Four 9/11 Moms Battle Bush
This concerns the refusal of the countrys leadership
to be held
accountable for the failure to execute its most fundamental responsibility.
Gail Sheehy, New York Observer, August 25, 2003
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 weaponseven bombsbut 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 dont 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 didnt you check
out flight schools before Sept. 11?"
"Do you know how many flight schools there are in the U.S.? Thousands,"
a senior agent protested. "We couldnt 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 wouldnt be pacified by evasive answers,
the senior agent parried, "What are you getting at?"
"I think you had open investigations before Sept. 11 on some of
the people responsible for the terrorist attacks," she said.
"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 shed 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 attacks.
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 girls."
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 countrys
defenses on Sept. 11 and what we should be doing about it. They have
no political clout, no money, no powerful husbandsno husbands
at all since Sept. 11and 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 momsKristen Breitweiser, Patty Casazza, Mindy Kleinberg
and Lorie van Aukenuse 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
But after the razzle-dazzle of their every trip to D.C., the four moms
dissolve on the hot seats of Kristens 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, Pattys
soft voice floated a wish that might have been in the minds of all four
"O.K., we did the rally, now can our husbands come home?"
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 Statesknown as the 9/11 Commissionmet 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., theres the House and the Senatewhich 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 couldnt help her; Mindy hadnt
read The New York Times since she stopped commuting to Manhattan, where
shed worked as a C.P.A. until her husband, Alan, took over the
family support. Both womens husbands had worked as securities
traders for Cantor Fitzgerald until they were incinerated in the World
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 cant 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 Colts
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 its 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 wasnt
his building. She tuned into the Today show just in time to see the
South Tower explode right where she knew he was sittingon 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
husbands 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 lawyer.
Lorie was the networks 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 couldnt stop. She found
a video of President Bushs 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.
"Thats 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.
"Bushs sunny countenance went grim," said the White
House account. "After Cards 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
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 couldnt stop watching the President sitting there, listening
to second graders, while my husband was burning in a building,"
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 Rumsfelds 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 cant 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
didnt 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 cant look at these timelines anymore," Lorie confessed
to Kristen. "When you pull it apart, it just doesnt reconcile
with the official storyline." She hunched down in her husbands
swivel chair and began to tremble, thinking, Theres no way this
could be. Somebody is not telling us the whole story.
The 9/11 Commission wouldnt 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
"At a time when many Americans dont 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, "Im 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, whats your secret?"
Mindy, who had given a blistering testimony at that days 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 view.
"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 didnt come across the hijackers?"
President Bush, who was notified in the Presidents 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
Kristen, Mindy, Patty and Lorie are not impressed.
"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, theyre seeking the death penalty for one terrorist,
[Zacarias] Moussaoui, but they still havent solved the crime and
they dont 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 familys financial support for
the terrorists of 9/11 was only the tip of the 900-page iceberg.
"We cant get any information about the Port Authoritys
evacuation procedures or the response of the City of New York,"
complains Kristen. "Were always told we cant 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
meetingon the very morning before that damning report was releasedwe
were told the F.B.I. isnt pursuing any investigations based on
the information we are blocked from getting. The only thing they are
looking at is the hijackers. And theyre all dead."
Its 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 JICIon
which at least two of its members sat!
This is a stonewalling job of far greater importance than Watergate.
This concerns the refusal of the countrys 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 phone book.
Whats 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 importantone fried terrorist, or
the safety of the nation?" Patty was even more blunt in their second
meeting with the F.B.I. brass. "I dont give a rats
ass about Moussaoui," she said. "Why dont you throw
him into Guantánamo and squeeze him for all hes 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 theyll get is an incomplete and sanitized report,
if its released in time for the commissions 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 administrations
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."