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Monday, February 14, 2005

On Classification Powers

As reported here,
WASHINGTON -- February 10 -- Today Rep. Waxman and Rep. Maloney ask for hearings on whether political considerations caused the Administration to delay release of findings by the 9/11 Commission about pre-attack warnings.

The gist of the letter authored by Rep. Waxman and Rep. Maloney is best relayed by the following paragraphs:
The Honorable Tom Davis Chairman
Committee on Government Reform
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Mr. Chairman:

We are writing to request that our Committee hold hearings to investigate two extremely serious questions raised by an article that appeared in this morning's New York Times. The first question is whether the Administration misused the classification process to withhold, for political reasons, official 9/11 Commission staff findings detailing how federal aviation officials received multiple intelligence reports warning of airline hijackings and suicide attacks before September 11. The second question relates to the veracity of statements, briefings, and testimony by then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice regarding this issue.


This morning's New York Times reported that in "the months before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal aviation officials reviewed dozens of intelligence reports that warned about Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, some of which specifically discussed airline hijackings and suicide operations."[1] The article explained that the Federal Aviation Administration "received 52 intelligence reports" that mentioned Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda prior to September 11, 2001, and that the FAA warned airports that if "the intent of the hijacker is not to exchange hostages for prisoners, but to commit suicide in a spectacular explosion, a domestic hijacking would probably be preferable."

This information was included in a staff report by the 9/11 Commission dated August 26, 2004. The 9/11 Commission report found that there was "intelligence that indicated a real and growing threat leading up to 9/11," but that this intelligence "did not stimulate significant increases in security procedures." Although the report did not find that the government had advance information about the specific September 11, 2001, attacks, it reported that the FAA took various measures to warn airport security officials about "the possibility of a suicide hijacking."

Declassification Process

The first question Committee hearings should address is whether the Bush Administration abused the classification process to improperly withhold the 9/11 Commission findings from Congress and the public until after the November elections and the confirmation of Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State. Although the 9/11 Commission staff completed its report on August 26, 2004, the Bush Administration refused to declassify the findings until January 28, 2005, less than 48 hours after Ms. Rice was confirmed as Secretary of State.[2] At that time, the Department of Justice delivered both a classified version and an unclassified version to the National Archives, the agency charged with collecting and retaining all 9/11 Commission documents.

To summarize the above in a rather primitive way, the allegations amount to the following: there were warnings prior to Septermber 11, 2001 that something was likely to happen much akin to what actually did take place. The Administration, however, classified the data contained in the above-mentioned warnings, and the 9/11 Commission report mentioned those warnings but in a way that downplayed their significance. Reps. Waxman and Maloney also suspect that the only reason for that classification was the Administration's view - probably quite correct - of those reports as politically damaging.

I tend to believe that the Representatives' suspicions here are not without merit. The Sibel Edmonds illustrates this point quite well. Edmonds, a former FBI translator, alleged improprieties within the FBI - and was consequently slapped with a gag order by none other than Attorney General John Ashcroft who happened to lead the Justice Department of which thee FBI was a unit. And, although we are not allowed to know the truth, it certainly does appear that the FBI - and, by extension, the Bush Administration, had something to hide here. As James Ridgeway reports in this Village Voice article of his,
Edmonds is the translator hired by the FBI after 9-11 to help its woefully inadequate staff translate documents and wiretaps pertaining to the attacks in languages such as Farsi and Turkish. As she has told the Voice in past and recent interviews, she was given a top secret security clearance. She soon discovered that there were what she describes as two enemy moles with possible connections to 9-11 working both in the FBI and with the Air Force in weapons procurement for Central Asia, at one point. These were the Dickersons: Douglas with the Air Force and his Turkish-born wife, Melek Can Dickerson, with the FBI as a translator monitor. After they were subpoenaed for a court hearing, they left for Belgium in September 2002 and have not been heard from since.

Among other things Edmonds told her FBI superiors, she had discovered that Melek Can Dickerson affixed Edmonds's name to a printout of inaccurate translations. Properly translated, she says, these wiretaps revealed a Turkish intelligence operative in communication with his spies in both the Pentagon and the State Department.

When Edmonds tried to tell her FBI superiors what was going on, the bureau seized her home computer, gave her a lie detector test (which she later found she passed), and then fired her, warning her not to talk�backing that up by following her around in an open and intimidating surveillance. That didn't stop her. She went to the Senate Judiciary Committee and told her story. The committee's then chair, Vermont's Patrick Leahy, and ranking minority member Charles Grassley of Iowa wrote a letter to Justice demanding to know what was going on. Subsequently the FBI confirmed some of Edmonds's claims.

It is worth mentioning that although many Americans probably never heard of Sibel Edmonds, her allegations, if proven correct, could become a major overlooked issue in the analysis of the events of 9/11. As I have said before concerning the issues raised by Sibel Edmonds,
The letter above summarizes the experiences of just one woman, working in a fairly low-level position for the FBI for a short period of a mere several months. Let us take it with a grain of salt, as she may be bitter or highly subjective for other reasons, and, for the sake of argument, discount half of what she is saying. We still get a very grim picture of glaring omissions in the relevant portions of the 9/11 report.

Let us also for the sake of argument assume that everything stated in the report is 100% true,- which may be the case,- but let us merely assume that the "omission ratio", so to speak, in parts of the reports other than the ones Sibel Edmonds' experience is relevant to, is comparable to that in the sections she is discussing in her letter. That leaves us with a report so incomplete as to be almost irrelevant. It is akin to a building which is made of quality materials,- but in which entire floors are missing.

Let us now leave the particulars of both the recently declassified pre-9/11 FAA warnings and Sibel Edmonds' allegations alone and address the overall issues of who and how decides what is to be classified and what gets to stay in the public domain. Whenever the government has power over what the citizens learn, it has the power to manipulate them. Totalitarian regimes take this power a long way continually strengthening their control over the society by manipulating the citizens' perception. In a democratic society, however, all information is available to the public - save for what could harm the security of the society lest it be released into the public domain.

However, it is to be expected that government officials are liable to abuse power whenever they are allowed to and use their authority not only to declare what is truly sensitive classified, but also to avoid the disclosure of information that could be of a potentially damaging nature to them. One must also remember that the security of the society and political security of those in power seldom run together - in fact, quite possibly the disclosure of some information deemed secret by the government officials can damage or even bring down a government, yet improve the national security of the country.

It is my opinion that the classification mechanism currently in use in the US is deeply flawed and needs to be revised. One idea would be to have an independent body - maybe a committee of some sort outside of the government - that would decide what gets classified and for how long. The system we have now is broken and a threat to our security and liberties.

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