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JULY 28, 2004 WED
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9/ 11: Myth and reality

WASHINGTON - When the National Commission On Terrorist Attacks Upon The United States set to work early last year to prepare the definitive history of the events of Sept 11, 2001, it seemed that much of the hard work of the so-called 9/11 commission was already done, because so much of the horrifying story seemed to be known.

The 576-page report written in meticulous detail aims at correcting the historical record and shattering the myths surrounding the 9/11 tragedy. -- AP

At the time, it was understood that all of the hijackers had entered the country legally and done nothing to draw attention to themselves, Osama bin Laden had underwritten the plot with his personal fortune but had left the details to others, American intelligence agencies had no warning that Al-Qaeda was considering suicide missions using planes, President George W. Bush had received a special intelligence briefing weeks before Sept 11 that focused on past, not current, Al-Qaeda threats.

But last Thursday, 19 months later, the commission released a final, unanimous, book-length report which, in calling for a overhaul of the way the government collects and shares intelligence, showed that much of the common wisdom about the Sept 11 attacks was wrong.

In meticulous detail, the 567-page report, including 116 pages of detailed footnotes in tiny type, rewrote the history of Sept 11, 2001, correcting the historical record and shattering myths that might otherwise have been accepted as truth for generations.

It found that the hijackers had repeatedly broken the law in entering the US, that Osama may have micromanaged the attacks but did not pay for them, that intelligence agencies had considered the threat of suicide hijackings and that Mr Bush received an August 2001 briefing on continuing domestic terrorist threats from Al-Qaeda.

'Our work, we believe, is the definitive work on 9/11,' said Mr Thomas Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who was chairman of the commission, and whose consensus-building talents are credited by other commissioners for the unanimity of the panel's report.

If there are unanswered questions, Mr Kean said, it is mostly because 'the people who were at the heart of the plot are dead'.

THE HIJACKERS

FOR the commission of five Democrats and five Republicans, the work began with understanding how 19 young Arab terrorists managed to enter the US unnoticed, hiding in plain sight in the weeks and months before they joined in an attack that left more than 3,000 people dead.

Its first fact-finding hearing in January showed just how wrong - and self-serving - much of the government's information about the Sept 11 plot had been. And it suggested just how aggressive the commission intended to be in setting the record straight.

Immediately after Sept 11 and in the months that followed, the FBI, CIA and other counterterrorism agencies defended their failure to detect the plot by insisting that the hijackers had gone out of their way to enter the US legally and to avoid detection in the months preceding the attacks.

'Each of the hijackers, apparently purposely selected to avoid notice, came easily and lawfully from abroad,' former FBI director Louis Freeh testified to Congress in October 2002.

'While here, the hijackers effectively operated without suspicion, triggering nothing that alerted law enforcement.'

But in its final report, the commission found that as many as 13 of the hijackers had entered the US with passports that had been fraudulently altered, using criminal methods previously associated with Al-Qaeda.

The commission found that the visa applications of many of the hijackers had been filled out improperly; in several cases, the hijackers had provided demonstrably false information on the forms. The names of at least three of the terrorists were found after Sept 11 in the databases of American intelligence and counterterrorism agencies.

After entering the US, several of the hijackers should have drawn the attention of law enforcement agencies, but did not.

Mohamed Atta, the plot's Egyptian-born ringleader, overstayed his tourist visa.

One of the terrorist pilots, Ziad al-Jarrah, attended school in 2000 in violation of his immigration status, which should have blocked him from re-entering the US; he left and re-entered the country at least six more times before Sept 11.

IMAGINING THE UNIMAGINABLE

IN TRYING to explain why the nation was so vulnerable on Sept 11, the leaders of the nation's law enforcement and intelligence agencies have insisted publicly that they never considered the nightmare of passenger planes being turned into guided missiles.

'I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center,' Ms Condoleezza Rice, Mr Bush's national security adviser, said in May 2002.

As recently as this April, in testimony to the Sept 11 commission, Mr Freeh said that he 'never was aware of a plan that contemplated commercial airliners being used as weapons'.

But in its investigation, the commission found that an attack described as unimaginable had in fact been imagined, repeatedly. It said that several threat reports circulated within the government in the late 1990s raised the explicit possibility of an attack using airliners as missiles.

Most prominent among those reports, the commission said, was one circulated in September 1998, based on information provided by a source who walked into an American consulate in East Asia, that 'mentioned a possible plot to fly an explosives-laden aircraft into a US city'.

In August 1998, it said, an intelligence agency received information that a group of Libyans hoped to crash a plane into the World Trade Center.

The North American Aerospace Defence Command had gone so far as to develop exercises to counter the threat and, according to a Defence Department memorandum unearthed by the commission, planned a drill in April 2001 that would have simulated a terrorist crash into the Pentagon.

OSAMA'S ROLE

AMERICAN intelligence agencies had known for years that the US had much to fear from Osama, but it was fear based more on Osama's power as a global symbol of Islamic fundamentalist rage than as a terrorist logistician.

A senior State Department official testified to the Senate in 2001 that the Osama terror network was 'analogous to a multinational corporation, Osama as CEO', leaving the details of the terrorist attacks to others.

But the commission found that far from being a disengaged leader, he was described by captured Al-Qaeda colleagues as a hands-on executive who wanted to be involved in almost every detail of the Sept 11 plot, choosing the hijacking team himself and selecting targets. He was reported to have been eager to hit the White House.

The report describes information obtained from the interrogation of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Osama's former chief of operations, who said 'Osama could assess new trainees very quickly, in about 10 minutes, and that many of the 9/11 hijackers were selected in this manner'.

American intelligence analysts had long believed that Osama had a vast personal fortune that bankrolled Al-Qaeda; news accounts described his fortune as being as much as US$300 million (S$519 million), with real estate holdings in London, Paris and the Cote d'Azur.

But the commission found that Osama was cut off from his family's wealth after the early 1990s, and that he financed Al-Qaeda's operations through a group of wealthy Muslim donors, mainly from the Persian Gulf.

THE IRAQ CONNECTION

THE Bush administration has long maintained that there was a close working relationship between Al-Qaeda and Iraq. In October 2002, with the invasion of Iraq only months away, President Bush said in a speech that 'high-level contacts between Iraq and Al-Qaeda go back a decade', and that 'we have learned that Iraq has trained Al-Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases'.

As recently as last month, Vice-President Dick Cheney said there was reason to believe a disputed Czech intelligence report that Mohamed Atta had met a senior Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in April 2001, suggesting a tie between Iraq and the Sept 11 plot.

But in its most contentious effort to set the record straight about the origins of the plot, the bipartisan commission's final report found no evidence of close collaboration between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, appearing to undermine a justification for the Iraq war.

It found no credible evidence to suggest the Prague meeting took place and no evidence to show Iraqi involvement in attacks by Al-Qaeda against the US. While there had indeed between periodic contacts in the late 1990s between Al-Qaeda representatives and Iraqi officials, principally in Sudan, the commission found those contacts did not amount to much.

A footnote buried on page 470 of the commission's report provided a clue to some of the false claims: 'Although there have been suggestions of contacts between Iraq and Al-Qaeda regarding chemical weapons and explosives training, the most detailed information alleging such ties came from an Al-Qaeda operative who recanted much of his original information.'

The commission attempted to lift suspicion that the leaders of another Arab government, that of Saudi Arabia, had underwritten Al-Qaeda, and to knock down widely circulated theories that the Bush administration had improperly assisted the Saudis by allowing members of the extended Osama clan to flee the US on charter flights at a time when all commercial air traffic was shut down after the attacks.

'Saudi Arabia has long been considered the principal source of Al-Qaeda financing,' the report said. 'But we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organisation.'

THE EVIDENCE

IN THE first hours after the Sept 11 attacks and ever since, the White House has consistently insisted that President Bush and his deputies had no credible evidence before the attacks to suggest that Al-Qaeda was about to strike on American soil.

But the assertion has been questioned as a result of the commission's digging. After its most heated showdown with the Bush administration over access to classified information, the commission pressured the White House to declassify and make public a special intelligence briefing that had been presented to Mr Bush on Aug 6, 2001, a month before the attacks.

The document had been known since 2002, when the White House confirmed reports that Mr Bush had received an intelligence report before Sept 11 warning of the possibility that Al-Qaeda might hijack American passenger planes.

In testimony in April to the Sept 11 commission, before it was made public, Ms Rice insisted the report was 'historical'.

'It did not, in fact, warn of attacks inside the United States,' she testified. 'It was historical information based on old reporting. There was no new threat information.'

But there were gasps in the hearing room when she disclosed the name of the two-page briefing paper: 'Osama Determined to Attack in US'.

The document was made public several days later and contained passages referring to FBI reports of 'suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York'.

It noted that a caller to the US Embassy in the United Arab Emirates that May had warned that 'a group of Osama supporters was in the US' planning attacks with explosives.

The commission's final report revealed that two CIA analysts involved in preparing the brief had wanted to make clear to Mr Bush that, far from being only a historical threat, the threat that Al-Qaeda would strike on US soil was 'both current and serious'. -- New York Times


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