Commission Omission: What's Missing From the 9/11 report

Random Lengths News | August 21, 2004
“I find your report seriously flawed,” says FBI whisle-blower Sibel Edmonds in a devastating letter to former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean, Chair of the Independent 9/11 Commission, highlighting issues raised by her own experience—including the ignoring of warnings four months prior to 9/11—which the commission has chosen to sweep under the rug.

Edmonds, a multilingual Turkish-American, was hired in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 as a contract worker, translating documents dealing with counter-terrorism and criminal investigations such as money laundering. She testified to Commission staff in private that the FBI covered up key reports warning of terrorist activities before the 9-11 attack. Her attempts to bring this specific information to light have been repeatedly thwarted by the government, which has obtained a gag order limiting her ability to reveal specifics.

Edmonds was fired after six months, during which time she complained about shoddy translations, false reports, security risks and an intentional work slowdown that delayed intelligence-gathering in order to create a backlog and justify increased funding. After over two years, the FBI’s own inspector general, Glenn Fine, has concluded that her firing was due at least partly to her whistle-blowing. In a “60 Minutes” piece rebroadcast on August 8, Republican Senator Charles Grassley called her “highly credible” because the information she provided has been confirmed by other sources.

The 9/11 Commission could have put an end to all this stonewalling, but it did not. As Edmonds herself writes, “I find your report seriously flawed in its failure to address serious intelligence issues that I am aware of, which have been confirmed, and which as a witness to the commission, I made you aware of. Thus, I must assume that other serious issues that I am not aware of were in the same manner omitted from your report.”

The issues Edmonds cites range from failure to act on pre-9/11 warnings to employing and protecting security risks in the months afterwards. These include:

(1) Neglected Warnings. In April, 2001, over four months before 9/11, “a long-term FBI informant/asset who had been providing the bureau with information since 1990, provided two FBI agents and a translator with specific information regarding a terrorist attack being planned by Osama Bin Laden.”

Specifically, “he received information that: 1) Osama Bin Laden was planning a major terrorist attack in the United States targeting 4-5 major cities, 2) the attack was going to involve airplanes, 3) some of the individuals in charge of carrying out this attack were already in place in the United States, 4) the attack was going to be carried out soon, in a few months.”

The information was reported to “Special Agent in Charge of Counterterrorism, Thomas Frields, at the FBI Washington Field Office,” who took no action. Afterwards, agents and translators were to instructed to say nothing about what happened.

(2) Post 9/11 Work Slowdown. After 9/11, when “FBI agents from various field offices were desperately seeking leads and suspects,” which often depended on documents in foreign languages, “translators at the FBI's largest and most important translation unit, were told to slow down, even stop, translation of critical information related to terrorist activities so that the FBI could present the United States Congress with a record of 'extensive backlog of untranslated documents', and justify its request for budget and staff increases.”

(3) Espionage Within the FBI. Turkish translator Melek Can Dickerson, hired after September 11, was granted “Top Secret” clearance, despite having previously worked for “organizations that were the FBI's targets of investigation,” and having “on going relationships with two individuals who were FBI's targets of investigation.” She “blocked all-important information related to these semi-legit organizations and the individuals she and her husband associated with;” she “took hundreds of pages of top-secret sensitive intelligence documents outside the FBI to unknown recipients;” and she “forged signatures on top-secret documents related to certain 9/11 detainees.” No action was taken when these facts were reported to senior management.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the FBI inspector general’s report “found that the FBI did not aggressively investigate her claims of espionage against a co-worker.” Yet, the 9/11 Commission did no better.

On August 9, a Boston Globe editorial said, “But if Mueller does not do a better job—not just of protecting but encouraging employees like Rowley and Edmonds—the FBI will continue to hide its failings to the nation's peril.” Given the 9/11 Commission’s neglect of Edmonds, the same can be said about them as well.

Perhaps the commission’s failure to investigate FBI failings is related to its enthusiasm for giving the FBI sweeping “Big Brother” powers:

We do not recommend the creation of a new domestic intelligence agency. It is not needed if our other recommendations are adopted...The FBI does need to be able to direct its thousands of agents and other employees to collect intelligence in America’s cities and towns—interviewing informants, conducting surveillance and searches, tracking individuals, working collaboratively with local authorities, and doing so with meticulous attention to detail and compliance with the law. The FBI’s job in the streets of the United States would this be a domestic equivalent, operating under the U.S. Constitution and quite different laws and rules, to the job of the CIA’s operations officers abroad.

It could be a bit embarrassing to try to square this vast expansion of government surveillance powers with a detailed expose of how badly the FBI failed to protect America, while protecting its ass instead. Indeed, Robert Dreyfuss, writing for, highlighted this as one of five main flaws in the commission’s recommendations. Specifically, he writes, “The commission, not unlike backers of the USA Patriot Act and other terrorism crusaders, casts the FBI as a domestic CIA, with barely a caveat.”

Dreyfuss goes on to note, “But nowhere does the commission explain against whom these ‘surveillance and searches’ would be directed. After 9/11, Attorney General Ashcroft warned that there were 5,000 Al Qaeda sleepers in the United States, but nary one has been found—and none have committed any acts of terrorism. Yet the FBI has reinvented itself” to fight terrorism at home, and the commission only urges more of the same, Dreyfuss laments.

Among other flaws Dreyfuss identifies are three more omissions: (1) The lack of any policy response in dealing with Islamist terrorism. (2) The failure to clearly repudiate the myth of Iraqi involvement with al Qaeda. (3) The white-washing of Washington’s role in creating Islamic terrorism in the first place.

“In its workmanlike account of the birth and rise of bin Ladenism, the 9/11 Commission flatly ignores America's role in creating the conditions for the triumph of that ideology,” Dreyfuss writes, “including of course, its support for the Afghan jihad, sponsoring the training of the ‘Arab Afghans,’ and creating the monster that stalked the world in the 1990s.”

Instead of clearly taking responsibility for our role in creating this monster, we get the language of evasion. Dreyfuss writes:

What caused bin Ladenism? According to the commission, it was “social and economic malaise.” (Shades of Jimmy Carter!) Then, it says, “A decade of conflict in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 gave Islamist extremists a rallying point and training field…. Young Muslims from around the world flocked to Afghanistan to join as volunteers in what was seen as a ‘holy war’—jihad—against an invader.” That’s it. No mention of the CIA’s role in backing Osama bin Laden and his crew. No mention of the CIA, working with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in recruiting the jihadists. The fact that the CIA encouraged the most vicious of the Afghan fundamentalists because they were seen as the most bloodthirsty in killing Soviet soldiers goes unmentioned. [Italics added.]

The myopia in looking at the past is mirrored by myopia in looking to the future.

In the Washington Post, David Ignatius cheekily summarized the commission’s conclusions: “Okay, America, here's our intelligence reform agenda: The CIA recognized six years ago that America was at war with al Qaeda, so let's demote it. . . . Pentagon officials dragged their feet on dealing with terrorism, so let's give them more power. . . The White House politicized the intelligence process, so let's create a new intelligence czar in the White House and give him control over domestic spying, too. The intelligence community suffers from too many fiefdoms, so let's create a few more.”

Ignatius then says, “Maybe that's an unfair summary… But as President Bush and John Kerry race to endorse the commission's agenda for change, you'd think the proposals had been handed down from heaven itself, rather than offered up for public discussion.”

The capacity for discussion, dissent and debate is democracy’s greatest strength. If we allow a flawed bipartisan report to undermine that strength, then we have done the terrorist’s hardest work for them. This, it seems, is what we’ve already done, with Bush disingenuously pretending to be the commission’s best friend—after fighting against it tooth and nail every step of the way—and Kerry endorsing all its proposals sweepingly, rather than examining them individually.

“The point is, we need a real debate,” Ignaius writes. “That's what the campaign of 2004 should be all about—how this nation at war can fight terrorism wisely and well.”

Should be.

Sibel Edmonds isn’t betting on it.

Paul Rosenberg is the senior news editor for Random Lengths News, which is the leading progressive alternative newsweekly for the Los Angeles Harbor Area in California. His work also regularly appears in Publishers Weekly and he is currently working on a book on post 9/11 politics.

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