In his eye-opening new book, “Mastermind: The Many Faces of the 9/11 Architect Khalid Shaikh Mohammed,” Richard Miniter sheds some new light on an old question: Why was the United States so unprepared for the attack on Sept. 11, 2001?
Miniter is an old-school, boots-on-the-ground reporter, one of the very few on the right. This enables him to tell the story of the world’s most dangerous man, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM), without the anti-Bush bias that deforms so much reporting on the subject.
In fact, until the last few chapters of the book, when his contempt for the liberal lawyers who champion KSM leaks through, the reader would not know where Miniter’s political sympathies lie.
I mention this because although the facts that follow derive in large part from Miniter’s superb book, the politically-charged inferences about TWA Flight 800 are mine, not his.
As Miniter reports, KSM and his inner core, mostly friends and relatives of Baluch descent, served as freelance Islamic terrorists.
In February 1993, a KSM crew planted a bomb in the basement of the World Trade Center in the hope of toppling one building into another and killing scores of thousands of people. The bomb killed six.
Miniter does not rule out Iraq as sponsor. If so, President Bill Clinton did not want to know. That would have meant war.
According to the FBI’s James Fox, who headed the “Tradebom” investigation, Clinton’s Justice Department stopped it at “the water’s edge.”
After the bombing, KSM nephew and operations chief, Ramzi Yousef, fled the country on his Iraqi passport and eventually found his way to the Philippines. There, in late 1994, he, KSM, friend Abdul Hakim Murad and others cooked up a variety of diabolical schemes.
They also cooked up chemicals, Murad none too well as he set their Manila apartment on fire. When Murad returned to the apartment to retrieve his tell-all laptop, the police seized him. Under Philippine-style enhanced interrogation, he talked about KSM’s many and ambitious terror plots.
According to Miniter, one of those plots was “KSM’s idea to fly planes into buildings in the United States.” Murad had, in fact, recently graduated from a pilot school in North Carolina.
Although Yousef was soon captured, the wily KSM made it to Afghanistan in late 1995 or thereabouts where he first pitched the “planes operation” to Osama.
Osama turned it down. It was not until 1998 that KSM persuaded bin Laden to finance the plot, which would tragically climax on Sept. 11, 2001.
In late summer 1996, Lt. Col. Robert “Buzz” Patterson, who carried the nuclear football for Clinton, was returning an intelligence update from Clinton’s office when he “keyed on a reference to a plot to use commercial airliners as weapons.”
This information had been sent to Washington from the Philippines in early 1995. Patterson saw that the president had added his own handwritten notes to the document.
“I can state for a fact that this information was circulated within the U.S. intelligence community,” Patterson writes in his book “Dereliction of Duty,” “and that in late 1996 the president was aware of it.”
Weeks earlier, on July 17, TWA Flight 800 had exploded off the coast of Long Island killing all 230 people aboard. The presidential review of these 18-month-old documents was likely tied to the plane’s destruction.
The best source on Clinton’s sentiments at the time is historian Taylor Branch’s 2009 book, “The Clinton Tapes.”
On Aug. 2, 1996, Clinton told Branch that the FBI was “rechecking” its interviews with “some 15 ground witnesses who saw a bright streak in the sky near the plane.” If corroborated, Branch adds, this “could suggest a missile rather than a bomb.”
Clinton knew it was a missile. By this time, the FBI had interviewed at least 200 eyewitnesses who had seen a bright streak. Still, he gave away more than he might have intended in this interview.
Clinton traced the likely attack to Iran. So obsessed was he on the upcoming election that he claimed terrorists had struck “to undermine [his] chances for re-election because he was pushing the Middle East peace process.”
“They want war,” Branch quotes Clinton as saying. Those three words suggest the probable justification used to stop this investigation at the water’s edge as well.
What is not known, save by those involved, is who actually fired the fatal missile(s). It is possible that Clinton was using Branch to enter his alibi into the historical record.
Regardless, after this “ominous” discussion, Clinton never again raised the subject of TWA Flight 800 with Branch, and Branch, something of a sycophant, never saw fit to pursue it.
In the years that followed, Clinton and his insiders went shockingly mum on the destruction of TWA Flight 800, voted the biggest news story of 1996.
Clinton dedicates a paragraph to it in his 900-page memoir, the FBI’s Louis Freeh two sentences in his, Hillary a third of a sentence in hers, Dick Morris two words in his, adviser George Stephanopoulous and the CIA’s George Tenet not one word in theirs.
Silenced on TWA Flight 800, these insiders also stopped talking about aviation terror and the threat posed by KSM’s flying bomb plot. Vice President Al Gore turned mute as well.
In the wake of TWA Flight 800 disaster, Gore headed up an aviation safety and security commission. Yet his final report, as the 9/11 Commission sharply noted, “did not mention suicide hijackings or the use of aircraft as weapons.”
The one bizarre exception to this wall of silence was anti-terror czar Richard Clarke’s Bush-bashing 2004 best-seller, “Against All Enemies.”
In a chapter titled “The Almost War, 1996,” Clarke takes credit for discovering the spontaneously exploding fuel tank theory that the White House ultimately embraced as the cause of TWA Flight 800′s destruction.
If the fuel tank theory made any sense at all, Team Clinton would have been boasting about how they avoided “an almost war” through patient restraint. Their silence is telling.
Even Clarke remained silent about KSM’s flying bomb plot. He did not tell Condoleezza Rice word one about it when she took over as national security adviser in January 2001.
When the 9/11 Commission addressed this oversight, Clarke asked that he and his colleagues “be forgiven for not thinking about [the plot] given the fact that they hadn’t seen a lot in the five or six years intervening about it.”
The 15th anniversary of the disaster two weeks hence presents the media one more chance to ask the Clinton cabal a simple question: Did you stop talking about aviation terror to keep TWA Flight 800 out of the conversation?
At least 3,000 families would like to know.