The Myth of the 911 Commision

Wall Street Journal

August 12, 2006

August \

by Edward Jay Epstein

IN JULY 2004, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the
United States, popularly known as the 9/11 Commission, published its
final report. Coming in the midst of the presidential campaign, it won
the quick endorsement of both candidates and wide acceptance in the
media. In "Without Precedent," the commission's co-chairmen, Thomas Kean
and Lee Hamilton, offer an inside account of their investigation of the
9/11 tragedy.
The book's title is somewhat of a misnomer. There were of course
dozens of precedents for high-level bipartisan inquiries, such as the
Warren Commission's investigation of the JFK assassination. More to the
point, there was a precedent for the investigation of the 9/11 attack:
the Joint Inquiry by the House Permanent Select Committee on
Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Indeed,
the 9/11 Commission was required to use the Joint Inquiry's report as
its starting point and to limit itself to fill in what it had not
already covered.
The most notable difference between these two investigations was
their public relations-or, in Mr. Kean's and Mr. Hamilton's apt phrase,
their "public face." The co-chairmen assumed that it was vital to be
perceived "as having full access to the most secretive material in the
To build this impression, they recount in the book how they prevailed
in their battle for information with a secretive Bush administration, an
evasive military bureaucracy and recalcitrant New York City officials.
They also had to cultivate the media. So both chairmen appeared on the
TV talk shows, gave joint press interviews and did everything possible
to build an aura of openness around the investigation-hoping to avoid,
as they explained, "the kinds of conspiracy theorizing that have
followed in the wake of other inquiries." For the commission to succeed,
Messrs. Kean and Hamilton had to nurture the impression that the
commissioners had seen all the evidence regarding 9/11 and had
independently assessed it.
In reality, however, the 9/11 Commission was neither exhaustive nor
independent. If the investigation had truly been as exhaustive as
advertised, it would have made a genuine effort to weigh evidence that
ran counter to its thesis. But it did not. Consider how the 9/11
Commission dealt with Capt. Scott Phillpott, a high-ranking naval
intelligence officer who asserted that through data mining his military
intelligence unit, code-named Able Danger, had identified Mohamed Atta
as a potential terrorist in 2000 and even had his photograph on a chart.

Since the staff could not find any such chart in the documents that
it had obtained from the Pentagon and because Capt. Phillpott's account
"failed to match up" with the staff's conclusion that Atta was unknown
to U.S. intelligence prior to 9/11, this putative identification of Atta
was omitted from the commission's report (and a number of commissioners
were not informed about it). Later, the Pentagon said that at least four
other intelligence officers in the unit had confirmed that they had seen
the photograph of Atta or recalled hearing Atta's name prior to 9/11.
The Pentagon also explained that one possible reason the chart with
Atta's photo was missing: the military had destroyed many Able Danger
records in 2001. To be sure, there were reasons to be skeptical about
eye-witness accounts, but an exhaustive investigation would have at
least heard them.
Nor was the 9/11 Commission able to independently evaluate or verify
crucial information it received from intelligence agencies. For example,
although the CIA had imprisoned seven al-Qaeda conspirators who had
planned, directed and coordinated the 9/11 attack, the agency refused to
give the commission access to the prisoners. In the case of the Warren
Commission, Chief Justice Warren went to Jack Ruby's prison cell to
personally question Oswald's killer. In the case of the 9/11 Commission,
the commissioners were not allowed to speak to, see or know the
whereabouts of conspirators. But the commission could not even question the
prisoners' CIA interrogators about the way information had been obtained
from them.

The co-chairmen admit in "Without Precedent" that they "had no way of
evaluating the credibility of detainee information." But apparently that
did not discourage them from accepting, essentially at face value,
information from the prisoners, delivered via a CIA "project manager,"
if it would fill in gaps in the commission's investigation. For example,
the CIA reported that one key prisoner, Ramzi Binalshibh, had said
co-conspirator Atta "did not meet with anyone" when he went to Prague in
June 2000-even though Binalshibh himself was not in Prague and had no
first-hand knowledge. He further alleged that on another two journeys,
Atta went to Spain solely to talk with him and met no other
conspirator-but Binalshibh was not in Spain during all of Atta's visits.
And, again through the medium of the CIA project manager, Binalshibh
informed commissioners that Osama bin Laden would not have allowed Atta
to meet with an Iraqi intelligence officer because the al Qaeda leader
was upset with Saddam Hussein's treatment of Muslims.
Even though such contributions were indeed unverifiable-particularly
the one that required Binalshibh to read bin Laden's mind-the 9/11
Commission came to rely on this information, giving it the benefit of
the doubt when conflicting information surfaced. For instance, when the
commission uncovered CIA documents that threatened to complicate matters
by dragging Iran into the 9/11 conspiracy (the documents revealed that
Iran had "apparently facilitated" the travel of most of the 9/11 "muscle
hijackers" in flights from Afghanistan by not stamping their passports,
and that Imad Mugniyar, the Hezbollah terrorist group's infamous chief
of terrorist operations, had flown with the hijackers), the
commissioners referred the "troubling" matter to the CIA project
At that point, the report was only one week away from publication.
The project manager quickly ran the information past the agency's
prisoners and sent a reply back "just in time for inclusion in the
Report," Messrs. Kean and Hamilton write. Result: "We found no evidence
that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became
the 9/11 attack." Such CIA feeds permitted the commission to hew to its
theory that al Qaeda carried out 9/11 with no help from any outside
party or government.
With this book, Messrs. Kean and Hamilton have shown how a
government-appointed commission, despite the reality of a severely limited investigation, managed to create the appearance of an exhaustive independent investigation and artfully transformed itself
into an ongoing lobby for the reorganization of the intelligence establishment. Now that is without precedent.

Mr. Epstein is the author of "Inquest: The Warren Commission and the
Establishment of Truth," and he is currently writing a book about the
9/11 Commission.


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