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WSJ OPED - 9/11 Commission

Posted to Poetry and Politics

Bob Hails

Wall Street Journal
June 22, 2004
Divided We Fall

By Debra Burlingame

Ms. Burlingame is the sister of Charles F. "Chic" Burlingame III, the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which was crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Is this real world or exercise?"

Those haunting words were heard on audiotape at the 9/11 Commission hearings last week. It was what the duty officer on the other end of the phone at the Northeast Air Defense Sector of Norad wanted to know when alerted about a hijacking by Boston Center, the Air Route Traffic Control Center handling American Airlines flight 11, the first plane to disappear from radar screens on Sept. 11, 2001. The time was 8:38 a.m., 25 minutes into the first attack of the first battle of the first day in the war on terror. One hour and 25 minutes later, 3,000 men, women and children would be dead, another 4,000 burned, maimed or injured.

This was indeed the real world. But somehow the 9/11 Commission hearings have succeeded in turning this, the most stunning and deadly attack on the U.S. homeland, into another Beltway soap opera -- awash in politics and finger-pointing, complete with media satellite trucks, conspiracy-theory hecklers and witnesses made to feel the heat by having to stand and take an oath under bright lights. How have we gotten from that real world terror to this self-destructive exercise in such a short amount of time?

The 9/11 Commission was chartered a year and a half ago, amid much controversy, for the purpose of preparing "a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks." I vehemently supported its creation and was angry with the Bush administration for initially opposing efforts to make it happen.

When a group of dedicated New Jersey women whom I'd never met organized a rally in a park near the Capitol, I was there under the hot summer sun, carrying a poster that said, "The men who murdered my brother were listed in the San Diego phone book." It had a large picture of him, Charles F. "Chic" Burlingame, III, sitting in the cockpit of a Boeing 757 with a big smile on his face. Chic was the captain of American Airlines Flight 77, the plane that was flown into the Pentagon. The picture was especially meaningful to me because he was smiling at our dad, who took the picture. It is the way I like to think of Chic, in the cockpit of a jet, smiling, the way he would have looked if Hani Hanjour, the young Saudi who had once lived in San Diego and who steered Chic's plane into the Pentagon's west wall, had knocked on the door at the end of an ordinary flight and asked for a cockpit tour. So, yes, I was mad. Damn mad. And I wanted to know how the hell this could have happened.

Today, the great hopes I had for an independent, bipartisan investigation into the events of 9/11 have given way to great sadness. After the Senate and House Joint Inquiry into intelligence activities leading up to 9/11 was published in 2002, I had a different perspective about who was responsible for the attacks. It was everyone, and no one. It was the systemic and institutional problems in the information-gathering, analysis and reporting structures of our dozen or more intelligence agencies. It was the legal barriers that prevented law enforcement and intelligence services from talking to each other. It was Cold War modalities that no longer applied to very evil men with apocalyptic delusions operating in adaptive networks with cell phones and laptops, and supported by millions and millions of dollars. It was our own fat complacency, refusing to see what was happening around us as American soldiers, sailors and civilians were being blown up abroad. It was the airline lobbyists who looked after their well-heeled clients as we fashioned airline security measures that called upon ACLU lawyers rather than law enforcement experts for advice about passenger screening.

I am no longer angry at the Bush administration, or at any Americans for that matter. I'd read the Joint Inquiry and wept. I now knew that Chic's murder was a long time in preparation. In 1998, while on a trip to Africa, I stood in front of the American Embassy in Kenya just two weeks after it was blown to pieces. Little did I know that the men who did it had my dear brother's fate in the works, even as I stood there. No, I am no longer angry at any Americans.

After the hearings last week, I witnessed once again how the nation's media stakes out a position, sets it up in a box, the size and shape and color of which senior editors and producers have a bigger say in dictating than the reporters who are filling it, then rearrange the contents to conform with their version of the truth come what may. The hardworking commission staff presented a chilling tutorial about the history of al Qaeda and how it is currently constituted. We learned that Osama bin Laden remains intensely interested in nuclear weapons and "dirty bombs," that he has actively sought biological weapons material and shown an interest in the widely available industrial materials that are found in chemical weapons. We learned that Islamic jihadists rationalize the killing of Muslim children who are the collateral damage in their thirst for more blood and that they tell parents to be grateful that their children are martyrs in paradise. The media took this information -- and there was more, far more -- and stuffed it out of sight in the box called "Bush's Phony War in Iraq."

Some of the tenacious family members who started it all in that park in Washington were there last week. They are still angry, and who among us can say that they shouldn't be? But there is something wrong here. Upon hearing the voice of that duty officer asking a standard protocol question, "Is this real world or exercise?" with the kind of military-trained blankness crisis personnel are noted for, a few of them snorted with contempt. They mistook the calm demeanor of a professional with no use for prepositions for the clueless question of a fool. And that contempt, for all the people whom they feel contributed to a loss of life on the day their loved ones didn't come home, is what they carry around with them now. It mirrors what is happening, not just at the 9/11 Commission hearings, but in newsrooms across the country, this corrosive tendency to tear down our rescuers, our public servants, our heroes.

According to some of the headlines after this last round of hearings, on the morning of 9/11, errors in judgment as well as communication breakdowns up and down the line at the FAA created chaos and confusion, preventing Norad commanders from scrambling jets in time to intercept the four doomed airliners. What media reports do not make clear is that the tragic outcome was based on a combination of factors: Four missing planes were airborne within the same time frame, need-to-know information crucial to understanding the scope of the attack was not available to all involved air traffic control centers -- each of which looks at only one piece of a very big sky -- and everything was compounded by the need to manage 4,873 other planes during the attacks and eventually put them on the ground. That feat was accomplished just one hour and 15 minutes into the crisis, itself an unprecedented event nothing short of astonishing. In sum, the nationwide air traffic control system was stressed to the limit.

The decisive factor was the loss of the transponders, the radar signatures which identify the airline, flight number and altitude. Without this radar signal, the planes were virtually invisible. After they were gone, the location and altitude of the missing planes was anyone's guess. In the words of the Norad officer at Otis Air Force base who was ordered to scramble F-15s to look for American Flight 11, "I don't know where I'm scrambling these guys to. I need a direction, a destination." No matter how much notice they might have received, searching for a target without a vector is like looking for a needle in a haystack. They were circling in military airspace off the Eastern Seaboard because they simply didn't know where to go.

As the 9/11 Commission's staff statement reported, these valiant men and women "struggled, under difficult circumstances, to improvise a homeland defense against an unprecedented challenge they had never encountered and had never trained to meet." Now they are being blamed because these improvised efforts didn't work. Even worse, they are being told that their hard-fought but doomed efforts amounted to incompetence and poor judgment that cost lives. What a rotten deal.

And how outrageous for any commissioner to lambaste the FAA administrator who had his hands full with a system carrying tens of thousands of passengers, with invisible rogue airplanes hurtling through unsterilized airspace, and who was tasked with making critical judgments based on scarce or no information and unverifiable facts that changed from moment to moment. The session's low point was when former senator Bob Kerrey -- previously a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- subjected this aviation crisis veteran to a dressing down for not revamping response policy based on the 1995 intelligence that Ramzi Yousef was planning to blow up 12 commercial airliners over the Atlantic ocean. If simultaneous Pan Am 103-type bombings were such a definitive and actionable foreshadowing of things to come, where were Mr. Kerrey and the rest of Congress in making this a priority in both the legislative agenda and the national consciousness? Instead of hot-headed preambles as the cameras rolled at the 9/11 hearings, where were his impassioned speeches in the well of the Senate, inveighing against the toothless 1997 presidential report on airline security? That report expressly mentioned 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef, the Bojinka plot to blow up planes and terrorists "who are not afraid to die to carry out their plans," yet none of its meager recommendations were enacted.

"Is this real world or exercise?"

It was a strange and unsettling experience last week to hear Commission members, witnesses, and even some 9/11 family members nonchalantly describing the inability to shoot down four airliners carrying a total of 261 passengers and crew as a regrettable "failure." One 9/11 relative described Norad's failure to shoot American 77 out of the sky as "emotionally devastating." A closer examination of a shoot-down scenario reveals how futile this lives-for-lives trade-off really is. American 77, the airplane most talked about as a "missed opportunity," wasn't observed after it disappeared from radar over northern Indiana at 8:55 a.m. until it was six miles from the Capitol. While the commissioners were able to squeeze an ambiguous statement from Norad's commander, Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, that "given more time" all four planes could have been intercepted, the truth is, they can't shoot at something they can't find, no matter how frantically people are looking for it.

By the time American 77 was sighted, it was one minute from impact and circling right over Crystal City, a vast complex of high rise offices, apartment buildings, hotels, shopping malls and an underground metro system where thousands of Pentagon employees arrive for work every day -- a kind of sprawling version of the World Trade Center complex. Assuming the fighter jets could have located the plane and confirmed its identity (not all that easy with those other planes flying at nearby Dulles and National airports) -- I would ask those who have been the most vocal in complaining about fighters scrambling "too late" to imagine the kind of grilling Gen. Eberhart might have received after a 200,000-pound aircraft filled with 66,000 pounds of jet fuel was blown out of the sky directly over what might have later been dubbed "Ground Zero II."

As the 9/11 Commission puts the finishing touches on its findings and recommendations due next month, I am steeling myself for the media's breathless rush to publish all the shocking revelations which show how incompetent we are as a nation. While I am skeptical of the Commission's stated determination to keep politics out of its final report, I have no doubt whatsoever that with the presidential election just months away, those editors and producers who package the news will find it impossible not to do what they've done since Watergate changed the face of journalism: Find a smoking gun, present it to the American people, and congratulate the effort as "what distinguishes us from our enemies." Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden and his murdering tribe will sit back with satisfaction as they watch the infidels tear themselves apart.

Yes, let's have a debate, but let's stop this self-battering, which is weakening us in the only place where al Qaeda can never penetrate, the core of who we are. Instead of pulling together at such a crucial time to prevent even more lethal attacks in the future, we are displaying a divisiveness that energizes our adversaries. They know us better than we know them. Their strategic kills in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and beyond are aimed at breaking our resolve to root them out at home and hunt them down abroad before they can do us more harm. We will not win every battle, but we will only prevail in the war on terror when we unite, not as Republicans and Democrats, but as Americans.

Ms. Burlingame is the sister of Charles F. "Chic" Burlingame III, the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which was crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.