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Investigating the Investigation

Are the answers really in here? A Santa Cruz symposium may shed some light.

By Sarah Phelan

Three years after the infamous events of 9/11, the memories may be fading, but the conspiracy theories are not. Instead, they've flourished, fueled in part by the Bush administration's slow response to the unfolding crisis and then by calls for a thorough investigation of how and why 9/11 happened. Then there's that palpable mix of denial, fear and anger that creeps into people's voices when they discuss 9/11, a reaction that resurfaces even stronger every time there's another terror alert.

Yes, two wars and thousands more deaths later, paranoia may be the only tangible thing to come out of the terrorist attacks. Our international reputation is in ruins. Our job market and health-care system are in disarray. Our civil liberties are still under attack. And now fear runs rampant that the 2004 presidential election will be stolen, and that religious fanatics, be they neocon hawks or Islamic suicide bombers, will turn the clock back on civilization all around the globe.

So far, the only readily available hands-on item, other than perhaps duct tape, that's been proffered to the nation by way of a post-9/11 pacifier has been the 9/11 commission report. And even that is not much of a comfort. A hefty 567-page tome, the report is a remarkably readable account of the events that led up to that fateful day, and of the hijackings themselves, which were carried out by a 19-man cadre for less than $500,000. It's a detailed account of our responses, both heroic and inadequate, plus a long list of recommendations for what we should do next.

And that's where the report really fails to soothe the conspiracy theorist's jangled nerves, since it concludes that our main transnational threat is from Islamist terrorism and that we need a broad political-military strategy to prevent its growth and protect against--and prepare for--more terrorist attacks.

Many have hailed the report as a well-written nonpartisan account that pushes the American envelope in matters of honest self-analysis. Others charge that all it does is make the case for greater surveillance powers that will end up being used to crush dissent. And the ultimate conspiracy theorists are already arguing that the report is a coverup of an event that was the calculated first step in transforming this country into a police state.

The "Dissent Is Patriotic" symposium at the Del Mar Theatre on Sept. 11 has been organized in part to provide some analysis and critique of the 9/11 aftermath. As such, organizers have brought in David Harris, whose latest book, The Crisis, focuses on the Iranian revolution, but spans a century of geopolitical intrigue, and who argues that the 9/11 report largely misses the mark in terms of understanding the roots of the crisis.

Meanwhile, however, even progressive legislators like District 14 Congresswoman Anna Eshoo are pressing ahead to enact many of the report's proposals.

The question is: can these two camps agree on what this country needs? And just what does--and doesn't--this document tell us about 9/11 and our future?

Crisis, What Crisis?

David Harris has done a lot of wild things in his time, like organizing resistance to the Vietnam draft and marrying Joan Baez.

More recently, though, he traveled to Iran at the end of 2002, a visit that came shortly after Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made his remarks about wanting regime change, not just in Iraq, but in Iran, too--remarks, Harris says, that had Iranians seething. Again.

"For Iranians, the U.S. trying to enact a regime change is an old scenario, since the installation of the shah was the first regime change the U.S. undertook," says Harris.

He says the current mess in Iraq is proof the United States didn't learn from the mistakes made in Iran. Those mistakes, he believes, are what aided and abetted the rise of militant Islam in the first place.

"Iran was the template. Iran's history illustrates every shortcoming in U.S. foreign policy so far," says Harris.

The Bush administration, he says, has failed to grasp the cultural sensitivities and values of the region they chose to invade in 2003. That's just one of the issues Harris believes the 9/11 commission's report should have looked at beyond the question of how we can defend ourselves better.

"We need to look at how we declared war on terrorism, and effectively tried to make the situation into a noun, when it's really a verb--when the war ought to be against terrorizing, and not just making a group of criminals into a sovereign state, just so we can make war on them," he says. "We took one model of warfare and laid it over a situation that doesn't fit. There is no Al Qaeda home base that we're going to occupy and cut off."

Reflecting on how we had "an extraordinary moment right after 9/11," in which people from around the world sympathized with Americans, Harris bemoans the fact that we didn't take this sympathy and weld it into a coalition against terrorism, including an international dragnet.

"Instead, we alienated everyone, and cut off contacts," he says. "Our ace in the hole is that everyone wants to come here and study, but we have only made that process harder. It's crazy, we should have doubled the numbers."

By that, he is quick to point out, he does not mean neglecting security.

"I'm not talking about not searching people on airplanes, but about embracing the world, which should not be viewed as a bad thing," he says.

Get Out Now

Asked if the United States can realisti-cally leave Iraq right now, given the mess we've unleashed, Harris is adamant.

"We have to get out, because until we do, we're the issue, which means the real issues facing Iraq won't get worked out as long as we're present," he says. "Failure happened the minute we set down."

That said, he acknowledges that enormous unrest will follow.

"It'll be ugly, it'll probably be civil war," says Harris, who spent time with the Kurds in Iraq's no-fly zone, and thus is convinced the Shiites won't give the Kurds what they want, and that the Kurds will try to break away.

"It's a recipe for an extraordinary conflict for a while, but the Democrats are making a mistake by not educating the American people about this now. Everything is not gonna easily work out. We don't have a solution in our back pocket. There was a reason the Iraqi people had Saddam. Democracy isn't instant mashed potatoes that you can slap to the wall and it will stick."

Further fueling anti-American sentiments, he says, are perceived close ties between the Bush administration and the oil industry.

"Private corporations have an obligation to maximize their profits, whatever they may profess to care about the larger questions, which makes them totally unsuited to make foreign policy," he says. "They should not be given the power to make those kind of decisions, but that's what ultimately has been done with the blessing of the Bush-Cheney administration. And it's a dead end."

There's also a notorious double-standard, he says, when it comes to the policing of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons. Harris points out that Iran's atomic energy program began under the shah, at which time Iran was best buddies with the United States.

"If we take the position that we're gonna let our friends have such weapons, then everyone understands that the leverage to keep the U.S. from kicking your door in is to have nukes. We made that policy happen. If you really think WMDs are a threat, you can't let Israel and Pakistan have them, then turn around and say, let's invade Iran, because they want them, too."

Such questions about Bush administration policy may or may not have an effect this November. As for how the fallout from 9/11 has affected this year's presidential election, Harris says, "We said, 'Anything but Bush,' and so we got Kerry. Whatever his failings are-- and I'm sure we'll experience them soon enough--he's in a different league from the Bushies, who are no longer even an option."

Acknowledging that right now, Kerry is trying to straddle the political questions, and show he can be commander in chief, Harris says, "That's just part of the post 9/11 political dance."

A New Architecture

This so-called post-9/11 political dance also explains why local Rep. Anna Eshoo has been hopping on the red eye back to Washington this summer for hearings of the House Intelligence Committee.

"Right now there's a push-pull in Congress and the intelligence community," says Eshoo of the atmosphere in Wash-ington. "The Bush administration's record on the 9/11 commission has been an exercise in trying to undermine it from the get-go."

Eshoo recalls that there would not have been any commission at all had it not been for the 9/11 families, that the White House tried to cut off the commission's funding and did not want Bush to testify, and that when the president finally did show up, it was with the vice president and he would not testify under oath, nor was any note-taking allowed.

"It's been a rocky road, but we have to be about today and tomorrow."

This country is under a terror alert, under an Orange code, and the threat is very real," says Eshoo.

She says the 9/11 commission made recommendations that are "not only thorough, but also thoughtful. It should be recommended reading for everyone."

Those recommendations include a need for what Eshoo describes as "a new architecture."

"We need a new jointness," she says. "We need to move from a right-to-know culture towards a right-to-share. The 9/11 commission, through a detailed investigation, listed our failures, and one of the keys was our failure to share intelligence across the intelligence community."

This push-pull to which she refers is a product of the commission's recommendations, which aren't about reorganizing deck chairs, she says, but about making fundamental reforms, not just in the intelligence community, but also in Congress.

"We cannot cherry-pick the 9/11 recommendations, because they are interlocking recommendations," she says.

In April, Eshoo and several other congressmembers introduced legislation that very closely mirrors what the 9/11 commission recommended. The problem, she claims, continues to be a lack of wholehearted support across the administration.

"Regardless of who is in power, it's in the DNA of bureaucracies to protect their territory," she says. "The Department of Defense has significant territory at stake--it's about money, and power, in Congress, too."

When it comes to matters of national security like 9/11, Eshoo would like to see increased power to subpoena the top dogs.

"Truth is the oxygen of democracy," she says. "Without the strong oversight of Congress, we fail. One of my constant complaints as part of the House Intelligence Committee has been that you have to play 20 questions and ask them precisely, or you don't get a direct answer. I don't think that helps anybody."

Noting that the commission-backed idea of a national director of intelligence has actually been around for 50 years, Eshoo says its time has come. She also believes that the executive director of the intelligence community has to be independent of the president.

"That person cannot be in the position of trying to please customers," she says. "There should be a firewall, the executive director should produce a product and then defend it. We have to learn from the mistakes we made, our extraordinary failures."

One of the biggest mistakes, she says, was the weapons of mass destruction fiasco and the way it was used to justify the war in Iraq.

"As we now know, there were no WMDs, there was no intelligence that drew a nexus between Iraq, Al Qaeda and the attack on our country," she says. "So, I think it was unfortunately a war of choice, not a war of necessity. That said, it should be instructive as to how intelligence is gathered, analyzed, given to the president, and how he uses it. These are key considerations, because once you commit, you commit this country's greatest treasure, namely its young people, to war."

The Search for Accountability

Eshoo also bemoans the lack of accountability that has been a trademark of the Bush administration.

"The average American can't help but think that if they fail at their job, they will be held accountable," she says. "But to date, no one has been held accountable for these intelligence failures, or the decisions that took this nation to war."

Speaking of mistakes, Eshoo now sees the war in Afghanistan as one. Though she voted for it at the time, she now believes it diminished the global war on terror.

"The tragedy of going to war in Afghanistan is that by invading it and becoming an occupying force, it took us so far off from the global war on terror." Similarly, Eshoo believes the war on Iraq was a diversion from the real problem. "Iraq and the global war on terror are not one and the same. Even though the president says they're connected, there is no intelligence to support that claim," says Eshoo. "The giant sucking sound of troops, money and intelligence to Iraq distracted us from keeping our eye on the global war on terror, and as a result of that invasion, al Qaeda and more such groups have metastasized."

But though bridges have been burned, opportunities squandered and countries insulted, Eshoo believes that Americans should not give up hope of making America safer and regaining the world's respect.

"Huge changes are needed, we need more effective leadership," she says. "We are entering a new chapter in the book of Iraq. We have to bring economic, diplomatic, as well as military, intelligence and allies' capabilities, to all this."

Eshoo also believes the issues around 9/11 run deeper than addressed in the report, and when searching for answers, she recommends Americans look in the mirror--and at our gas tanks.

"Our reliance on fossil fuels is akin to an addiction," she says. "One of the best and most efficient ways to move away from oil is to have fuel-efficient automobiles, with an American fleet of automobiles, but we have not bitten the bullet. We have regressed, instead of progressed, and the direct tie in that thinking is that the president and vice president come from oil backgrounds, and so have moved away from any policy that was in place, have become even more regressive. We need a change in administration. This one hasn't even acknowledged global warming. They are all about yesterday, instead of tomorrow."

Change: How and When?

David Harris places his hope for the future not in the 9/11 commission's report, but with the antiwar movement.

"The U.S. is in trouble, and given the circumstances, it's the particular responsibility of the antiwar movement to address this problem," he says. "We ought not to be shy. We have to address the issue of security, which doesn't mean making the U.S. less safe, but becoming safer--by getting out of the current mess."

He notes that, a year ago, "no one thought we could discredit the war on Iraq to the extent that we have," and that while America's reputation is in disarray, that of the American people is not--at least not yet.

"We are an open, friendly people. We care about what happens to other people. We have an enormous amount of goodwill, understanding and resources. These qualities have provided us with cover before," he says.

He recalls traveling in India and finding that peasants in remote villages had pictures of JFK and FDR on the wall.

"There was a sense that Americans cared about people, that they stood for things that everyone wanted," he says. "This wasn't a falsehood, but it was only part of the truth. But now we can use that sense to go forward. We are not a bad people. We don't have to be the caricature. We don't have to behave like the stereotype that Al Qaeda has made of us."


David Harris is slated to speak in Santa Cruz, along with UCSC professor Bettina Aptheker and Palestinian-American peace activist and Boalt Hall law student Naura Erakat, as part of the 'Dissent Is Patriotic' symposium, on Sept. 11 at noon at the Del Mar Theatre. Tickets are available through the Resource Center for Nonviolence, 831.423.1626.


Some Provocative Excerpts From the 9/11 Commission's Report

"To date, the U.S. government has not been able to determine the origin of the money used for the 9/11 attacks." Page 172.

"In March 2001, [Condoleezza] Rice asked the CIA to prepare a new series of authorities for covert action in Afghanistan." Page 210.

"The terrorists exploited deep institutional failings within our government." Page 265.

"The lesson of 9/11 for civilians and first responders can be stated simply: in the new age of terror, they--we--are the primary targets. ...

A rededication to preparedness is perhaps the best way to honor the memories of those we lost that day." Page 323.

"Our own independent review of the Saudi nationals involved confirms that no one with known links to terrorism departed on these flights." Page 330.

"President Bush had wondered immediately after the attack whether Saddam Hussein's regime might have had a hand in it. ... [T]he president also told us he thought about Iran." Page 334.

"Officials in both the Clinton and Bush administrations regarded a full U.S. invasion of Afghanistan as practically inconceivable before 9/11." Page 349.

"Bin Ladin and Islamist terrorists mean exactly what they say: to them America is the font of all evil, the 'head of the snake' and it must be converted or destroyed." Page 362.

"Because the Muslim world has fallen behind the West politically, economically, and militarily for the past three centuries, and because few tolerant or secular Muslim democracies provide alternative models for the future, Bin Ladin's message finds receptive ears." Page 362.

"Long-term success demands the use of all elements of national power: diplomacy, intelligence, covert action, law enforcement, economic policy, foreign aid, public diplomacy, and homeland defense." Page 364.

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From the September 1-8, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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