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.
About 20 minutes into the call, we were informed that anyone who had questions should push star and then 1 (*1) to enter a "queue" and wait for an opportunity to be heard. This was a blind process. One didn't know whether one was first or fiftieth in line for a question. A total of seven questions were permitted. The first three questions were about various local commemorative ceremonies, and whether the administration could send representatives. The fourth questioner, however, clearly saw through the administration's sudden interest in 9/11 families. The woman, who lost her mother on flight 11, addressed her initial question to Karen Richardson, an associate director at WHOPE (who put the call together) and whom Rhodes had just urged us to contact should we ever have any matters we'd like to discuss with administration. "I have repeatedly called the number we have for you, Karen, and left messages," this family member said. "I have never heard back. I have emailed you. Those emails haven't been answered. So, I'm wondering, is there a better way to get through that you can tell us about?"
This same woman had a specific issue she wanted to be heard. Why is it that ten years after 9/11, the administration had not acted on the 9/11 Commission's recommendation to create a civil liberties oversight board? The recommendation was made by the commission amid controversy over certain provisions of the Patriot Act. Those provisions have now been thoroughly vetted by inspector general’s reports, which found no abuses or violations of law. Indeed, the Patriot Act has undergone extensive congressional debate pursuant to two successive reauthorizations.
Rhodes said that the administration had selected two people for that board, but was waiting until it had found a chairman to go forward with an announcement. I am dubious that announcement will ever be made. Obama was big on accusations of lawlessness against the Bush administration, but doesn't seem keen on scrutinizing his own administration with the kind of vigor imagined by the 9/11 Commission. The executive branch under President Obama has expanded its power. Just look at the TSA. I can't imagine that the administration wants to put a civil liberties oversight board in place as long as it continues to defend subjecting 95-year-old women in diapers on their way to hospice and 6-year-old children in play clothes on their way to Disneyland to virtual strip searches and genital pat downs at the airport.
When another family member expressed concern about security for the anniversary commemoration, Brennan jumped at the opportunity to get in one more reference to the bin Laden killing. Yes, he confirmed to this anxious family member, they learned from the raid that bin Laden wanted to plan "something big" for the 10th anniversary but the administration has reliable security measures in place. And here, finally, was the information families waited an one hour to hear: Because security will be extensive, we were advised that those planning to attend commemoration events should get there at least 30 minutes early.
Debra Burlingame, a former attorney, is a co-founder of Keep America Safe.