In mid-June, F.B.I. director Robert Mueller III and
several senior agents in the bureau received a group of about 20
visitors in a briefing room of the J. Edgar Hoover Building in
Washington, D.C. The director himself narrated a PowerPoint
presentation that summarized the numbers of agents and leads and
evidence he and his people had collected in the 18-month course of
their ongoing investigation of Penttbom, the clever neologism the
bureau had invented to reduce the sites of devastation on 9/11 to
one word: Pent for Pentagon, Pen for Pennsylvania,
tt for the Twin Towers and bom for the four planes
that the government had been forewarned could be used as
weapons—even bombs—but chose to ignore.
After the formal meeting, senior agents in the room
faced a grilling by Kristen Breitweiser, a 9/11 widow whose cohorts
are three other widowed moms from New Jersey.
"I don’t understand, with all the warnings about
the possibilities of Al Qaeda using planes as weapons, and the
Phoenix Memo from one of your own agents warning that Osama bin
Laden was sending operatives to this country for flight-school
training, why didn’t you check out flight schools before Sept.
Fahrenheit 911 Information
"Do you know how many flight schools there are in
the U.S.? Thousands," a senior agent protested. "We couldn’t have
investigated them all and found these few guys."
"Wait, you just told me there were too many flight
schools and that prohibited you from investigating them before
9/11," Kristen persisted. "How is it that a few hours after the
attacks, the nation is brought to its knees, and miraculously F.B.I.
agents showed up at Embry-Riddle flight school in Florida where some
of the terrorists trained?"
"We got lucky," was the reply.
Kristen then asked the agent how the F.B.I. had
known exactly which A.T.M. in Portland, Me., would yield a videotape
of Mohammed Atta, the leader of the attacks. The agent got some
facts confused, then changed his story. When Kristen wouldn’t be
pacified by evasive answers, the senior agent parried, "What are you
"I think you had open investigations before Sept.
11 on some of the people responsible for the terrorist attacks," she
"We did not," the agent said unequivocally.
A month later, on the morning of July 24, before
the scathing Congressional report on intelligence failures was
released, Kristen and the three other moms from New Jersey with whom
she’d been in league sat impassively at a briefing by staff director
Eleanor Hill: In fact, they learned, the F.B.I. had open
investigations on 14 individuals who had contact with the hijackers
while they were in the United States. The flush of pride in their
own research passed quickly. This was just another confirmation that
the federal government continued to obscure the facts about its
handling of suspected terrorists leading up to the Sept. 11
So afraid is the Bush administration of what could
be revealed by inquiries into its failures to protect Americans from
terrorist attack, it is unabashedly using Kremlin tactics to muzzle
members of Congress and thwart the current federal commission
investigating the failures of Sept. 11. But there is at least one
force that the administration cannot scare off or shut up. They call
themselves "Just Four Moms from New Jersey," or simply "the
Kristen and the three other housewives who also
lost their husbands in the attack on the World Trade Center started
out knowing virtually nothing about how their government worked. For
the last 20 months they have clipped and Googled, rallied and
lobbied, charmed and intimidated top officials all the way to the
White House. In the process, they have made themselves arguably the
most effective force in dancing around the obstacle course by which
the administration continues to block a transparent investigation of
what went wrong with the country’s defenses on Sept. 11 and what we
should be doing about it. They have no political clout, no money, no
powerful husbands—no husbands at all since Sept. 11—and they are up
against a White House, an Attorney General, a Defense Secretary, a
National Security Advisor and an F.B.I. director who have worked out
an ingenious bait-and-switch game to thwart their efforts and those
of any investigative body.
The Mom Cell
The four moms—Kristen Breitweiser, Patty Casazza,
Mindy Kleinberg and Lorie van Auken—use tactics more like those of a
leaderless cell. They have learned how to deposit their assorted
seven children with select grandmothers before dawn and rocket down
the Garden State Parkway to Washington. They have become experts at
changing out of pedal-pushers and into proper pantsuits while their
S.U.V. is stopped in traffic, so they can hit the Capitol rotunda
running. They have talked strategy with Senator John McCain and
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. They once caught Congressman
Porter Goss hiding behind his office door to avoid them. And they
maintain an open line of communication with the White House.
But after the razzle-dazzle of their every trip to
D.C., the four moms dissolve on the hot seats of Kristen’s S.U.V.,
balance take-out food containers on their laps and grow quiet. Each
then retreats into a private chamber of longing for the men whose
lifeless images they wear on tags around their necks. After their
first big rally, Patty’s soft voice floated a wish that might have
been in the minds of all four moms:
"O.K., we did the rally, now can our husbands come
Last September, Kristen was singled out by the
families of 9/11 to testify in the first televised public hearing
before the Joint Intelligence Committee Inquiry (JICI) in
Washington. She drew high praise from the leadership, made up of
members from both the House and Senate. But the JICI, as the moms
called it, was mandated to go out of business at the end of 2003,
and their questions for the intelligence agencies were consistently
blocked: The Justice Department has forbidden intelligence officials
to be interviewed without "minders" among their bosses being
present, a tactic clearly meant to intimidate witnesses. When the
White House and the intelligence agencies held up the Congressional
report month after month by demanding that much of it remain
classified, the moms’ rallying cry became "Free the JICI!"
They believed the only hope for getting at the
truth would be with an independent federal commission with a mandate
to build on the findings of the Congressional inquiry and broaden it
to include testimony from all the other relevant agencies. Their
fight finally overcame the directive by Vice President Dick Cheney
to Congressman Goss to "keep negotiating" and, in January 2003, the
National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United
States—known as the 9/11 Commission—met for the first time. It is
not only for their peace of mind that the four moms continue to
fight to reveal the truth, but because they firmly believe that,
nearly two years after the attacks, the country is no safer now than
it was on Sept. 11.
"O.K., there’s the House and the Senate—which one
has the most members?"
Lorie laughed at herself. It was April 2002, seven
months after she had lost her husband, Kenneth. "I must have slept
through that civics class." Her friend Mindy couldn’t help her;
Mindy hadn’t read The New York Times since she stopped
commuting to Manhattan, where she’d worked as a C.P.A. until her
husband, Alan, took over the family support. Both women’s husbands
had worked as securities traders for Cantor Fitzgerald until they
were incinerated in the World Trade Center.
Mindy and Lorie had thought themselves exempt from
politics, by virtue of the constant emergency of motherhood. Before
Sept. 11, Mindy could have been described as a stand-in for Samantha
on Sex and the City. But these days she felt more like one of
the Golden Girls. Lorie, who was 46 and beautiful when her
husband, Kenneth van Auken, was murdered, has acquired a fierceness
in her demeanor. The two mothers were driving home to East Brunswick
after attending a support group for widows of 9/11. They had been
fired up by a veteran survivor of a previous terrorist attack
against Americans, Bob Monetti, president of Families of Pan Am
103/Lockerbie. "You can’t sit back and let the government treat you
like shit," he had challenged them. That very night they called up
Patty Casazza, another Cantor Fitzgerald widow, in Colt’s Neck. "We
have to have a rally in Washington."
Patty, a sensitive woman who was struggling to find
the right balance of prescriptions to fight off anxiety attacks,
groaned, "Oh God, this is huge, and it’s going to be painful." Patty
said she would only go along if Kristen was up for it.
Kristen Breitweiser was only 30 years old when her
husband, Ron, a vice president at Fiduciary Trust, called her one
morning to say he was fine, not to worry. He had seen a huge
fireball out his window, but it wasn’t his building. She tuned into
the Today show just in time to see the South Tower explode
right where she knew he was sitting—on the 94th floor. For months
thereafter, finding it impossible to sleep, Kristen went back to the
nightly ritual of her married life: She took out her husband’s
toothbrush and slowly, lovingly squeezed the toothpaste onto it.
Then she would sit down on the toilet and wait for him to come
Kristen was somewhat better-informed than the
others. The tall, blond former surfer girl had graduated from Seton
Hall law school, practiced all of three days, hated it and elected
to be a full-time mom. Her first line of defense against despair at
the shattering of her life dreams was to revert to thinking like a
Lorie was the network’s designated researcher,
since she had in her basement what looked like a NASA command
module; her husband had been an amateur designer. Kristen had told
her to focus on the timeline: Who knew what, when did they know it,
and what did they do about it?
Once Lorie began surfing the Web, she couldn’t
stop. She found a video of President Bush’s reaction on the morning
of Sept. 11. According to the official timeline provided by his
press secretary, the President arrived at an elementary school in
Sarasota, Fla., at 9 a.m. and was told in the hallway of the school
that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. This was 14
minutes after the first attack. The President went into a private
room and spoke by phone with his National Security Advisor,
Condoleezza Rice, and glanced at a TV in the room. "That’s some bad
pilot," the President said. Bush then proceeded to a classroom,
where he drew up a little stool to listen to second graders read. At
9:04 a.m., his chief of staff, Andrew Card, whispered in his ear
that a second plane had struck the towers. "We are under attack,"
Mr. Card informed the President.
"Bush’s sunny countenance went grim," said the
White House account. "After Card’s whisper, Bush looked distracted
and somber but continued to listen to the second graders read and
soon was smiling again. He joked that they read so well, they must
be sixth graders."
Lorie checked the Web site of the Federal Aviation
Authority. The F.A.A. and the Secret Service, which had an open
phone connection, both knew at 8:20 a.m. that two planes had been
hijacked in the New York area and had their transponders turned off.
How could they have thought it was an accident when the first plane
slammed into the first tower 26 minutes later? How could the
President have dismissed this as merely an accident by a "bad
pilot"? And how, after he had been specifically told by his chief of
staff that "We are under attack," could the Commander in Chief
continue sitting with second graders and make a joke? Lorie ran the
video over and over.
"I couldn’t stop watching the President sitting
there, listening to second graders, while my husband was burning in
a building," she said.
Mindy pieced together the actions of Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He had been in his Washington office
engaged in his "usual intelligence briefing." After being informed
of the two attacks on the World Trade Center, he proceeded with his
briefing until the third hijacked plane struck the Pentagon. Mindy
relayed the information to Kristen:
"Can you believe this? Two planes hitting the Twin
Towers in New York City did not rise to the level of Rumsfeld’s
leaving his office and going to the war room to check out just what
the hell went wrong." Mindy sounded scared. "This is my President.
This is my Secretary of Defense. You mean to tell me Rumsfeld had to
get up from his desk and look out his window at the burning Pentagon
before he knew anything was wrong? How can that be?"
"It can’t be," said Kristen ominously. Their
network being a continuous loop, Kristen immediately passed on the
news to Lorie, who became even more agitated.
Lorie checked out the North American Aerospace
Defense Command, whose specific mission includes a response to any
form of an air attack on America. It was created to provide a
defense of critical command-and-control targets. At 8:40 a.m. on
9/11, the F.A.A. notified NORAD that Flight No. 11 had been
hijacked. Three minutes later, the F.A.A. notified NORAD that Flight
No. 175 was also hijacked. By 9:02 a.m., both planes had crashed
into the World Trade Center, but there had been no action by NORAD.
Both agencies also knew there were two other hijacked planes in the
air that had been violently diverted from their flight pattern. All
other air traffic had been ordered grounded. NORAD operates out of
Andrews Air Force Base, which is within sight of the Pentagon. Why
didn’t NORAD scramble planes in time to intercept the two other
hijacked jetliners headed for command-and-control centers in
Washington? Lorie wanted to know. Where was the leadership?
"I can’t look at these timelines anymore," Lorie
confessed to Kristen. "When you pull it apart, it just doesn’t
reconcile with the official storyline." She hunched down in her
husband’s swivel chair and began to tremble, thinking, There’s no
way this could be. Somebody is not telling us the whole
The 9/11 Commission wouldn’t have happened without
the four moms. At the end of its first open hearing, held last
spring at the U.S. Customs House close to the construction pit of
Ground Zero, former Democratic Congressman Tim Roemer said as much
and praised them and other activist 9/11 families.
"At a time when many Americans don’t even take the
opportunity to cast a ballot, you folks went out and made the
legislative system work," he said.
Jamie Gorelick, former Deputy Attorney General of
the United States, said at the same hearing, "I’m enormously
impressed that laypeople with no powers of subpoena, with no access
to insider information of any sort, could put together a very
powerful set of questions and set of facts that are a road map for
this commission. It is really quite striking. Now, what’s your
Mindy, who had given a blistering testimony at that
day’s hearing, tossed her long corkscrew curls and replied in a
voice more Tallulah than termagant, "Eighteen months of doing
nothing but grieving and connecting the dots."
Eleanor Hill, the universally respected staff
director of the JICI investigation, shares the moms’ point of
"One of our biggest concerns is our finding that
there were people in this country assisting these hijackers," she
said later in an interview with this writer. "Since the F.B.I. was
in fact investigating all these people as part of their
counterterroism effort, and they knew some of them had ties to Al
Qaeda, then how good was their investigation if they didn’t come
across the hijackers?"
President Bush, who was notified in the President’s
daily briefing on Aug. 6, 2001, that "a group of [Osama] bin Laden
supporters was planning attacks in the United States with
explosives," insisted after the Congressional report was made
public: "My administration has transformed our government to pursue
terrorists and prevent terrorist attacks."
Kristen, Mindy, Patty and Lorie are not
"We were told that, prior to 9/11, the F.B.I. was
only responsible for going in after the fact to solve a crime and
prepare a criminal case," Kristen said. "Here we are, 22 months
after the fact, the F.B.I. has received some 500,000 leads, they
have thousands of people in custody, they’re seeking the death
penalty for one terrorist, [Zacarias] Moussaoui, but they still
haven’t solved the crime and they don’t have any of the other people
who supported the hijackers." Ms. Hill echoes their frustration. "Is
this support network for Al Qaeda still in the United States? Are
they still operating, planning the next attack?"
The hopes of the four moms that the current 9/11
Commission could broaden the inquiry beyond the intelligence
agencies are beginning to fade. As they see it, the administration
is using a streamlined version of the tactics they successfully
employed to stall and suppress much of the startling information in
the JICI report. The gaping hole of 28 pages concerning the Saudi
royal family’s financial support for the terrorists of 9/11 was only
the tip of the 900-page iceberg.
"We can’t get any information about the Port
Authority’s evacuation procedures or the response of the City of New
York," complains Kristen. "We’re always told we can’t get answers or
documents because the F.B.I. is holding them back as part of an
ongoing investigation. But when Director Mueller invited us back for
a follow-up meeting—on the very morning before that damning report
was released—we were told the F.B.I. isn’t pursuing any
investigations based on the information we are blocked from getting.
The only thing they are looking at is the hijackers. And they’re all
It’s more than a clever Catch-22. Members of the
9/11 Commission are being denied access even to some of the
testimony given to the JICI—on which at least two of its members
This is a stonewalling job of far greater
importance than Watergate. This concerns the refusal of the
country’s leadership to be held accountable for the failure to
execute its most fundamental responsibility: to protect its citizens
against foreign attack.
Critical information about two of the hijackers,
Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, lay dormant within the
intelligence community for as long as 18 months, at the very time
when plans for the Sept. 11 attacks were being hatched. The JICI
confirmed that these same two hijackers had numerous contacts with a
longtime F.B.I. counterterrorism informant in California. As the
four moms pointed out a year ago, their names were in the San Diego
What’s more, the F.B.I.’s Minneapolis field office
had in custody in August 2001 one Zacarias Moussaoui, a French
national who had enrolled in flight training in Minnesota and who
F.B.I. agents suspected was involved in a hijacking plot. But nobody
at the F.B.I. apparently connected the Moussaoui investigation with
intelligence information on the immediacy of the threat level in the
spring and summer of 2001, or the illegal entry of al-Mihdhar and
al-Hazmi into the United States.
How have these lapses been corrected 24 months
later? The F.B.I. is seeking the death penalty for Mr. Moussaoui,
and uses the need to protect their case against him as the rationale
for refusing to share any of the information they have obtained from
him. In fact, when Director Mueller tried to use the same excuse to
duck out of testifying before the Joint Committee, the federal judge
in the Moussaoui trial dismissed his argument, and he and his agents
were compelled to testify.
"At some point, you have to do a cost-benefit
analysis," says Kristen. "Which is more important—one fried
terrorist, or the safety of the nation?" Patty was even more blunt
in their second meeting with the F.B.I. brass. "I don’t give a rat’s
ass about Moussaoui," she said. "Why don’t you throw him into
Guantánamo and squeeze him for all he’s worth, and get on with
finding his cohorts?"
The four moms are demanding that the independent
commission hold a completely transparent investigation, with open
hearings and cross-examination. What it looks like they’ll get is an
incomplete and sanitized report, if it’s released in time for the
commission’s deadline next May. Or perhaps another fight over
declassification of the most potent revelations, which will serve to
hold up the report until after the 2004 Presidential election. Some
believe that this is the administration’s end game.
Kristen sees the handwriting on the wall: "If we
have an executive branch that holds sole discretion over what
information is released to the public and what is hidden, the public
will never get the full story of why there was an utter failure to
protect them that day, and who should be held accountable."
You may reach Gail Sheehy via email at: email@example.com.