Last Wednesday, at 3:46 p.m., the White House Office of Public Engagement (WHOPE) sent an email message to 9/11 families to announce it was sponsoring a conference call the next day with victims' families in anticipation of the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The purpose of the call was "to discuss the Administration's plans to mark the day." We were informed that Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, and John Brennan, deputy national security advisor for homeland security and counterterrorism, would make brief remarks and take questions.
The White House had already publicly announced that the president would be visiting all three attack sites in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. So I was genuinely curious as to what Rhodes and Brennan would have to say on a call that was being put together with so little notice. Ben Rhodes is the White House speech writer credited with writing the president's 2009 Cairo speech. John Brennan is the national security point man noted for speaking in Arabic to Muslim grievance organizations, even referring to Jerusalem in one such speech as "al Quds," the name preferred by the terrorist group Hamas.
The email invitation emphasized (in red, bold-face type) that "this is off-the-record and not a press call." This was reiterated when the call began 24 hours later. What, I wondered, would this group of 9/11 family members be hearing that had to be deemed off limits to the press and general public? How did the White House imagine that such a call could be off-the-record? We aren't professional journalists who can be threatened or punished with diminished access. And we are not reporters, who have, at least implicitly, made an agreement to develop a relationship with a source. We're 9/11 victims' families.
Rhodes began the call by telling us that the president hoped to accomplish three things on the 10th anniversary. Above all, he would remember the victims and express support for their families. We, and our loved ones, we were told, will be at the forefront of the president's mind. The second area of the president's focus will be the prevention of future attacks. Third, he will pay tribute to the nation's military, those who have shouldered the heaviest burden these last ten years. The bin Laden killing was invoked and mentioned repeatedly throughout the call.
Brennan's remarks were a summary of the administration's national security successes and goals. With regard to the bin Laden operation, Brennan said, "I've been involved in the hunt for bin Laden for the better part of two decades." He told us that he "has lost close friends and colleagues to terrorist attacks." The bin Laden killing, he said, was a "significant event," a "poignant" moment that created "finality." But "our work is not over," Brennan said.
I have no idea how many family members were on the call. We were put on listen only mode. As the loquacious Rhodes talked about the president's planned August 30th speech to the American Legion, I began tapping my pen impatiently, waiting for some actual news or clue as to the real purpose behind this WHOPE conference call. I was skeptical. In two and a half years, the White House has ignored the concerns of 9/11 families, whether it was our objecting to trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other 9/11 conspirators in a civilian court in lower Manhattan, or our questioning of the president's support for a 15-story megamosque at Ground Zero on the site where wreckage from one of the hijacked planes rained down and plunged through the building that will be demolished to make way for the mosque.