In the predawn hours of Tuesday, March 23, Kristen Breitweiser, Lorie Van Auken, Mindy Kleinberg and Patty Casazza dropped off their collective seven fatherless children with grandmothers and climbed into Ms. Breitweiser’s S.U.V. for the race down Garden State Parkway to the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. It’s a journey that they could now make blindfolded-but this one was different. On March 23, testimony was to be heard by the commission investigating intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, among others.
These four moms from New Jersey are the World Trade Center widows whose tireless advocacy produced the broad investigation into the failures around the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that now has top officials from both the Clinton and Bush administrations duking it out in conflicting testimonies at this week’s high-drama hearings in the Hart Office Building before the 9/11 commission.
After two and a half years of seeking truth and accountability, they had high hopes for this week’s hearings, which are focused on policy failures. Instead, packed into the car at 4 a.m. in what has become a ritual for them, their hearts were heavy.
The Four Moms had submitted dozens of questions they have been burning to ask at these hearings. Mr. Rumsfeld is a particular thorn in their sides.
“He needs to answer to his actions on Sept. 11,” said Ms. Kleinberg. “When was he aware that we were under attack? What did he do about it?”
When the widows had a conference call last week with the commission staff, they asked that Secretary Rumsfeld be questioned about his response on the day of Sept. 11. They were told that this was not a line of questioning the staff planned to pursue.
They were not especially impressed with his testimony. In Mr. Rumsfeld’s opening statement, he said he knew of no intelligence in the months leading up to Sept. 11 indicating that terrorists intended to hijack commercial airplanes and fly them into the Pentagon or the World Trade Center.
It was his worst moment at the mike. Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste ran through a list of at least a dozen cases of foiled plots using commercial airliners to attack key targets in the U.S. and elsewhere. Mr. Ben-Veniste cited the “Bojinka” plot in 1995, which envisioned blowing up Western commercial planes in Asia; that plot was foiled by the government and must have been on the mind of C.I.A. director George Tenet, who was having weekly lunches with Mr. Rumsfeld through 2001. In 1998, an Al Qaeda–connected group talked about flying a commercial plane into the World Trade Center.
“So when we had this threatened strike that something huge was going to happen, why didn’t D.O.D. alert people on the ground of a potential jihadist hijacking? Why didn’t it ever get to an actionable level?” the commissioner asked.
Mr. Rumsfeld said he only remembered hearing threats of a private aircraft being used. “The decision to fly a commercial aircraft was not known to me.”
Mr. Ben-Veniste came back at him: “We knew from the Millennium plot [to blow up Los Angeles International Airport] that Al Qaeda was trying to bomb an American airport,” he said. The Clinton administration foiled that plot and thought every day about foiling terrorism, he said. “But as we get into 2001, it was like everyone was looking at the white truck from the sniper attacks and not looking in the right direction. Nobody did a thing about it.”
Mr. Rumsfeld backed off with the lame excuse, “I should say I didn’t know.”
He said that on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he was “hosting a meeting for some of the members of Congress.”
“Ironically, in the course of the conversation, I stressed how important it was for our country to be adequately prepared for the unexpected,” he said.
It is still incredible to the moms that their Secretary of Defense continued to sit in his private dining room at the Pentagon while their husbands were being incinerated in the towers of the World Trade Center. They know this from an account posted on Sept. 11 on the Web site of Christopher Cox, a Republican Congressman from Orange County who is chairman of the House Policy Committee.
“Ironically,” Mr. Cox wrote, “just moments before the Department of Defense was hit by a suicide hijacker, Secretary Rumsfeld was describing to me why … Congress has got to give the President the tools he needs to move forward with a defense of America against ballistic missiles.”
At that point, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, the Secret Service, the F.A.A., NORAD (our North American air-defense system), American Airlines and United Airlines, among others, knew that at least three planes had been violently hijacked, their transponders turned off, and that thousands of American citizens had been annihilated in the World Trade Center by Middle Eastern terrorists, some of whom had been under surveillance by the F.B.I. Yet the nation’s defense chief didn’t think it significant enough to interrupt his political pitch to a key Republican in Congress to reactivate the Star Wars initiative of the Bush I years.
“I’ve been around the block a few times,” Mr. Rumsfeld told the Congressman, according to his own account. “There will be another event.” Mr. Rumsfeld repeated it for emphasis, Mr. Cox wrote: “There will be another event.”
“Within minutes of that utterance, Rumsfeld’s words proved tragically prophetic,” Mr. Cox wrote.
“Someone handed me a note that a plane had hit one of the W.T.C. towers,” Mr. Rumsfeld testified on March 23. “Later, I was in my office with a C.I.A. briefer when I was told a second plane had hit the other tower.”
The note didn’t seem to prompt any action on his part.
“Shortly thereafter, at 9:38 a.m., the Pentagon shook with an explosion of a then-unknown origin,” he said.
He had to go to the window of his office to see that the Pentagon had been attacked? Now the moms were getting agitated.
“I went outside to determine what had happened,” he testified. “I was not there long, apparently, because I was told I was back in the Pentagon, with the crisis action team, by shortly before or after 10 a.m.
“Upon my return from the crash site, and before going to the Executive Support Center,” he continued, “I had one or more calls in my office, one of which I believe was the President.”
Then commission member Jamie Gorelick, who served as deputy attorney general and general counsel for the Department of Defense in the Clinton administration, had her turn with Mr. Rumsfeld.
“Where were you and your aircraft when a missile was heading to the Pentagon? Surely that is your responsibility, to protect our facilities, our headquarters-the Pentagon. Is there anything we did to protect that?”
Mr. Rumsfeld said it was a law-enforcement issue.
“When I arrived at the command center, an order had been given-the command had been given instructions that their pilots could shoot down any commercial airlines filled with our people if the plane seemed to be acting in a threatening manner,” he said.
Ms. Gorelick tried to get Mr. Rumsfeld to say whether the NORAD pilots themselves knew they had authority to shoot down a plane.
“I do not know what they thought,” he answered. “I was immediately concerned that they knew what they could do and that we changed the rules of engagement.”
One of the hardest things for the families to hear was how every witness defended how he had done everything possible to combat the threat of terrorism. No one said, “We fell short.”
Secretary of State Colin Powell complained that the Bush administration was given no military plan by the Clinton administration for routing Al Qaeda. He then described how Condoleezza Rice undertook a complete reorganization of the failed responses of the Clinton years-not too much more than a series of meetings that took up the next eight months.
“Then 9/11 hit, and we had to put together another plan altogether,” said Mr. Powell.
He also claimed that “we did not know the perpetrators were already in our country and getting ready to commit the crimes we saw on 9/11.”
Some of the widows groaned. In fact, the Moms had learned, the F.B.I. had 14 open investigations on supporters of the 9/11 hijackers who were in the U.S. before 9/11.
And after the Clinton administration foiled the Millennium plot to blow up LAX, the C.I.A. knew that two Al Qaeda operatives had a sleeper cell in San Diego. F.B.I. field officers tried to move the information up the line, with no success.
What’s more, most of the 9/11 hijackers re-entered the U.S. between April and June of 2001 with blatantly suspicious visa applications, which the Four Moms had already obtained and shown to the commission. The State Department had 166,000 people on its terrorist watch list in 2001, but only 12 names had been passed along to the F.A.A. for inclusion on its “no-fly list.” Mr. Powell had to admit as much, though he said that State Department consular officers had been given no information to help them identify terrorist suspects among the visa applicants.
One of the key questions that the Moms expected to be put to Mr. Powell was why over 100 members of the Saudi royal family and many members of the bin Laden clan were airlifted out of the U.S. in the days immediately following the terrorist attacks-without being interviewed by law enforcement-while no other Americans, including members of the victims’ families, could take a plane anywhere in the U.S. The State Department had obviously given its approval. But no commissioner apparently dared to touch the sacrosanct Saudi friends of the Bush family.
When Republican commissioner James Thompson asked Mr. Powell: “Prior to Sept. 11, would it have been possible to say to the Pakistanis and Saudis, ‘You’re either with us or against us?’”, Mr. Powell simply ignored the issue of the Saudi exemption and punted on Pakistan.
Fox in the Chicken House
To the Moms, the problems with the 9/11 commission were always apparent. But the disappointing testimony from Mr. Rumsfeld was especially difficult to bear. The Moms had tried to get their most pressing questions to the commission to be asked of Mr. Rumsfeld, but their efforts had foundered at the hands of Philip Zelikow, the commission’s staff director.
Indeed, it was only with the recent publication of Richard Clarke’s memoir of his counterterrorism days in the White House, Against All Enemies , that the Moms found out that Mr. Zelikow-who was supposed to present their questions to Mr. Rumsfeld-was actually one of the select few in the new Bush administration who had been warned, nine months before 9/11, that Osama bin Laden was the No. 1 security threat to the country. They are now calling for Mr. Zelikow’s resignation.
Ms. Gorelick sees their point.
“This is a legitimate concern,” Ms. Gorelick said in an interview, “and I am not convinced we knew everything we needed to know when we made the decision to hire him.”
But despite her obvious discomfort at the conflicts of interest apparently not fully disclosed by Mr. Zelikow in his deposition by the commission’s attorney, Ms. Gorelick believes that the time is too short to replace the staff director.
“We’re just going to have to be very cognizant of the role that he played and address it in the writing of our report,” she said.
That doesn’t satisfy the Four Moms. They point out that it is Mr. Zelikow who decides which among the many people offering information will be interviewed. Efforts by the families to get the commission to hear from a raft of administration and intelligence-agency whistleblowers have been largely ignored at his behest. And it is Mr. Zelikow who oversees what investigative material the commissioners will be briefed on, and who decides the topics for the hearings. Mr. Zelikow’s statement at the January hearing sounded to the Moms like a whitewash waiting to happen:
“This was everybody’s fault and nobody’s fault.”
The Moms don’t buy it.
“Why did it take Condi Rice nine months to develop a counterterrorism policy for Al Qaeda, while it took only two weeks to develop a policy for regime change in Iraq?” Ms. Kleinberg asked rhetorically.
Dr. Rice has given one closed-door interview and has been asked to return for another, but the commissioners have declined to use their subpoena power to compel her public testimony. And now, they say, it is probably too late.
“That strategy may not turn out well for the Bush administration,” Ms. Gorelick said.
Bob Kerrey, the commissioner who replaced Max Cleland, expressed the same view in a separate interview: “The risk they run in not telling what they were doing during that period of time is that other narratives will prevail.”
The Four Moms have enjoyed some victories along the way. The first was when the White House finally gave up trying to block an independent investigation; the commission was created in December 2002. The Moms shot down to Washington-stopping in traffic to change out of their Capri pants and into proper pantsuits-to meet with the new commissioners, who thanked them for providing the wealth of information they’d been gathering since losing their husbands on Sept. 11. Ms. Gorelick expressed amazement at the research the women had done, and vowed it would be their “road map.”
“We were their biggest advocates,” said the husky-voiced Ms. Kleinberg. “They asked us to get them more funding, and we did. It could have been a great relationship, but it hasn’t been.”
Mr. Zelikow’s idea of how to conduct the investigation, the Moms said, is to hold everything close to the vest.
“They don’t tell us or the public anything, and they won’t until they publish their final report,” said Ms. Casazza. “At which point, they’ll be out of business.”
Ms. Kleinberg chimed in: “Why not publish interim reports, instead of letting us sit around for two years bleeding for answers?”
“We have lower and lower expectations,” said Ms. Van Auken, whose teenage daughter often accompanies her to hearings; her son still can’t talk about seeing his father’s building incinerated.
The irony is that two of the Four Moms voted for George Bush in 2000, while another is a registered independent; only one is a Democrat. But until they felt the teeth of the Bush attack dogs, they were either apolitical or determinedly nonpartisan. Now their tone is different.
“The Bush people keep saying that Clinton was not doing enough [to combat the Al Qaeda threat],” said Ms. Kleinberg. “But ‘nothing’ is less than ‘not enough,’ and nothing is what the Bush administration did.”
An unnamed spokesman for the Bush campaign was quoted as saying of Sept. 11, “We own it.” That comment particularly disturbed the Four Moms.
“They can have it,” said Ms. Van Auken. “Can I have my husband back now? “
“If they want to own 9/11, they also have to own 9/10 and 9/12,” said Ms. Kleinberg. “Their argument is that this was a defining moment in our history. It’s not the moment of tragedy that defines you, but what you do afterwards.”
If the final report of this 9/11 commission does indeed turn out to be a whitewash, the Four Moms from New Jersey have a backup plan. Provided there is a change of leadership, they will petition the new President to create an independent 9/11 commission. As if one never existed before.