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With families of 9/11 victims threatening to protest his appearance at events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the attacks, President Joe Biden took the notable step last week of ordering the Justice Department and other agencies to disclose new portions of their long-secret files on the Qaida plot.
The executive order on Sept. 3 appears to stave off the prospect that the president might be picketed on the eve of 9/11 memorial services, just days after the final, chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
What remains in doubt is whether the declassification of FBI documents will resolve the mysteries that still surround the case or provide evidence to support the families’ claims in a federal lawsuit that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia bears some responsibility for the attacks.
“He has the power to give us closure,” a spokesperson for the families, Brett Eagleson, said of the president. “He has now made us a promise, but he still needs to fulfill it.”
The relatives’ years-long fight against Justice Department secrecy has lately centered on a list of 45 FBI documents that the government has identified as relevant to the families’ lawsuit in a federal district court in New York.
Lawyers for the families said those documents represent only a small fraction of the government files they should be entitled to under a 2018 judge’s order. That order limits the plaintiffs to information on a handful of figures who have been tied to the first two Qaida hijackers to arrive in the United States, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar.
The two Saudis flew into Los Angeles from Bangkok on Jan. 15, 2000. Although they had been trained as terrorists, they spoke almost no English and had only the vaguest notions about how to operate in a Western society, people who knew them told the FBI after the attacks.
The pair quickly made their way to a new mosque that the Saudi government had built in Culver City, California, not far from Sony Pictures Studios. During a purportedly chance meeting at a nearby cafe, they were invited to settle in San Diego by Omar al-Bayoumi, a shadowy middle-aged Saudi graduate student who had already been investigated by the FBI as a possible spy for the kingdom.
The CIA had been following Hazmi and Mihdhar as they met with other Qaida operatives in Malaysia in early January 2000. The agency somehow lost their trail when the hijackers flew with their own Saudi passports to Thailand and on to Los Angeles. Even after the CIA learned in March 2000 that at least one of the terrorists had entered the country, it did not notify the FBI until late August 2001.
CIA officers would later interrogate the architect of the plot, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, about why he sent the first two hijackers to Southern California and whether they had any support network waiting there. (The bipartisan 9/11 Commission found his account implausible.) But most FBI agents investigating the attacks had limited access to the CIA’s intelligence, and even less of that information has since been made public.
Among the other potential pieces of evidence that have never emerged from the government’s investigation are closed-circuit videotapes showing Hazmi and Mihdhar’s arrival at Los Angeles International Airport. Former FBI investigators said they were never able to locate any tapes despite their repeated requests, leaving questions whether anyone had met the hijackers’ plane.
The FBI’s handling of evidence it did gather has raised even sharper questions. Just last week, representatives of the 9/11 families wrote to the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, asking that he investigate whether the FBI might have deliberately hidden or destroyed some evidence to avoid its disclosure.
That request followed claims by the government in federal court that it could no longer find some materials and information it had gathered in the inquiry, including FBI witness interviews and telephone records of people linked to the hijackers. Among the items that the bureau has said it had lost is a home video from a party in San Diego where Bayoumi introduced the two hijackers to a group of his friends.
A report in 2020 by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine recounted that soon after the FBI launched Operation Encore, a follow-on investigation to the original 9/11 case, in 2007, agents learned that FBI archivists were about to dispose of evidence seized from Bayoumi in the days after the attacks.
Those materials included a diagram that seemed to show the trajectory of a plane crashing to the ground — resembling the way that American Airlines Flight 77, which Hazmi and Mihdhar helped to hijack, had flown into the Pentagon. A former commercial airline pilot who reviewed the diagram in 2012 told FBI agents there was “a reasonable basis” to suspect that it might have been used in preparation for the attacks, according to a newly disclosed statement in the federal litigation.
At the center of the 9/11 families’ lawsuit is the theory that Bayoumi and a Saudi religious official based in Los Angeles, Fahad al-Thumairy, provided help to the two hijackers. In an interview with the 9/11 Commission, Bayoumi claimed he had no idea the men were Qaida members. Thumairy told the commission staff he did not even recall meeting the two men.
Most of the U.S. national security establishment has long discounted the possibility that the Saudi royal family might have knowingly supported the plot. The kingdom viewed Osama bin Laden as a subversive enemy, and the attacks had overwhelmingly negative repercussions for Saudi interests.
But questions remain about the ties between the Qaida operatives and Saudi religious institutions. Saudi clerics operated with considerable autonomy before 9/11, propagating the kingdom’s conservative Wahhabi doctrine around the world with generous funding from the state. They also supported a number of charities tied to al-Qaida and other militant Islamist groups.
After 9/11, two teams of FBI investigators began to examine the activities of Saudi religious officials who had been operating in the United States. By 2006, the bureau had quietly forced dozens of accredited diplomats and others to leave the country, usually without filing any criminal charges.
Operation Encore, which is also referred to as “the subfile case,” concentrated closely on Hazmi and Mihdhar and the people who assisted them in California. But the investigators also left behind big holes: Although they discovered that Bayoumi was not actually studying and was being paid indirectly by a Saudi defense agency, for instance, they were unable to determine whether he had ties to the kingdom’s intelligence services or its religious bureaucracy.
Encore received little support from senior FBI officials, agents involved in the effort said. It was effectively shut down in 2016, when the chief of a New York counterterrorism task force disbanded the small team of investigators and analysts who were working the case.
However, as ProPublica revealed last year, a senior analyst on the Encore team left an important marker behind. Before moving on to a new post, other investigators said, the analyst compiled a detailed 16-page summary of the Encore findings and filed it electronically so that it could not be easily deleted from the FBI’s computer system. That document, dated April 4, 2016, is one that Biden specifically ordered the Justice Department to review for declassification “no later” than Sept. 11 of this year.
Until last month, the Justice Department had argued repeatedly in court that the FBI could not disclose key documents from the 9/11 inquiry because its investigation was ongoing. Since 2017, though, virtually no significant investigative activity has been cited in FBI files that have been shared with lawyers for the families.
During his campaign, Biden wrote to the 9/11 families that he supported their quest for “full truth and accountability” in the attacks, promising new transparency if he was elected. After more than 1,700 family members warned him to avoid memorial events this year unless he made good on his pledge, the Justice Department announced on Aug. 9 that the FBI had finally closed the Encore investigation and would work to “identify additional information appropriate for disclosure.”
That wasn’t good enough, the families responded. As they moved forward with plans for anti-Biden protests one day before the 20th anniversary, the president issued his executive order.
The aggressive secrecy of the Justice Department peaked under the Trump administration and former Attorney General William Barr, who asserted in 2019 that materials from the FBI investigation must be protected as state secrets. But efforts to safeguard both intelligence sources and Saudi sensitivities date back to the Bush and Obama administrations.
“The Bush administration was cozy with the Saudis, and Obama didn’t want to fight and was concerned about keeping Saudi support because of ISIS,” one former senior intelligence official said. “Now, there is an opportunity for this administration to say, yes, the Saudi relationship is important, but we can take a different approach to this issue.”
Sebastian Rotella contributed reporting.
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As the US prepares to mark 20 years since the 9/11 attacks that transfixed and horrified the world, we speak to terrorism expert Cyrille Bret, author of "Ten Attacks That Changed the World". He argues that the events of that terrible day not only transformed our collective experience of safety, but also reignited the debate over how much freedom we're prepared to relinquish in the name of security.
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The resurgence of Covid-19 is rapidly dominating Joe Biden’s administration, putting into question the future of his broader legislative agenda and increasingly steering Democrats into treacherous political territory.
The president on Thursday is expected to lay out a detailed, six-point plan that’s aimed at staunching a loss in public confidence as the Delta variant sends hospitalizations, deaths and infection rates soaring. Democrats, anxious about the state of the presidency and the country, say Biden must use the moment to forcefully outline how he intends to combat this worsening stage of the pandemic.
“Fundamentally, for our public health, for our economic health and for the president’s political health, getting Covid right is the single most important issue that they face in the immediate term,” said Robert Gibbs, who served as a White House press secretary in the Obama administration. “We’re stepping into a different phase and the new administration has to meet the moment of that new phase. I think that begins in earnest with this speech.”
The speech comes just months after the president held a celebratory tentative return to normalcy, by first lifting mask mandates then holding a 4th of July barbeque on White House grounds.
On Thursday, Biden’s remarks will be delivered against the backdrop of falling approval numbers, driven in part by his handling of the pandemic. A Gallup poll this week found that for the first time — either as a candidate or as president — more people disapproved of Biden’s communication on Covid than approved of it. It’s a reversal from early in his presidency, when Biden’s handling of Covid overall helped buoy his standing. The president had stayed above water until a few weeks ago. Today, roughly 44 percent of the public approves of the job he is doing, according to a FiveThirtyEight average of polls.
Inside the White House, there’s frustration at suggestions that the president and his team have taken their eye off the pandemic. Instead, aides argue that it was the media that shifted focus to other issues, including the drawdown of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan. As evidence, the White House official pointed to a successful push to ramp up sagging vaccination rates over the summer and the dispatching of more than 700 surge teams to assist with states battling spiking infection rates. Biden himself has called the new surge in cases a pandemic of the unvaccinated — with those who’ve refused the vaccine still making up the vast majority of deaths and hospitalizations.
But despite spending the summer emphasizing vaccinations, rates of infection remain stubbornly high and hospitals in hard-hit areas are again running out of space in their intensive care units. Health officials have complained about confusion over the need and the timing of booster shots. And parents fear school closures now that kids (many unvaccinated) are cramming back into classrooms.
An inability to keep Covid cases from mushrooming over the fall could threaten to crowd out Biden’s massive economic agenda, forcing the president to devote more time and attention and political capital to the pandemic rather than directing energies toward shepherding a lofty infrastructure package and a $3.5 trillion social spending bill through Congress. But some Democrats say the best way for the president to negotiate with lawmakers on those initiatives is to demonstrate progress on the pandemic.
“One of the most helpful things the president can do to sell Congress on his plan is to launch a big campaign to defeat Covid, see progress against the virus and get his numbers moving in a positive direction again,” said Simon Rosenberg, a longtime Democratic operative. Making sure Covid is contained, Rosenberg said, would “increase his authority in the end game negotiations.”
If the massive spending bills do pass and the pandemic fails to relent next year, the White House would be hard-pressed to go back to Congress and ask for another round of Covid bailout funds, having secured a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill earlier this year.
Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said Biden would be wise to use his Thursday remarks to address how he will protect children who cannot be vaccinated and offer more clarity on booster shots — the top concerns she’s hearing as she talks to voters door to door.
“Let’s talk about how we deal with this Delta variant, and whether or not folks need booster shots,” Barnes said. “All of that information needs to be coming forward, not just once or twice. I think President Biden talks about it every day, we all need to be talking about it.”
Biden does not lack for complicated issues on his docket. A chaotic and bloody withdrawal from Afghanistan dominated his August. Voters have persistent reservations about the state of the economy and more than 60 percent of those polled think the country is on the wrong track under Biden. But voters’ feelings about all of those issues, Democratic party leaders say, are tied to Covid. And it’s reflected in the polls: His approval numbers began to slide as Delta took hold across the country.
“It impacts absolutely everything,” says Felesia Martin, vice chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “I don’t know how we can separate our economy or anything else from Covid because it affects every intersection of our life.”
Martin went on to say, however, that it’s unfair to place the blame on the Biden administration for the virus’ resilience. She argued that the president and his team have followed the science as they promised, but people are still refusing to get vaccinated and protesting mask wearing.
Martin, like the White House, placed the blame for the rapid spread of the Delta variant on those who refused to get vaccinated.
Democrats in some state races still believe Covid could prove a winning issue, painting their Republican challengers as dangerous because of their opposition to vaccinations and mask mandates — which polling shows a majority of Americans favor. Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has been pummeling Republican Glenn Younkin on Covid in that state’s gubernatorial race. And in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy is using the issue as a cudgel against his Republican challenger, Jack Ciattarelli.
The calculation by Democrats is that even if the virus eases by next year and concerns fade, the issue will remain on voters’ minds and could be a potent tool to yoke down-ticket Republicans in competitive districts to former President Donald Trump, whose handling of the pandemic proved disastrous for him in last year’s election. Matt Bennett of the center-left group Third Way called coronavirus “the way into the discussion about Trump and Trump-ism.”
“What you’re seeing with vaccine resistance, the mask debate and now anger and violence directed at schools is going to be poisonous for Republicans in places like the suburbs,” Bennett said. “It’s going to be a powerful way to connect Republicans who are on the ballot in 2022 with the things [voters] don’t like about Trump’s Covid response.”
But resting a midterm campaign on the pandemic is not without risk for Biden and Democrats — especially if the coronavirus is still raging next year. Regardless of whose policies are responsible for the lingering pandemic, midterm elections are traditionally closely correlated with a president’s approval rating, which Republicans will spend months working to drag down.
“They campaigned on fixing everything, and what have they done?” said John Thomas, a Republican strategist who works on House campaigns across the country. “Biden said he was going to solve Covid, and arguably it’s worse in some parts of the country.”
For Biden and the Democrats, he said, “Blaming others only gets you so far when you’re in power.”
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This is the final part of a three-episode series examining the post-9/11 world for the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks.
At least 335,000 civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere “died violent deaths as a direct result of the war on terror,” according to Brown University researchers’ Costs of War project. The total number of people killed — civilians plus U.S. and allied troops, enemy fighters, contractors, journalists, and aid workers — approaches one million. Close to 40 million humans have been displaced by the ravages of war, and the cost from the destruction of buildings and infrastructure is incalculable. This road to this misery and mayhem was paved with good intentions: after al-Qaeda struck the U.S., the Bush administration, with the assent of Congress and other key American institutions, launched the Global War on Terror with the aim of eliminating terrorists and ending tyranny, as President Bush proclaimed in his second inaugural address in January 2005. In this episode, Brown University anthropologist Catherine Lutz and Southern Methodist University presidential historian Jeffrey Engel discuss how and why U.S. foreign policy took such a disastrous turn.
We would like to hear your experiences from the day and how you will be marking the anniversary
As we approach the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America on September 11, we would like to hear your experiences of where you were when it happened and how you were affected. Wherever you are in the world, we also want to hear how you will be marking twenty years since the day.Continue reading...
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The accidental political scientist Michael Gerard Tyson once provided an apt summary of America’s foreign policy: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” For nearly a decade, Tyson reigned as the most feared fighter on the planet, with a single unchanging strategy: intimidate, dominate, overpower. When he encountered an adversary who couldn’t be intimidated, dominated, or overpowered, Iron Mike had no backup plan. He effectively ended his boxing career in ear-biting frustration, unable to heed his own sage warning. There’s a lesson here for another undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
America’s final, chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan was a self-inflicted punch in the mouth. It followed a quick succession of bruising body blows: the collapse of a regime that the U.S. had spent $2 trillion defending, the return to power of a Taliban foe that had been ousted 20 years earlier, the loss of 13 service members in a terrorist attack that seemed to be an ill omen for the future. Whatever America’s global strategy might have been before August, it’s going to be something different going forward. The question is: What?
President Joe Biden gave some preliminary answers in a speech less than a day after the last C-17 left Kabul. For more than nine years, I served as Biden’s policy adviser for much of Asia, so I’ve had some experience interpreting the nuances of my old boss’s words and body language. Anyone interested in what U.S. foreign policy will look like in the coming years should pay attention to this speech—and to the broader context in which Biden (and his successors) will be operating.
The most important takeaway from Biden’s speech is his ramping down of ambitions for the deployment of U.S. military power:
As we turn the page on the foreign policy that’s guided our nation the last two decades, we’ve got to learn from our mistakes. To me, there are two that are paramount: First, we must set missions with clear, achievable goals, not ones we’ll never reach. And second, we must stay clearly focused on the fundamental national-security interest of the United States of America.
Such lessons require scaling back the whole enterprise—one endorsed by a range of actors across the ideological spectrum—of using U.S. resources to achieve sweeping social and political changes in other nations:
This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries. We saw a mission of counterterrorism in Afghanistan … morph into a counterinsurgency, nation building, trying to create a democratic, cohesive, and united Afghanistan.
The new plan, Biden insisted, does not amount to the removal of values from the strategic equation: “I’ve been clear that human rights will be the center of our foreign policy. But the way to do that is not through endless military deployments, but through diplomacy, economic tools, and rallying the rest of the world for support.”
So what does this add up to? Are we in for a long period of American isolationism and retreat from global engagement? Without the military muscle to flesh it out, is a values-based foreign policy just an empty suit? Some commentators have compared Biden’s distaste for martial adventurism to the retreat bungled by Donald Trump—is this the same policy but with a less offensive tone?
My take: No, sort of, and definitely not.
The “no”: Joe Biden has never been an isolationist and isn’t one now. He’s always favored deep engagement with America’s partners, and even with its rivals. The change will come in the type of engagement. Biden might be less likely than his three predecessors to use military tools to accomplish political ends that aren’t directly related to counterterrorism or other national-security goals, but that’s very different from retrograding into Fortress America.
The “sort of”: Advocates of human rights (and I’m one of them) may find disappointment in some future decisions. Regimes ruthless enough to oppress their own citizens aren’t typically swayed by a disapproving United Nations resolution. How effective are the tools of diplomacy without the implicit threat of military force? Do sanctions inflict pain on governing elites or only on ordinary people? For better or worse, we’re likely to find out. This should, however, come as no surprise to anyone who’s watched Biden over the years: His foreign-policy instincts are miles away from Dick Cheney’s—but neither are they aligned with Jimmy Carter’s.
The “definitely not”: Trump’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was nothing like Biden’s. It was grounded in a view of foreign policy that owed less to Klemens von Metternich than to Tony Soprano. Trump’s strategy was that of extortion: You want American engagement? Well, how much are you willing to pay? He applied exactly the same formula to treaty allies such as Germany, South Korea, and Japan. Biden, by contrast, sees engagement as a win-win arrangement: The whole point of partnership is that it works for both partners. And that’s why he soured on the Afghanistan mission more than a decade ago.
I was with Biden on the pivotal trip to Kabul, in January 2009, that tipped the balance—and his body language during his recent speech echoed the intense frustration he expressed on that visit. Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, was unable to reform his wildly dysfunctional government and unwilling to express what Biden felt was a bare modicum of gratitude for the support America was providing. One can argue the merits (many of Karzai’s failures were the result of the Bush administration’s demands), but the result is the same: The partnership, in Biden’s view, simply wasn’t working. If it had been, Biden would have been able to tamp down his frustration and get on with business.
How much will the framework Biden laid out last week set the stage for U.S. foreign policy in the years to come? Here, it’s useful to consider where Biden’s outlook fits within the parameters of American strategy more broadly.
U.S. foreign policy has two basic axes: nationalist versus internationalist, and interventionist versus noninterventionist. The universe of ways in which these can be combined is fairly limited: Since at least the later part of the Cold War, noteworthy mash-ups have largely been confined to self-described realists (a large and amorphous group), neoconservatives, liberal interventionists, and isolationists (in both left-wing and right-wing flavors).
Joe Biden has always been a realist, leaning somewhat more internationalist than the precise midpoint sometimes favored by the establishment. He’s been willing to dip a toe into the liberal-interventionist pool (for example, during the Bosnia campaign of the 1990s), but has never had much truck with the neocons or isolationists. And that’s where, in his Afghan-withdrawal speech, he’s signaled he’s likely to remain.
This, too, is roughly where U.S. foreign policy will likely stay even after the Biden presidency. Whether that transition occurs in less than four years or more like eight, whether his successor is a Democrat or a Republican, the broad parameters of American policy will probably remain much the same. Interventionists on both the right and the left will have a very difficult time persuading the electorate to engage in another war of choice anytime soon. Isolationists can write op-eds and deliver speeches to congressional chambers, but none has truly dictated global strategy since America first became a superpower. And they are unlikely to in the future: The U.S. tried to treat the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as impenetrable moats in the run-ups to both world wars, and such seclusion is all the less feasible in an age when fiber-optic cables have replaced steamships.
Every time America has taken a punch to the mouth in modern history, it has abandoned its old plan. But each new strategy has simply been a recombination of these old ones. After the Vietnam War, it was a blend of realism and isolationism. After the twin blows of 1979—the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—President Ronald Reagan introduced his signature recipe of a warlike strand of realism and a budding neoconservatism. After America’s moral shame of standing idle during the 1994 Rwanda genocide, liberal interventionism entered the mix, although still restrained by realist caution. Post-9/11, liberal interventionism and neoconservatism briefly ran parallel in Afghanistan; in Iraq, neoconservative flights of fancy and the hawkish variant of Rumsfeldian realism ruled the roost.
How will these be combined next? The ingredients might be limited, but the blending matters enormously. After all, even Trump’s strategy was contained within these boundaries: isolationist in rhetoric, Rumsfeldian realist when filtered through the bureaucracy, and always larded with heavy doses of personal bile and corruption.
During his heyday, Mike Tyson had the most devastating punch of any human on Earth. That was the beginning and end of his strategy, and for years it served him well. He never learned to adapt his fight plan, because he never had to. When he stepped into the ring with Evander Holyfield, the betting odds were 8–1 in his favor. The smartest sporting handicappers in 1996 were as wrong as the smartest Afghan-policy prognosticators in 2021. But Holyfield refused to be intimidated, dominated, or overpowered. He just kept hitting Iron Mike in the mouth.
America is, as President Biden has indicated, about to rewrite its plan for approaching a tough and unforgiving world. It has a decision to make: emulate Tyson, the defeated heavyweight champ, or Tyson, the all-too-prescient political sage?
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