Vigilant Widows Wait For Condi With Suspicion

On the evening of April 5, the television was buzzing with wall-to-wall coverage of the 9/11 commission hearings and the ongoing violence in Iraq. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice (nicknamed the “warrior princess” by White House staff) was scheduled to testify under oath to the commission on April 8, the culmination of a long journey for the Bush administration. Initially rejecting the idea of forming the commission, the White House finally allowed it, even as they thwarted the commission by overclassifying or hiding crucial documents. Initially refusing to allow sworn testimony from White House aides like Ms. Rice (because of important “constitutional principles”), here, too, the White House finally relented. Ms. Rice’s testimony is the culmination of what has become the defining narrative of the Bush administration in this election year: whether they did enough to prevent the attacks of Sept. 11, and whether they then used the attacks as a pretext for a long-desired and unrelated war with Iraq.

The same evening, mashing spinach in her kitchen in East Brunswick, N.J., for a family Seder on the first night of Passover, Lorie Van Auken can hardly have looked like one of the driving forces behind these developments as she cradled a telephone in the crook of her neck and spoke with this writer, firing off a list of angry questions that she wants to ask Ms. Rice.

Ms. Van Auken is one of the “four moms,” from New Jersey, alll 9/11 widows, whose loud outcry compelled the Bush administration to form the commission in the first place. As the four have taken the national stage, their worlds have been turned upside-down again. The personal loss that motivates them-the loss of their husbands-has led them down this path, to find out the truth about what their country failed to do for them on Sept. 11, and what the White House continues to do to cover it up. But as they sit across nondescript coffee tables from Chris Matthews on Hardball or protest the President’s exploitation of Ground Zero images on the Today show, they have found themselves targets as well: accused of being toadies for the Kerry campaign by Bush campaign aides (even though two of the moms voted for Mr. Bush); of being delusional and naïve by Mr. Matthews, like the women who launched America’s failed effort to locate their loved ones in the long cold graveyards of Vietnam.

In the weeks after Sept. 11, the four moms came together, slowly and organically, as each found herself looking for answers that nobody seemed willing to provide. Was investigating and defeating Al Qaeda’s network of terrorists a priority for George W. Bush’s administration? Googling Ms. Rice’s record early on, the 9/11 widows noted that she made no mention of terrorism, much less Al Qaeda, in June 2001, when she addressed the Council on Foreign Relations on the foreign-policy priorities of the Bush administration.

Since then, the moms read with indignation the 900-page final report of the Joint Congressional Inquiry on 9/11, which preceded the current 9/11 commission. In that final report, amidst the great stretches of blank pages from which the White House had redacted material deemed privileged or security-sensitive, the moms found that the following “all-source” intelligence review had been given to top officials on June 28, 2001-the same month that Ms. Rice listed the administration’s priorities:

“Based on reporting over the last five months, we believe that UBL [Osama bin Laden] will launch a significant terrorist attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties …. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning. They are waiting us out, looking for a vulnerability.”

For them, the question for Condoleezza Rice is not a new one formed in the waning tenure of the commission amid the explosive testimony of former White House counterterrorism ace Richard Clarke. They were questions formed in the fog of grief, and they have only become clearer.

It was this report, in part, that alerted the four moms to the falsehood of the White House claim-made early on in the post-9/11 political environment, and now a continuing refrain from White House officials-that before that fateful day, nobody could have imagined that hijackers would use airplanes as missiles.

That claim persists despite another of the moms’ particular efforts. Kristen Breitweiser has given the most trenchant television interviews in the group and is known among them, affectionately-in a personal language that recalls something out of a John Le Carré novel-as “the hammer.” It was Ms. Breitweiser who shot down that claim in her stunning testimony before the Congressional panel as its opening witness in September 2002-long before anyone but Internet bloggers and conspiracy theorists seemed to be paying close attention to the administration’s claims. Ms. Breitweiser cited more than half a dozen terrorist plots that envisioned slamming commercial planes into landmarks in American cities, or the Eiffel Tower, or blowing up the Los Angeles International Airport-a “Millennium plot” that was foiled by President Bill Clinton’s insistence on banging heads together in the daily meetings of all top officials responsible for domestic and foreign security.

This was supposed to be a rare week off from their grueling round trips to Washington in Ms. Breitweiser’s S.U.V. to attend hearings or meet with the commissioners.

“Condi Rice threw a wrench into everything,” said Ms. Van Auken.

She and her group remember the year, 2002, when Ms. Rice wouldn’t agree even to answer written questions from the Congressional panel (her deputy, Stephen Hadley, responded for her). When the White House reversed its two-year standoff against the moms’ pleadings to hear from the President’s foreign-policy tutor in public, their Holy Week plans went to hell.

“My most pressing need is to make sure the Easter Bunny makes a visit to our house this Sunday,” said Ms. Breitweiser, the mother of a 5-year-old. “And to take down my outdoor Christmas decorations.”

“That,” admonished fellow widow Patty Casazza, “is why I told you not to put them up.”

But it gets harder and harder to continue to put life on hold for a slow-moving commission, especially as the four moms’ expectations that the commissioners will ask the really tough questions deteriorates.

Commissioner Jamie Gorelick says that Ms. Rice can be questioned on anything she told the panel in her private audience, provided it isn’t classified. But the four moms’ questions are often more challenging than that.

The latest question on Ms. Van Auken’s mind picks up on Ms. Rice’s defensive position, articulated earlier in the hearings, that her national-security team was alert only to “traditional” hijackings, in which an airplane is redirected or its passengers held hostage as part of a negotiation.

“Even if that’s so, they did nothing to thwart traditional hijacks either,” Ms. Van Auken noted.

She ticked off a timeline she knows by heart: By 8:14 a.m. on Sept. 11, F.A.A. flight controllers knew that American Flight 11 was missing. Its transponder was turned off, and they couldn’t get a response from the pilot. By 8:22 a.m., fighter jets should have been sent up to trail Flight 11. They could have caught up with it in 10 minutes, or even by 8:40 a.m. Then an F-16 could have rocked its wings and, if it couldn’t force the hijacked jet to turn around before it hit the World Trade Center, a fighter plane would have been instructed to crash into it.

She goes on: By 8:43, the F.A.A. had notified NORAD that there was another hijacked jet in the sky (United Flight 175). The other fighter jet could have gone after that plane. Certainly by the time the Pentagon was a target, they could have shot down Flight 77. And, by then, the pilots did have a shoot-down order.

“I’d like to ask Condi Rice: ‘If you all say we couldn’t have done anything to prevent 9/11, why weren’t we able to mitigate the damage?’” said Ms. Van Auken.

It’s The Mmes. Smith Go to Washington : Instead of Jimmy Stewart shouting himself hoarse in the well of the Senate, these young suburban widows have banded together to coax and cajole, outwit and outlast their national leaders, until officials face up to their mistakes and forge enough systemic changes to prevent the next terrorist attack-or at least put together a strategy to minimize the death and trauma.

For my book Middletown, America , I followed their journey from the first months of anguish and disbelief, through incoherent anger, to the point in the spring of 2002 when they found a mission to channel their anger and look toward the future with hope.

Lorie Van Auken is the mom who still takes flack for asking her friends, two years ago: “O.K., there’s the House and the Senate-which one has the most members?” Now, she speaks authoritatively about wing-rocking and plane transponders.

Her first brush with political activism came in April 2002, when she attended a widows’ support group in Princeton, N.J., where a veteran survivor of terrorist murder injected a testosterone-fueled fighting spirit. Bob Monetti, president of Families of Pan Am 103, challenged them: “You can’t sit back and let the government treat you like shit.”

Ms. Van Auken drove home with another freshly made 9/11 widow, Mindy Kleinberg.

“It was early for us to be introduced to the big picture,” said Ms. Kleinberg of that meeting exactly two years ago.

“It was like Eve biting the apple,” said Ms. Van Auken.

They called up Patty Casazza, who was in something of a pharmaceutical haze. The events of Sept. 11 had brought back her childhood trauma-her abandonment with her mother and four siblings in a St. Louis hotel by her father. From there she had wiped away the tears, hoisted herself out of poverty and married John Casazza, a Wall Street trader. Now, she was the widowed mother of an 11-year-old boy who still can not speak of the tragedy.

“We have to have a rally in Washington,” Ms. Van Auken said to Ms. Casazza.

“Oh, God,” Ms. Casazza groaned. “That’s huge, and it’s gonna be painful.”

Ms. Kleinberg goaded her in a girlish voice: “I promise, Patty, this is the last thing we’ll ask you to do.”

Patty laughed. “You lie a lot,” she said.

Ms. Van Auken rushed off an e-mail to Kristen Breitweiser, a 9/11 widow from Middletown, who shot back two words: “Let’s rally!”

And so, six months after the women’s husbands had been murdered and their families shattered, the four found each other.

Mindy Kleinberg and her three children were still roaming their house at night, unable to sleep. They would try one bed after another, until the 4-year-old would finally pass out, while her 7- and 11-year-olds were still fitful. When Mindy spotted a monstrosity of a bed-a display prop in a furniture store-she bought it out of the window. She and her three children could sleep in it together.

Ms. Kleinberg and Ms. Van Auken commiserated nightly about the mute rage of their young sons. Lorie’s son, 14, had been in a science classroom on Sept. 11. “They neglected to turn off the TV, so he watched his father die on TV at school.” The boy could not forgive himself. He had heard his father getting ready for work that morning, but had been too sleepy to go downstairs and say goodbye to him.

Mindy was also worried about her 4-year-old. One day he had a meltdown in a store, crying and sobbing and repeating, “Everybody’s died except me!”

These lonely suburban moms have banded together as an intentional family. They fit their research and their trips to D.C. in between meetings at a doctor’s office to support the one who is having a breast biopsy, or keeping a phone vigil with another mom whose child is making suicidal noises, or taking their collective seven fatherless children away on a holiday weekend-as long as they don’t have to fly or take a train.

Since last winter, when I began writing about the four moms for The Observer , I have marveled at the clarity and perspicacity of the questions they keep raising. Lacking subpoena power or a staff of 60 investigators, they are still leagues ahead of the commissioners.

“We always come back to the same guideline,” said Ms. Van Auken, “Just do the right thing-not the political thing, not the P.R. thing, not the TV-soundbite thing-just keep asking for truth for the families and the public.”

But it is exactly this genuineness, this quest which is all personal and all political at once, that has recently drawn the national spotlight to them.

When Richard Clarke opened his testimony before the 9/11 commission, he said: “Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And your government failed you. I failed you.”

Some of the four moms dissolved in tears. These were the words they had been aching to hear any member of their government utter. The wall around Ms. Van Auken’s well of sadness, cemented over by activism, crumbled. She sobbed uncontrollably.

Somewhere in the wall-to-wall running commentary on the 24-hour news networks about how much credibility those tears lent Mr. Clarke and his testimony, Ms. Van Auken, her friends and other family members rose and spontaneously walked out to protest the failure of Condi Rice to appear.

“We haven’t had any of our questions answered, and the country still isn’t safe,” Ms. Van Auken said.

And that vacuum, now, as much as the grief, fuels their continuing passion.

Just last week, the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security revealed that they are hearing from their intelligence sources that terrorists are planning new terror attacks in New York City. “We’ve heard over and over that they want to use suitcase nukes,” said Ms. Van Auken. “We’ve been saying for ages, ‘Why don’t they check more of our containers coming into U.S. ports? Why don’t they dry up the money lines for terrorists?’ It’s only after Madrid that they’re talking about trains. It sounds to me like we’re stalled.”

Ms. Breitweiser isn’t so rattled anymore when the government issues yet another warning that future terrorist attacks are likely.

“If they put out an alert that there could be backpack bombs on trains, and you see a backpack on the floor with wires coming out of it, you won’t ignore it,” she said. “My husband was in building two of the Trade Center. If he had only known we were under terrorist threat, he wouldn’t have thought it was an accident, and he might have run out of the building.”