September Books 9) The 9/11 Commission Report

9) The 9/11 Commission Report. OK, perhaps there were less grim things to be reading as I shunted between planes yesterday at Belfast City Airport and then Heathrow; but it’s a gripping story, told well, and basically leaves little room for conspiracy theorists – including conspiracy theorists who wanted the Iraqi government to be linked to the horrors of 9/11. The structure of the report is easily digestible, with the first (and probably the best) chapter a straight narrative of the events of the hijackings, told essentially from the point of view of the victims as far as that can be done. The point is repeatedly driven home that America was caught unprepared (the fighter planes scrambled to defend Washington were sent in the wrong direction, and in any case had not understood their orders correctly, and in any case were too late) and the most important success against the terrorists on the day was that won by the passengers of flight 93 who forced the hijackers of the fourth plane to abort their mission.

The rest of it is pretty convincing – with one exception: as an eagle-eyed Balkan practitioner I found it a bit surprising that Nawaf al-Hamzi, one of the Pentagon hijackers, is described as watching current news coverage of fighting in Bosnia in 2000, five years after the war there was over (perhaps this was a reference to the Presevo Valley conflict of that year, but it seems unlikely as that affair was almost ignored by Western media and anyway was not in Bosnia). But the other Albanian and Bosnian bits of the story confirmed what I knew or suspected. An Azerbaijan angle was hinted at but not really explained; Georgia crops up briefly too.

The account of the mistakes made in rescue efforts in New York on the day is gripping, but fairly straightforward, and the conclusions are backed up by the example from the Pentagon of how to run a rescue operation efficiently; the only two recommendations that matter are a) get a better radio system for the emergency services and b) designate the fire department as lead agency in the event of a similar event in future. The first has been implemented, the second seems unlikely to be.

After all this excellent narrative, the conclusions and recommendations are a bit of a let-down, and seem to be more like private axe-grinding by policy-makers who thought they had ideas, rather than “let’s match more co-ordinated security efforts with a serious attempt to make friends with the Arab world” which seems the obvious conclusion to me. On the organisational mechanics, what leaps out of the text for me is that a) the FAA had no adequate plan for dealing with domestic hijackings (apparently they now do), and b) the FBI had no adequate intelligence analysis capacity.

I am not reassured on the latter point. The CIA’s misses, though numerous, feel to me more like bad luck; the FBI’s more like bad management culture, with good analysis happening in the field and totally cut off from headquarters – perhaps the most chilling passage is in the account on page 275 of the FBI’s internal squabblings over the “20th hijacker”, Zaccarias Moussaoui:

There was substantial disagreement between Minneapolis agents and FBI headquarters as to what Moussaoui was planning to do. In one conversation between a Minneapolis supervisor and a headquarters agent, the latter complained that Minneapolis’s FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] request was couched in a manner intended to get people “spun up.” The supervisor replied that was precisely his intent. He said he was “trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center.” The headquarters agent replied that this was not going to happen and that they did not know if Moussaoui was a terrorist.

The mind boggles.

Of course, a large part of my interest is that I do deal with similar material myself, though unlike a state intelligence agency our information is normally published at the end of the process (and if we don’t publish, it’s more likely because we decided the evidence wasn’t good enough than because we thought it was too sensitive). I make the judgement every day as to whether or not a particular new piece of information is important enough to start phoning senior government officials and telling them there is a problem. The two things that are essential are a) when to make that judgement and b) knowing who to call. As far as I could tell from the 9/11 report, the CIA people at least were relatively free in both regards, whereas the FBI culture actually worked against effective use of intelligence. The report tries to be even-handed between the two agencies but I don’t think this is really possible given the evidence.

Conclusion: anyone with the slightest interest in knowing what happened on 11 September 2001 should read this report.

One thought on “September Books 9) The 9/11 Commission Report

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