National Security

Did Awlaki Really Help the 9/11 Hijackers?

What Judicial Watch and Fox News got wrong about al Qaeda's leading English-language ideologue.

UPDATE: Fox News on Friday afternoon filed a "follow-up" (as opposed to a "correction") in which the FBI denied the claim that Awlaki bought tickets for the hijackers, specifically citing the previously released document reported here Thursday.

What a scoop! Fox News, reporting from documents released by Judicial Watch, has claimed that Anwar al-Awlaki, the late Yemeni-American al Qaeda ideologue, may have purchased three pre-hijacking airplane tickets for some of the 9/11 hijackers.  Judicial Watch was even less circumspect in describing its findings.

According to the story by Fox News Washington correspondent Catherine Herridge:

The heavily redacted records -- obtained by Judicial Watch through a Freedom of information Act request -- suggest the FBI held evidence tying the American-born cleric to the hijackers just 16 days after the attack that killed nearly 3,000 Americans.

"We have FBI documents showing that the FBI knew that al-Awlaki had bought three tickets for three of the hijackers to fly into Florida and into Las Vegas, including the lead hijacker, Mohammad Atta," Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, told Fox News.

There are only two problems with this story.

First, there's a paragraph of type redacted in between the mention of Awlaki and the mention of the hijackers.

Plenty of room there to start another heading.

Second, all three tickets are attributed to known debit cards held by the hijackers that do not match the card number given for Awlaki in Judicial Watch's bombshell-smoking-gun-gate FOIA document.

The attributions appear in an FBI chronology of the hijackers' activities also obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, by this reporter, as part of a collection of 9/11 documents posted online years ago and featured by Fox News itself in a special on 9/11 a while back.

That chronology was assembled long after the Sept. 26, 2001, document obtained by Judicial Watch. So even if the document says Awlaki bought the tickets -- and it's by no means clear that it does -- it would still represent a very early lead, compared to the 2003 chronology, by which time mistakes would have been weeded out.

While it's not completely impossible that the chronology was part of some vast and nefarious coverup, to make the case being made by Judicial Watch and Fox, you have to go well past simple suppression of this explosive allegation against Awlaki and argue that the FBI actually falsified documents to support a claim that no one knew about at the time the chronology was compiled and at the time it was released, and that it then inexplicably let the cat out of the bag in a later FOIA request. That's asking a bit much.

While certainly no one can be expected to hold the whole of the 9/11 investigation in their short-term memory, the hijackers' finances were painstakingly reconstructed and dissected in the 9/11 Commission and elsewhere, and that large-scale fact is easy enough to remember and check. It's unfortunate, because Herridge is typically a solid reporter.

Awlaki's links to Sept. 11 certainly bear further investigation, but when you investigate, you have to be prepared for the possibility that the truth will be a big letdown. And there's plenty of precedent for that in the Awlaki saga.


Don't Blame Obama for Syria

What's happening in Syria is a tragedy. But John Hannah needs to recognize that the civil war was never ours to win or lose.

Syria is a tragedy. Too much blood has flowed to imagine a negotiated transition and apparently not enough to warrant an effective intervention by a divided, cautious, and self-interested international community. And it may well be that the real struggle for Syria -- the one that determines its future character -- has yet to begin.

But to lay this bloody mess at President Barack Obama's doorstep, as John Hannah (a guy I respect and admire) does in his recent post for FP, is both wrong and unfair.

I write this not so much in defense of Obama's policies as in recognition of the cruel reality and terrible choices the United States has faced with regards to the Syrian uprising and civil war.

During this entire two-year debate on what Obama should or shouldn't have done on Syria, I have yet to hear a single military strategy that the administration could have adopted that would have been feasible, effective, and consequential in altering the bloody arc of this crisis for the better

Real game-changing moves -- weeks of air and missile strikes on Syrian military assets and leadership targets, a no-fly zone, and a sustained effort to provide the fragmented opposition with lethal weapons -- were rightly deemed too risky, too uncertain, and too open-ended to be viable. At the end of the day, Syria hawks simply could not assure Americans that they wouldn't be stuck with yet another Middle East quagmire.

The less risky steps -- sending in humanitarian assistance and non-lethal aid to the opposition, positioning Patriot missile batteries in Turkey, and launching political efforts to coordinate the opposition -- carried little risk. Admittedly, they have not had much real consequence in altering the course of the conflict. But that doesn't mean that taking more aggressive measures would be good for the United States. And at the end of the day, that's what U.S. foreign policy has to be about.

We will never know about the what-ifs, of course. In the world of counterfactuals, the what-might-have-beens can never be fact checked, let alone held to any kind of empirical standard. And there are risks to everything in life -- action and inaction. Some argue that trying more ambitious policies -- even if they failed -- would have been better than not trying at all. But they haven't persuaded me, or too many others.

Hannah's critique -- the first of many, I suppose, in the renewed "who lost Syria" debate -- is somewhat overwrought. That is perhaps consistent with the understandable and emotional urge to have prevented the thousands of lost lives, undermine Iran, and reverse America's declining relevance in the Middle East -- the most common knock on the president's foreign policy.

But it's no substitute for a workable plan. The critique really does lack context: Hannah blames the White House for "put[ting] its faith in Vladimir Putin" and engaging in the "indulgence" of U.N. diplomacy, but nobody I know in the administration ever believed that these steps would actually solve this thing.

There were never any good or easy options in Syria. All involved risk, and there was no guarantee any U.S. moves would stop what became a civil war -- or even ameliorate the situation. What's more, they all held the very real prospect of a slippery slope into military intervention, as failed half-measures would have required additional steps to preserve U.S. credibility.

Nor did our supposed allies in the region -- the Turks in particular -- seem particularly interested in a muscular response. (Turkey was always ambivalent about a more active policy, including a no-fly zone. That it's taken the Turks this long to request Patriot missiles from NATO -- for defensive purposes only -- reflects that ambivalence.) Iraqis worked actively against us, and the Israelis rightly watched from the sidelines. We sell sophisticated aircraft to the Saudis and others -- where were they when it came to organizing a coordinated Arab military response? I think I know the answer.

Let's face the facts: The United States can't determine the outcome in Syria -- at least not at a cost that makes any sense. Syria isn't Libya, where Muammar al-Qaddafi's weakness, along with regional and international circumstances, made an effective and relatively-cost free NATO intervention possible. It also isn't Egypt, where, even though we send a billion dollars plus a year to Cairo and enjoy a long relationship with the Egyptian military, we can't seem to influence the course of its political future.

And thank God it isn't Afghanistan or Iraq where, despite years of effort, billions of dollars, and thousands of lives lost, we have not achieved anything commensurate to the level of the sacrifice.

Yes, Syria is important. But like the Arab Spring itself, it was never ours to win or lose. We may yet be drawn in, but our caution and reserve there -- given its complexities, the limitations of our leverage, and our own priorities -- was warranted. We aren't the world's top cop nor its primary case worker. And it's about time we realized it.