- The Washington Times - Monday, August 15, 2005

If you want to know everything wrong with the September 11 Commission in a single soundbite, consider what its official spokesman, Al Felzenberg, said last Wednesday: “There was no way that Atta could have been in the United States at that time, which is why the staff didn’t give this tremendous weight when they were writing the report. This information was not meshing with the other information that we had.”

In fairness to Mr. Felzenberg, he was having a bad week, and a hard time staying on top of the commission’s ever-shifting version of events. A few days earlier it had emerged that a group from Special Operations Command claimed to have fingered Mohamed Atta — the guy who ploughed Flight 11 into the first World Trade Center tower — well more than a year before September 11, 2001. Or as the Associated Press puts it: “A classified military intelligence unit called ‘Able Danger’ identified Atta and three other hijackers in 1999 as potential members of a terrorist cell in New York City.”

When the story broke, the commissioners denied they knew anything about “Able Danger.” Then they remembered they had known about it but had concluded it was no big deal and “decided not to include that in its final report.”

Why? Well, as Mr. Felzenberg says so disarmingly, “This information was not meshing with the other information.” As a glimpse into the commission mindset, that’s very interesting. September 11 happened, in part, because the various federal bureaucracies involved were unable to process information that didn’t “mesh” with conventional wisdom. Now we find the official commission intended to identify those problems and ensure they don’t recur is, in fact, guilty of the same fatal flaw. The new information didn’t “mesh” with the old information, so the commission disregarded it. But, hey, let’s not have a philosophical discussion; let’s keep it practical:

There was “no way” Atta could have been in the U.S. except when the official Immigration and Naturalization Service record says he was? Actually, there are plenty of ways. Ask the 15 million illegal immigrants: when a population half the size of Canada moves in without filling in a single INS form, why should Mohamed Atta go to all the trouble?

Did al Qaeda know about the illegal immigrant fast-track network? Yes, indeed. Fact: Four of the September 11 killers boarded the plane with identification obtained through activists for the “undocumented” at a 7-Eleven parking lot in Falls Church, Va. Think that was the jihad’s first and only experience with “undocumented” immigration?

Or take the 49th Parallel. Fact: On America’s northern border, no record is kept of individual visitors to the U.S. All that happens is a scanner photos your rear license plate. The scanner is said to be state-of-the-art, which means, as one Customs & Border official told me, it’s “officially” 75 percent accurate. The one time my own license plate was queried it turned out the scanner misread it.

So, just for a start, without any particular difficulty, a friend of Mohamed Atta could have rented a car for him in Montreal and driven him down to New York, and there would be no record to connect Atta to the vehicle anywhere in the U.S. or Canada.

Would al Qaeda types have such Montreal contacts? Absolutely. The city is a hotbed of Islamist cells and sympathizers.

Fact: The only Islamist terrorist attack prevented by the U.S. government prior to September 11, 2001, was the attempt to blow up Los Angeles International Airport by Ahmed Ressam, a Montrealer caught on the Washington/British Columbia frontier by an alert official who happened to notice he seemed a little sweaty. A different guard, a cooler Islamist, and it might just have been yet another routine unrecorded border crossing.

So, when the September 11 Commission starts saying there’s “no way” something can happen when it happens every single day of the week, you start to wonder what exactly is the point of an official investigation so locked-in to pre-set conclusions.

For example, they seemed oddly determined to fix June 3, 2000, as the official date of Atta’s first landing on American soil — though there were several alleged sightings of him before, including a bizarre story he had trained at Maxwell/Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala. Atta was a very mobile guy in the years before September 11, shuttling between Germany, Spain, Afghanistan, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, the Philippines with effortless ease. I’ve no hard evidence of where he was in, say, April 2000. The period between late 1999 and May 2000 is, in many ways, a big blur. He might have been in Germany — or in Florida, attempting to get a U.S. Farm Service Agency loan for the world’s biggest crop duster, as reported by Agriculture Department official Johnell Bryant, local bank officials and others.

But I do know it’s absurd to suggest he was never in the United States until June 3, 2000, simply because the INS says so.

September 11 was a total government fiasco: INS, CIA, FBI, Federal Aviation Administration, all the hotshot acronyms failed spectacularly. But appoint an official commission and let them issue an official report and suddenly everyone says, oh, well, this is the official version of September 11. If they say something didn’t happen, it can’t possibly have happened.

Readers may recall that I never cared for the commission. There were too many showboating partisan hacks — Richard ben Veniste, Bob Kerrey — who seemed more interested in playing to the rhythms of election season. There was at least one person with an outrageous conflict of interest: Clinton Justice Department honcho Jamie Gorelick, who shouldn’t have been on the commission but instead a key witness. And there were far too many areas where members seemed interested only in facts that supported a predetermined outcome.

Maybe we need a September 11 Commission Commission to investigate the September 11 Commission. A body intended to reassure Americans that the lessons of that terrible day had been learned instead engaged in at best transparent politicking and collusion in posterior-covering and at worst something a much darker and more disturbing.

The problem pre-September 11 was always political — that’s to say, no matter how savvy individual operatives in various agencies may have been, the political culture then meant nothing would happen except a memo would get typed and shoved into a filing cabinet. Together with other never fully explained episodes — like Sandy Berger’s pants-stuffing at the national archives — the Able Danger story makes one thing plain: The problem is still political.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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