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Profile: Richard Ben-Veniste
Richard Ben-Veniste was a participant or observer in the following events:
Time cover of Leon Jaworski. [Source: Time]Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski and his staff discuss how to proceed with the Watergate prosecutions. The combined trial of Nixon aide H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, former Attorney General John Mitchell, and three other Nixon aides, is scheduled for September 9, though that date seems unlikely. Most of the prosecution lawyers assume Jaworski will put Nixon on trial along with his aides. Nixon chief of staff Alexander Haig has already told Jaworski that Nixon will refuse to testify or be involved in any legal proceedings, and implied that Nixon’s mental and physical conditions are rapidly deteriorating. Jaworski is not sure what to do. His staff calls the entire issue of who should take what responsibility for handling Nixon the “monkey problem.” Prosecutors Richard Ben-Veniste and George Frampton later write, “On whose back was the monkey going to end up: the prosecutors, Congress, the White House, the grand jury, the court?” [Werth, 2006, pp. 31-33]
Philip Lacovara, a lawyer on Leon Jaworski’s Watergate prosecution staff, is adamant in pushing for an indictment against Richard Nixon (see August 22, 1974). Lacovara is a Goldwater conservative among a coterie of liberals and moderates; it is his role to interpret the team’s duties and responsibilities in light of the Constitution. As such, his recommendations carry weight. Jaworski is also discussing legal strategies with Herbert “Jack” Miller, Nixon’s lawyer, who intends to argue that Nixon cannot be given a fair trial by an impartial jury due to the incredible media coverage of the Watergate conspiracy (see Late August 1974). Jaworski’s prosecutors are solidly behind Lacovara in demanding that Nixon be indicted. “To do otherwise,” prosecutors Richard Ben-Veniste and George Frampton will later write, “was to admit that the enormity of Nixon’s crimes and the importance of his office automatically guaranteed him immunity from prosecution.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 207-208]
The research staff for British interviewer David Frost, preparing for his upcoming interviews with former President Richard Nixon (see Early 1976), finds transcripts of two conversations between Nixon and his then-aide Charles Colson from February 1973 (see February 13, 1973 and February 14, 1973) in a batch of documents surrounding the prosecution of the Watergate burglars (see January 1, 1975). Former Watergate prosecutors Richard Ben-Veniste and George Frampton, informally advising the Frost research team, are both keenly interested in the transcripts. “You’ve got something no one else has,” Frampton says. “These transcripts must have been placed in the official exhibit by a clerical error.” The two explain the significance of the conversations between Nixon and Colson: they place Nixon directly in the plot to cover up the Watergate conspiracy six weeks before Nixon says he first learned of it. Frampton shows researcher James Reston Jr. just how he would have used the conversations against Nixon in court, while Ben-Veniste instructs Reston on how Frost should interrogate Nixon as a hostile witness. Frost should ask something like, “Is it still your position, Mr. Nixon, that between 21 March and 30 April, 1973, you acted to stop the cover-up and prosecute the guilty?” When Nixon answers yes, Frost should follow, “But in fact, as late as 16 April, 1973, you were working out ‘scenarios’ with Ehrlichman and Haldeman to make John Dean the Watergate scapegoat, weren’t you?” Other questions to ask include, “By what right were you offering campaign money for the defense of your associates who were charged in a criminal conspiracy?” and “Isn’t it really true that you never made any effort before 21 March to learn the details of a criminal activity that you knew was going on all around you?” [Reston, 2007, pp. 50-51]
NORAD is already planning for the Amalgam Virgo 02 exercise. This exercise, scheduled for June 2002, will involve the simulation of two simultaneous commercial aircraft hijackings. One plane, a Delta 757, flown by Delta pilots, will fly from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska. It will be “hijacked” by FBI agents posing as terrorists. The other plane will be a Navy C-9 bound from Oak Harbor, Washington, to Vancouver, British Columbia, and will be “hijacked” by Royal Canadian Mounted Police. On both planes, military personnel will act as civilian passengers. US and Canadian fighters are to respond, and either force the planes to land or simulate shooting them down. Describing Amalgam Virgo 02 to the 9/11 Commission, NORAD’s Major General Craig McKinley later says, “Threats of killing hostages or crashing were left to the script writers to invoke creativity and broaden the required response for players.” About 1,500 people will participate in the exercise. USA Today will note that this is an exception to NORAD’s claim that, prior to 9/11, it focused only on external threats to the US and did not consider the possibility of threats arising from within the US. 9/11 Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste will similarly comment that this planned exercise shows that, despite frequent comments to the contrary, the military considered simultaneous hijackings before 9/11. [CNN, 6/4/2002; American Forces Press Service, 6/4/2002; Associated Press, 6/5/2002; 9/11 Commission, 5/23/2003; USA Today, 4/18/2004]
Customs agent Jose Melendez-Perez.
[Source: US Senate]A Saudi named Mohamed al-Khatani is stopped at the Orlando, Florida, airport and denied entry to the US. Jose Melendez-Perez, the customs official who stops him, later says he was suspicious of al-Khatani because he had arrived with no return ticket, no hotel reservations, spoke little English, behaved menacingly, and offered conflicting information on the purpose of his travel. At one point, al-Khatani said that someone was waiting for him elsewhere at the airport. After 9/11, surveillance cameras show that Mohamed Atta was at the Orlando airport that day. 9/11 Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste says: “It is extremely possible and perhaps probable that [al-Khatani] was to be the 20th hijacker.” Al-Khatani boards a return flight to Saudi Arabia. He is later captured in Afghanistan and sent to a US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (see December 2001). Melendez-Perez says that before 9/11, customs officials were discouraged by their superiors from hassling Saudi travelers, who were seen as big spenders. [Los Angeles Times, 1/27/2004; Time, 6/12/2005] Al-Khatani will later confess to being sent to the US by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) (see July 2002), and in June 2001 US intelligence was warned that KSM was sending operatives to the US to meet up with those already there (see June 12, 2001).
Richard Ben-Veniste. [Source: C-SPAN]The 10 members of the new 9/11 Commission are appointed by this date, and are: Republicans Thomas Kean (chairman), Slade Gorton, James Thompson, Fred Fielding, and John Lehman, and Democrats Lee Hamilton (vice chairman), Max Cleland, Tim Roemer, Richard Ben-Veniste, and Jamie Gorelick. [Chicago Tribune, 12/12/2002; Associated Press, 12/16/2002; New York Times, 12/17/2002] Senators Richard Shelby (R-AL) and John McCain (R-AZ) had a say in the choice of one of the Republican positions. They and many 9/11 victims’ relatives wanted former Senator Warren Rudman (R-NH), who co-wrote an acclaimed report about terrorism before 9/11 (see January 31, 2001). But, possibly under pressure from the White House, Senate Republican leader Trent Lott (R-MS) blocked Rudman’s appointment and chose John Lehman instead. [St. Petersburg Times, 12/12/2002; Associated Press, 12/13/2002; Reuters, 12/16/2002; Shenon, 2008, pp. 55-56] It will slowly emerge over the next several months that at least six of the 10 commissioners have ties to the airline industry. [CBS News, 3/5/2003] Henry Kissinger (see December 13, 2002) and his replacement Thomas Kean (see December 16, 2002) both caused controversy when they were named. In addition, the other nine members of the Commission are later shown to all have potential conflicts of interest. Republican commissioners:
Fred Fielding also works for a law firm lobbying for Spirit Airlines and United Airlines. [Associated Press, 2/14/2003; CBS News, 3/5/2003]
Slade Gorton has close ties to Boeing, which built all the planes destroyed on 9/11, and his law firm represents several major airlines, including Delta Air Lines. [Associated Press, 12/12/2002; CBS News, 3/5/2003]
John Lehman, former secretary of the Navy, has large investments in Ball Corp., which has many US military contracts. [Associated Press, 3/27/2003]
James Thompson, former Illinois governor, is the head of a law firm that lobbies for American Airlines and has previously represented United Airlines. [Associated Press, 1/31/2003; CBS News, 3/5/2003] Democratic commissioners:
Richard Ben-Veniste represents Boeing and United Airlines. [CBS News, 3/5/2003] He also has other curious connections, according to a 2001 book on CIA ties to drug running written by Daniel Hopsicker, which has an entire chapter called “Who is Richard Ben-Veniste?” Lawyer Ben-Veniste, Hopsicker says, “has made a career of defending political crooks, specializing in cases that involve drugs and politics.” He has been referred to in print as a “Mob lawyer,” and was a long-time lawyer for Barry Seal, one of the most famous drug dealers in US history who is also alleged to have had CIA connections. [Hopsicker, 2001, pp. 325-30]
Max Cleland, former US senator, has received $300,000 from the airline industry. [CBS News, 3/5/2003]
James Gorelick is a director of United Technologies, one of the Pentagon’s biggest defense contractors and a supplier of engines to airline manufacturers. [Associated Press, 3/27/2003]
Lee Hamilton sits on many advisory boards, including those to the CIA, the president’s Homeland Security Advisory Council, and the US Army. [Associated Press, 3/27/2003]
Tim Roemer represents Boeing and Lockheed Martin. [CBS News, 3/5/2003]
Entity Tags: American Airlines, Fred F. Fielding, Jamie Gorelick, 9/11 Commission, James Thompson, John McCain, John Lehman, Trent Lott, Richard Shelby, Lee Hamilton, Richard Ben-Veniste, United Airlines, Warren Rudman, Slade Gorton, Tim Roemer, Max Cleland
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline
When all ten members of the 9/11 Commission meet for the first time, in an informal setting, some of them are already unhappy about the way the commission is being run. Some of the Democratic members are unhappy about the selection of Republican Philip Zelikow as executive director (see Shortly Before January 27, 2003), a decision made solely by chairman Tom Kean and vice chairman Lee Hamilton. Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste will say Zelikow’s appointment was “presented as a fait accompli.” Ben-Veniste is also alarmed by Zelikow’s links to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (see 1995 and January 3, 2001), and he and fellow commissioner Max Cleland are upset about the proposed staff structure (see Around February 2003). There is to be a single staff led by Zelikow, and the commissioners will not have personal staffers, although this is usual on such commissions. Ben-Veniste proposes that each commissioner develop an expertise in a specific field, but this plan is blocked by Kean, Hamilton, and Zelikow. Kean and Hamilton also say that the commissioners can visit the commission’s offices, but cannot have a permanent presence there. Indeed, not even Kean and Hamilton will have an office in the commission’s building. Author Philip Shenon will comment: “To Ben-Veniste, the way the staff was being organized guaranteed that the commissioners’ involvement in the details of the investigation would be limited. It centralized control in Zelikow’s hands.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 69-70]
Members of the 9/11 Commission’s staff who are suspicious of the partisanship of the Commission’s executive director, Philip Zelikow, establish what author Philip Shenon calls a “back-channel network” through which reports of Zelikow’s behavior can be passed. The staff members are suspicious of Zelikow because they think he is close to the Bush administration, in particular National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (see January 3, 2001), whose interests he defends on the Commission (see May-June 2004). The network’s aim is to “alert the Democratic commissioners when [staff] thought Zelikow was up to no good.” Commissioner Tim Roemer will say that he often gets phone calls late at night or on weekends at home from staffers who want to talk about Zelikow. “It was like Deep Throat,” he will later say (see May 31, 2005). Richard Ben-Veniste is another one of the Democratic commissioners involved in the network. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 375]
The 9/11 Commission holds a public hearing at which it takes testimony from military officials about the timeline of events on the day of 9/11. The key witness is retired Air Force General Larry Arnold, who commanded NORAD’s Continental US Region on the day of 9/11. Under questioning from commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, Arnold says, “I believe that to be a fact: that 9:24 was the first time that we had been advised of American 77 as a possible hijacked airplane.” However, the Commission will later conclude that the military was not notified of the hijacking at this time, although it had been mistakenly advised Flight 11 was inbound to Washington three minutes previously (see 9:21 a.m. September 11, 2001 and (9:24 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Arnold adds that if the military was slow in responding to Flight 77, it was because “our focus—you have got to remember that there’s a lot of other things going on simultaneously here—was on United 93.” However, Flight 93 was not hijacked until a few minutes after 9:24 (see (9:28 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Arnold adds: “It was our intent to intercept United Flight 93. And in fact, my own staff, we were orbiting now over Washington, DC, by this time, and I was personally anxious to see what 93 was going to do, and our intent was to intercept it.” However, the Commission will later conclude that the military did not learn that Flight 93 had been hijacked until around 10:00 a.m. (see 10:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). Prior to the hearing, the Commission’s staff had been concerned about the inaccuracy of timelines offered by the military. Author Philip Shenon will write: “It seemed all the more remarkable to [Commission staffer John Farmer] that the Pentagon could not establish a clear chronology of how it responded to an attack on the Pentagon building itself. Wouldn’t the generals and admirals want to know why their own offices—their own lives—had been put at risk that morning?” Therefore, Farmer thought that the hearing should clear things up, but, according to Shenon, he and his colleagues are “astonished” when they analyze what Arnold says, although he is not under oath on this day. Shenon will add, “It would later be determined that almost every one of those assertions by General Arnold in May 2003 was flat wrong.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 119-121]
The 9/11 Commission holds its first set of public hearings on al-Qaeda and its connections to other nations and terrorist groups. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 130-134]
'Political Theater' - The first person to testify is Laurie Mylroie, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Mylroie’s testimony is, in the words of author Philip Shenon, “a bizarre bit of political theater.” Mylroie, considered by some to be “one of the most influential political academics of her generation, whose research was cited by the United States government to justify a war,” sits in front of the Commission, “spouting what would later be shown to be—and what many experts in the field already knew to be—nonsense.” Mylroie says that both the 1993 WTC bombing (see February 26, 1993) and 9/11 were planned and carried out by Iraqi intelligence agents, and the planner of the 1993 attacks, Ramzi Yousef (see December 1991-May 1992 and Late July or Early August 2001), and the chief 9/11 planner, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (see 1987-1991), were both Iraqi spies. Iraq had planted phony identification documents—“legends”—in Kuwaiti government offices during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990, she says. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 130-134] “The odds are high that these people are not whom they claim to be, and demonstrating that would constitute a clear link between Iraq and the 9/11 attack, as reasonably only Iraq could have created these legends while it occupied Kuwait,” she states. Al-Qaeda was a front group for Iraq in the same way that Hezbollah is a front group for Syria, she claims, and tells the Commission, “We went to war because senior administration officials believe Iraq was involved in 9/11” (see July 31, 2002). [Shenon, 2008, pp. 130-134]
Discrediting Mylroie - Several members of the Commission and its staff are dubious about Mylroie’s claims (see July 9, 2003). Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, one of those who believes her appearance is part of the Bush administration’s efforts to justify the war with Iraq, forces her to admit that “95 percent” of Middle East experts do not accept her theories about a connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Testimony later the same day by CIA expert Judith Yaphe further discredits Mylroie’s theories (see July 9, 2003). Both Yaphe and Ben-Veniste feel that Mylroie’s theories are shown to be little more than wild speculations with no evidence to bolster them, but the media coverage of her testimony is far different. She is given great credence by almost all of the mainstream media reports of her appearance before the Commission. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 130-134] Additionally, many of those who lost family members in the attacks are angered by Mylroie’s testimony (see July 9, 2003). Shortly after her testimony, Mylroie’s new book Bush vs. the Beltway will be published, expounding further on her theories. [Washington Monthly, 12/2003]
The 9/11 Commission interviews CIA Director George Tenet, but, due to frequent evasive answers, the commission doubts that he is telling them the full truth. The commission, represented at the interview by Executive Director Philip Zelikow, Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, and some staffers, takes the unusual step of putting Tenet under oath before questioning him, because, in the words of author Philip Shenon, “The CIA’s record was full of discrepancies about the facts of its operations against bin Laden before 9/11, and many of the discrepancies were Tenet’s.”
"I Don't Recall" - The commission immediately begins to doubt Tenet’s veracity, as he keeps saying, “I don’t remember,” “I don’t recall,” and “Let me go through the documents and get back to you with an answer.” This is despite the fact that Tenet spent a long time revising for his discussions with the commission beforehand (see Before January 22, 2004). Author Philip Shenon will summarize: “Tenet remembered certain details, especially when he was asked the sorts of questions he was eager to answer… But on many other questions, his memory was cloudy. The closer the questions came to the events of the spring and summer of 2001 and to the 9/11 attacks themselves, the worse his memory became.” In addition, the memory lapses concern not only details, but also “entire meetings and key documents.” Tenet even says he cannot recall what was discussed at his first meeting with President George Bush after his election in 2000, which the commission finds “suspicious.” Neither can he recall what he told Bush in the morning intelligence briefings in the months leading up to 9/11.
"We Just Didn't Believe Him" - Zelikow will later say that there was no one “a-ha moment” when they realize Tenet is not telling them the full truth, but his constant failure to remember key aspects disturbs them, and in the end, Zelikow will say, “we just didn’t believe him.” After the meeting, Zelikow, who seemed to have decided that the CIA had failed in the run up to 9/11 at the very start of the investigation (see Late January 2003), basically reports to the commissioners that Tenet perjured himself. The staff and most of the commissioners come to believe that, in Shenon’s words, Tenet is “at best, loose with the facts,” and at worst “flirting with a perjury charge.” Even Commission Chairman Tom Kean, “who found it difficult to say anything critical of anyone,” comes to believe that Tenet is a witness that will “fudge everything.”
CIA View - CIA staffers will later dispute this, saying that Tenet’s inability to remember some things was perfectly normal. CIA staffer Rudy Rousseau will say, “I’m surprised he remembered as much as he did.” Tenet’s chief of staff John Moseman will say, “Neither he [Tenet], nor we, held anything back… To suggest so now is not honorable.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 257-260]
Former CIA Director George Tenet privately testifies before the 9/11 Commission. He provides a detailed account of an urgent al-Qaeda warning he gave to the White House on July 10, 2001 (see July 10, 2001). According to three former senior intelligence officials, Tenet displays the slides from the PowerPoint presentation he gave the White House and even offers to testify about it in public. According to the three former officials, the hearing is attended by commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, the commission’s executive director Philip Zelikow, and some staff members. When Tenet testifies before the 9/11 Commission in public later in the year, he will not mention this meeting. The 9/11 Commission will neglect to include Tenet’s warning to the White House in its July 2004 final report. [McClatchy Newspapers, 10/2/2006] Portions of a transcript of Tenet’s private testimony will be leaked to reporters in 2006. According to the transcript, Tenet’s testimony included a detailed summary of the briefing he had with CIA counterterrorism chief Cofer Black on July 10 (see July 10, 2001). The transcript also reveals that he told the commission that Black’s briefing had prompted him to request an urgent meeting with Rice about it. This closely matches the account in Woodward’s 2006 book that first widely publicized the July meeting (see September 29, 2006). [Washington Post, 10/3/2006] Shortly after Woodward’s book is published, the 9/11 Commission staff will deny knowing that the July meeting took place. Zelikow and Ben-Veniste, who attended Tenet’s testimony, will say they are unable to find any reference to it in their files. But after the transcript is leaked, Ben-Veniste will suddenly remember details of the testimony (see September 30-October 3, 2006) and will say that Tenet did not indicate that he left his meeting with Rice with the impression he had been ignored, as Tenet has alleged. [New York Times, 10/2/2006] Woodward’s book will describe why Black, who also privately testified before the 9/11 Commission, felt the commission did not mention the July meeting in their final report: “Though the investigators had access to all the paperwork about the meeting, Black felt there were things the commissions wanted to know about and things they didn’t want to know about. It was what happened in investigations. There were questions they wanted to ask, and questions they didn’t want to ask.” [Woodward, 2006, pp. 78]
The 9/11 Commission has a private meeting with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. The meeting is held in the White House’s Situation Room, the location apparently chosen by Rice in an attempt to impress the commissioners.
Questioning Is 'Polite but Pointed' - The White House has insisted that the encounter be described as a “meeting” rather than an “interview,” because that would sound too formal and prosecutorial. In addition, there is to be no recording of the interview and Rice is not placed under oath. The time limit on the interview is two hours, but it actually lasts four. Rice’s close associate Philip Zelikow, the 9/11 Commission’s executive director, attends, but is not allowed to say anything because he has been recused from this part of the investigation. The questioning is led by Daniel Marcus, the Commission’s lawyer, and will be described as “polite but pointed” by author Philip Shenon.
Commissioners Privately Critical of Rice - The commissioners are aware of allegations that Rice performed poorly in the run-up to 9/11 (see Before December 18, 2003), but are unwilling to aggressively attack an accomplished black woman. However, they think the allegations are well-founded. Commission Chairman Tom Kean will say, “obviously Rice bears a tremendous amount of responsibility for not understanding how serious this threat [of terrorist attacks] was.” Commissioner John Lehman will say that he has “no doubt” former National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger would have paid more attention to the warnings of a forthcoming attack. Fellow commissioner Slade Gorton will say that the administration’s failure to act on the urgent warnings was “spectacularly wrong.” Commissioner Jamie Gorelick will comment that Rice “assumed away the hardest part of her job,” and that she should have focused on keeping the president up to date on events, rather than trying to put his intentions into action. Commissioner Bob Kerrey will agree with this and will later recall one of Rice’s comments at this meeting, “I took the president’s thoughts and I helped the president describe what he was thinking.” According to Kerrey, this shows how Rice performed her job incorrectly. She should have been advising the president on what to do, not packaging his thoughts. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 230-239]
Entity Tags: Richard Ben-Veniste, Thomas Kean, Slade Gorton, Philip Zelikow, Daniel Marcus, Jamie Gorelick, 9/11 Commission, Bob Kerrey, Condoleezza Rice, John Lehman
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline
Condoleezza Rice sworn in before the 9/11 Commission. [Source: Larry Downing/ Reuters]National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testifies before the 9/11 Commission under oath and with the threat of perjury. The Bush administration originally opposed her appearance, but relented after great public demand (see March 30, 2004). [Independent, 4/3/2004] The testimony is a huge media event and major television networks interrupt their programming to carry it live. First, the Commission’s Democratic Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton reads a statement trying to establish a tone of non-confrontation and saying that the Commission’s purpose is “not to put any witness on the spot,” but “to understand and to inform.”
Rice Reads Lengthy Statement - Knowing that she has a deal to appear only once and for a limited time, Rice begins by reading a statement much longer than those read by other witnesses testifying before the Commission, a move specifically approved by Hamilton and the Commission’s chairman Tom Kean. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 293, 295] In the statement she repeats her claim that “almost all of the reports [before 9/11] focused on al-Qaeda activities outside the United States.… The information that was specific enough to be actionable referred to terrorists operation overseas.” Moreover, she stresses that the “kind of analysis about the use of airplanes as weapons actually was never briefed to us.” But she concedes: “In fact there were some reports done in ‘98 and ‘99. I think I was—I was certainly not aware of them.” [Washington Post, 4/8/2004]
Heated Questioning from Democrats - The exchanges with the Republican commissioners are polite, but Rice’s interactions with the Democrats on the Commission become heated. According to author Philip Shenon, her strategy is to “try to run out the clock—talk and talk and talk, giving them no chance to ask follow-up questions before the 10 minutes that each of the commissioners had been allotted had run out.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 295] During questioning several subjects are discussed:
Why didn’t counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke brief President Bush on al-Qaeda before September 11? Clarke says he had wished to do so, but Rice states, “Clarke never asked me to brief the president on counterterrorism.”
What was the content of the briefing President Bush received on August 6, 2001 (see August 6, 2001)? While Rice repeatedly underlines that it was “a historical memo… not threat reporting,” commissioners Richard Ben-Veniste and Tim Roemer ask her why it cannot therefore be declassified. [Washington Post, 4/8/2004] Asked what the PDB item’s still-secret title is, Rice gives it as “Bin Laden Determined to Attack inside the United States,” leading to an audible gasp from the audience. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 298] Two days later, the White House will finally publish it, and it will be shown to contain more than just historical information.
Did Rice tell Bush of the existence of al-Qaeda cells in the US before August 6, 2001? Rice says that she does not remember whether she “discussed it with the president.”
Were warnings properly passed on? Rice points out: “The FBI issued at least three nationwide warnings to federal, state, and law enforcement agencies, and specifically stated that although the vast majority of the information indicated overseas targets, attacks against the homeland could not be ruled out. The FBI tasked all 56 of its US field offices to increase surveillance of known suspected terrorists and to reach out to known informants who might have information on terrorist activities.” But commissioner Jamie Gorelick remarks: “We have no record of that. The Washington field office international terrorism people say they never heard about the threat, they never heard about the warnings.” [Washington Post, 4/8/2004]
Under questioning from Democratic commissioner Bob Kerrey, she admits that she worked with Philip Zelikow, the Commission’s executive director, during the Bush administration transition, and that they discussed terrorism issues.
She claims that a plan Clarke presented to her to roll back al-Qaeda in January 2001 (see January 25, 2001) was not actually a plan, but merely “a set of ideas and a paper” that had not been implemented. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 299-300]
Central Issues Unresolved - Rice does not apologize to the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks, as Clarke did weeks earlier. The Associated Press comments, “The blizzard of words in Condoleezza Rice’s testimony Thursday did not resolve central points about what the government knew, should have known, did, and should have done before the September 11 terrorist attacks.” [Associated Press, 4/8/2004]
Testimony an 'Ambitious Feat of Jujitsu' - The Washington Post calls her testimony “an ambitious feat of jujitsu: On one hand, she made a case that ‘for more than 20 years, the terrorist threat gathered, and America’s response across several administrations of both parties was insufficient.’ At the same time, she argued that there was nothing in particular the Bush administration itself could have done differently that would have prevented the attacks of September 11, 2001—that there was no absence of vigor in the White House’s response to al-Qaeda during its first 233 days in office. The first thesis is undeniably true; the second both contradictory and implausible.” [Washington Post, 4/9/2004]
'Cherry-Picking' Rice's Testimony - In 2009, Lawrence Wilkerson, who is chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2004, will recall: “John [Bellinger, the legal adviser to the National Security Council] and I had to work on the 9/11 Commission testimony of Condi. Condi was not gonna do it, not gonna do it, not gonna do it, and then all of a sudden she realized she better do it. That was an appalling enterprise. We would cherry-pick things to make it look like the president had been actually concerned about al-Qaeda. We cherry-picked things to make it look as if the vice president and others, Secretary Rumsfeld and all, had been. They didn’t give a sh_t about al-Qaeda. They had priorities. The priorities were lower taxes, ballistic missiles, and the defense thereof.” [Vanity Fair, 2/2009]
Entity Tags: Jamie Gorelick, Lee Hamilton, Lawrence Wilkerson, George W. Bush, John Bellinger, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bob Kerrey, Bush administration (43), Tim Roemer, Condoleezza Rice, Thomas Kean, Richard Ben-Veniste, 9/11 Commission, Richard A. Clarke
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, 2004 Elections
Attorney General John Ashcroft before the 9/11 Commission. [Source: Associated Press]Attorney General John Ashcroft testifies publicly before the 9/11 Commission. Due to information leaked to the public about Ashcroft’s apparently poor performance and lack of interest in terrorism before the attacks (see Spring 2001, July 12, 2001, and September 10, 2001), in the words of author Philip Shenon, “Everybody expect[s] it to be a difficult day for Ashcroft—maybe the day that mark[s] the end of his tenure as George Bush’s attorney general.” Executing a strategy designed in advance by the Justice Department’s leadership, instead of defending his record, Ashcroft goes on the offensive against the Commission. First, Ashcroft withholds from the Commission a copy of his written statement, although all other witnesses provide this. Then, when his testimony starts, he blames the problems dealing with terrorist threats on information-sharing regulations set up by former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, now a 9/11 commissioner. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 325-327]
Ashcroft Exaggerates Effect of Gorelick Memo - He comments: “The single greatest structural cause for September 11 was the ‘wall’ that segregated criminal investigators and intelligence agents. Government erected this ‘wall.’ Government buttressed this ‘wall.’ And before September 11, government was blinded by this ‘wall.’” The wall was a set of procedures that regulated the passage of information from FBI intelligence agents to FBI criminal agents and prosecutors to ensure that information obtained using warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) would not be thrown out from criminal cases (see July 19, 1995). Ashcroft says that the wall impeded the investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui and that a “warrant was rejected because FBI officials feared breaching the ‘wall.’” (Note: two applications to search Moussaoui’s belongings were prepared. The first was not submitted because it was thought to be “shaky” (see August 21, 2001). The second warrant application was prepared as a part of an intelligence investigation under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, so it was not affected by the “wall” (see August 28, 2001)). According to Ashcroft, the wall also impeded the search for hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi because criminal investigators were not allowed to join in. However, the 9/11 Commission will find that they could legally have helped, but were prevented from doing so by FBI headquarters (see August 29, 2001). Ashcroft asserts that 9/11 commissioner Jamie Gorelick was responsible for the wall. He cites a document he just declassified that had been written by Gorelick to deal with the two 1993 World Trade Center bombing cases (see March 4, 1995). That document becomes known as the “wall memo.” However, this memo only governed the two WTC cases; all other cases were governed by a different, but similar memo written by Attorney General Janet Reno a few months later (see July 19, 1995). [9/11 Commission, 4/13/2004]
Commission's Response - 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton will say that the “attorney general’s claim was overstated,” and that the two 1995 memos only codified a set of procedures that already existed (see Early 1980s). During questioning, Republican 9/11 commissioner Slade Gorton points out that Ashcroft’s deputy reaffirmed the procedures in an August 2001 memo that stated, “The 1995 procedures remain in effect today” (see August 6, 2001). [Kean and Hamilton, 2006, pp. 194-6] Ashcroft’s accusation against Gorelick produces an immediate public response. Commissioner Bob Kerrey (D-NE) will say: “Ashcroft was still speaking, and the e-mails were already coming in. The e-mails said things like, ‘You traitor, you should be ashamed of yourself for having somebody like Gorelick on the 9/11 Commission.’ I could see that this was a setup.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 329]
Falsely Claims No Clinton Program to Kill Bin Laden - Ashcroft also claims there was no program to kill Osama bin Laden before 9/11, saying, “Let me be clear: my thorough review revealed no covert action program to kill bin Laden.” However, the 9/11 Commission has already found a memorandum of notification signed by President Clinton in 1998 after the African embassy bombings that allowed CIA assets to kill bin Laden, and two commissioners, Fred Fielding and Richard Ben-Veniste, point this out to Ashcroft. [9/11 Commission, 4/13/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 132, 485]
Attack Brings Commission Together - Paradoxically, the effect of Ashcroft’s attack is to bring the Commission—made up of five Democrats and five Republicans—together. Shenon will comment, “The Republicans were just as angry as the Democrats over what Ashcroft had done, maybe angrier.” Commissioner Slade Gorton (R-WA) will add, “There was universal outrage on the part of all 10 people.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 332]
Entity Tags: Thomas Kean, Zacarias Moussaoui, Slade Gorton, Philip Shenon, Lee Hamilton, Khalid Almihdhar, 9/11 Commission, Bob Kerrey, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Fred F. Fielding, John Ashcroft, Nawaf Alhazmi, Richard Ben-Veniste
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline
FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies publicly to the 9/11 Commission, but the commissioners fail to ask him tough questions about the FBI’s apparent failings before the attacks. Author Philip Shenon will comment: “[Mueller] might have expected that it might be the showdown in which he would be asked to explain, in excruciating detail, how the FBI had blundered so often before 9/11—the familiar roster of Zacarias Moussaoui, the Phoenix memo, the disasters in San Diego. Instead, he was welcomed as a hero.” The commissioners shower Mueller with praise.
Commission Chairman Tom Kean: “I came to this job with less knowledge of the intelligence community than anybody else at this table. What I’ve learned has not reassured me. It’s frightened me a bit, frankly. But the reassuring figure in it all is you, because everybody I talk to in this town, a town which seems to have a sport in basically not liking each other very much—everybody likes you, everybody respects you, everybody has great hopes that you’re actually going to fix this problem.”
Commissioner John Lehman: “I’d like to echo the encomiums of my colleagues about how good the process has been working with you from the first time you got together with us a year-and-a-quarter ago. It’s been a very—very much of a two-way dialogue. You’ve clearly listen[ed] to us, and you’ve taught us a good deal.”
Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste: “Let me first echo the comments of my colleagues on this Commission, say how much we appreciate not only the time that you’ve given us, but the interactive nature of our relationship with you. You have been responsive to our questions, you’ve come back, sometimes you’ve come back and showed up when you weren’t invited.”
Commissioner Slade Gorton: “Mr. Mueller, not only have you done a very aggressive and, I think, so far a very effective reorganization of the FBI, you’ve done an excellent job in preempting this Commission and its recommendations.” [9/11 Commission, 4/13/2004; Shenon, 2008, pp. 368-369]
Rudolph Giuliani testifying before the 9/11 Commission. [Source: Gotham Gazette]The second day of the 9/11 Commission hearings about the emergency response on the day of the attacks is dominated by questioning of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, which Commission Chairman Tom Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton will describe as the Commission’s “low point.” [Kean and Hamilton, 2006, pp. 226-228] Giuliani had become a hero after the attacks, winning the Time magazine Person of the Year award, and the Commission was aware that it had to be careful about how it handled material it had uncovered putting him in a bad light (see Before May 17, 2004 and May 18, 2004). [Time, 12/22/2001] However, commissioner John Lehman had attacked the city’s preparedness the previous day, leading to a major row (see May 18, 2004). Author Philip Shenon will describe the hearing as a “Rudy Giuliani lovefest,” pointing out that, “Many of the questions directed at Giuliani by the commissioners barely qualified as softballs, they were so gentle.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 355-356]
'The Captain Was on the Bridge' - Kean and Hamilton will admit that every commissioner “opens his or her questioning with lavish praise.” For instance, Richard Ben-Veniste says, “Your leadership on that day and in the days following gave the rest of the nation, and indeed the world, an unvarnished view of the indomitable spirit and the humanity of this great city, and for that I salute you.” Jim Thompson thanks Giuliani for “setting an example to us all.” Lehman says: “There was no question the captain was on the bridge.” Kean says, “New York City on that terrible day in a sense was blessed because it had you as a leader.” [Kean and Hamilton, 2006, pp. 226-228]
'Stop Kissing Ass!' - However, Giuliani suggests that hundreds of firefighters died when the North Tower collapsed because they had chosen to remain in the building, not because they had not received the order to evacuate due to problems with their radio system. This angers some of the audience members, who shout out, “Talk about the radios!” “Put one of us on the panel—just one of us!” “Stop kissing ass!” and: “My brother was a fireman, and I want to know why three hundred firemen died. And I’ve got some real questions. Let’s ask some real questions. Is that unfair?” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 355-356]
'We Did Not Ask Tough Questions' - Kean and Hamilton will later write: “The questioning of Mayor Giuliani was a low point in terms of the Commission’s questioning of witnesses at our public hearings. We did not ask tough questions, nor did we get all of the information we needed to put on the public record. We were affected by the controversy over Lehman’s comments, and by the excellent quality of the mayor’s presentation.” [Kean and Hamilton, 2006, pp. 226-228]
Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic member of the 9/11 Commission, insists that the commission properly interview two CIA analysts who drafted an August 2001 Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) item entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” (see August 6, 2001). Ben-Veniste makes the demand after he learns that Commission Executive Director Philip Zelikow interviewed one of the analysts by phone, but allegedly pressured the analyst to back the White House version of events (see June 2004). Initially, Ben-Veniste asks to see transcripts of interviews with the analysts. However, according to author Philip Shenon: “With a condescending tone that reflected his disdain for Ben-Veniste, Zelikow explained matter-of-factly that there weren’t any transcripts…. After months of battles with Zelikow, it was hard for Ben-Veniste to be shocked by almost anything he did. But the staff could see that Ben-Veniste was genuinely startled.” Ben-Veniste’s demand for full interviews is opposed by Zelikow, who says that one of the analysts, known only as Barbara S, has already been interviewed (although it is unclear how much of this interview was focused on the PDB). Zelikow will also say, “The CIA was pleading with us not to do this, since the career people involved in preparing and presenting PDBs would be intimidated, disrupting the sense of confidentiality and candor they considered essential for the PDB process.” However, when they are interviewed, the two analysts seem eager to volunteer the information they have. The commission’s Democratic Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, who has a record of siding with the Republicans (see Before November 27, 2002 and March 2003-July 2004) fails to back Ben-Veniste before the full commission. Republican Chairman Tom Kean rescues him, pushing through the request for the interviews in the face of opposition from the other Republicans on the commission (see July 13, 2004). [Shenon, 2008, pp. 375-377]
The 9/11 Commission interviews two CIA analysts who drafted an August 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) item entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” (see August 6, 2001). The interview is conducted mainly by commissioners Richard Ben-Veniste and Jim Thompson and follows an internal battle inside the Commission (see June 2004 and Early July 2004). Despite a claim by the Commission’s Executive Director Philip Zelikow that the analysts, known only as Barbara S and Dwayne D, were reluctant to answer questions, they are willing and eager to respond to Ben-Veniste.
PDB Item Not 'Historical' - According to author Philip Shenon, the analysts are “confused” and “appalled” by claims by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and others at the White House that the PDB item only contained an “historical” overview of domestic terrorism threats. The analysts say that this was not its purpose and that it was supposed to remind President Bush that al-Qaeda remained a dire threat in August 2001 and that a domestic attack was certainly a possibility. For example, the item referred to “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks.” Barbara S says, “That’s not historical,” and adds the threat of a domestic terror attack by al-Qaeda was thought “current and serious” at that time.
Ordered up 'In-House' - In addition, the analysts say that another claim made by the White House, that President Bush specifically ordered the PDB (see April 13, 2004), is false. They state that the PDB item was ordered “in-house” by the CIA in the hope that the White House would pay more attention to the threat. However, President Bush had asked his intelligence briefers about the possibility of a domestic attack by terrorists that summer (see July 5, 2001).
Zelikow Objects to Placement of Material in Final Report - Ben-Veniste insists that the material from the two analysts is placed prominently in the Commission’s final report, although Zelikow objects to this. After negotiations, the relevant paragraph will read as follows: “During the spring and summer of 2001, President Bush had on several occasions asked his briefers whether any of the threats pointed to the United States. Reflecting on these questions, the CIA decided to write a briefing article summarizing its understanding of this danger. Two CIA analysts involved in preparing this briefing article believed it represented an opportunity to communicate their view that the threat of a bin Laden attack in the United States remained both current and serious. The result was an article in the August 6 Presidential Daily Brief titled ‘Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.’” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 377-379]
The 9/11 Commission interviewed presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in 2004 (see April 29, 2004) but the details of what was revealed in these interviews were not included in the commission’s final report (with one exception, see August 6, 2001). On this day, former 9/11 Commission Richard Ben-Veniste says, “I had hoped that we had—we would have made both the Clinton interview and the Bush interview a part of our report, but that was not to be. I was outvoted on that question.… I didn’t have the votes.… I think the question was that there was a degree of confidentiality associated with that and that we would take from that the output that is reflected in the report, but go no further. And that until some five years’ time after our work, we would keep that confidential. I thought we would be better to make all of the information that we had available to the public and make our report as transparent as possible so that the American public could have that.” [CNN, 9/25/2006]
In late September 2006, a new book by Bob Woodward reveals that CIA Director Tenet and CIA counterterrorism chief Cofer Black gave National Security Adviser Rice their most urgent warning about a likely upcoming al-Qaeda attack (see July 10, 2001 and September 29, 2006). Tenet detailed this meeting to the 9/11 Commission in early 2004 (see January 28, 2004), but it was not mentioned in the 9/11 Commission’s final report later that year. According to the Washington Post, “Though the investigators had access to all the paperwork on the meeting, Black felt there were things the commissions wanted to know about and things they didn’t want to know about.” [Washington Post, 10/1/2006] The 9/11 Commissioners initially vigorously deny that they were not told about the meeting. For instance, 9/11 Commissioner Jamie Gorelick says she checked with commission staff who told her they were never told about a meeting on that date. She says, “We didn’t know about the meeting itself. I can assure you it would have been in our report if we had known to ask about it.” [Washington Post, 9/30/2006] Commissioner Tim Roemer says, “None of this was shared with us in hours of private interviews, including interviews under oath, nor do we have any paper on this. I’m deeply disturbed by this. I’m furious.” Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste says the meeting “was never mentioned to us.” Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, says the commissioners and their staff had heard nothing in their private interviews with Tenet and Black to suggest that they made such a dire presentation to Rice. “If we had heard something that drew our attention to this meeting, it would have been a huge thing.” [New York Times, 10/2/2006] However, on October 3, 2006, a transcript of Tenet’s private testimony to the 9/11 Commission is leaked to reporters and clearly shows that Tenet did warn Rice of an imminent al-Qaeda threat on July 10, 2001. Ben-Veniste, who attended the meeting along with Zelikow and other staff members, now confirms the meeting did take place and claims to recall details of it, even though he, Zelikow, and other 9/11 Commissioners had denied the existence of the meeting as recently as the day before. In the transcript, Tenet says “the system was blinking red” at the time. This statement becomes a chapter title in the 9/11 Commission’s final report but the report, which normally has detailed footnotes, does not make it clear when Tenet said it. [Washington Post, 10/3/2006] Zelikow had close ties to Rice before joining the 9/11 Commission, having co-written a book with her (see March 21, 2004), and became one of her key aides after the commission disbanded (see February 28, 2005). Zelikow does not respond to requests for comments after Tenet’s transcript surfaces. [McClatchy Newspapers, 10/2/2006; Washington Post, 10/3/2006]
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