The Ground Truth: The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11
by John Farmer
Riverhead Books (division of Penguin), New York, 2009

In recent public opinion surveys, roughly half the country believes the official account of what occurred on 9/11/2001 to be substantially true, and half is skeptical. Apparently John Farmer, the man who penned the official 9-11 Commission Report in 2003, is in the latter group. Farmer has written a book as paradoxical as the Government testimony which he picks to pieces: He details one incident after another, meticulously documenting the lies that high government officials told in testimony before his commission. But even after leaving our mouths agape at the mendacity and deception of the Administration (the word ‘perjury’ appears nowhere in the book), he reports unskeptically other parts of the story for which this same Administration was the only source, as if he has no choice but to believe them.

On the surface, the book is a scathing indictment of lethal government incompetence, and of the Bush Administration in particular. It charges ineptitude and a kind of blindness to reality at the highest levels of government. But, to turn a phrase, the book may be praising the Administration with faint damnation. As Senior Counsel to the 9/11 Commission, Farmer was in as good a position as anyone on the planet to pursue a competent and thorough investigation, to get to the “Ground Truth” behind the terror attacks and the government’s response. And yet he chose to play softball, to settle for the testimony that he was offered, and base his conclusions on a partial and contradictory record. The Commission made no use of Congressional subpoena power or the Capitol Police. They did not recall witnesses whose testimony had been discredited. Every forensic investigator from the local police sergeant to the Special Prosecutor knows that if you jail the underling who is lying to protect his boss, he will often break under pressure and tell the truth that passes responsibility up the chain. And yet, empaneled to investigate this greatest crime of the nation’s history, the 9/11 Commission forswore such tactics, sat back and scratched their heads when offered contradictory testimony.

The book climaxes in a chapter titled, “Whisky Tango Foxtrot”, which, Farmer explains, was the Commissioners’ constant refrain as the misleading testimony unfolded.

The official version first put forward by Paul Wolfowitz had attained the status of national myth... This official version departed from the facts of the day in four critical respects. First, the official version indicated that the Langley fighters were scrambled in response to American 77, and thus omitted completely the pivotal report of the morning and the source of the Langley scramble: the report that American 11, the first hijack, was still airborne and heading for Washington. Second, the administration version insisted that the military was tracking United 93 and, as a consequence, was positioned to intercept the flight if it approached Washington. This was untrue; the military could not locate the flight to track it because it had crashed by the time of notification. Third, the official version insited that PresidentBush had issued an authorization to shoot down hijacked commercial flights, and that the order had been processed through the chain of command and passed to the fighters. This was untrue. Fourth, the administration version implied, where it did not state explicitly, that the chain of command had been functioning on 9/11, and that the critical decisions had been made by the appropriate top officials. Thus the presideent issued the shoot-down order; top FAA Headquarters officials coordinated closely with the military; Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta issued the order to land all airplanes; NORAD Commanding General Eberhart monitored closely the decisions taken at NEADS and CONR; and so on. None of this captures how things actually unfolded on the day.

Farmer goes on to theorize that the false testimony had been offered to cover up bureaucratic incompetence, especially in the military, and a criminal failure to prepare for the new dangers of a post-Cold-War world. His thesis is that the chain of command is too slow to function in a crisis, and that local officials must be trained and empowered to act quickly on their own initiative when extraordinary circumstances demand it. This, Farmer says, requires a fundamental rethinking of the way in which government operates.

The conclusion strikes me as good general advice, an extension of the warning that Dilbert and Laurence Peter before him have offered us for decades. But the recommendations look small compared to the ways in which 9/11 transformed our world – ushering in a never-ending war, sharp curtailment of civil and political liberties in the Land of the Free, a cloak of secrecy for the most criminal Administration in US history, and a centralization of power in the Presidency (OpEd News book review) that continues a year after Bush has left office.

9/11 reporting has been divided between those on the fringe who charge a massive government cover-up, and those in the mainstream who decry the former as ‘conspiracy theorists’, maintaining that any such widespread deception would require too broad a network of cooperation to be plausible. The odd thing about this book is the way it breaches this divide. On the one hand, Farmer is the establishment. He was a Republican US Attorney, then Attorney General of New Jersey, before being tapped by the Kean Commission in 2002. In his capacity as Senior Council to the Commission, he wrote the 600-page 9-11 Commission Report that defines the official government version. On the other hand, Farmer tells us that the Report was falsified in some crucial respects. He charges a cover-up of exactly the kind that the mainstream has said is implausible on its face.

But then he tries to close Pandora’s box without addressing the larger questions that loom in the realm of conspiracy theorists: How could fires cause three steel-framed buildings to collapse straight down in free-fall time, looking to every Youtube viewer like a classic example of controlled demolition? How could a jetliner with a 150-foot wing span have disappeared inside a 20-foot hole in the Pentagon? And how could four planes vaporize, black box and all, leaving nothing behind but a few paper passports that conveniently floated through the air into the hands of the waiting FBI?

How could cell phones have functioned at 30,000 feet, far outside the range of the broadcast towers which are designed with a horizontal beam? (And how lucky we were that the recipients of these calls had their tape recorders turned on at the crucial moment!) Remember that all we know about the drama within those four planes — the stories of brown-skinned men with box-cutters speaking broken English, the murder of stewardesses, the storming of the cockpits and the heroism of passengers on Flight 93 — our only source for all this is transcripts of these cell phone conversations which could not have occurred in the way they were reported.

The 9/11 Commission swallowed these camels without a hiccup.

Reading Farmer’s book, I was struck by the vast gulf in documentary standards between the book’s first and last chapters. In the last chapter, the story of the military response to 9/11 is detailed, and compared with FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina four years later. Documentation is meticulous. Testimony is cited verbatim, right down to the words that were lost in noise and could not be transcribed from the FAA radio tapes. In the opening, Farmer tells the story of Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, plotting revenge on the Great Satan from his cave in Afghanistan. Quotes are offered as if Farmer had been there himself, witnessing the meetings. No sources are given, and there is no indication why Farmer believes the story he was told.

I am left wondering why Farmer does not question the Administration witnesses who were presumably the source of the background connection to bin Laden and Al Qaeda, even after he has documented for us the fact that these same Administration officials concocted a story to cover their asses.

Since ‘9/11 changes everything’ don’t we deserve to know what really happened on 9/11? Last year, writing on the Op Ed page of the New York Times, the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission, Kean and Hamilton warned us that the Commission’s report was tainted. Now the attorney who actually composed the report tells us he was propagating lies.

Still, we continue to ‘look forward, not back’, and somehow that means we must press on with two wars conceived in mendacity, and that Constitutional liberties borrowed from us on false pretenses will not be restored any time soon.

President Obama had it exactly wrong. The only way to move forward is to re-evaluate the choices made by the Bush Administration. A new, open and unimpeded investigation of the events of 9/11 is exactly the way to begin.