On September 11, 2009, the 8th anniversary of the 9/11 disaster, while guest hosting the nationally syndicated Mike Malloy Show, Brad Friedman interviewed John Farmer, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission and author of the new book The Ground Truth: The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11 .
The audio and transcript of the interview with Farmer --- whose book alleges that what the 9/11 Commission, the public and the media were told by military and government officials, "was almost entirely, and inexplicably, untrue" --- follows below.
Download MP3 or listen online here (appx. 36 mins)...
as guest hosted by Brad Friedman, 9/11/09
Transcribed by Erik Larson
Brad Friedman: … John Farmer is the Senior Counsel to the 9/11 Commission, he served as the Attorney General of New Jersey, Chief Counsel to Governor Christine Todd Whitman, he's now the Dean of Rutgers University Law School… and he joins us here tonight… very happily so- he is the author of a new book, 'The Ground Truth: The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11'- John Farmer, welcome to the Mike Malloy program.
John Farmer: Thanks Brad, I really appreciate it- thanks for having me.
BF: Sure- really glad to have ya here, particularly on today, of all days. Alright- in your book and in the publicity for the book, you note that- 'what government and military officials told Congress, the 9/11 Commission (on which you served), the media and the public was, quote- "almost entirely and inexplicably untrue"'. That's some pretty heady allegations there, and before we find out what was 'inexplicably untrue'- it occurs to me that with a claim like that, from a Senior Counsel on the 9/11 Commission, you must be barraged with media requests- 60 Minutes, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC- is that true; are the media paying attention to such an extraordinary claim, as you're making here?
JF: It's been a busy week! Let me put it that way.
BF: Has it been as much as you would have expected?
JF: -I think I've done probably 30-plus interviews this week-
JF: -so there has been interest in the book, and I hope the book makes a contribution to settling a lot of the speculation that's occurred out there.
BF: Fair enough, alright, so lets jump in to some of the key points, and you detail some of them, I know you've got what you describe as 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' moments, in other words known as 'WTF' moments- I think a lot of people listening will understand what that means! But what are the key points here which you found in your investigation, really, after the 9/11 Commission put out its report- what was almost entirely and inexplicably 'untrue'?
JF: Well, glad you point out that- my function with the 9/11 Commission was to lead a team to put together an account of the nation's reaction to the attacks- in other words, reconstruct the events of the day of 9/11. And there are obviously many components to that, from what the President was doing, the Vice President, to what the Pentagon, was doing, what the firefighters and police in New York were doing, to what was happening virtually all over the country- so, very daunting task when you have basically a year and a half to put it together.
So, going into it, I really thought that the air defense side of that story would be the easiest part to put together, simply because the story had been told so many times, in so many different forums. There had been testimony before Congress, there had been major networks news specials dedicated strictly to the air defense story, there had even been early Commission hearings dedicated to that subject, so the story was out there, and it had been told numerous times, so I actually started writing an account of the day based strictly on the public sources, figuring, well, we'll get all the primary sources and we can simply validate what's already been told.
But to my, uh, 'disappointment', to put it mildly, when we, uh, started getting access to the primary sources, which ultimately took a subpoena to the FAA and Department of Defense, we couldn't verify the public account that had been given
And to summarize what that account was- it basically overstated the efficacy and the efficiency of the government's response. Specifically, what we had been told after 9/11 was that by the time of the 3rd flight- American 77, which ultimately hit the Pentagon- the national command structure had recovered from the shock of the two flights that hit the World Trade Center and had reestablished itself essentially, and had scrambled planes from Langley Air Force Base to protect the capital, and those planes narrowly missed intercepting American 77, but were certainly in position by the time United 93, uh, hijacking, and when that turned toward Washington they were certainly in position that they could've taken the plane out if they had to, uh, as it approached Washington.
And what we found happened in fact, when we went through the records and through the tapes and the different logs that were kept, they told a very consistent story, which was, in fact, the uh military had had basically a minute's notice that American 77 was missing, with no location given, um, and they had actually no notice of United 93 until four minutes after the plane crashed, so they were never able to even locate that flight on radar.
The planes were scrambled from Langley, but it was not in response to either of the last two flights, it was in response to a mistaken report that had come across the radio that the first flight, American 11, had actually not hit the Trade Center at all, but was still airborne, heading south for Washington. So, in other words, the, uh- and to just to finish the story, the authorization to intercept and potentially shoot down planes, came from, um, came from the national command structure, from the President and Vice President about thirty minutes after United 93 had already crashed- so, that particular authorization was never passed to the pilots, because at that point there was no target.
BF: Interesting, hold the thought there, John…. (commercial break) …John, you were speaking of, before the break about some of the things that you were told and the public was told and the Commission was told that were, quote, "almost entirely and inexplicably 'untrue'"; you refer to the fact that, uh, the claim that they could have 'taken out' Flight 93 if they had wanted to, that they had within their sights, and so on and so forth- why would- why do you suspect some of these stories would have been told, that were so wildly inaccurate, as you describe them?
JF: I think there was an effort to, um, uh, to make the government look 'better' than it was that day- to make the national command structure, um, seem, uh, like it was more in control than it was in those critical moments, and I think in doing that, one of the unfortunate byproducts was that they obscured some of the really important lessons from that morning, among which are- you know, how critical decisions are actually made in a crit- in a cataclysmic situation like that, and the essential estrangement of the top levels from the people on the ground who actually had to improvise the national defense- was important, because we saw replicated a few years later in Hurricane Katrina- completely different kind of event, uh, in fact not a surprise at all, something that had been planned for, for years- but when it actually hit, the same kind of dynamic occurred, where people on the ground in New Orleans were waiting for word from the upper levels of government and there was a disconnect in communications and difficulty communicating, they didn't have the authority to make critical decisions, and I think one of the things that comes out of this study that I think is important, is the imperative that we actually plan to deal with these crises the way they're actually experienced, as opposed according to some, uh, you know- organization chart.
BF: Right. And we seem to have re- we constructed an organizational chart after 9/11, in response to 9/11, and then as you point out in the book, it doesn't seem we paid much attention to it when it came to Katrina- so it's unclear that we even learned anything from 9/11, frankly- and I wonder- the uh, effectiveness of the Commission- you guys did not have subpoena power early on, and how badly do you think that ended up crippling the final report that was released by the 9/11 Commission?
JF: Well, let me just say that I think the report is, uh, extremely accurate, and- and sets forth the facts of 9/11. And we actually did point out in the report the discrepancies between the accounts that were given and what we actually found.
But what's different is, you know, in this account is, I think, by telling it structurally differently- in other words, in the Commission Report we told it flight by flight, as much for the sake of clarity as anything else, so you could understand with each flight what happened. That's not the way it was lived, though, by the people who had to respond, and that's what this book does- it tells the story, uh, almost from their perspective- when everything's flying at them at once.
And I think the value of that is that you can see that, uh, taken as a whole, you can see that the real enemy of preparedness is bureaucracy, and that's tough nut to crack but I think it's the one we have to, if we're gonna be better in the future.
BF: And you've broken that all down in a timeline in the back of the book, in painstaking detail based on the radio transmissions and so forth that did exist, even though they originally said they didn't…. (commercial break) …I have a number of questions for you, John- let me start here, let's get right to the accountability thing.
Given what the Commission was told that appeared to be untrue, and one of them that you write in your book about, that you had direct access to was the NORAD's North East Air Defense Sector (NEADS)- you were told there were not tapes of radio transmissions, and in fact there were tapes of radio transmissions, as you later learned.
Given the various 'lies' that were given for whatever reason- how can it be, in your opinion, that when George Bush and Dick Cheney were interviewed themselves about their response, about their readiness, their preparation and anything else, that they were allowed to testify together, not recorded. Now, you're the former Attorney General of New Jersey; can you explain to me that you allow two folks involved in an investigation to be interviewed together, like that?
JF: Well, that was a decision that was reached in, uh, negotiation with the White House, a negotiation I was not personally involved with, so I can't really relate the details of it, but that was a negotiated, uh, agreement with the President and Vice President and it was, uh, detailed notes were taken, I was not part of that interview, so, again, I can't really comment on the specifics of it-
BF: As an Attorney General, how do you feel about it- you didn't take part in the negotiations, I understand, but in an investigation, how do you feel about, oh, two people involved in that investigation would like to speak together, and would not like to have any of it recorded?
JF: Well, it depends- it really depends on the context- I mean, you know, in certain types of criminal investigations you wouldn't want to have that happen, but I've been involved in corporate internal investigations where it's easier to get to the truth doing it that way, 'cause they play one against- one off- against the other, so, uh, you know, it- it really depends on the context.
BF: So you have no problem with that, in general?
JF: Not in general, I don't- it really depends on the individual circumstances- it could be problematic, and it might not be. I think we did a good job pointing out areas in which, you know, we had- we took issue with, uh, the version of events that they recounted.
BF: Do you think there was proper accountability brought to the folks who did drop the ball before 9/11?
JF: Well, you know, I think, again, if you read the book as a whole, I think if there's a villain in the book, other than Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, who are- we can never forget are the principal villains, but it's- it's bureaucracy itself.
And I don't think enough has been done to sort of 'reinvent' government, that was the term used in the 90's, and it was a recognition that, you know, in the post cold-war period, the threats were likely to arise asymmetrically and there was a need to reconfigure government, and there were efforts being made but they didn't go far enough and they were not effective, so, uh- the answer to your question, in my view, is I think a lot more needs to be done, and it has to be at a very, very fundamental level because bureaucracy is the enemy of preparedness- and if I were gonna state one conclusion from the book, that's what it is.
BF: So, it was, as you see it, it was bureaucracy- incompetence, perhaps- not necessarily malfeasance or misfeasance by these folks?
JF: Well, you know, if you had, for example, one agency that was- that was really responsible for the whole thing, and it totally screwed up- and- and- and I could see, then, you know, wanting to 'let the heads roll' kind of mentality.
But when you see, as I detail in the book, in agency after agency, in department head after department head of varying degrees of abilities- and across departments- across crises, 'cause you had the same thing Katrina- different departments- you realize they all had one thing in common, and that it an inability to cope with this creature that- that, you know, we've come to call bureaucracy- and when you have failures on that scale, I don't think it really benefits anybody to start scapegoating people, because I think that actually, uh, lets bureaucracy off the hook.
BF: Well, you know, there's a difference between 'scapegoating' and 'accountability'- I mean, when people are warned, time and again, and as we understand the Bush Administration was warned do you feel that they- your feeling is that didn't respond to those warnings from Richard Clarke and so forth, simply because, oh, it's such a big bureaucracy out there?
JF: I think you have to go before that- you can go- by the time that President Bush took office, remember, that the Al Qaeda conspirators had essentially 'run the gauntlet' of our trillion dollar early warning system. They had managed throughout the 90's to elude detection by the NSA, the CIA, by one of the hundreds of military bases that we have stationed around the world to provide early warning. They had managed to go through- get through customs, they had managed to get into the country- so that by the time the summer of 2001 came along they had basically run the gauntlet through every better-funded department than FAA and NORAD, and at the end of the day, we had probably two of the least well-funded organizations in the government that ended up having to fight the war that day.
BF: But at the top of the government, one of the best funded agencies in the government- the White House- there was very clear warnings, was there not?
JF: Listen, there's no question about it, and, and- look, I think that- I think the failures are so, um, 'pervasive', and so wide-spread, uh, you know, they had- after the millennium there was an after-action report done that basically pointed out that our preparations domestically for a terrorist event were very lax, and, and that report was out there- and in fact, it's that report that, uh, Sandy Berger, the former National Security Advisor to President Clinton, actually took copies of, and stole from the National Archives before he was scheduled to testify before the Commission, hid them in a construction site and then destroyed them.
BF: And was there accountability for that?
JF: Well, he plead to a misdemeanor.
BF: OK. And was there accountability anywhere else in the government, that you see?
JF: Well, there was, as a consequence of the referral of the credibility story to the Inspectors General of the Department of Defense and Department of Transportation, there was a Department of Transportation employee disciplined as a result of 'failing to be forthcoming'-
BF: A Department of Transportation employee…
JF: Yeah, well, someone from the FAA, essentially…
BF: OK. But nobody from the Bush Administration, whose job it was to protect against this sort of thing?
JF: Well, if there was, I'm not aware of it.
BF: Yeah. OK. Well now, let me get to some of these questions that, uh, Glenn Beck, you may have heard, was able to railroad this guy, Van Jones, the President's Green Jobs Advisor out of a job because he signed onto a statement along with 50 family members of 9/11 victims asking certain questions- and he highlighted a number of those questions and- John Farmer, I'm sorry to make you the victim, somewhat, of Glenn Beck, but he highlighted about four of these twelve questions that all seemed reasonable to me.
And I'll note that I don't have a dog in this hunt, I just want to know what the hell happened. So I'd like to ask you the four questions that he found so outrageous, and you may or may not be able to answer them, I don't know, but I'm gonna go ahead and toss 'em out here, John.
The first one- I'll go though in order: "Why did the Secret Service allow Bush to complete his elementary school visit, apparently unconcerned about his safety or that of the schoolchildren?"
JF: Well, you know, there's been a lot of speculation about, you know, why President Bush continued to sit in the classroom after he was advised the nation was under attack- um, I think that, uh, you know, this is just my opinion, but I think he was trying to, (A) assimilate the information, um, uh, it was kind of 'startling', and at the same time, because he knew he was being filmed, I think he was trying to project an image of 'calm', that he was not going to be 'rattled' by this, and he was going to, uh, leave in an appropriate time, and he made that judgment.
BF: And are you offended that I asked you that question?
BF: Thank you. Alright, let me ask a few more that Glenn Beck highlighted that he found so unbelievable that he couldn't imagine that Van Jones would even be allowed near the President for having signed onto some of these questions. Alright. "How could Flight 77, which reportedly hit the Pentagon, have flown back towards Washington D.C. for 40 minutes without being detected by the FAA's radar or the even superior radar possessed by the US military?"
JF: Well, it's not clear that the military possessed superior radar for- [garbled] the first- is the first answer to that, but second answer is that, you know, it does- it does appea- it did appear- there was- there was an area in the country where there was a gap in radar coverage, in the mountains um uh and so it was off radar for a while, and it did appear as a primary radar track, not a- not a beacon signal which would have clearly indicated which flight it was, but it was, you know, but you have to understand that in the radar picture with primary tracks, uh it's really, it's an ocean of- of primary tracks, and unless you know exactly what you're looking for, it's hard to pick it out. Um, and, we, uh-
BF: For forty minutes, though? It could disappear like that? Behind the mountain?
JF: The controllers, um, were, once it actually vanished from radar they were- and it had been heading west- the controllers inda- in Cleveland were actually looking, uh, looking west for it, and couldn't find it, and ultimately they started looking back the other way, but they simply didn't pick it up.
BF: OK. And you're not offended by that question, are ya, John?
JF: No. Not at all.
BF: OK, thank you. Let me get one more here before we gotta go to a break, then we'll have some more Beck questions and your calls, and John, you're invited to stay around as long as you like tonight, 'cause there's a lot of folks who want to ask you a lot of questions-
JF: Well, actually, I have a 10 o'clock appointment in the East, so I've got another 15 minutes, then I gotta go.
BF: Then we're gonna move quick here: "How were the FBI and CIA able to release the names and photos of the alleged hijackers within hours, as well as to visit houses, restaurants, and flight schools they were known to frequent?"
JF: Well, the, the uh, it's a complicated story, but the Bureau, the Bureau at least, and to a lesser extent the CIA, was actually looking for um, uh, several of these people in the days and weeks leading up to 9/11- um, and hadn't located them, but when they saw the passenger manifests from the flights, uh, it wasn't hard to figure out who was who. Uh, so, uh, you know, this is one of those, um, areas where, you know, it's- it's- when you look at it from the outside, well, how could they have been looking for them and not found them? But they didn't.
That's one of the tragedies of 9/11, and that's one of the areas in which the barriers for information sharing between the two agencies really prevented them from finding them.
BF: I'm glad to get your answer to that on record, and once again- you're not offended by that question, right?
JF: Nope, not at all.
BF: OK.... (commercial break) … OK, one more question from Glenn Beck: "Why did the Bush administration cover up the fact that the head of the Pakistani intelligence agency was in Washington the week of 9/11 and reportedly had $100,000 wired to Mohamed Atta, considered the ringleader of the hijackers?"
JF: I don't know whether that's true. I can't comment on that- that's- you know- I don't know.
BF: Have you heard that allegation before?
JF: God, no, I haven't.
BF: Do you think, if it is true, is it an appropriate question to ask, and to get an answer to, from someone?
JF: Uh, if it's true, absolutely.
BF: OK. Fair enough. Alright, Jeannie Dean in the chat room says she's concerned about the NORAD 'failures' and the contradictions in the NORAD related testimony, I know that was your beat on the Commission here- why was it completely overlooked by the Commission- she feels that the NORAD failures were overlooked, when it was the most damning evidence to date that there is something that demands further investigation here- the family members requested a follow up investigation, but what happened there?
JF: Well, the short answer is that it wasn't uh, the failures weren't, uh, ignored, they were actually highlighted in Chapter One of our- of the report. Uh, originally that- that chapter was supposed to be, uh- uh, Chapter Nine, it was supposed to come, you know, sort of in sequence, umm, uh, but the uh Commissioners decided to move it up to the front because we had discovered these discrepancies, so they were actually highlighted in the report.
BF: And are you satisfied, finally, with the answers to those discrepancies and why they existed, why NORAD did fail on that day?
JF: Well, you know, I think you have to distinguish between what they actually did that day and what they- and, and what the- the government told people they did, uh, because, uh, you know, once you- and what the book does, at a level of detail the Commission couldn't because the material was still classified at the time the Commission Report came out, and has since been declassified- it lays out exactly who said what to whom, and how the reaction took place, uh, and you basically are left with a lot of empathy for these folks, um, in NORAD, who had to react on the fly- to a situation they were not really trained to react to.
BF: OK, let me get to Keith here in Norwalk, California- Keith, as quickly as you can ask your question, 'cause we're gonna have to lose Mr. Farmer at the top of the hour- Keith:
KEITH (a caller): Uh, no problem- as far as the Kean-Zelikow cover up that you're involved in goes, I would like to ask you- how were the FBI able to confiscate the Citgo gas station's tapes so quickly, and where are those photos, I'd like to see 'em.
BF: Thanks, Keith. Yeah, and did you get to look at those tapes from the Pentagon, John?
JF: Yes, we did, and- and, uh, I know there's been a lot of speculation about, um, about, you know, whether a plane actually hit the Pentagon- I can assure you that it did. And, um, and they were actually able to reconstruct, uh, large components of the plane, and actually someone who was a member of my team was a naval intelligence officer in the Pentagon that morning, uh, was severely burned, and in fact everybody in his unit was killed, and, and, had uh, permanent lung damage from inhaling jet fuel- he has, he has no doubt that a plane hit the Pentagon.
BF: But why was there no debris field, really, out there in Pennsylvania, and why have no pieces of the plane showed up from the Pentagon crash?
JF: Well, pieces of the plane do exist from the Pentagon crash. Uh, um, and I would take issue with the Pennsylvania remark, too- I mean I think the Pennsylvania, uh- situation is accounted for by the fact that the angle at which the plane hit the ground was almost directly perpendicular, and I think that accounted for how deep the crater was. And the other question to ask yourself, with respect to this, is- well, if American 77 didn't hit the Pentagon, what happened- what happened to- what happened to American 77? And what about the passengers who were calling from the plane, saying they were coming back to Washington?
BF: OK, and just to be clear, 'cause we're hittin' the clock here, John- you have seen 'tapes' of a plane hitting the Pentagon?
JF: Well, uh, no I haven't seen tapes- pictures of a plane actually hitting the Pentagon, but there were eyewitness accounts, uh and as I said, there were- there were- pictures of a plane in the vicinity-
BF: John- and I gotta get out- John Farmer, author of 'Ground Truth: The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11', I do thank you for your time tonight, John. Much appreciated.
JF: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
BF: You bet.