January 2003, I accepted an offer of employment from Tom Cane
and Lee Hamilton, the chair and vice-chair of the new 9/11 Commission.
The offer was to become the executive director of the commission.
I thus became the first employee of a new federal agency. This
agency then existed only existed on paper. It did have a mandate.
The mandate was to provide a full and complete counting of the
facts and circumstances surrounding the most devastating attack
ever carried out upon the United States and to make recommendations
to prevent such attacks in the future. The new agency that had
this mandate in which I had agreed to manage had no employees
other than me. It had no office; it did not have a telephone number.
A year and a half later - in July 2004, the commission delivered
its final report. By that time the commission had more than 80
employees and three offices: two in Washington, D.C. and one in
New York City.
The commission had interviewed more than 1200 witnesses including
both the current and former Presidents of the United States and
their entire national security teams. It had received millions
of pages of documents from more than a dozen federal agencies
local authorities and private firms. These included many of the
most sensitive national security documents held by the United
States including many documents that had never before been released
by executive department of the government to any outside investigation
in American history.
The commission had held nineteen days of public hearings presenting
seventeen staff statements and testimony from160 witnesses. Our
final report summarized in about 300,00 words our conclusions
and recommendations. We cited our main sources of evidence. That
report was published in a fashion so that it was readily available
to the American people. Millions of them have brought or downloaded
the report. Translations are underway in more than a dozen languages
The commission has also released two large staff studies on specialized
topics and two are in process to be released. Last month, this
short-lived federal agency closed its doors and went out of existence
having completed its work. I returned to full-time work here at
the University and at the Miller Center. Today I wish to examine
and summarize our main conclusions about the road to 9/11.
On another occasion, I plan to discuss the road from 9/11, in
the outlook to the future. Today I will stick primarily to the
past. I will try to cover seven major topics; first – 9/11
and the attack itself.
Probably all of you can recall the morning, that brilliant sunlit
morning gorgeous morning on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Very
early that morning nineteen men had boarded four separate transcontinental
flights at three different airports. These men were carrying small
knives with blade lengths of less than four inches, which by the
way brought them underneath the permissible boundaries set by
Civil Aviation Security Guidelines. They may have carried box
cutters, we’re not sure. Several of them carried mace or
pepper spray. And several of them carried packages made up to
look like fake bombs.
They had analyzed our security system with care. They had repeatedly
practiced their operation having traveled on a number of other
flights, having carried weapons and materials of exactly the same
character on board so they knew exactly what they could get away
with and what they could not get away with.
In defeating our security system that morning, they were they
were 19 for 19; they had to be. This was not an operation in which
15 for 19 would have been good enough. Four of them being caught
could have disrupted everything. So they had analyzed us. They
probably found without knowing all the details that ours was not
a security system prepared for an attack such as theirs.
The United Sates had actually not experienced a domestic hijacking
since 1993. We were in no way prepared for this particular attack
scenario. There was a lot of attention that had been given to
the danger of explosives being carried on aircrafts since that
was the last way our aircraft had been attacked and we were preparing
as usual to fight the last war.
So for example, ten of the nineteen highjackers boarding that
morning were identified as potentially suspicious by the profiling
system then in use by the airlines. But the consequence was simply
that their bags were checked for explosives or it was made sure
that they had actually boarded the aircraft so that they and their
bags were on the aircraft. And that therefore satisfied the requirements
The fact that they were identified had no affect whatsoever on
the way they were searched. None of the security people recall
finding anything suspicious on any of the nineteen men. On the
videotapes, Addulus - actually several of the men set off alarms
in the metal detector and were cursorily wanded and the person
who wanded them found nothing of interest and they were allowed
to pass on.
The report describes the painful details of how these nineteen
men then took over the four airplanes they had boarded during
the flights of those airplanes. The paths of the airplanes were
very clear. The airplanes were taken over and flown by the terrorists
to their assigned targets with one exception that I’ll come
to. It is worth noting that this was the first occasion in history
in which terrorists had actually taken control of a passenger
aircraft and flown it themselves.
The one exception of course was United flight 93. United flight
93 was the last of the four planes to be taken over and after
the takeover it’s clear that passengers had communications
in which they learned of what had happened to three other airplanes.
Fully alerted to the danger, the passengers decided to assault
the highjackers. We can reconstruct a lot about that flight from
the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder. We can
hear the sounds of the assault on the outside of the cockpit.
We can see from the flight data recorder the frantic efforts of
the hijacker pilot to disrupt the assault by rocking the plane’s
wings almost 180 degrees each way, literally that kind of rolling
with the assault continuing despite that. And then rocking the
nose up and down, nonetheless the assault continued.
And finally the hijackers following a contingency plan, decided
to dive the plane into the ground rather than allow the passengers
to take over the plane and that is what they did. The passengers
could not have known what the intended target was. We have a pretty
good idea what the intended target was. The flyer intended to
fly his aircraft fully loaded with full jet fuel either into the
United States capitol or into the White House. For various reasons,
not all of them excusable, the FAA gave the military little or
no prior notification that the airplanes had been hijacked before
they crashed into their targets, or into United flight 93’s
case, it crashed into the countryside of Pennsylvania.
The National Command Authority, starting the President on down,
tried as best they could to respond. We tell that story in the
report. It’s a story of bad information, bad communications,
and a bad system for crisis management. A number of steps have
been taken since September 11 to correct those deficiencies; many
of them are not public.
All this is a story of a plot that had been developed years earlier,
not just by the nineteen men, but by number of other individuals.
The plot had been patiently developed and refined. All this was
done from the other side of the world. The conflict did not begin
on 9/11. It had been publicly declared years earlier, most notably
in a declaration faxed early in 1998 to an Arabic language newspaper
in London. Few Americans had noticed it. The facts had been sent
from thousands of miles away from the followers of a Sahdi exile
gathered in one of the remote and impoverished countries on earth.
The origins of a plot stated simply “Our profound political,
economic, and social crisis in the Muslim world” exploited
by radical elements who had time to organize and set an extraordinary
agenda of transnational annihilation.
The history of Islam, as understood by devout Muslims, is a history
of rise and decline, of glory and failure. Especially acute disappointment
in the twentieth century marked by such things as the creation
of the state Israel in what they regard as nearly the heart of
the Umma, the worldwide Muslim community. And a strong strain
of revivalists- efforts to cope with modernity; some such as appeals
to secular nationalism and Sudo western ideologies like Bafism,
visibly bankrupted by the 1970s.
Other Utopian alternatives were to return to the religious purity.
The adherence argued that it was precisely the lost of such purity
and fervor that explained the decline Islam. And Islam could only
recover only by capturing the spirit of the prophet. This touched
on a long centuries’ long strain of fundamentalism and minority
tradition in Islam, but a long-standing tradition. And organized
and developed by a few key figures, notably Osama Bin Laden, the
Sufi exile I refereed to earlier.
There were demographic and economic trends of significance. There
are problems of over population of youth, of riches without corresponding
economic development that we detail in the report. There’s
the factor of Bin Laden himself: his charisma, his talent for
propaganda assisted, by entrepreneurs - people seeking venture
capital in an organization. People like Kali Shake Muhammad who
wanted to fight jihad and were looking for an organization were
coming brimming with ideas to propose, seeking people, funding,
organization that could make their dreams come to life. The effectuation
of their plan is a peculiar mixture of haphazardness and a third
world undeveloped quality mixed with extreme tradecraft at a high
level of professionalism.
Finally, the issue of help in the United States. The attack was
not carried out by Al Qaeda sleeper cells in the United States,
nor did we find evidence that such sweeper cells exist all across
the country. There is some evidence of Al Qaeda networks or sympathizers
inside of the United States. We notably found some evidence, say
in Arizona, for example. We have the benefit of hindsight. And
hindsight can be a great thing. Hindsight can also be enormously
dangerous. The way we put it in our words, was that hindsight
can sometimes see the past clearly with 20/20 vision to use the
But the path of what happened is so brightly lit that it places
everything else more deeply into shadow.
We nonetheless came to some conclusions about concerns. And those
concerns can be summarized really in a very simple equation. You
can ask two questions for high policymakers. Did they understand
the danger? And two, did they think their policies are likely
to erase or contain the dangers? If they understood the answers
to questions one and two, then history’s judgment would
be extremely harsh. Our assessment that it was more complicated
than that. There is a sense in which some people understood it
in a nominal, intellectual way. Could we be attacked by weapons
of mass destruction? Could there be a catastrophic terrorist attack
to this group? And if you ask them a question point blank, “Yeah
we understood that”.
But could you see evidence that it was really a belief in their
guts that they were willing to do disproportionate things that
would only seem proportionate in relation to that belief in the
And then the second question: did they think that their policies
are likely succeed? The answer when we asked them this question
was mostly no. Did you think it was likely to succeed in the immediately
foreseeable future? No. Well then how do you account for that
and then the answer would be that it was clear that the question
hadn’t been formulated to them that way when they had been
in government. Except in some very diffused manner. And therefore,
they tend to take the position that “We were doing so much.
We were doing all we could. We cared a lot”. We were constantly
working the problem. All of which is true. Which I think then
reveal something else that is important about understanding the
world of policy-making.
At a general level, did we fully imagine and understand just how
dangerous Al Qaeda could be? The answer to this is blurry. The
CIA analysts and CIA officials argued strenuously to us, “Yes
we did and we told you. We gave you hundreds of threat reports
about Al Qaeda; individual threat reports. They are planning this
attack at that embassy. They’re thinking about bombing -
day after day”, which is true.
Did you ever write a report, we asked, that put it all together?
Let’s say a national estimate. Or if you don’t like
that particular of writing something comparable to a national
estimate. Step back, notice the pattern here. Notice what kind
of organization they are building. Put it all together and synthesize
it and say look at this painting after you put all the dots together,
here’s the painting that emerges from that.
That document they never did write. The last national intelligence
estimate prepared on terrorism at all was prepared in 1995. It
was very superficially updated in 1997 even though massive information
had begun to come in about Al Qaeda, that information was not
incorporated into that estimate and no further estimates were
written. We thought that was unfortunate.
We found ample ways of speculating that aircraft could be used
in this way and that individuals postulated this danger. We found
that Justice Department trial attorneys imagining the danger in
order to work out the legal details of whether can shoot down
American aircraft. We found FAA Analysts speculating about the
danger, but then deciding there couldn’t be a suicide hijacking
because then you wouldn’t be able to negotiate for the release
of hostages. The FAA people who wrote that report, in the spring
and summer of 2001 I’ll add, of course never consulted with
the CIA analysts who knew something about Al Qaeda. The CIA did
not work on the FAA report. Why? Because working on the vulnerabilities
of the United States was not part of the job of the CIA.
Well who’s job was it? No one in particular. If it was an
aviation threat, FAA was supposed to look at that; a nuclear threat,
the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the Department of Energy,
and so on. The saddest thing about that story is that in the decade
since Pearl Harbor, the CIA in particular, had patiently, painstakingly
developed for generations a craft of warning against surprise
attack. That methodology didn’t fail in 9/11, it was never
tried. They did not apply the methodology they had so painfully
developed to guard against surprise attack in analyzing the danger
of surprise attack from the enemy that at the end of the twentieth
century, was most likely to launch one against the United States.
My fifth observation is about failures of high policy. We said
in the report there were four principal occasions or opportunities
for high policy to make a major reaction to the emerging Al Qaeda
danger. Those opportunities were: 1. in the period in early 1997
after massive information had been received from a defector on
just how formidable Al Qaeda was 2. in August 1998, in the window
that had been opened by the clearly extremely dangerous embassy
bombings, and a window therefore open to what you going to do
at high policy about that 3. after the discovery and frustration
of the planned attacks during the period of the millennium, December
1999 which was a reminder of how serious the danger was and was
very heavily publicized and therefore could afford a president
the opportunity to lead the government towards a different policy
4. after the successful attack on the USS Cole in Harbor on October
The formative period we found in defining all American counterterrorism
policy before 9/11 was the period after August 1998. Essentially,
the policies we had before 9/11 about Al Qaeda were decisively
formed during the weeks and months after the August 1998 attack.
In that formative period, we tried all the usual instruments.
We tried diplomacy, pressuring the Taliban regime, threatening
the Taliban regime. That wasn’t working. Pressuring, threatening
Pakistan, which was seen correctly as the Taliban’s principal
supporter. That didn’t work. Pressuring the Saudi’s
to pressure the Taliban, believing the Saudi’s had some
pressure on the Taliban. Pressuring the Saudi’s to pressure
the Pakistanis. The Saudi’s did both those things. Their
pressure in case of the Taliban blew up with a suspension of relations
and the Saudi’s and Talibani’s yelling at each other,
but ineffectual. And the Saudi’s pressure on the Pakistanis
also to no particular effect.
We then faced some fundamental dilemmas about what we’re
going to do about Pakistan and Afghanistan and what we essentially
tried to do is to have it both ways. Continue our act of agenda
for all the things we were still trying to do in that region.
Non-proliferation, region stability with India while also adding
terrorism to the list. The diplomacy was entirely ineffective.
We delivered ultimatum after ultimatum for the Taliban warning
them what would happen to them if any attack on the United States
happened again in ‘98, ‘99, 2000, and 2001 and as
the Commission put it “The effectiveness of the ultimatum
did not improve with repetition.”
Covert action was also tried. The CIA wasn’t listening.
We found actually that the high water mark for the possibly of
effective paramilitary covert action against Bin Laden was before
the August 98 bombings when a capture operation, that might have
had some possibly of success (this was highly debated at the time
and is highly debated today) was canceled. Bottom line, covert
action wasn’t going to succeed in toppling Bin Laden and
no one involved in planning the covert actions gave any of the
individual actions a chance of success higher than 10-15%.
Then you turn to military actions and military options. After
the August ‘98 bombings, there was some consideration of
this and the decision was made to launch a cruise missile strike
because they thought that they had a chance of catching the Al Qaeda
leadership. They did not; they missed. And there was some discussion
about follow-on strikes. They had initially contemplated doing
follow-on strikes, but then didn’t really find any targets
that seemed especially appealing for two million dollar cruise
missiles. And decided not to launch the follow-on strikes, and
then really couldn’t find any other military options between
doing nothing and doing more cruise missile ships.
They considered various things: One idea that was proposed by
Richard Clark was just episodic bombardment of Al Qaeda training
camps, but all the principals unanimously agreed that they didn’t
really see a strategic purpose to this that was likely to succeed
and mostly just do more to demonstrate the impotence of American
technology and was not going to increase the strength of the United
States in the world or decrease Bin Laden’s strength. And
that was that.
And that was basically the menu of options inherited by the Bush
administration. They found them unsatisfactory and were trying
to develop a new policy laborishly and had not completed doing
so by the time that 9/11 attacks occurred. One singular point
to make about that period is the attack on USS Cole in October
2000. The Clinton administration and the Bush administration took
very different views of what to about the attack on the Cole.
The Clinton administration’s view was as President Clinton
said, “I didn’t have good enough evidence linking
it to Bin Laden”. We found substantial evidence that was
presented to the President and explained such to the President
making it clear that Al aieda was behind the attack. But they
couldn’t firmly pin it to Bin Laden and indeed we didn’t
evidence firmly pinning it to Bin Laden until after 9/11. They
were not persuaded that the military options were good enough
to act on that evidence. There was an argument amongst some of
the people in the Clinton administration about whether that was
the right decision but bottom line was inaction.
The Bush administration inherited that inaction. Their view was
quite different. They were not concerned about the problem of
evidence, but they thought more cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan
would be ineffectual and that instead we needed a much fuller
body, stronger U.S. policy against Al Qaeda generally and put
in motion this procedure I described a minute ago to create a
Presidential directive and a new national strategy to use all
instruments of national power to eliminate the threat posed by
That policy was nearing the president’s desk when the 9/11
attack occurred but meanwhile nothing had been done to respond
to the Cole attacks and really nothing had been said about responding
to the Cole attack. So from Bin Laden’s perspective or the
perspective of Al Qaeda, they just attacked an American destroyer,
killed seventeen people, and almost sunk the ship and America
had essentially done nothing. Now almost sudden, you can imagine
the inferences they drew.
We discuss in report in Chapter 11 the fundamental insuffiency
of the capabilities of the U.S. government to deal with the new
threat. The institutions hadn’t been built or designed to
cope with threats like these. The CIA didn’t have the robust
capabilities for covert action one might have wished it had. The
military didn’t have the full menu of capabilities one might
have hoped it would be able to offer present. Domestically, the
FBI didn’t have the kind of capabilities one might wish
in retrospect that the FBI had.
Item number seven and finally, management. The issues were of
operational management and of institutional management. One of
the striking things about this that we found is it was like the
palm of a patient is admitted to a hospital. The patient is then
surrounded by nurses, clinicians, and specialists. They’re
all doing their job on the patient, but there is no attending
physician to say, “Well if you prescribe that drug, that
will interfere with that prescription”. Or “That part
of the diagnosis seems to link with something you found in your
MRI.” And puts it together. There was no was no attending
physician in charge of or the operational management of transnational
cases that were moving across the usual pipes of the United States
government and on a larger level, we found breakdowns in institutional
management. Perhaps the dramatic illustration of that that we
found, an easy illustration, was in December 1998 George Tenant
declared war on Al Qaeda. Tenant, I should add, cared deeply about
the Al Qaeda danger. I believe quite sincerely. He was agitated
about it; he was pressing the issue -this was completely sincere.
In December ‘98 he says, “We are at war”. He
writes this in a memo. “ No resources should be spared”.
He sends this memo to the leaders of to component agencies of
The results of the memo are nothing. We found no action taken
by any agency. As a result of this call to arms. A fundamental
thing we wanted to note is that we are a country and a government
that was at war and did not know it. The enemy knew that it was
at war. And on 9/11 the country responded to the challenge of
war and in a way that started a war and we argue now puts us in
a world in which we should adopt policies that show that it is
more than just a war. But the institutions of our government also
need a transformation. As the commission said, “Those attacks
showed emphatically that ways of doing business in a different
era are not good enough. Americans should not settle for incremental
adjustments to a system designed generations ago for a world that
no longer exists”.