Wednesday, September 15, 2004

"Towering Moral Witness" 

No, not the swift boat vets for mendacity. Not CBS, who says the documents are real. Not Laura Bush, who says they aren't. And not the secretary, fine woman though I'm sure she is, who says the documents aren't "genuine," but their content is.

The "towering moral witness" in question belongs to those young widows of 9/11, sometimes known as the Jersey Girls, which is almost appropriate when you force yourself to realize how terribly young they were when they lost their husbands, but whose status as women/widows/citizen activists is becoming a great American story. No one has explained it better than the great Charles Pierce, writing at Eric Alterman's Altercation: (Sorry, no link, can't find it at MSNBC; but I had copied the text at the time into notes I keep of the really good stuff.)

The truly great thing about these 9/11 hearings remains the towering moral witness of the 9/11 widows -- and shame on Bob (Coiffure By Vespasian Of The Appian Way) Kerrey for shushing them. They are doing more than standing up for their loved ones, and that surely would have been enough. They are glorious in their casual disdain for the "Intelligence Community." They are blissfully unimpressed by the Great Men who presume to tell them what the Great Men decide they should know. They leave the pundits gaping at their heedless disregard for the Governing Class. Almost alone, they have insisted that information be brought to light that will enable us to judge our leaders and hold them to account, and that's what this whole silly experiment was supposed to be about -- the "most dreaded kind of knowledge," according to that impossible old blatherskite, John Adams. God save these wonderful women. They are being citizens -- in the most complete sense possible -- for the rest of us.

As you may or may not have heard:

WASHINGTON (AP) - Five outspoken Sept. 11 widows today will publicly endorse John Kerry for president, throwing their weight behind the Democratic challenger in a heated campaign debate over who is best suited to defend the nation from another terrorist attack.

Some, including Kristen Breitweiser of Middletown, N.J., and Monica Gabrielle of West Haven, Conn., also have agreed to make campaign appearances for the Democratic senator, campaign sources said.

"We will be speaking from the heart, and speaking from our conscience," Breitweiser said Monday. She would not elaborate.

Breitweiser is by far the most visible and outspoken of the Sept. 11 family advocates, and has been highly critical of the government's reform efforts to date.

The move highlights the widening political divide among the nearly 3,000 Sept. 11 families.
At the Republican National Convention two weeks ago, two widows and the sister of another Sept. 11 victim offered moving tributes to their departed loved ones. The somber appearances offered no direct endorsement of President Bush, but their message of support was unmistakable.

I didn't see much coverage of this yesterday, just Kristen on CNN; she hasn't been on an airplane since that first 9/11; even catching sight of one of them in the skies above triggers immdiately the horrifying image of that jumbo jet hurtling straight into the building where her husband worked. Apparently, she's prepared to face down those demons if plane travel is required to campaign for Senator Kerry.

I'm sure this was a difficult decision for all of these young widows; up to now they have been rigorously non-partisan. Here's a sample of them responding on Hardball to that day's testimony in front of the 9/11 Commission last April by Condi Rice, whose reluctant appearance testifying under oath was largely the work of the 9/11 families refusing to take "no," for an answer.

MATTHEWS: What about the July briefing that was on domestic agencies?

MINDY KLEINBERG, WIDOW OF 9/11 ATTACK: You know, what’s unbelievable about that is that nobody followed that up. I mean they say that they told the FAA and they told the FBI, but nobody at the FAA did anything.

Nobody stepped up the protocols and procedures during that threat period. Nobody at the FBI knew that this threat was there.

And I would have liked them to continue to ask her, because apparently, she didn’t feel that was her responsibility.

MATTHEWS: You once said that she was either lying or she’s incompetent. What do you think of her now? Do you think that’s still a fair judgment, I mean if it ever was one?

BREITWEISER: I have to say, with a laundry list of questions that that Commissioner Lehman asked her, she said she didn’t know a lot of things. And I would question what exactly did she know? And if she didn’t know it, who else would know it?

It’s her job to know that information. It’s her job to relay that information to the president and to actually, in our opinion, inform the public.

If the public was better informed in the summer of 2001, lives would have been saved. Maybe the attacks wouldn’t have been prevented; but lives would have been saved.

My husband was in Tower II. If he knew that it was a terrorist attack, he wouldn’t have stayed in the building.


PATTY CASAZZA, WIDOW OF 9/11 ATTACK: And it’s also disingenuous for the national security advisor to say she couldn’t have imagined planes being used as weapons.

In July, the president, Condoleezza Rice, Ari Fleischer, Karen Hughes, and Karl Rove attended the general summit in Italy. The national security advisor of that nation was aware of an assassination attempt to be committed upon our president and the leaders attending that G8 Summit in July.

How do you forget, two months later, the threat of your life, the president’s life, and not think that that threat could actually follow you home to the United States?

MATTHEWS: Were you surprised at the lack of attention during the last couple of hours on what the president knew and what he did? It seemed like the questions did not get to the commander in chief. I mean I’m just noticing that. Have you noticed that, Mindy?

KLEINBERG: Well, you know what -- it seemed, whether someone not telling us, whether they didn’t ask the appropriate questioning, but, yes, it seemed like he wasn’t getting the information that he should have been getting. This commission was created so that we could take a look at the vital flow of information and decide where the breakdowns are and then fix them. Somewhere along the way, you could see that people were not getting the information they needed to get-- whether it was the field agents, whether it was the airline security personnel, or whether it was the president of the United States.


VAN AUKEN: Yes, well, we’ve known for a long time that that was the title of that briefing. They’ve been trying to keep that a secret from the public. They tried to keep it secret in the joint intelligence committee report. You know, that pretty much says it all.

If that strikes you as less than non-partisan that's because you, like all of us, have been exposed to a non-stop campaign on the part of the administration and its considerable echo chamber on the right to conflate all pointed questioning of this President's performance in office, before and after 9/11, with the narrowest kind of partanship - exactly the kind which animates pretty much every decision made by Bush & co.

The widows are aware of the issue of partsanship. Here's a piece of an interview with Kristen Breitweiser by David Brancaccio from Bill Moyer's Now on the Friday of the week Richard Clarke came before the 9/11 Commission to testify. (The first several quotes are from a previous Now interview that was excerpted as an intro to this one):

Condoleezza Rice versus Richard Clarke. How do the 9/11 widows make sense of the commission testimony?

BREITWEISER: If we can't remove politics from it. If they have to go down to that level, then how in God's name can we expect the world to come together.


BREITWEISER: We have no expertise. But what we have is a passion, and a drive to right the wrongs. And to fix the problems. And to find the truth.

KLEINBERG: Please, pick up the phone. Call your senators. Call your congressman. Tell them that you want to be safe. Tell them that you want an independent investigation.


BRANCACCIO: What do you think your greatest disappointment was from those two days of hearings?

BREITWEISER: I think my greatest disappointment was really the commissioners' behavior with regard to lowering themselves to partisan politics. We fought so hard to get this commission created. We wanted an independent commission. We wanted it to be bipartisan. To see them go to that level, really, it was upsetting. It's dishonoring of the dead.


BRANCACCIO: What about the people called to testify during those two days? Should they have mixed it up more? Should it have been a different roster of people in some way?

BREITWEISER: I think that the roster was good. I think the roster was missing a key person, namely National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

The biggest question, the elephant in the room, is, you know, how is it possible of being National Security Advisor that you came out with a public statement in May of 2002 that you didn't know planes could be used as missiles? We have an intelligence history and record that clearly is replete with instances of planes possibly being used as missiles. In my humble opinion, it is one of two things. Either she's lying. Or she's incompetent. And in either case, she needs to come before the American people so that we can find out what the case is and hold her accountable and determine whether or not she is fit for her job.

BRANCACCIO: You raise this issue of partisanship. Do you ever worry that you're being used for those purposes? I had the radio on the other day. And there was conservative talk radio host, Rush Limbaugh, going on about some of the 9/11 widows suggesting that you've been coached by the Democrats.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: It sounds to me not only were women coached, but it sounds to me like somebody fed them to the networks.

BREITWEISER: I would have encouraged him to do his homework a little bit better. I voted for President Bush and so did my husband. I believed in him. And I believe when a President takes an oath of office, he takes an oath of office to lead, protect and serve. I think that the least President Bush could do for the families is to come forward and open a dialogue and discuss 9/11.

BRANCACCIO: And you're not seeing in that committee, at those hearings, this working together to making the world a safer place?

BREITWEISER: No, and that's what I'm saying. If we can't even get along on a commission that was set up by the families working so hard, begging to have this commission. We literally begged. If they can't even remove politics from it, if they have to go down to that level, how in the God's name can we expect the world to come together?

As they sought to understand what made 9/11 possible, other than the manical ,suicidal will of the jihadist terrorists to visit unspeakable horror on this country, these young widows developed a sense of what it means to live in a democracy that is not shared by the Bush administration, for whom all information about how the government operates belongs to them, not to ordinary citizens. That the administration had a public responsibility to submit someone like Condi Rice to a public questioning, so that citizens themselves could decide if and how she should be held accountable is still treated like some kind of unpatriotic outrage.

Their decision to endorse John Kerry is the logical outcome of the journey taken by these young widows; it might well have had a different outcome if the Bush administration hadn't been...well, the Bush administration.

They will be an asset to Kerry's campaign; by their mere presence they remind voters on whose watch 9/11 happened and also how reluctant the Bush adminisration was to submit itself to any kind of judgement, even to that of a hand-chosen, non-partisan Commission whose mission was of the highest patriotism - to avoid assigning blame in order to figure out what actually happened to avoid it happening again. As we've heard so often from all those ex-prosecutors-cum-TV personalities, flight is evidence of knowledge of guilt. The Bush administration had good reason for its flight from convening any sort of forum for evaluating how well the government responded on 9/11. This is in contrast to the previous administration;from President Clinton on down, Democrats have been in favor of such a commission. Both Clinton and Gore testified on the record, and Clinton's library had to threaten to sue to get the Bush administration to release all the relevant Clinton files.

No statement has riled the right wing against the widows more than Kristen's "that 3000 people died on George Bush's watch." And not without reason. Her statement, and their response goes exactly to the character issue. Bush and his partisans hear that sentence as laying the blame for 9/11 at the door of the White House. No. Even if big mistakes were made by his administration, Bush would not be to blame for 9/11. Kristen Breitweiser's comment is a statement of fact. 9/11 did happen on Bush's watch; it is an event in all of its many aspects for which he bears a primary responsibility; he is accountable for the day itself, and for what has happened post 9/11, including his reluctance to examine what did happen. Expect these new advocates for Kerry to be attacked. It will be said that they have shown their true partisan colors now. We should all be prepared to defend them from that kind of contemptuous dismissal as exemplified by that venerable battleax of the right, Dorothy Rabinowitz; herewith a small sample.

The venerable status accorded this group of widows comes as no surprise given our times, an age quick to confer both celebrity and authority on those who have suffered. As the experience of the Jersey Girls shows, that authority isn't necessarily limited to matters moral or spiritual. All that the widows have had to say--including wisdom mind-numbingly obvious, or obviously false and irrelevant--on the failures of this or that government agency, on derelictions of duty they charged to the president, the vice president, the national security adviser, Norad and the rest, has been received by most of the media and members of Congress with utmost wonder and admiration. They had become prosecutors and investigators, unearthing clues and connections related to 9/11, with, we're regularly informed, unrivalled dedication and skill.

Judge for yourself how just is this characterization by listening to Kristen in front of a Senate committee wrapping up the business of the 9/11 Commission, courtesy of Columbia/Union, which has the link up as part of its sidebar.

We're all used to it by now - the way any person who doesn't toe the entire right wing line is an immediate target for character assassination. And note the angry disdain for the Commission itself. Like William Kristol, a great nation conservative we're told, really wanted to get to the bottom of what happened on 9/11. Instead, maximum contempt is drummed up against any American whose total output of energy is not focusd on rage against "Islamofacists." For instance, here's Mark Styn, writing in April:

Stop whimpering, we're in a battle

"This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper." I'm saving the end of the world for my final column, but T S Eliot's words seem at least as pertinent to the present war - or "war", according to taste. It will be decided not by the bangs - whether in Fallujah or Bali or elsewhere - but by the whimpers. And, although the bangs have got a little louder in recent weeks, it's the whimpers that have become deafening.

Whimpers, whimpers everywhere. On American TV, the network sob-sisters tut sympathetically with the "Jersey Girls", four media-savvy 9/11 widows who've decided that metaphorically speaking George W Bush was at the controls of the planes that slammed into the World Trade Centre. Beltway reporters are a-twitter about the biennial doorstopper from


The biggest whimpers of all come from the 9/11 Commission. Have you been watching it? Me neither. But, when I catch the odd 10 minutes, I begin to feel as anti-American as Margaret Drabble and Harold Pinter. In its ghastly exhibitionist ersatz-legalism, it represents all the most malign features of American life. Tony Blair should have offered to loan Lord Hutton. Instead, a mélange of hacks and has-beens mugs for the cameras round the clock, and any piece of government paper from the summer of 2001 containing the words "plane" and/or "Muslim" is taken as evidence of Bush's complicity.

In fact, the so-called incriminating memo is notable mainly for its confirmation of the woeful state of US intelligence. The mention of "media reports" in the first sentence is a sly admission that you could have found out all the stuff in this "classified" briefing by reading the papers. If you'd read a piece by Kenneth Timmerman in the July 1998 Reader's Digest, you'd have been much more informed. Bush would have been better off spending half an hour in a well-stocked dentist's waiting room than reading CIA briefings, and the ensuing root-canal surgery would have been a lot less painful than listening to the Commission poseurs.

The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that counter-intelligence was severely hobbled by the so-called "wall" erected between the CIA and FBI. Who put up this "wall", or at any rate extended it several feet higher than previously? Why, former Clinton-era Deputy Attorney-General Jamie Gorelick. Has she testified before the Commission? Well, no, because she's on it. That would seem to be a prima facie conflict of interest. But instead she's huffing indignantly about being a victim of "partisan rancor". "Partisan rancour" is wholly improper unless directed at Bush and Ashcroft.


The other bombshell revelation from the hearings was trampled into oblivion in the stampede to Woodward's book and other flim-flam. Commissioner John Lehman remarked that "it was the policy [before 9/11] and I believe remains the policy today to fine airlines if they have more than two young Arab males in secondary questioning because that's discriminatory."

Remarkable, isn't it, how badly past columns by propogandists fare upon re-reading? The statements about Gorelick and about the rule that kept airlines from asking questions of two muslims at a time are both incorrect

The mega-best seller status of the Commission's book-length report is some indication of how out of whack the righties really are with the American mainstream.

So, let's encourage the Kerry campaign to use these precious American citizens, to whom everyone owes a debt of gratitutde, well and often. Without even saying a word, they force their fellow citizens to take a hard look at the Bush administration.

The best preparation defending the honor of the 9/11 widows is to read this post by Tim Dunlop at The Road to Serfdom, which takes on and quickly vanquishes all their rightwing critics. It's a fun, and enormously satisfying read.

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