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Guest Opinion: Don't Let Them Fool You, Folks

Heads-Up To Ashcroft Proves Threat Was Known Before 9/11

Monday June 3, 2002
By Harley Sorensen*, Special to SF Gate

Don't let them fool you, folks: They knew.

They might have been surprised by the ferocity of the attacks, but the highest-ranking members of the George W. Bush administration knew before Sept. 11 that something terrible was going to happen soon.

Bush knew something was going to happen involving airplanes. He just didn't know what or exactly when. His attorney general, John Ashcroft, knew. His national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, knew. They all knew.

And, in spite of its apparent ineptness, the FBI knew, too.

Not only did they all know, but they told us. Obliquely. And we didn't pay attention. Why would we? Then, as now, terrorist threats were a dime a dozen.

Is this my opinion? No, it's published fact.

On July 26, 2001, reported that John Ashcroft had stopped flying on commercial airlines.

Ashcroft used to fly commercial, just as Janet Reno did. So why, two months before Sept. 11, did he start taking chartered government planes?

CBS News correspondent Jim Stewart asked the Justice Department.

Because of a "threat assessment" by the FBI, he was told. But "neither the FBI nor the Justice Department ... would identify what the threat was, when it was detected or who made it," CBS News reported.

The FBI did advise Ashcroft to stay off commercial aircraft. The rest of us just had to take our chances.

The FBI obviously knew something was in the wind. Why else would it have Ashcroft use a $1,600-plus per hour G-3 Gulfstream when he could have flown commercial, as he always did before, for a fraction of the cost?

Ashcroft demonstrated an amazing lack of curiosity when asked if he knew anything about the threat. "Frankly, I don't," he told reporters.

So our nation's chief law enforcement officer was told that flying commercial was hazardous to his health, and yet he appeared not to care what the threat was, who made it, how, or why?

Note that it was the FBI that warned Ashcroft before Sept. 11. That's the same FBI now claiming it didn't "connect the dots" before Sept. 11.

Had we in the press been on our toes, we might have realized that if flying commercial posed a threat to John Ashcroft, it also posed a threat to the population at large.

But the story was largely ignored. CBS ran it once, briefly. A number of CBS affiliates repeated the story, even more briefly. That was it. As near as I can tell, no other major news outlet ran the story of a danger to commercial air travel so severe that our attorney general was told to stay away from it.

When the furor broke recently over who knew what, or when, President Bush chose his words carefully. "Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to kill on that fateful morning," he said, "I would have done everything in my power to protect the American people."

Note the phrase, "use airplanes to kill." It suggests he thought the bad guys were going to use airplanes in some other way, perhaps, for example, as a trading chip to win the release of those responsible for the first World Trade Center bombing.

On Sunday talk shows recently, Condoleezza Rice used similar language, indicating Bush had known ahead of time that terrorists were about to attack. She didn't say that, of course, but her careful use of language suggested that Bush knew trouble was brewing but simply didn't know the extent of it.

On July 5, 2001, according to a recent Washington Post article, the White House called together officials from a dozen federal agencies to give them a warning.

"Something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it's going to happen soon," the officials were told by the government's top counterterrorism official, Richard Clarke.

Clarke considered the threat sufficiently important to direct every counterintelligence office to cancel vacations and get ready for immediate action, the Post reported.

Several senators, including Dianne Feinstein, have called for a full-fledged investigation into what the government knew before Sept. 11.

Incredibly, the Bush people are saying they don't want to be bothered by yet another investigation. Asking questions and demanding answers will help the terrorists, they say.

Even more incredibly, the public is buying it.

The public's gullibility knows no bounds. Recently, the families of the people who died on Flight 93 on Sept. 11 were allowed -- finally! -- to hear the final 30 minutes of the cockpit voice recorder on that flight before it crashed in Pennsylvania.

But they weren't allowed to record it or even take notes. Why? Because (they were told) the tape might be used in evidence against Zacharias Moussaoui, the so-called "20th hijacker."

Is there even a dollop of logic in that explanation? It's like saying we can't watch video of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center because that video might be used in a trial.

Yet, the public seems to buy such specious "explanations" when uttered by a government official.

We need a full-blown investigation of who knew what before Sept. 11. We need explanations of such things as the FBI warning Ashcroft off commercial jets, while simultaneously ignoring strident warnings from its own agents in Minneapolis, Phoenix and Oklahoma. These things don't add up.

And we should not let the people we'll investigate -- the Bush administration in particular -- dictate the ground rules. Who are they to be telling us what questions we can ask and how we can ask them? They work for us, not us for them.

One final note: The government has responded to the FBI's apparent mistakes before Sept. 11 by expanding that agency's size and power.

If you think that's a good idea, and if you approve of all the extraordinary powers the government is giving itself these days, just remember that the next president with the power to spy on Americans, to listen in on lawyer-client conversations, to arrest and detain without probable cause, and so on, may be named Hillary.

Still think it's a good idea?

* Harley Sorensen is a longtime journalist and iconoclast. His column appears Mondays in the - San Francisco Chronicle/. This column is republished with assumed permisison. E-mail him at

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