by Gail Sheehy
The New York Observer
August 25, 2003
©2003 The New York Observer
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In mid-June, F.B.I. director Robert Mueller III and several senior agents in the bureau received a group of about 20 visitors in a briefing room of the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, D.C. The director himself narrated a PowerPoint presentation that summarized the numbers of agents and leads and evidence he and his people had collected in the 18-month course of their ongoing investigation of Penttbom, the clever neologism the bureau had invented to reduce the sites of devastation on 9/11 to one word: Pent for Pentagon, Pen for Pennsylvania, tt for the Twin Towers and bom for the four planes that the government had been forewarned could be used as weapons—even bombs—but chose to ignore.
After the formal meeting, senior agents in the room faced a grilling by Kristen Breitweiser, a 9/11 widow whose cohorts are three other widowed moms from New Jersey.
"I don’t understand, with all the warnings about the possibilities of Al Qaeda using planes as weapons, and the Phoenix Memo from one of your own agents warning that Osama bin Laden was sending operatives to this country for flight-school training, why didn’t you check out flight schools before Sept. 11?"
"Do you know how many flight schools there are in the U.S.? Thousands," a senior agent protested. "We couldn’t have investigated them all and found these few guys."
"Wait, you just told me there were too many flight schools and that prohibited you from investigating them before 9/11," Kristen persisted. "How is it that a few hours after the attacks, the nation is brought to its knees, and miraculously F.B.I. agents showed up at Embry-Riddle flight school in Florida where some of the terrorists trained?"
"We got lucky," was the reply.
Kristen then asked the agent how the F.B.I. had known exactly which A.T.M. in Portland, Me., would yield a videotape of Mohammed Atta, the leader of the attacks. The agent got some facts confused, then changed his story. When Kristen wouldn’t be pacified by evasive answers, the senior agent parried, "What are you getting at?"
"I think you had open investigations before Sept. 11 on some of the people responsible for the terrorist attacks," she said.
"We did not," the agent said unequivocally.
A month later, on the morning of July 24, before the scathing Congressional report on intelligence failures was released, Kristen and the three other moms from New Jersey with whom she’d been in league sat impassively at a briefing by staff director Eleanor Hill: In fact, they learned, the F.B.I. had open investigations on 14 individuals who had contact with the hijackers while they were in the United States. The flush of pride in their own research passed quickly. This was just another confirmation that the federal government continued to obscure the facts about its handling of suspected terrorists leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.
So afraid is the Bush administration of what could be revealed by inquiries into its failures to protect Americans from terrorist attack, it is unabashedly using Kremlin tactics to muzzle members of Congress and thwart the current federal commission investigating the failures of Sept. 11. But there is at least one force that the administration cannot scare off or shut up. They call themselves "Just Four Moms from New Jersey," or simply "the girls."
Kristen and the three other housewives who also lost their husbands in the attack on the World Trade Center started out knowing virtually nothing about how their government worked. For the last 20 months they have clipped and Googled, rallied and lobbied, charmed and intimidated top officials all the way to the White House. In the process, they have made themselves arguably the most effective force in dancing around the obstacle course by which the administration continues to block a transparent investigation of what went wrong with the country’s defenses on Sept. 11 and what we should be doing about it. They have no political clout, no money, no powerful husbands—no husbands at all since Sept. 11—and they are up against a White House, an Attorney General, a Defense Secretary, a National Security Advisor and an F.B.I. director who have worked out an ingenious bait-and-switch game to thwart their efforts and those of any investigative body.
The Mom Cell
The four moms—Kristen Breitweiser, Patty Casazza, Mindy Kleinberg and Lorie van Auken—use tactics more like those of a leaderless cell. They have learned how to deposit their assorted seven children with select grandmothers before dawn and rocket down the Garden State Parkway to Washington. They have become experts at changing out of pedal-pushers and into proper pantsuits while their S.U.V. is stopped in traffic, so they can hit the Capitol rotunda running. They have talked strategy with Senator John McCain and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. They once caught Congressman Porter Goss hiding behind his office door to avoid them. And they maintain an open line of communication with the White House.
But after the razzle-dazzle of their every trip to D.C., the four moms dissolve on the hot seats of Kristen’s S.U.V., balance take-out food containers on their laps and grow quiet. Each then retreats into a private chamber of longing for the men whose lifeless images they wear on tags around their necks. After their first big rally, Patty’s soft voice floated a wish that might have been in the minds of all four moms:
"O.K., we did the rally, now can our husbands come home?"
Last September, Kristen was singled out by the families of 9/11 to testify in the first televised public hearing before the Joint Intelligence Committee Inquiry (JICI) in Washington. She drew high praise from the leadership, made up of members from both the House and Senate. But the JICI, as the moms called it, was mandated to go out of business at the end of 2003, and their questions for the intelligence agencies were consistently blocked: The Justice Department has forbidden intelligence officials to be interviewed without "minders" among their bosses being present, a tactic clearly meant to intimidate witnesses. When the White House and the intelligence agencies held up the Congressional report month after month by demanding that much of it remain classified, the moms’ rallying cry became "Free the JICI!"
They believed the only hope for getting at the truth would be with an independent federal commission with a mandate to build on the findings of the Congressional inquiry and broaden it to include testimony from all the other relevant agencies. Their fight finally overcame the directive by Vice President Dick Cheney to Congressman Goss to "keep negotiating" and, in January 2003, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States—known as the 9/11 Commission—met for the first time. It is not only for their peace of mind that the four moms continue to fight to reveal the truth, but because they firmly believe that, nearly two years after the attacks, the country is no safer now than it was on Sept. 11.
"O.K., there’s the House and the Senate—which one has the most members?"
Lorie laughed at herself. It was April 2002, seven months after she had lost her husband, Kenneth. "I must have slept through that civics class." Her friend Mindy couldn’t help her; Mindy hadn’t read The New York Times since she stopped commuting to Manhattan, where she’d worked as a C.P.A. until her husband, Alan, took over the family support. Both women’s husbands had worked as securities traders for Cantor Fitzgerald until they were incinerated in the World Trade Center.
Mindy and Lorie had thought themselves exempt from politics, by virtue of the constant emergency of motherhood. Before Sept. 11, Mindy could have been described as a stand-in for Samantha on Sex and the City. But these days she felt more like one of the Golden Girls. Lorie, who was 46 and beautiful when her husband, Kenneth van Auken, was murdered, has acquired a fierceness in her demeanor. The two mothers were driving home to East Brunswick after attending a support group for widows of 9/11. They had been fired up by a veteran survivor of a previous terrorist attack against Americans, Bob Monetti, president of Families of Pan Am 103/Lockerbie. "You can’t sit back and let the government treat you like shit," he had challenged them. That very night they called up Patty Casazza, another Cantor Fitzgerald widow, in Colt’s Neck. "We have to have a rally in Washington."
Patty, a sensitive woman who was struggling to find the right balance of prescriptions to fight off anxiety attacks, groaned, "Oh God, this is huge, and it’s going to be painful." Patty said she would only go along if Kristen was up for it.
Kristen Breitweiser was only 30 years old when her husband, Ron, a vice president at Fiduciary Trust, called her one morning to say he was fine, not to worry. He had seen a huge fireball out his window, but it wasn’t his building. She tuned into the Today show just in time to see the South Tower explode right where she knew he was sitting—on the 94th floor. For months thereafter, finding it impossible to sleep, Kristen went back to the nightly ritual of her married life: She took out her husband’s toothbrush and slowly, lovingly squeezed the toothpaste onto it. Then she would sit down on the toilet and wait for him to come home.
Kristen was somewhat better-informed than the others. The tall, blond former surfer girl had graduated from Seton Hall law school, practiced all of three days, hated it and elected to be a full-time mom. Her first line of defense against despair at the shattering of her life dreams was to revert to thinking like a lawyer.
Lorie was the network’s designated researcher, since she had in her basement what looked like a NASA command module; her husband had been an amateur designer. Kristen had told her to focus on the timeline: Who knew what, when did they know it, and what did they do about it?
Once Lorie began surfing the Web, she couldn’t stop. She found a video of President Bush’s reaction on the morning of Sept. 11. According to the official timeline provided by his press secretary, the President arrived at an elementary school in Sarasota, Fla., at 9 a.m. and was told in the hallway of the school that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. This was 14 minutes after the first attack. The President went into a private room and spoke by phone with his National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, and glanced at a TV in the room. "That’s some bad pilot," the President said. Bush then proceeded to a classroom, where he drew up a little stool to listen to second graders read. At 9:04 a.m., his chief of staff, Andrew Card, whispered in his ear that a second plane had struck the towers. "We are under attack," Mr. Card informed the President.
"Bush’s sunny countenance went grim," said the White House account. "After Card’s whisper, Bush looked distracted and somber but continued to listen to the second graders read and soon was smiling again. He joked that they read so well, they must be sixth graders."
Lorie checked the Web site of the Federal Aviation Authority. The F.A.A. and the Secret Service, which had an open phone connection, both knew at 8:20 a.m. that two planes had been hijacked in the New York area and had their transponders turned off. How could they have thought it was an accident when the first plane slammed into the first tower 26 minutes later? How could the President have dismissed this as merely an accident by a "bad pilot"? And how, after he had been specifically told by his chief of staff that "We are under attack," could the Commander in Chief continue sitting with second graders and make a joke? Lorie ran the video over and over.
"I couldn’t stop watching the President sitting there, listening to second graders, while my husband was burning in a building," she said.
Mindy pieced together the actions of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He had been in his Washington office engaged in his "usual intelligence briefing." After being informed of the two attacks on the World Trade Center, he proceeded with his briefing until the third hijacked plane struck the Pentagon. Mindy relayed the information to Kristen:
"Can you believe this? Two planes hitting the Twin Towers in New York City did not rise to the level of Rumsfeld’s leaving his office and going to the war room to check out just what the hell went wrong." Mindy sounded scared. "This is my President. This is my Secretary of Defense. You mean to tell me Rumsfeld had to get up from his desk and look out his window at the burning Pentagon before he knew anything was wrong? How can that be?"
"It can’t be," said Kristen ominously. Their network being a continuous loop, Kristen immediately passed on the news to Lorie, who became even more agitated.
Lorie checked out the North American Aerospace Defense Command, whose specific mission includes a response to any form of an air attack on America. It was created to provide a defense of critical command-and-control targets. At 8:40 a.m. on 9/11, the F.A.A. notified NORAD that Flight No. 11 had been hijacked. Three minutes later, the F.A.A. notified NORAD that Flight No. 175 was also hijacked. By 9:02 a.m., both planes had crashed into the World Trade Center, but there had been no action by NORAD. Both agencies also knew there were two other hijacked planes in the air that had been violently diverted from their flight pattern. All other air traffic had been ordered grounded. NORAD operates out of Andrews Air Force Base, which is within sight of the Pentagon. Why didn’t NORAD scramble planes in time to intercept the two other hijacked jetliners headed for command-and-control centers in Washington? Lorie wanted to know. Where was the leadership?
"I can’t look at these timelines anymore," Lorie confessed to Kristen. "When you pull it apart, it just doesn’t reconcile with the official storyline." She hunched down in her husband’s swivel chair and began to tremble, thinking, There’s no way this could be. Somebody is not telling us the whole story.
The 9/11 Commission wouldn’t have happened without the four moms. At the end of its first open hearing, held last spring at the U.S. Customs House close to the construction pit of Ground Zero, former Democratic Congressman Tim Roemer said as much and praised them and other activist 9/11 families.
"At a time when many Americans don’t even take the opportunity to cast a ballot, you folks went out and made the legislative system work," he said.
Jamie Gorelick, former Deputy Attorney General of the United States, said at the same hearing, "I’m enormously impressed that laypeople with no powers of subpoena, with no access to insider information of any sort, could put together a very powerful set of questions and set of facts that are a road map for this commission. It is really quite striking. Now, what’s your secret?"
Mindy, who had given a blistering testimony at that day’s hearing, tossed her long corkscrew curls and replied in a voice more Tallulah than termagant, "Eighteen months of doing nothing but grieving and connecting the dots."
Eleanor Hill, the universally respected staff director of the JICI investigation, shares the moms’ point of view.
"One of our biggest concerns is our finding that there were people in this country assisting these hijackers," she said later in an interview with this writer. "Since the F.B.I. was in fact investigating all these people as part of their counterterroism effort, and they knew some of them had ties to Al Qaeda, then how good was their investigation if they didn’t come across the hijackers?"
President Bush, who was notified in the President’s daily briefing on Aug. 6, 2001, that "a group of [Osama] bin Laden supporters was planning attacks in the United States with explosives," insisted after the Congressional report was made public: "My administration has transformed our government to pursue terrorists and prevent terrorist attacks."
Kristen, Mindy, Patty and Lorie are not impressed.
"We were told that, prior to 9/11, the F.B.I. was only responsible for going in after the fact to solve a crime and prepare a criminal case," Kristen said. "Here we are, 22 months after the fact, the F.B.I. has received some 500,000 leads, they have thousands of people in custody, they’re seeking the death penalty for one terrorist, [Zacarias] Moussaoui, but they still haven’t solved the crime and they don’t have any of the other people who supported the hijackers." Ms. Hill echoes their frustration. "Is this support network for Al Qaeda still in the United States? Are they still operating, planning the next attack?"
The hopes of the four moms that the current 9/11 Commission could broaden the inquiry beyond the intelligence agencies are beginning to fade. As they see it, the administration is using a streamlined version of the tactics they successfully employed to stall and suppress much of the startling information in the JICI report. The gaping hole of 28 pages concerning the Saudi royal family’s financial support for the terrorists of 9/11 was only the tip of the 900-page iceberg.
"We can’t get any information about the Port Authority’s evacuation procedures or the response of the City of New York," complains Kristen. "We’re always told we can’t get answers or documents because the F.B.I. is holding them back as part of an ongoing investigation. But when Director Mueller invited us back for a follow-up meeting—on the very morning before that damning report was released—we were told the F.B.I. isn’t pursuing any investigations based on the information we are blocked from getting. The only thing they are looking at is the hijackers. And they’re all dead."
It’s more than a clever Catch-22. Members of the 9/11 Commission are being denied access even to some of the testimony given to the JICI—on which at least two of its members sat!
This is a stonewalling job of far greater importance than Watergate. This concerns the refusal of the country’s leadership to be held accountable for the failure to execute its most fundamental responsibility: to protect its citizens against foreign attack.
Critical information about two of the hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, lay dormant within the intelligence community for as long as 18 months, at the very time when plans for the Sept. 11 attacks were being hatched. The JICI confirmed that these same two hijackers had numerous contacts with a longtime F.B.I. counterterrorism informant in California. As the four moms pointed out a year ago, their names were in the San Diego phone book.
What’s more, the F.B.I.’s Minneapolis field office had in custody in August 2001 one Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national who had enrolled in flight training in Minnesota and who F.B.I. agents suspected was involved in a hijacking plot. But nobody at the F.B.I. apparently connected the Moussaoui investigation with intelligence information on the immediacy of the threat level in the spring and summer of 2001, or the illegal entry of al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi into the United States.
How have these lapses been corrected 24 months later? The F.B.I. is seeking the death penalty for Mr. Moussaoui, and uses the need to protect their case against him as the rationale for refusing to share any of the information they have obtained from him. In fact, when Director Mueller tried to use the same excuse to duck out of testifying before the Joint Committee, the federal judge in the Moussaoui trial dismissed his argument, and he and his agents were compelled to testify.
"At some point, you have to do a cost-benefit analysis," says Kristen. "Which is more important—one fried terrorist, or the safety of the nation?" Patty was even more blunt in their second meeting with the F.B.I. brass. "I don’t give a rat’s ass about Moussaoui," she said. "Why don’t you throw him into Guantánamo and squeeze him for all he’s worth, and get on with finding his cohorts?"
The four moms are demanding that the independent commission hold a completely transparent investigation, with open hearings and cross-examination. What it looks like they’ll get is an incomplete and sanitized report, if it’s released in time for the commission’s deadline next May. Or perhaps another fight over declassification of the most potent revelations, which will serve to hold up the report until after the 2004 Presidential election. Some believe that this is the administration’s end game.
Kristen sees the handwriting on the wall: "If we have an executive branch that holds sole discretion over what information is released to the public and what is hidden, the public will never get the full story of why there was an utter failure to protect them that day, and who should be held accountable."