Tough Questions from Tough Guy on 9/11 Commission

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John Lehman. If we had nine more like him on the 9/11 Commission, I'd be much more confident that we're really getting to the bottom of what went wrong and ensuring it doesn't happen again, rather than continuing the high-stakes partisan skirmish that seems to have taken shape.

What we've seen of Lehman's public work on the commission thus far, coupled with comments he made to me over the weekend, suggest he is prepared to call them as he sees them, without regard for politics.

Which is precisely what the commission is supposed to do.

Among those comments:

* The public hearings are more to please the public than to uncover crucial information about 9/11.

* The panel is getting plenty of vital information from officials in their private sessions.

* Both administrations share responsibility for allowing terrorists to complete their deadly attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

* Government agencies have done a bad job sharing information about suspected terrorist activities.

* And, most surprisingly, the Federal Aviation Administration punishes airlines that don't follow a quota system in regard to questioning passengers. "That is why you see so many blue-haired old ladies and people that are clearly not of Middle Eastern extraction being hauled out . . .”

Lehman is Philadelphia's contribution to the commission. Maybe some of his no-BS style can be traced to his Jesuit training at St. Joe's. Or perhaps to his experiences flying combat missions over Vietnam as a Navy reserve officer.

The man has an impeccable resume. This is an individual who was only 38 years old when Ronald Reagan tapped him to be secretary of the Navy, a post he held from 1981 until 1987, all the while overseeing a massive military buildup.

His importance, and uniqueness among 9/11 commissioners, was on full display last week when Condoleezza Rice testified.

Many played to the cameras. Not Lehman. Maybe that's because he questions the value of the public hearings themselves, one of many subjects he openly discussed with me.

"Really, in a way, these public hearings have been a real distraction from our mission, because all of the people you have seen appear, we have already interviewed in depth.

"We had 15 hours, for instance, with [former counterterrorism czar and recent Bush administration critic] Dick Clarke in private before he testified in public, so nobody on the commission learned anything, but it was felt that the public needs to understand and get a view of what was going on.

"However, once you put the cameras on everybody, it really becomes theater, so particularly the Democrats are under extreme pressure from the Democratic leadership not to let President Bush off the hook. Unfortunately, that brought a partisan edge to the Clarke hearing and, with several of the commissioners, to the Condi Rice hearing.”

Lehman showed in his questioning, however, that the country is after more important things than partisan bickering.

Lehman's focus was the transition between the Clinton and Bush administrations.

He told Rice that he was "struck by the continuity of the policies rather than the differences," and then he proceeded to ask Rice a series of blunt questions as to what she was told in the transition. Among his questions:

"Were you told that there were numerous young Arab males in flight training, had taken flight training, were in flight training?”

"Were you aware at the time of the fact that Saudi Arabia had, and were you told that they had in their custody, the CFO and the closest confidant of al Qaeda, of Osama bin Laden, and refused direct access to the United States?”

Taken together, Lehman's line of inquiry paints the big picture of the collective failures that enabled 9/11.

But not all of what Lehman asked Rice has received a public airing. This nugget was buried in the proceedings but is worthy of more attention:

"Were you aware that it was the policy . . . to fine airlines if they have more than two young Arab males in secondary questioning, because that's discriminatory?”

Huh? What was Lehman talking about? This I'd never heard before. Here is what he told me.

"We had testimony a couple of months ago from the past president of United and current president of American Airlines that kind of shocked us all. They said under oath that indeed the Department of Transportation continued to fine any airline that was caught having more than two people of the same ethnic persuasion in a secondary line for questioning, including, and especially, two Arabs.”

Wait a minute. Was Lehman revealing that if airline security had three Arab guys up to no good they had to let one go because they'd reached a quota?

"That is really the source, because of this political correctness that became so entrenched in the 1990s, and continues in the current administration.

"No one approves of racial profiling. That is not the issue. The fact is that Norwegian women are not, and 85-year-old women with aluminum walkers are not, the source of the terrorist threat.

"The fact is that our enemy is the violent Islamic extremism. And the overwhelming number of people that one needs to worry about are young Arab males, and to ask them a couple of extra questions seems to me to be common sense.

"Yet if an airline does that in numbers that are more than proportionate to their number in a particular line, then they get fined, and that is why you see so many blue-haired old ladies and people that are clearly not of Middle Eastern extraction being hauled out in such numbers, because otherwise they get fined.”

But Lehman makes clear that he sees more institutional failure than individual failure.

"The real problem that enabled this shoestring operation, it cost less than half a million dollars in total, to succeed and penetrate every single one of our defenses was because of a whole series of long-standing dysfunctions in our security systems.”

When pressed about the differences between the Clinton and Bush administration responses, Lehman said, "If you look at the blame game . . . the Democrats are far more vulnerable because the Clinton administration was there eight years and did nothing effective against al Qaeda, while the Bush administration, while they might not have had as much of a sense of urgency, for which they might justifiably be criticized, nevertheless, they were only there for eight months.”

Reflecting that both President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore had just completed testimony in front of the commission, Lehman said, "All of these people feel very deeply that things are not as they should be within government, that things could have been done better, that we've got to make some very running changes, and some have begun, but things are by no means where they need to be.

"So they are not playing politics in private. That is why I think the public hearings are a distraction to our work because we learn nothing. It's theater.

"But, we have nothing but full cooperation and seriousness in the private meetings where there are no cameras.”

I asked Lehman how he believed the American people would react to the president's daily briefing of August 6, 2001, which has just seen the public light of day. Lehman said, "It's alarming stuff, and the president was alarmed when he saw it.

"It is not a smoking gun. It is a pulling together of intelligence reporting of the prior, especially six months, and it makes it very clear that there is a heightened activity among terrorists, that there are terrorists in the United States, and that Osama bin Laden is determined to attack in the United States.

"But nowhere in that daily briefing will you find anything that says Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda is going to hijack airlines and use them as weapons against targets in the United States.

"The whole focus was the vulnerability abroad of American embassies and American officials . . . " The bottom line is that, yes, there is a real threat, and yes, they want to attack in the United States, but we cannot support the more extreme reports that some have sent in.

"Then, the bureau points out that they have 70 investigations going on in United States."

So what, then, is to be made of the president's response, or lack thereof, to that daily briefing?

"The whole impression from the bureaucracy to president was that we have a serious problem, but we're on top of it.”

If not that briefing, then, what is the most damning document as to intelligence failures that he has seen in his work of more than a year as part of the 9/11 Commission?

"We have over 2 million classified documents that we and our staff have pored over for over a year.

“This administration has given this commission more cooperation and access to sensitive documents and people than any administration in history . . .

"Everybody has been going through this and nobody had found a smoking gun. There is no smoking gun.”

So where does it all lead? What can we expect midsummer when the work of the commission is made public?

Lehman rattled off a pretty succinct summation of what his work has revealed and what he thinks we will read in a few months.

"What we have is a very clear picture that we had an intelligence community that could not penetrate al Qaeda because of the post-Watergate era dismantling human intelligence and covert actions capabilities.

"We had a domestic intelligence community that was unable to penetrate the cells operating here in the United States, and those pieces of intelligence that they did have, we had no sharing between CIA and FBI of these vital pieces of al Qaeda intelligence.

"We have the treating of intelligence within the FBI. Most of the FBI didn't know what the rest of the FBI had because they had a 'case' mind-set that anything gathered had to be sealed and protected because it might be used in a prosecution.

"We had an FAA that airlines kept totally toothless and ineffective and not carrying out its responsibilities, and we had an INS that Congress wanted to keep weak because they want open borders that illegals can penetrate.

"We had a system endorsed and supported by two administrations that allowed cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Houston to pass laws prohibiting their police from cooperating in any way with Immigration and Naturalization.

"People were saying, and the Clarke testimony implied, that the Bush administration was told everything, when in fact they were told nothing about what the real problems were, and they were the things that really enabled al Qaeda to do what they did."

No wonder John Lehman is anticipating a final report with "very, very far-reaching reforms."

I say hand him the pen, and let him take the first crack.