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An Intelligence Question

Sometime in the summer of 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft stopped flying on commercial aircraft and began using chartered government jets, at taxpayer expense, even for personal travel, such as a fishing trip to his home state of Missouri in July 2001.

Fact, or paranoid conspiracy theory?

Well, CBS News reported it as fact on July 26, 2001. And CBS also reported the Justice Department’s affirmation that Ashcroft indeed had been advised to travel by private jet for the rest of his term, based on what it called a “threat assessment” by the FBI. Furthermore, CBS reported, Ashcroft himself addressed the threat in a speech in California. “I don’t do threat assessments myself and I rely on those whose responsibility it is in the law enforcement community, particularly the FBI. And I try to stay within the guidelines that they’ve suggested I should stay within for those purposes,” Ashcroft said.

At least, CBS, on July 26, 2001, said Ashcroft said that.

At the time, the news was treated as something of a curiosity, and as a suggestion of possible government extravagance. The CBS report noted that such leased aircraft cost the government more than $1,600 an hour to fly, and that most other Bush cabinet appointees, as well as Ashcroft’s predecessor, Janet Reno, routinely flew on commercial airliners.

When this pre-9/11 tidbit surfaced sometime later, however, it became a different story altogether: It became one more piece in a troubling puzzle of evidence that was leading some Americans closer to the horrifying (and for many of us, initially unthinkable) conclusion that some people within the shadowy insides of the Bush administration and/or high-level intelligence community knew that a major terrorist attack was coming—and perhaps when, and how.

And that a very high-level decision had been made to let it through.

John Ashcroft would have preferred not to appear for questioning before the 9/11 Commission earlier this year—in fact the Bush administration tried everything it could to prevent such an investigation, and then, when the formation of a commission became inevitable, to keep it from having any teeth. But, like Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and others, Ashcroft eventually had to appear before the panel and do the doublespeak dance to explain away his actions of the summer of ’01. Most troubling was the fact that Ashcroft seemed consumed all those months with fighting the war on drugs, while swatting away urgent counterterrorism funding requests like so many mosquitos buzzing around his ear. In spite of mounting intelligence warnings of impending terrorist attacks within the United States, possibly using commercial airlines as missiles—warnings that the administration denied ever receiving until the evidence became overwhelming—Ashcroft continued to turn down budget requests for counterterrorism funding and continued to issue priority memos that didn’t even mention terrorism. Regarding a contentious meeting that year with then-FBI director Louis Freeh, others present told Newsweek that when Freeh tried to persuade Ashcroft to take the terrorist threat seriously, Ashcroft replied that he didn’t want to hear about it.

So Ashcroft sweated out the commission’s questions about his pre-9/11 unconcern with terrorism, assured, perhaps, that the mainstream media and its consumers would swallow his every word (To paraphrase, very loosely: “It was a priority! Honest! Cross my heart!”). And then, Democrat Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor, abruptly changed the subject and asked, deferentially, if Ashcroft might address the persistent rumors of his alleged midsummer decision to discontinue flying commercial airliners. It was a big, fat, softball question, and the attorney general belted it out of the park, denying the “rumors” in language so vague that it could never constitute perjury.

Ben-Veniste seemed almost as relieved as Ashcroft must have been: “I’m pleased to have been able to give you the opportunity to clarify that issue for all who have written to this commission and communicated in other ways about their questions about that, sir,” he said.

Having not been answered, should the questions simply go away?

Did Ashcroft suddenly stop traveling on commercial flights in the summer of 2001—as was reported at the time—and if so, why?

Did Ashcroft repeatedly and explicitly refuse to put his department’s muscle and money behind counterterrorism prior to 9/11—as has been reported—and if so, why?

Did urgent warnings about potential terrorists training in flight schools in Arizona and Minnesota get silenced within the FBI’s bureaucracy—as is documented—and if so, why?

Did FBI agents like investigator Mike German and translator Sibel Edmonds lose their jobs because they did them too well—exposing a troubling pattern of high-level efforts to short-circuit certain counterterrorism investigations before they are completed?

Did someone order the Air Force to stand down on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001—as has been widely rumored—and does that explain the failure to scramble and intercept before three of the four hijacker groups’ missions had been completed?

Did an abnormally high number of “put” options (essentially, bets on a stock’s price taking a sudden plunge) get placed on such stocks as American Airlines, United Airlines and Morgan Stanley—as has been reported—in the days immediately prior to the attacks?

Some of these allegations and rumors are better-documented—and therefore more immediately credible—than others. But they all share one disturbing feature: Although out there in some form or other, from Internet rumor to matter of public record, they are not part of the official conversation about what happened three years ago this Saturday. The Bush administration has wreaked a tremendous amount of havoc since 9/11, from eroding civil rights at home to raining war and death upon Afghanistan and Iraq, also incurring grievous casualties of our own (the death toll for American service personnel in the Iraq war has now eclipsed 1,000). The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, made all of this politically possible—is that just coincidence? Is it also just coincidence that the blueprints for these wars were prepared well before jets flew into the World Trade Center?

As the 9/11 commission wraps up its work and Americans approach another somber anniversary, we continue to focus on this question: How could our intelligence have failed so tragically?

For your consideration, I propose a different question: What if our intelligence—or powerful, well-connected elements within our intelligence—actually, so tragically, succeeded?

—Stephen Leon

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