RICHLAND - Former United States Sen. Slade Gorton was the guest speaker of the Tri-City Area Chamber of Commerce yesterday morning (Wednesday).
Gorton filled the hour with a riveting report on his involvement with the 9/11 Commission, which was created by Congress and President George Bush to investigate the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001.
Gorton, a Republican, represented Washington state for 18 years as a senator. Gorton was appointed to the 9/11 Commission in late 2002. He was the only person on the 10-member panel who lived east of the Mississippi, said Tri-City Chamber of Commerce Chair Karen Miller, as she introduced Gorton. Gorton is now an attorney with Preston Gates and Ellis LLP. in Western Washington, where he provides legal advice on such subjects as transportation and environmental issues.
The 9/11 Commission wrapped up its extensive investigation of the 2001 terrorists attacks on Aug. 21, 2004, resulting in the publishing of the 9/11 report.
The major reason the terrorist attacks were able to take place, said Gorton, was the lack of communication among key governmental agencies.
"The cooperation among the various levels of government is greatly improved now," said Gorton.
The three-term senator started off his presentation by recounting that just a mere week before the Sept. 11 attacks Richard Clarke, national coordinator for counter terrorism under President Bill Clinton, sent a note to Dr. Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security advisor, talking about al-Qaida and what the consequences would be for the United States if there ever was a terrorist attack.
Ironically enough, Gorton pointed out that during the first week of the initial term of the Bush administration, Clarke briefed Rice on the Blue Sky Plan, which was designed to terminate the al-Qaida threat over a period of three to five years.
During the 9/11 Commission hearings, Gorton asked Clarke if his plan would have been able to stop the 2001 terrorist attacks, to which he replied no.
"Even his imagination didn't extend to the kind of attack that occurred on 9/11," said Gorton.
"The first failure we found with our government was the failure of imagination," Gorton added.
Gorton said no one in either the Clinton or Bush administrations could have imagined the scale of the 9/11 attacks, even following the initial terrorist attack on the World Trade Center early in Clinton's initial term.
Gorton was also quick to defend former President Clinton and President Bush from criticism they should have known about the terrorist threat on 9/11, especially following the first attack on the World Trade Center.
"Neither President Clinton nor President Bush got the kind of intellgence a president would need (to make the necessary decisions)," said Gorton. "Which was the biggest reason for the failure on 9/11."
The monumental lack of communication among the federal agencies was sorely illustrated on Sept. 11, said Gorton. The former senator added the biggest area of fault on Sept. 11, as deemed by the 9/11 Commission, lied with the Federal Aviation Administration (FFA).
The FFA had access to a no-fly list and a "tip-off list" from the State Department, which had the names of between 3,000 and 4,000 possible terrorist threats that went unheeded, said Gorton. During the 9/11 hearings, the FFA director stated he hadn't heard of the State Department's list until the day before he went before the commission.
Gorton further explained the FFA's hijacking protocol was severely outdated, explaining the plan dealt with scenarios that occurred in the 1970s when hijackers wanted to go to Cuba.
Other areas of fault on Sept. 11 lied with the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which had never been trained to deal with such a scenario. Gorton pointed out the United States Air Force at the time of the attacks only had four active fighters on two bases to cover the entire East Coast.
The Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are both to blame for the lack of information, said Gorton. He said the commission found out the CIA never shared any of the information it gathered about a possible terrorist attack with the appropriate agencies. Also, former FBI Director Louis Freeh and President Bush never met to discuss any information because of a disdain for one another, said Gorton.
Gorton recalled a now famous briefing the CIA provided President Bush on Aug. 6, 2001, which shows how the agency was spinning its wheels. During the briefing, it was said the CIA had 70 ongoing investigations of potential terrorists.
But half of the cases were merely money laundering schemes, said Gorton.
Gorton said four of the investigations involved suspects who were in jail and another investigation was tracking the activities of a dead person.
"Before 9/11, the FBI saw terrorism as a law enforcement problem after the fact," said Gorton.
Gorton said the FBI never placed its best agents in its counter terrorism department.
"Prior to 9/11, the way you became a counter terrorist agent was to fail in the field," said Gorton. "It was a dumping ground."
Gorton said the FBI is a much more efficient agency now than it was in 2001. He cited how the attitutude of the Seattle FBI office, in cooperation with other agencies, is significantly different than it was prior to Sept. 11.
Gorton said the 19 terrorists who hijacked four planes on Sept. 11 with a budget of $500,000 simply outsmarted the forces of the United States government.
Succumbing to growing pressure following the terrorist attacks, President Bush and Congress created the 9/11 Commission.
After reviewing more than three million documents and interviewing 1,200 witnesses, the 9/11 Commission released its findings in August 2004. Gorton said the 10 members on the 9/11 Commission decided it wasn't going to try and write history with the historic terrorist attacks, but rather tell history.
"We would simply lay it out and allow the people of the United States to figure out the whys," said Gorton.
Gorton said the commission came up with several recommendations, one of which was to create a national security head that reported to the president while promoting cooperation and communication among the different agencies.
"A cooperation that had been missing in the past," said Gorton.
The country is far better off than it was prior to Sept. 11, said Gorton, but that doesn't mean anything has changed as far as terrorism from abroad, he added.
"We have got to live our lives," said Gorton. "We can't say the United States is safer. We can say we are safe."