It’s time for straight talk about the U.S. government’s malfeasance leading up to Sept. 11, 2001.

The elections are over. President Bush has never been in a stronger position politically. Even the United Nations is supporting his moves with Iraq. His party will soon take control of the U.S. Senate and has strengthened its control of the House of Representatives. The narrow presidential election margin two years ago has been forgotten because of this new political mandate.

Meanwhile, today begins a period of extremely heightened concern over new terrorist attacks, according to law enforcement and intelligence sources.

Therefore, it is imperative that Bush use his new clout to improve security here at home. And that process begins with understanding what went wrong prior to Sept. 11, 2001.

Here’s the brutal, unadulterated truth: The government’s ability to protect its citizens utterly collapsed. There were warnings. No one can honestly say the scenario of Sept. 11 was unthinkable. Contingency plans should have been in place.

Yet the government is still in denial. Last May, for instance, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said: “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center … that they would use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile.”

Wrong. Someone could have predicted it. Based on the information available to the government, the U.S. should have been expecting it.

Let me give you just a few examples:

  • Nearly a decade earlier, the Pentagon commissioned a $150,000 study to investigate the possibility of an airplane being used to destroy national landmarks. A draft of the report was circulated through the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

  • In 1994, a pilot crashed a small plane on the White House grounds.

  • That same year, Muslim fanatics hijacked an Air France plane with the idea of crashing it into the Eiffel Tower.

  • In 1995, Philippine authorities discovered “Project Bojinka,” a plot by Islamic terrorists to blow up 11 airliners in a single day or crash them into civilian targets in the U.S. Targets mentioned were the CIA headquarters, the World Trade Center, the Sears Tower and the White House.

  • In 1997, “Project Bojinka” was in the news again during the trial of Ramsi Youssef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. FBI agents testified in court that “the plan targeted not only the CIA but other U.S. government buildings in Washington, including the Pentagon.”

  • In 1999, the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress prepared a report for U.S. intelligence agencies called “The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism.” It stated: “Suicide bombers belonging to al-Qaida’s martyrdom battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the CIA, or the White House.”

  • In the spring and summer of 2001, intelligence agencies flooded the government with warnings of possible terrorist attacks by al-Qaida, and other groups, against U.S. targets – including commercial aircraft. In response, the Federal Aviation Administration issued four information circulars to the industry between June 22 and July 31.

  • On June 28, Rice said: “It is highly likely that a significant al-Qaida attack is in the near future, within several weeks.”

  • On July 31, the FAA urged U.S. airlines to maintain a “high degree of alertness.”

There were warnings – at least to some people. However, completely left out of the equation was the general public. Information was deliberately withheld from them.

“How many victims may have thought twice before boarding an aircraft (had those warnings been issued to the public)?” asked Kristen Breitweiser, who lost her husband in the World Trade Center attack, in her testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “How many victims would have chosen to fly on private planes? How many victims may have taken notice of these Middle Eastern men while they were boarding their plane? Could these men have been stopped? Going further, how many vigilant employees would have chosen to immediately flee Tower 2 after they witnessed the blazing inferno in Tower 1, if only they had known that an al-Qaida terrorist attack was imminent?”

The government knew something was up. But the people were in the dark.

Take note of how quickly the Beltway sniper suspects were captured as soon as information about their car was made public by news accounts. It took hours. All the government manhunts produced nothing for three weeks. AWACS flights produced nothing. Shutting down highways produced nothing. But once the public was enlisted, the suspects were quickly rounded up.

But are we really learning anything? Or does the government still think it can handle this threat alone?

There’s only one responsible thing for the government to do in response to this realization – establish an independent panel to provide a comprehensive, definitive report on those failures with recommendations on procedural changes.

Let the chips fall where they may. End the cover-up. It’s a matter of national security.

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