How 9/11 Exposed the Problems of Government

John Farmer discusses The Ground Truth

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Official accounts of the 9/11 attacks portrayed an ordered response and a government on top of the unfolding crisis. But this picture is inaccurate, John Farmer, former senior counsel to the 9/11 commission, argues in The Ground Truth. Farmer, the dean of Rutgers Law School and a former attorney general of New Jersey, argues that the federal responses to both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina demonstrate a dangerous inability to handle unfolding crises. He recently chatted with U.S. News about new details regarding 9/11, the problems with bureaucracies, and how the nation should face future threats. Excerpts:

You argue that federal officials decided "not to tell the truth about the national response to the attacks." Why?

I think you have to look at the effect of the story that was told. The story that was told in the immediate aftermath and leading up to the 9/11 commission investigation was that by the time of the third flight, American 77, the one that hit the Pentagon, the national command structure had reacted to the surprise and shock of the two attacks in New York that hit the World Trade Center and had reasserted itself. In fact, there was really no effective notice of American 77. The military basically received word that the plane was missing about a minute before it crashed. So, quite a contrast between what the public had been told and what the truth was. The effect was to put the national command structure in a much more positive light than what is true.

What is the most significant new information that you reveal?

The pivotal report of the morning was the report that came in about 20 minutes after 9, that American 11, the first plane that hit the Trade Center, had actually not hit the Trade Center at all but was still airborne and heading south for Washington, D.C. That report resonated up and down the government and virtually every primary source, and yet that was never disclosed to the public. The public was told that the [military] planes for Langley were scrambled in response to the threat posed by American 77 and United 93, when in fact there was really no notice.

Various elements of the government knew about the threat posed by al Qaeda. Why weren't they better prepared for such an attack?

What happened on 9/11 was simply a trailing consequence of all the malfunctions of government that had occurred in the prior 10 years. In virtually every department, there was a growing awareness of the threat of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden through the '90s. What people who were engaged with the outside threat encountered was incredible inertia at the bureaucratic level that really prevented the government from effectively reconfiguring itself against the threat.

So why didn't officials reveal the whole story at the time?

No one wants to be embarrassed or confront unpleasant facts about their conduct. That's just the truth of human nature. And then you compound it with the sort of media culture in which we find ourselves, where it's really an "off with their heads" mentality, instead of looking constructively at mistakes that have occurred and trying to fix them.

Why did you write this book now?

When we wrote the 9/11 commission report, we had access to a lot of classified material, but the process for declassifying it was very time-consuming. You couldn't tell the story of the day itself in the kind of detail that is presented here. And I think it's instructive, because when people see how government really functions and [see how] people who were engaged in combating al Qaeda actually experienced it, I think you have a lot more empathy for what they were confronting.

What surprised you most?

The fundamental ineffectiveness of the government. And when I saw the same kind of pattern emerge in response to Katrina, it really brought it home for me. Katrina was not a surprise. Yet you still had a very similar dynamic play out with Katrina, where you had the top levels of government talking to themselves and estranged from people on the ground reacting to it.