meant distracting the attention of his overworked general from the fight in Afghanistan.




That’s the bungling with which the saga began.

The 140,000 strong U.S. led coalition combat forces are due to leave Afghanistan in 2014. It looks, however, as though this year may prove to be the costliest yet in terms of civilian lives lost. Some observers, moreover, suggest Afghanistan is again teetering on the brink of all-out civil war. If the U.S. is to meet its goal of presiding over an orderly transition and leaving with the hope of a secure future for ordinary Afghans, the problems of the past must be acknowledged and overcome. The omens, though, are poor.




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A New Piece of the 9/11 Jigsaw

                                                                                                                                                                                                            September 20, 2011

An abbreviated version of this post appeared last week on Salon. We take this opportunity to fill in extra detail.

Two sentences in a 9/11 Commission document, previously withheld from the public but released in recent weeks, offer a tantalizing glimpse of a nugget of intelligence that has long been concealed from the public. The sentences read:

            “OnJuly 20, 2001, there was a call between KSM and Binalshibh.

              They used the codewords Teresa and Sally.”

            Those nineteen words, seen now for the first time, indicate that – just seven weeks before the attacks – a Western intelligence service intercepted  a coded phone call between two key 9/11 conspirators. The words now released appear in a three-page memorandum, in a passage describing an exchange between KSM – self-confessed mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – and Ramzi Binalshibh, his go-between to the terrorists preparing the operation in the States. The pair discussed – improbably – sending “skirts” to “Sally.”

“Skirts,” according to the document, was a reference to money. “Sally,” the designated recipient, was their accomplice Zacarias Moussaoui, the would-be hijacker pilot apprehended before 9/11 for behaving suspiciously at a flying school – and since convicted and sentenced to life in prison. “Teresa,” investigators thought, referred to Ziad Jarrah, who was to pilot a hijacked airliner on 9/11 but who – the conspirators feared for some time – might drop out of the operation.

            It is not the detail of the exchange between the plotters that is striking today, though, so much as the revelation that someone was eavesdropping on it. The two telltale sentences, released to us by the National Archives shortly before publication of our book The Eleventh Day, throw up new questions about the role of Western intelligence agencies in the run-up to the attacks.

            Which intelligence service tapped the call? The agencies most likely to have made the intercept are those of theUnited States or Germany. While KSM was almost certainly in Afghanistanon July 20, Binalshibh is believed to have been in Hamburg.

            If the conversation was intercepted by the Germans, did they share it in timely fashion with their American counterparts? Whichever country’s service made the intercept, was work done promptly to translate it or figure out what it might mean? Was it apparent that the exchange related to terrorism, and if so what was done about it?

            As important, were other contacts between the two men monitored before 9/11?

            The search for answers to those questions means going back as far as 1998, when German federal and regional intelligence services were focusing on Islamic extremist activity. They were interested especially in a Syrian-born citizen named Mohammed Zammar, because he appeared to be facilitating jihadi travel to Afghanistan. Zammar was surveilled, his telephone tapped.

            At the start of 1999, calls on Zammar’s line in turn drew attention to aHamburgarea address that was to become infamous after 9/11, the first floor apartment at 54, Marienstrasse. Those who lived there or frequented it would include hijack leader Mohamed Atta, his companion and fellow future hijack pilot Marwan al-Shehhi, Mounir Motassadeq, who is today serving fifteen years inGermanyfor allegedly helping in the plot – and Ramzi Binalshibh himself.

            The first known call of relevance to the 9/11 plot came when a male caller identified at the time only as “Marwan” phoned Zammar’s number from the United Arab Emirates. Weeks later, a caller looking for Zammar was given the number of the Marienstrasse apartment – and both Atta and Binalshibh were mentioned by their first names. Later in the year, when Zammar phoned Marienstrasse, a transcript shows, he sent his regards to Atta.

            When the content of the “Marwan” call was revealed three years after 9/11, a senior German intelligence source described the information on the call as particularly valuable, and said it had been passed – along with the U.A.E. number from which the call had been made – to the CIA. U.A.E. security officials have said the number could have been traced in five minutes, but insisted the CIA never asked them to do so.

            Then CIA Director George Tenet, for his part, would tell the Senate Intelligence Committee, however, that “We didn’t sit on our hands” on receiving the information. “I’m not going to go through the rest of it in open session,” but “we did some things to go find out some things…Okay?…That’s all I want to say in open session.” Is it possible that one of the things done by the CIA was an attempt to monitor the number from which Shehhi called Germany?

            In Germany, meanwhile, the surveillance had expanded beyond Zammar’s phone. Two of the men who used the Marienstrasse apartment were surveilled and their names were put on a border watch list. If such attention was paid to their activity and movements, was none given to that of the apartment’s other denizens, Atta, Shehhi, and Binalshibh?

            An Islamic affairs specialist with German domestic intelligence inStuttgart, Dr. Herbert Müller, told us that Atta was “going through the focus of our colleagues…He came to their notice.”

            If Atta at some stage came to the Germans’ notice, was Binalshibh also in their sights? Can it be that he and the phone he used were being monitored when the July 2001 phone intercept was made? If so, then the July call – if recognized as a terrorists’ conspiratorial communication – could conceivably have begun a series of steps leading to the core of the plot.

            Whatever suspicions there may have been about Binalshibh, his telephone interlocutor KSM had been a wanted man since as early as 1996, when he had been indicted for his role in a plot to blow up airliners – an early concept of his that foreshadowed 9/11.

In June 2001, the month before the intercepted call with Binalshibh, a CIA cable from the field reported that a “Khaled” was “actively recruiting people to travel…including to theUnited Stateswhere colleagues were reportedly already in the country to meet them, to carry out terrorist-related activities for bin Laden.” Weeks later, just before the intercept that is the focus of this article, “Khaled” was identified as KSM.

            The information in that cable from the field was of course almost precisely accurate. Can it be that the July 20 Binalshibh-KSM intercept now in question was made by the Germans, shared with the CIA – and became part of the skein of intelligence that, Director Tenet has said, made summer 2001 a time when “the system was blinking red”?

            Approached by us for interview either on possible pre-9/11 monitoring of the terrorists or on the relations withU.S.intelligence agencies, German federal officials were unhelpful. “Sadly,” a Bundesnachrichtendienst official responded, “due to considerations of principle, your request cannot be granted.”

            The then and now deputy chief of domestic intelligence inHamburg, Manfred Murck, told in late August that it was not his Hamburg region agency that intercepted the Binalshibh/KSM call. The last contact his service had withU.S.officials relevant to 9/11 individuals and issues, he added, had been two years before the attacks.

            “Some countries,” a 9/11 Commission staff statement stated tartly, “did not support U.S.efforts to collect intelligence information on terrorist cells in their countries…This was especially true of some of the European countries.” The report of Congress’ Joint Inquiry, whose mandate it was to investigate the intelligence community’s pre-9/11 performance, stated that pressure had been brought on “foreign authorities” to target “Zammar and other radicals [REDACTION]…” but that “it became apparent only after September 11, 2001 that the foreign authorities had been watching some of those persons before that date.”

            The former U.S. deputy head of mission in Berlin Michael Polt, however, told the 9/11 Commission that his impression was always that “our level of interaction with counterterrorism and cooperation with the Germans was extremely high and well coordinated…the reason the Germans would want to share those concerns with us [was] because they were expecting from us some information that they could use to go after these people.”

            If the July 2001 intercept of the Binalshibh/KSM call was not made by a German agency, the most likely other service to have either made it or been privy to it isAmerica’s National Security Agency, whose remit includes the collection of telephonic traffic. Whether by eavesdropping on Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone, while he still risked using one, or by picking up calls between al Qaeda associates, the NSA had been listening in where possible on the terrorists for years.

The NSA willingly offered cooperation with the 9/11 Commission. Yet Philip Shenon, in his study of the investigation, reported that Commission staff conducted no thorough review of al Qaeda-related material supplied by the NSA. Though some were eager to delve more deeply, they ran out of time.

            That there were concerns within the NSA about its pre-9/11 performance, however, does surface in the record. Toward the end of her interview with Commission staff, a former NSA chief of counterintelligence said concerned agency staff “thought they might have been guilty of missing ‘warning’ information.” For that reason, she added, the NSA had done “a 9/11 retrospective [REDACTION] to insure they knew everything they had.”

            Approached for this article, the NSA did not respond to a request for comment. A Commission staffer present at the interview with the chief of counterintelligence, Lorry Fenner, said she could throw no further light on the nature of the “retrospective.”

            Miles Kara, an analyst for Congress’ Joint Inquiry, who spent dozens of hours reviewing the NSA Retrospective, told us in early September about what he saw of the agency’s post-9/11 trawl. Kara, himself a former senior intelligence officer, says the retrospective was created at the direction of then Director General Michael Hayden and signed by him. “It was delivered to us in a binder,” Kara recalls, “It was created to put in one place everything the agency knew about the warnings leading up to the attack…It sought no conclusions or inferences, it was simply a compilation of primary source (intercepted traffic) information.”

            Asked specifically whether he remembered reference to a July 20 intercept, Kara could say only that the “the ‘Sally’ and ‘Teresa’ language sounds familiar.” Asked whether the retrospective included intercepts made by agencies other than the NSA, he mentioned that there may have been foreign input. “I was focused on the content more than the originating agency, but I’m fairly confident,” Kara told us, “that I recall GCHQ [British communications intelligence] headers…I don’t specifically recall a German header.”

            “Nothing I’ve dredged up from my memory,” he added, “inclines me to support a real-time understanding [by NSA]. “No real-time understanding,” for those unfamiliar with the language of intelligence, suggests the possibility that the NSA – even if it did have the July 20 intercept of the two key 9/11 plotters – did not realize that it had drilled into the mother lode.

            Almost two months before 9/11, U.S intelligence may have had in its hands the treasure that the intercept represented – and simply not understood what it was.

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Bush & Cheney: 9/11 Questions Still Unanswered

The next couple of weeks will be filled with 9/11 remembrances. Best to remind ourselves, though, that ten years after the fact they’re a poor substitute in evidential terms for the contemporary records of the day.  We’ve been giving this a lot of thought, wondering what, if anything, any of the talk will add to our understanding of the day’s events. Two of those notably doing the talking this past week were former President George W. Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney – Bush in an “intimate” interview for National Geographic, Cheney in his just-released memoir, In My Time.

We blogged about this issue last week for The Daily Beast, before having heard Bush’s much-publicized 9/11 interview for National Geographic.  In our Beast piece we pointed out that neither Bush nor Cheney has ever submitted to questioning alone and under oath on the events of September 11.  Bush and Cheney instead granted a “private interview” to 9/11 Commission members but without recorders or stenographers present.

As a test, we’ve analysed their latest comments on one significant question about their own behaviour as the attacks unfolded – the matter of who authorized the shooting down of civilian airliners.

While the fire and smoke of the attacks was still in the air, top Bush administration officials hurried out statements on who issued that momentous order, and when. First there had been a flat statement  by Deputy  Defense  Secretary Wolfowitz that—had  United  93 not crashed—Air Force pilots had been poised to shoot it down. Next, on the Sunday after 9/11, had come Vice President Cheney’s account, in a Meet the Press interview, of how the shooting down of hijacked airliners had been authorized.  Cheney said the “horrendous decision” had been made—with his wholehearted agreement—by the President himself. There had been moments, he said, when he thought a shoot-down might be necessary

Bush took the decision during  one of their  phone  calls that day, Cheney told Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, “I recommended to the President that  we authorize . . . I said, ‘We’ve got to give the pilots rules of engagement, and I recommend we authorize  them  to shoot.’ We talked about it briefly, and he said, ‘OK, I’ll sign up to that.’ He made the decision.”

Bush himself, speaking with The Washington Post’s  Bob Woodward, said Cheney  had indeed suggested that he issue the order.  His response, as he remembered it in late 2001, had  been  monosyllabic.  Just, “You bet.” Later still, speaking with the 9/11 commissioners,  Bush recalled having discussed the matter in a call made to him by Cheney, and “emphasized”  that  it was he who authorized  the shootdown  of hijacked aircraft.

By the time the President wrote his 2010 memoir,  that call from the Vice President had become a call  he made to Cheney. Bush’s monosyllabic authorization, moreover, had transmogrified into a well thought-out plan.

“I called Dick Cheney as Air Force One climbed rapidly to forty-five thousand  feet . . . ,” the President  wrote. “He had been taken to the underground Presidential Emergency Operations Center—the PEOC—when the Secret Service thought a plane might be coming at the White  House. I told him that I would make decisions from the air and count on him to implement them on the ground.”

“Two big decisions came quickly. The military had dispatched Combat Air Patrols—teams of fighter  aircraft  assigned to intercept unresponsive  airplanes—over  Washington  and  New  York. . . .  We needed to clarify the rules of engagement. I told Dick that our pilots should contact suspicious planes and try to get them to land peace- fully. If that failed, they had my authority to shoot them down.”

Have Bush and Cheney’s most recent utterances shed any new light? In his Nat Geo interview this past week, President Bush gave a truncated account of the event, echoing the notion that it was “a decision” he alone had made, but this time entirely leaving out any mention of Cheney. Cheney, for his part, reiterates in his memoir that the President had “approved my recommendation” that the military be authorized to “fire on a civilian airliner if it had been hijacked and would not divert.” No clarity there.

It would have been unthinkable  for the  U.S.  military to  down a civilian airliner without a clear order from the President,  as commander-in-chief. In his absence, the authority belonged to the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. “The operational chain of command,” relevant law decreed, ran “from the President  to the Secretary of Defense,” and on through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to individual commanders.  The Vice President  was not in the chain of command.

That was well understood by U.S. military on September 11. In an earlier exercise, one that postulated a suicide mission involving a jet aimed at Washington, they had said shooting it down would require an “executive” order. The defense secretary’s authority, General Arnold told the Commission, was necessary to shoot down even a “derelict balloon.” Only the President, he thought, had the authority  to shoot down a civilian airliner.

The 9/11 Commission  made no overt statement  as to whether  it be- lieved Cheney’s assertion—that he recommended and Bush decided. Shown the final draft of the Report’s passage on the shoot-down decision, however, Cheney was furious. For all its careful language, the Report  dropped a clear hint that its staff had found Cheney’s account—and Bush’s—less than convincing.

“We  just didn’t  believe it,” general  counsel  Daniel  Marcus  de- clared long afterward. “The official version,” John Farmer would say, “insisted  that  President  Bush had  issued an authorization to  shoot down hijacked commercial flights, and that that order had been pro- cessed through the chain of command and passed to the fighters. This was untrue.”

Why  might a phony  scenario have been created? “The administration version,” Farmer  noted,  “implied, where it did not state explicitly, that  the chain of command  had been functioning on 9/11, and that the critical decisions had been made by the appropriate top officials. . . . None of this captures how things actually unfolded on the day.”

As we said in the Beast, we believe we come close in The Eleventh Day to establishing that shoot-down authorization originated not with Bush but with the Vice President. Nothing that either man has revealed in the past week changes that.

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On Nixon’s Sanity…or Otherwise

August 18, 2011

I’ve  been hearing a lot about Nassir Ghaemi’s new book A First Rate Madness. Ghaemi, an academic psychiatrist with a string of prestigious teaching posts to his name.  He’s also the director of the Mood Disorders Clinic at Tufts University Medical Center.  Using the lives of such notable leaders as Lincoln, Churchill and Gandhi, Ghaemi argues that one “should accept, even celebrate” the possibility that our decision-makers have dealt with mental illnesses —  all of which he says foster in those who have them the qualities of “realism, resilience, empathy and creativity.”

It’s an intriguing and counter-intuitive theory – which should rise or fall on the strength of Ghaemi’s grasp of the personalities he’s chosen as his subjects. I cannot claim any special knowledge of Lincoln, Churchill or Gandhi. As one of the late President’s biographer’s, however, and the only one to have spent considerable time with his psychotherapist – I’ll be intrigued to see the case he makes for Richard Nixon. According to Newsweek, Ghaemi concludes, that Nixon’s failing was that he was “too sane” for the times he lived in, his handling of the Watergate crisis too much like that of an ordinary person. Continue reading

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