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Context of 'May 18, 2004: Row between Commissioner and Giuliani Subordinates Derails 9/11 Commission Hearings'

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It is later revealed that, in the years up to 9/11, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has little knowledge of the threat posed by al-Qaeda. [MSNBC, 10/25/2007] In private testimony before the 9/11 Commission in 2004, after being asked about the “flow of information about al-Qaeda threats from 1998-2001,” Giuliani will reply, “At the time, I wasn’t told it was al-Qaeda, but now that I look back at it, I think it was al-Qaeda.” Giuliani will also concede that it was only “after 9/11” that “we brought in people to brief us on al-Qaeda.” Before 9/11, he says, “we had nothing like this… which was a mistake, because if experts share a lot of info,” there would be a “better chance of someone making heads and tails” of the situation. [Village Voice, 10/23/2007] In a later television interview, he will admit that he “didn’t see the enormity of” the threat al-Qaeda posed to the United States prior to 9/11, and add: “I never envisioned the kind of attack that they did.… [W]hat I envisioned were the kind of suicide bombings that had gone on in, in Israel. I had been briefed on that.… But I had no idea of the kind of level of attack that was in store for us.” [MSNBC, 12/9/2007] He blames his lack of knowledge on terrorism partly on the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), a partnership between the FBI and the New York City Police Department. Giuliani will state: “We already had JTTF, and got flow information no one else got. But did we get the flow of information we wanted? No. We would be told about a threat, but not about the underlying nature of the threat. I wanted all the same information the FBI had, and we didn’t get that until after 9/11.” [Village Voice, 10/23/2007] He will also complain, “I was dependent on the briefings that I was getting from… the [Clinton] administration, and… I don’t think they saw the threat as big as it was.” [MSNBC, 12/9/2007] In 2004, the 9/11 Commission asks Thomas Von Essen, who is Giuliani’s fire commissioner, what information he had about terrorism prior to 9/11. He will reply, “I was told nothing at all.” Yet in a speech in 2007, Giuliani will claim that, with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing: “Bin Laden declared war on us.… I thought it was pretty clear at the time, but a lot of people didn’t see it, couldn’t see it.” He also claims to have been “studying terrorism” for more than 30 years. [Associated Press, 6/26/2007; Village Voice, 10/23/2007]

Entity Tags: Rudolph (“Rudy”) Giuliani, Joint Terrorism Task Force, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Al-Qaeda, Thomas Von Essen

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

New York City’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM), which is located in World Trade Center Building 7, organizes a bio-terrorism drill where militant extremists attack the city with bubonic plague and Manhattan is quarantined. The “tabletop exercise” is called RED Ex—meaning “Recognition, Evaluation, and Decision-Making Exercise” —and involves about seventy different entities, agencies, and locales from the New York area. Federal legislation adopted in 1997 requires federal, state, and local authorities to conduct regular exercises as part of the Domestic Preparedness Program (DPP). The US Defense Department chose New York City as the venue for RED Ex due to its size, prominence, and level of emergency preparedness. Various high-level officials take part, including Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, OEM Director Richard Sheirer, Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, and Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik. Agencies and organizations that participate include New York City Fire Department, New York City Police Department, the FBI, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The exercise is supposedly so intense that, according to one participant, “five minutes into that drill, everybody forgot it was a drill.” [New York City Government, 5/11/2001; New York City Government, 9/5/2001, pp. 74 pdf file; New York Sun, 12/20/2003; 9/11 Commission, 5/18/2004] According to OEM Director Richard Sheirer, “Operation RED Ex provided a proving ground and a great readiness training exercise for the many challenges the city routinely faces, such as weather events, heat emergencies, building collapses, fires, and public safety and health issues.” [New York City Government, 5/11/2001] In his prepared testimony before the 9/11 Commission, Bernard Kerik later states: “The City, through its OEM, had coordinated plans for many types of emergencies; and those plans were tested frequently.” The types of emergencies they prepared for, he states, included “building collapses” and “plane crashes.” [9/11 Commission, 5/18/2004 pdf file] Considering Richard Sheirer’s comments, RED Ex appears to be one example where the city tests for building collapses. Details about training for airplanes crashing into New York City remain unknown. The second part of this exercise, called Tripod, is scheduled to take place in New York on September 12, 2001, but is cancelled due to the 9/11 attacks.

Entity Tags: New York City Fire Department, US Department of Defense, World Trade Center, Bernard Kerik, Rudolph (“Rudy”) Giuliani, National Air College, New York City Police Department, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

In the lobby of the north WTC tower, just after the South Tower is hit, Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen speaks briefly to Fire Chief Ray Downey. According to Von Essen, Downey—who is a highly respected expert on building collapses—says to him, “You know, these buildings can collapse.” Von Essen later recalls, “He just said it in passing, not that these buildings will collapse in 40 minutes and we have to get everybody out of here, or not that they’ll collapse by tomorrow, or not that they necessarily will collapse at all. Just that they can collapse.” [Fink and Mathias, 2002, pp. 229; 9/11 Commission, 5/18/2004] But other firefighters do not appear to have shared this concern. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Fire Department command officers who are planning for operations inside the Twin Towers expect that there will “be localized collapse conditions on the damaged fire floors,” but do “not expect that there [will] be any massive collapse conditions or complete building collapse.” At the end of its three-year investigation of the WTC collapses, NIST will report, “No one interviewed indicated that they thought that the buildings would completely collapse.” [National Institute of Standards and Technology, 9/2005, pp. 72 and 75-76] In fact, Deputy Fire Commissioner Lynn Tierney will meet up with Downey and others—including Von Essen—slightly later, on the south lawn of the WTC complex, where a new command center is set up. At that time, according to Tierney, Downey will only be concerned that the 360-foot antenna atop the North Tower will fall, and “No one ever thought the towers were going to come down.” [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 9/11/2006] However, shortly before the first tower comes down, EMT Richard Zarrillo will be asked to relay a message to some senior firefighters that the mayor’s Office of Emergency Management “says the buildings are going to collapse” (see (Before 9:59 a.m.) September 11, 2001). And later in the day, Mayor Giuliani will recount that around the same time, he had been told “that the World Trade Center was going to collapse” (see (Before 9:59 a.m.) September 11, 2001). The 9/11 Commission will state, “The best estimate of one senior [fire] chief, provided to the chief of the department sometime between 9:25 and 9:45, was that there might be a danger of collapse [of the South Tower] in a few hours, and therefore units probably should not ascend above floors in the sixties.” The Commission does not state, however, whether this fire chief was referring to a total building collapse or just a localized collapse. [9/11 Commission, 5/19/2004] Ray Downey is killed when the second tower collapses at 10:28 a.m. [New York Times, 9/9/2005]

Entity Tags: Lynn Tierney, New York City Fire Department, Ray Downey, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Thomas Von Essen

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The first of two days of 9/11 Commission hearings in New York is overshadowed by a row between commissioner John Lehman and two subordinates of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik and former Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen. Despite Giuliani’s hero status after the attacks, the Commission’s staff discovered serious errors in New York’s preparations for a potential terrorist attack before 9/11 (see Before May 17, 2004), but realized the commissioners had to be sensitive in how these errors were handled in public (see May 17, 2004).
Aggressive Beginning - When Lehman has his turn to put questions to a panel, he makes an aggressive beginning, saying that New York’s police, fire, and Port Authority police departments are the finest in the world but also “the proudest,” and adds, “But pride runneth before the fall.” He then calls the command, control, and communications “a scandal,” and says the emergency response system was “not worthy of the Boy Scouts, let alone this great city.” This draws some applause from the crowd and Lehman adds: “I think it’s a scandal that the fire commissioner has no line authority. It’s a scandal that there’s nobody that has clear line authority and accountability for a crisis of the magnitude that we’re going to have to deal with in the years ahead. It’s a scandal that after laboring for eight years, the city comes up with a plan for incident management that simply puts in concrete this clearly dysfunctional system.”
Counterattack - Kerik and Von Essen, both now partners in Giuliani’s consulting firm, push back. Von Essen says: “I couldn’t disagree with you more. I think that one of the criticisms of this committee has been statements like you just made, talking about scandalous procedures and scandalous operations and rules and everything else. There’s nothing scandalous about the way that New York City handles its emergencies.… You make it sound like everything was wrong about September 11th or the way we function. I think it’s outrageous that you make a statement like that.” Kerik and Von Essen also make similar comments for the press after the hearing, when Von Essen calls Lehman’s questioning “despicable” and adds, “If I had the opportunity, I probably would have choked him because that’s what he deserved.”
Chance to Meaningfully Question Giuliani Lost - The commissioners and the Commission’s staff immediately realize Lehman has destroyed any chance the Commission had of getting to the bottom of why things went badly with the emergency response in New York on 9/11. Author Philip Shenon will comment: “Any hope of forcing Giuliani to answer hard questions the next day had evaporated. The dynamic would now turn in Giuliani’s favor.”
Lehman Claims He Was Set Up - According to Shenon: “[Lehman] was certain he had been set up by Kerik and Von Essen on behalf of Giuliani. He suspected they had come to the hearing with a script. They were waiting for the right question from one of the commissioners that would allow them to launch a pre-scripted fusillade of insults back at the Commission, turning the hearing into an us-versus-them fight that the city’s tabloids would devour.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 351-354]

Entity Tags: 9/11 Commission, Thomas Von Essen, Bernard Kerik, John Lehman

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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