9/11 Widows Keep on Asking the Tough Questions
When it comes to 9/11, America right now is divided between two camps, those who trust the official account of the attacks, and those who, well, have questions. It’s occasionally the case that the first camp will publicly denounce the second camp as a bunch of nutcases, and when this happens, it’s usually the rowdier section of Camp Two, the Loose Change, bullhorn-wielding, “death to the New World Order” crowd, that takes the most heat.
What tends to get ignored, however, is the quieter section of Camp Two, and especially a group of widowed mothers from New Jersey and New York who over the last six years have worked harder than just about anyone to protect the country from terrorism. Few people realize that had it not been for the tireless efforts of the “Jersey girls” – Mindy Kleinberg, Kristen Breitweiser, Lorie Van Auken, Patty Casazza, and Monica Gabrielle – not only would the 9/11 Commission never have happened, but there most likely never would have been any investigation into what was the worst loss of life on American soil since the Civil War. No inquiry into our failed military defenses, or the collapse of the towers, or just why it was that President Bush sat in that Florida classroom for a full seven minutes after the second plane struck. No scientific reports, no effort to discover what went wrong, no hearings of any kind. No attempt to figure out the details of the whole who, what, where, when and why of the attacks. And again, what few people realize is that today, six years later, the Jersey girls are still fighting the exact same fight they were fighting on September 12, 2001, and for the same reason: to keep you, and me, and everyone we know, safe from terrorism.
“The story of how we got started with this is really simple,” says Mindy Kleinberg, who lost her husband Alan in WTC I. “After my husband was killed, I got involved with a support group that included family members of the victims of Pan AM 103 that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. And I realized that if the government had only hardened cockpit doors like those family members had demanded prior to 2001, the 9/11 hijackings never could have taken place. And I felt terrible, personally responsible for not having spoken up sooner. But it also made me realize that there are practical steps people can take to keep horrible things like this from happening. So that’s why we went to Washington. It was a moral obligation. There was no agenda, nothing political. We just wanted to do whatever needed to be done to make sure the country would be safe for our kids.”
Long before the Jersey girls ever began appearing on national TV, they were leaving their children with friends and relatives and making repeated trips to Washington, where they went from office to office, pressuring Congress into establishing an official investigation into the attacks. The 9/11 Commission was largely the work of the Family Steering Committee, a group formed by the Jersey widows along with several other 9/11 families who, after reading everything they could get their hands on about 9/11, drew up a voluminous list of questions they wanted to see answered, the goal being to provide the 9/11 Commission with every piece of information it would need to do a solid investigation.
The questions covered everything from the president’s actions on the morning of 9/11, to why hijacked airplanes were permitted to fly around for nearly two hours in U.S. airspace without any military response, to why no one at any level of the government has ever been held responsible for the many failings leading up to the attacks. The widows had high hopes for the 9/11 Commission Report, but when it was published in July of 2004 they were bitterly disappointed. While the public moved on, widely assuming 9/11 to be a bygone issue, the widows were stuck with the frustrating realization that the investigation they’d worked so hard to achieve had utterly failed to meet their expectations.
“It was a pathetic excuse of a report,” says Lorie Van Auken, whose husband Kenneth was killed in WTC I. “Seventy percent of our questions went unanswered. The legislation gave the Commission eighteen months to do the investigation, and even though they had subpoena power from the start, they waited a full ten months to use it and then only reluctantly. Also, anyone who appeared for questioning, from Rudy Guliani to George Tenet, was handled with kid gloves and lauded with accolades. The Commissioners would say, ‘You’re fabulous, you did a fantastic job on 9/11,’ and they would run out the clock. We couldn’t understand what the point was in having a hearing if no substantive questions were being asked or answered.”
Particularly frustrating for the widows was the way the White House initially responded to the idea of an investigation, and they were astonished to find the Bush administration stacking the odds against them. Vice-President Cheney answered their call for legislation by personally phoning congressmen to voice his opposition, and he publicly stated that “an investigation must not interfere with the ongoing efforts to prevent the next attack, because without a doubt a very real threat of another perhaps more devastating attack still exists.” But it was the widows’ opinion that another attack couldn’t be prevented without first knowing what had gone wrong. Caving under political pressure in the end, the White House grudgingly agreed to cooperate, appointing Henry Kissinger as Chairman of the Commission. Kissinger later stepped down when he was unwilling to release his confidential client list and was replaced by former New Jersey governor Tom Kean.
But the widows’ struggles were far from over. The White House named Philip Zelikow, a Bush-appointee who served on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, Executive Director of the Commission. A close friend of Condaleeza Rice’s, Zelikow had co-authored a book with her and helped in drawing up the plans for the invasion of Iraq. Based on these conflicts of interest, the Jersey widows called for his resignation, but their request was ignored.
“It’s hard for us to come to any other conclusion than that the 9/11 Commission was a political cover-up from the word go,” says Patty Casazza, who lost her husband John in WTC I. “We were so naïve, we had no idea we were going to run into this kind of fight. We just wanted an investigation into the attacks, for safety reasons. And yet it took President Bush fourteen months to agree to the 9/11 Commission. This was the man I’d voted for in 2000, and all of a sudden he was my biggest adversary. I look back, and I think, well, at least we got them to put down their version of the events on record, so you can see where they weren’t being thorough. It was supposed to be a complete account, but it was anything but. If my husband had been run over by a car I’d know more.”
I asked the widows their opinions on the legislation recently passed through Congress implementing several of the 9/11 Commission recommendations.
“You know, on certain issues,” says Van Auken, “it’s a no-brainer. Hardening cockpit doors, securing our ports, checking luggage, these are all commonsense things that should be happening anyway, we shouldn’t have needed a 9/11 Commission report to get them done. But as for the rest of it, no, we don’t believe the recommendations are complete because the report is incomplete. We wish the Commission had been handled more like a trial, with actual evidence produced to back up statements, like they do in a courtroom. But that never happened.”
Many of the original questions put to the 9/11 Commission by the Family Steering Committee have since become staples of what’s known as the 9/11 truth movement. For instance, as the widows point out, exactly what made WTC 7 collapse when it was never hit by a plane is still just as much of an enigma today as it was prior to the 9/11 Commission, and they also wonder why NORAD’s protocols weren’t followed during the attacks. Moreover, they find it strange that 9/11 isn’t listed on Osama bin Laden’s FBI most wanted poster, when the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa are. (In June of 2006, Muckraker Report editor Ed Haas spoke on the phone with Rex Tomb, Chief of Investigative Publicity for the FBI, who told him the reason why 9/11 wasn’t listed on the poster was because Osama bin Laden had never been formally indicted by the Justice Department in connection with 9/11 and the FBI has no hard evidence linking him to the attacks).
“There are just so many unanswered questions,” says Van Auken. “I would say you need roughly 400 hours of research to graduate from 9/11 kindergarten class. That’s why it’s so hard to keep people on the same page, because they’re coming at this issue from a million different angles. A friend might tell them about building 7, or they might watch Loose Change on the internet, or they’ll say, ‘Hold it a second, you can’t make cell phone calls from an airplane.’ And then suddenly a little alarm bell goes off in their brain, and they say, ‘Wow, we don’t know the whole story about this.’ That’s all it takes, the little alarm bell, and then, bam, welcome to the place we’ve been living in for the last six years.”
“Addressing all these unanswered questions out there is about more than simply trying to quell conspiracy theories,” says Monica Gabrielle, whose husband Richard died in WTC II. “It’s about making sure Americans are safe by revealing the unfettered truth about the failures. Because you can’t make recommendations on distortions, omissions, and half-truths, which is basically what the 9/11 Commission did.”
As disappointed as the widows are with the results of the 9/11 Commission, they haven’t given up hope. They’ve set up a petition online demanding that the government release all transcripts and documents relating to the July 10, 2001 meeting that took place between George Tenet and Condaleeza Rice, which received some media attention last fall when it was referenced in Bob Woodward’s book State of Denial. They’re also requesting the release of the twenty-eight redacted pages in the Joint Inquiry into the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001 (JICI), as well as the CIA Inspector General’s report, “CIA Accountability With Respect to the 9/11 Attacks.” You can find the petition online at http://www.petitiononline.com/july10/petition.html.
“There’s no good reason for not signing this petition,” says Van Auken. “They’re just documents that help explain events leading up 9/11, and they should be in the public domain. If this petition were ever to hit 15,000 names, we’d take it to Washington.”
The widows also got together last year with a couple of independent filmmakers and made a documentary called 9/11 Press for Truth, which tells their story alongside the stories of other 9/11 families who were involved in the 9/11 Commission. As Kyle Hence, the producer of 9/11 Press for Truth explained to me, the point of the film was simply to let people know that the Commission hadn’t done its job properly and that the jury was still very much out on 9/11. “We were trying to build a bridge to the mainstream media,” Hence explains, “to connect the dots the media, for whatever reason, just wasn’t connecting. Our goal was to take the issue to middle-America, to make it legitimate in people’s eyes.”
9/11 Press for Truth is available on Google video, where it’s been somewhat overshadowed by the 9/11 documentary Loose Change. (Interestingly enough, in a debate last December, Dylan Avery, the producer of Loose Change, claimed he doesn’t endorse the second edition of his own movie anymore and urged people to watch 9/11 Press for Truth instead, calling it “the 9/11 film you can show to anybody”). Still, the widows have been astonished at the film’s reception.
“We never thought the movie would get widespread attention,” says Gabrielle. “But the response has been absolutely incredible. Kyle Hence has done a terrific job getting the word out. Thanks to his devotion and hard work, we’re hearing from people as far away as Prague who are expressing interest in the movie.”
9/11 Press for Truth is based on the work of independent researcher Paul Thompson, whose book the Terror Timeline is an enormous compilation of over 5,000 reports and articles relating to the 9/11 attacks. House of Bush, House of Saud author Chris Unger has called it “a spectacular resource that is an essential tool for anyone who is truly interested in understanding the events leading up to 9/11,” and Thompson received an endorsement from former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke when the latter put the book on the reading list for his course on terrorism at Harvard. By going back through buried news stories, Thompson was able to reconstruct an extraordinarily detailed timeline that contradicts statements by several Bush administration officials immediately following 9/11 claiming no one in the upper levels of the government could have anticipated the attacks.
As Thompson’s work shows, not only did the White House receive repeated urgent warnings of impending terrorist attacks from the intelligence agencies of at least a dozen different countries in the months leading up to 9/11, but at the G-8 summit in Genoa, Italy in July of 2001 George W. Bush slept offshore in an aircraft carrier because of threats that Osama bin Laden might fly airplanes packed with explosives into the embassy hotel. As Thompson asks at one point in 9/11 Press for Truth, “The press has reported on this one, that one, but they haven’t really put it all together and said, ‘God, how many different warnings did you get?’ ‘How many different ways was this information coming at you, and why wasn’t anything done about all of these warnings?’”
For the most part, however, 9/11 Press for Truth steers clear of overt speculation about the government’s role in the attacks and instead focuses on the personal recollections of the families who spearheaded the drive to establish the 9/11 Commission. Not only do we witness firsthand the stonewalling they received at the hands of the federal government, but also the extent to which very few in the government really seemed interested in figuring out what had gone wrong. By the end of the documentary, it’s hard to blame Bob McIlvaine, whose son Bobby was killed in the attacks, for saying, “I’m so pissed off at the American people, I’m so pissed off at this government, because of this cover-up.”
I asked the widows where they stand in relation to the 9/11 truth movement and some of its other claims, such as the view that controlled demolitions brought down the towers or that a missile hit the Pentagon.
“All these videos out there,” says Kleinberg, “they’re just giving their take on the various questions the official reports failed to answer. The girls and I, we won’t jump to any conclusions until all the facts are in, but we do share many of the same questions they do, and we definitely share the basic view that we haven’t learned the whole truth about 9/11.”
“It’s the old ‘if there’s nothing to hide, why are they hiding everything’ logic,” says Van Auken. “If you hide information, if you keep everything behind closed doors, people are going to get suspicious. If the government were to answer all of our questions, we’d be encouraged. But the fact is the government has barely answered any of them. It’s outrageous that six years on, after two preemptive wars in the Middle East and maybe a third to come, we still don’t have the whole story behind these attacks. Without that story, we can’t adequately secure the homeland. We want to know the truth, and we feel we’re strong enough to handle it, wherever that truth might lead us, because it’s the only way to be safe.”
“What I saw on 9/11 totally flew in the face of everything I thought this country was about,” says Casazza. “For the people standing crowded and on their own in the opening of the broken windows of the towers, there were no police, Coast Guard, or military helicopters. They could have at least been thrown parachutes so that they could have attempted their own rescue. In ’93, there were rooftop evacuations, why were the doors to the rooftop locked in 2001? With all the warnings of terrorism the government had received, why no alerts that day, no jets scrambled? Bear in mind, the building was a known target. There should have been some evacuation preparation. When guys go to war, no one gets left behind. Those people got left behind. And we need to understand why.”
I asked the women what their plans are for the future, if they are seeking another investigation.
“Not if it was anything like the last one,” says Kleinberg. “We’d be for congressional hearings, but only if they were held like a trial, with real legal authority exercised. We hope the 110th Congress sees fit to do so. We’re not giving up.”
“My hope is that September 11,” says Gabrielle “might force more Americans to realize they have to pay attention, participate in civic affairs, and hold their government accountable. It doesn’t matter who is in power, whether it’s the Democrats or the Republicans, you really need to hold their feet to the fire. People can be so complacent. We were guilty of it too, before our husbands died. But that’s a mistake we can never afford to make again.”
“It’s absolutely exhausting, what we’ve been through,” says Casazza. “We had to go down to Washington to try and make our country safer, at a time when no one in our country felt safe, especially in D.C. We entered into this world few ordinary Americans ever see, and it’s nothing like they teach you in civics class. It astonished me that we had to take our binders full of empirical evidence and educate and convince so many in Congress that there were actually procedures broken on 9/11, only to have them stare blankly back at us and deny the need to support legislation authorizing a full investigation into what had happened. The lack of urgency we witnessed from the White House on down defied every expectation we had of the way things worked in Washington. I never would have imagined that we’d have to push so hard during the worst time of our lives for something that was so obviously needed. I only wish that people would take it upon themselves to go to Washington, instead of just writing about what ought to be done by others. We’ll go back, if we have to, because we know it’s the right thing to do. We’re not going away.”
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