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Philip D. Zelikow
Executive Director, National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (9-11 Commission)
"The Road to 9-11"
September 10 , 2004

In 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 including Arabic.

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 of identification.

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 commonplace metaphor.

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 threat? No.

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 of 2000.

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 Al Qaeda.

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 intelligence community.

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”.

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