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
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
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
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,
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?