The Guardian & AFP
Saturday 20 December 2003
Last Update 20 December 2003 12:00 am
WASHINGTON, 20 December 2003 — The head of an independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks on Thursday said that they could and should have been prevented, and that the officials responsible for the failure should be fired.
His full report is not due to be published before May, but the comments by the commission’s chairman, Thomas Kean, suggest its conclusions are likely to be politically explosive.
“This is a very, very important part of history and we’ve got to tell it right,” Kean, former Republican governor of New Jersey appointed by the Bush administration, told CBS television. “As you read the report, you’re going to have a pretty clear idea what wasn’t done and what should have been done ... This was not something that had to happen.”
If the FBI, immigration and other government agents had done their job properly the Sept. 11 strikes could have been avoided, Kean said in an interview with the New York Times published yesterday.
But Kean said investigators were still studying whether top members of President Bush’s administration should also share the blame.
“There were people at the borders who let these people in even though they didn’t have proper papers to get into this country,” Kean said in a criticism of immigration inspectors.
“There were visa people who let these people in,” he went on. “There were FBI people who, when they got reports from Phoenix and Minnesota and elsewhere, didn’t think they were important enough to buck up to higher-ups.
“There were security officers at the airports who let these people onto airplanes even though they were carrying materials that weren’t allowed on airplanes,” Kean said.
A less ambitious congressional report into the attacks published a year ago found evidence that leads were overlooked but stopped short of ruling that the hijackings could have been prevented. That report examined pre-9/11 warnings from the intelligence community that Al-Qaeda had for years been planning a hijacking attack, that extremists were using flying schools to train, and that two were tracked as they entered the United States — and then lost.
Kean said the officials responsible for the intelligence failure should have been fired. So far, no one in the CIA and FBI found to have shelved repeated warnings that an attack like Sept. 11 was being planned by Al-Qaeda, have suffered setbacks in their careers.
“There are people that, if I was doing the job, would certainly not be in the position they were in at that time because they failed. They simply failed,” Kean said.
The White House had no comment on Kean’s remarks, and said only: “The president wants to learn everything possible about what happened.”
The 10-member bipartisan commission last month struck a compromise with the White House over access to secret documents, in particular the president’s daily intelligence brief. The tussle focused on a brief given to the president on Aug. 6, 2001, in which the CIA warned about the possibility that Al-Qaeda could be planning hijackings in the US. After the commission threatened to issue a subpoena, the president’s staff agreed to hand over the documents to a commission sub-committee.
In his interview Thursday, Kean said that his commission’s public hearings, starting next month, will produce important revelations, as its members question officials from the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency, Pentagon, and possibly President Bush and former President Bill Clinton.
Against the backdrop of a presidential election campaign, the hearings could damage the president if it emerges that his administration failed to take reasonable steps to defend the country against such a devastating attack. However, the final report in May could also find fault with the preceding Democratic administration.
Under particular scrutiny will be public statements like the claim by the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, that there was no way the administration could have known that Al-Qaeda would hijack US airliners and fly them into crowded buildings.
However, the 2002 congressional report examined a string of warnings from foreign intelligence agencies and FBI field agents, that Al-Qaeda had been contemplating doing just that for nearly a decade.
It also emerged that two of the future hijackers had been spotted at an Al-Qaeda meeting in Malaysia in January 2000, but the CIA failed to pass on their identities to immigration and customs officials before the two, Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaf Al-Hazmi, arrived in California. The FBI was still on their trail on Sept. 11, 2001.