What Really Happened Before 9/11

Posted September 28, 2009 at 6:01pm

Eight years have passed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. In that time, countless books, articles and commentary have been written, with everyone from eyewitnesses to conspiracy theorists coming forward to give their take on what really happened that September morning.

John Farmer, senior counsel to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, recently released his own book on the attacks, “The Ground Truth: The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11.— He does not, however, focus on the human element and the heroics of ordinary men and women. Frustrated by a lack of government information during the 9/11 commission’s research, and by evidence that has been released since, Farmer exposes the dysfunction and lack of communication across government agencies that has thwarted the prevention of terrorist plots and bungled emergency responses to national catastrophes.

“I wanted to tell the story of 9/11, not analytically but the way it actually occurred,— Farmer said in an interview.

From the opening chapter, which begins with a brief history of Osama bin Laden’s and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s paths to waging jihad on America, Farmer’s account is both incisive and infuriating. His breakdown of the multiple layers of defense that should have kept the 9/11 hijackers from ever entering the country is enough to raise the ire of the strongest patriot and cast serious doubt on the government’s handling of sensitive security issues.

Most readers would likely not be surprised to realize that many of the decisions regarding attempts to capture bin Laden were politically motivated. The details of the account, on both the American and terrorist sides, frustrate even eight years after the attacks. Farmer allows the facts to speak for themselves, writing in a concise and straightforward manner without injecting much of his own opinion.

The security breaches and failures he describes are disheartening, but the book is difficult to put down as the story unfolds.

Farmer presents a sequential account of the attacks, beginning in the mid-1990s and narrowing his scope to the day of the attacks. Perhaps one of the most chilling lines comes in a section chronicling the days leading up to Sept. 11, 2001. “But the time for stopping a domestic attack by taking out bin Laden, or anyone in Afghanistan, had come and gone,— he writes. “The plot had been undetected for years by the $30-billion-a-year apparatus of American national security, and by the trillion-dollar system of bases around the world.— According to Farmer, high-level administration officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, were receiving warnings of plans to attack the United States.

Farmer said the “chaos of that day— was a result of the “decisions and lack of decisions of the government to deal with al-Qaida— and was not “simply a consequence of the surprise element of the attacks.—

The third part of the book, titled “Day of Days,— includes an hour-by-hour description of what happened on 9/11. Farmer weaves together the routines of President George W. Bush and the hijackers, and he describes the functions defense agencies around the world were supposed to have been performing. Farmer uses transcripts from Federal Aviation Administration officials and Congressional testimonies, thus allowing the story to tell itself.

Although much of “The Ground Truth— is written about 9/11, Farmer makes the argument that government failures extended to later disasters as well. He focuses in particular on Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Bush administration’s mismanagement in the aftermath of the storm. While it initially seems like a bit of a stretch to draw comparisons between the two calamities, the later event helps put Farmer’s criticisms in a broader context. As he transitions from 9/11 to Katrina, he writes that “the principal response to the failure of bureaucracy was not an attempt to redefine government itself, but the creation of more government, more bureaucracy.—

Farmer closes with a series of suggestions for reshaping government response to crises, and improving communication and management during times of chaos and emergency.

Critical as he is, Farmer ends on an optimistic note: “My fervent hope is that now that we have learned the ground truth, we can start the important conversation about how to reconceive government the right way, from the ground up.—