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Context of 'September 18, 2001: 9/11 Grand Jury Convenes, Then Disappears'

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Attorney General John Ashcroft.Attorney General John Ashcroft. [Source: US Department of Justice]Attorney General John Ashcroft talks with FBI Director Louis Freeh before an annual meeting of special agents. Ashcroft lays out his priorities, which according to one participant is “basically violent crime and drugs.” Freeh bluntly replies that those are not his priorities and he talks about counterterrorism. “Ashcroft does not want to hear about it,” says one witness. [Newsweek, 5/27/2002]

Entity Tags: Louis J. Freeh, John Ashcroft

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

During a National Security Council meeting, FBI Director Robert Mueller begins to describe the investigation under way to identify the 9/11 hijackers. According to journalist Bob Woodward, “He said it was essential not to taint any evidence so that if accomplices were arrested, they could be convicted.” But Attorney General John Ashcroft interrupts. Woodward will paraphrase Ashcroft saying, “The chief mission of US law enforcement… is to stop another attack and apprehend any accomplices or terrorists before they hit us again. If we can’t bring them to trial, so be it.” Woodward will comment, “Now, Ashcroft was saying, the focus of the FBI and the Justice Department should change from prosecution to prevention, a radical shift in priorities.” President Bush is at the meeting and apparently does not challenge Ashcroft’s suggestion. [Woodward, 2002, pp. 42-43]

Entity Tags: Robert S. Mueller III, John Ashcroft, Bob Woodward, National Security Council, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

It is reported that a federal grand jury has been convened in White Plains, New York, to investigate the 9/11 attacks. The grand jury, said to have begun meeting a few days earlier, will be able to issue subpoenas. New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik says it won’t be the only 9/11-related grand jury: “You’re going to see things like the grand jury in White Plains. You’re going to see grand juries around the country, perhaps, looking into matters pertaining to this investigation.” White Plains is part of the federal court system’s Southern District of New York, which has historically led all investigations related to bin Laden. [Associated Press, 9/18/2001] On October 22, 2001, the Wall Street Journal will report, “The federal grand jury investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is casting a wide net, seeking information from witnesses about their contacts with the 19 hijackers as well as other suspected terrorists,” and it will detail some of the witnesses appearing before the grand jury. [Wall Street Journal, 10/22/2001] However, thorough searches of the Lexis-Nexus database show no further mention of this grand jury, or any other 9/11-related grand juries. In early October 2001, the Justice Department will take over all 9/11 related prosecutions (see October 11, 2001).

Entity Tags: Bernard Kerik, White Plains federal grand jury, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

It is reported that the FBI and Justice Department have ordered FBI agents across the US to cut back on their investigation of the September 11 attacks, so as to focus on preventing future, possibly imminent, attacks. According to the New York Times, while law enforcement officials say the investigation of 9/11 is continuing aggressively, “At the same time… efforts to thwart attacks have been given a much higher priority.” Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller “have ordered agents to drop their investigation of the [9/11] attacks or any other assignment any time they learn of a threat or lead that might suggest a future attack.” Mueller believes his agents have “a broad understanding of the events of September 11,” and now need “to concentrate on intelligence suggesting that other terrorist attacks [are] likely.” The Times quotes an unnamed law enforcement official: “The investigative staff has to be made to understand that we’re not trying to solve a crime now. Our number one goal is prevention.” [New York Times, 10/9/2001] At a news conference the previous day, Ashcroft stated that—following the commencement of the US-led attacks on Afghanistan—he had placed federal law enforcement on the highest level of alert. But he refused to say if he had received any specific new threats of terrorist attacks. [US Department of Justice, 10/8/2001] The New York Times also reports that Ashcroft and Mueller have ordered FBI agents to end their surveillance of some terrorist suspects and immediately take them into custody. However, some agents have been opposed to this order because they believe that “surveillance—if continued for days or weeks—might turn up critical evidence to prove who orchestrated the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.” [New York Times, 10/9/2001] Justice Department communications director Mindy Tucker responds to the New York Times article, saying it “is not accurate,” and that the investigation into 9/11 “has not been curtailed, it is ongoing.” [United Press International, 10/9/2001]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, John Ashcroft, Mindy Tucker, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Robert S. Mueller III

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

It is reported that Attorney General John Ashcroft and his Justice Department is assuming control of all terrorism-related prosecutions from the US Attorney’s office in New York, which has had a highly successful record of accomplishment in prosecuting cases connected to bin Laden. 15 of the 22 suspects listed on a most wanted terrorism list a month after 9/11 had already been indicted by the New York office in recent years. A former federal prosecutor says of the New York office, “For eight years, they have developed an expertise in these prosecutions and the complex facts that surround these groups. If ever there was a case where you’d want to play to your strength, this is it.” [New York Times, 10/11/2001] A grand jury in the New York district began investigating the 9/11 attacks one week after 9/11. But media accounts of this grand jury’s activity stop by late October 2001 and there appears to be no other grand jury taking its place (see September 18, 2001).

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, Civil Liberties

Mohammed Azmath, left, and Syed Gul Mohammad Shah/ Ayub Ali  Khan, right.Mohammed Azmath, left, and Syed Gul Mohammad Shah/ Ayub Ali Khan, right. [Source: Associated Press]The New York Times reports that, although 830 people have been arrested in the 9/11 terrorism investigation (a number that eventually exceeds between 1,200 and 2,000 (see November 5, 2001), there is no evidence that anyone now in custody was a conspirator in the 9/11 attacks. Furthermore, “none of the nearly 100 people still being sought by the [FBI] is seen as a major suspect.” Of all the people arrested, only four, Zacarias Moussaoui, Ayub Ali Khan, Mohammed Azmath, and Nabil al-Marabh, are likely connected to al-Qaeda. [New York Times, 10/21/2001] Three of those are later cleared of ties to al-Qaeda. After being kept in solitary confinement for more than eight months without seeing a judge or being assigned a lawyer, al-Marabh pleads guilty to the minor charge of entering the United States illegally (see September 3, 2002) and is deported to Syria (see January 2004). There is considerable evidence al-Marabh did have ties to al-Qaeda and even the 9/11 plot (see September 2000; January 2001-Summer 2001; January 2001-Summer 2001; Spring 2001; Early September 2001). [Washington Post, 6/12/2002; Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 8/27/2002] On September 12, 2002, after a year in solitary confinement and four months before he was able to contact a lawyer, Mohammed Azmath pleads guilty to one count of credit card fraud, and is released with time served. Ayub Ali Khan, whose real name is apparently Syed Gul Mohammad Shah, is given a longer sentence for credit card fraud, but is released and deported by the end of 2002. [Village Voice, 9/25/2002; New York Times, 12/31/2002] By December 2002, only 6 are known to still be in custody, and none have been charged with any terrorist acts (see December 11, 2002). On September 24, 2001, Newsweek reported that “the FBI has privately estimated that more than 1,000 individuals—most of them foreign nationals—with suspected terrorist ties are currently living in the United States.” [Newsweek, 10/1/2001]

Entity Tags: Nabil al-Marabh, Al-Qaeda, Mohammed Azmath, Syed Gul Mohammad Shah, Zacarias Moussaoui, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, Civil Liberties

The Justice Department announces that it has put 1,182 people into secret custody since 9/11. Most all of them are from the Middle East or South Asia. [New York Times, 8/3/2002] After this it stops releasing new numbers, but human rights groups believe the total number could be as high as 2,000. [Independent, 2/26/2002] Apparently this is roughly the peak for secret arrests, and eventually most of the prisoners are released, and none are charged with any terrorist acts (see July 3, 2002; December 11, 2002). Their names will still not have been revealed (see August 2, 2002).

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, Civil Liberties

Attorney General John Ashcroft announces that the Justice Department is now on what he calls a “wartime footing.” The agency is revamping its priorities to refocus its efforts on battling terrorism. According to Ashcroft, a plan, which he intends to submit to Congress, mandates a reorganization of the Justice Department, as well as component agencies such as the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), both of which will be overhauled to take a more aggressive stance in the effort to ward off terrorism. The plan will take five years to fully implement. Ashcroft is reticent about the details of the plans, but some proposals include:
bullet Allowing federal prison authorities to eavesdrop on prisoners conferring with their attorneys, effectively voiding the attorney-client privilege, if those prisoners are considered to be a threat to national security;
bullet Redirecting 10 percent of the Justice Department’s budget, or about $2.5 billion, to counterterrorism efforts;
bullet Restructuring the INS to focus on identifying, deporting, and prosecuting illegal aliens, with a special focus on potential terrorists.
The eavesdropping privilege causes an immediate stir among civil libertarians and Constitutional scholars. Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker notes that the order has already been published in the Federal Register and is, essentially, the law. Information gathered by authorities during such eavesdropping sessions would not be used in criminal prosecutions of the suspects, Tucker promises. “The team that listens is not involved in the criminal proceedings,” she says. “There’s a firewall there.” Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says he agrees with the general idea of refocusing the agency on terrorism, but suggests Ashcroft’s plan be reviewed by an existing commission that is now examining the FBI’s counterintelligence operations. That commission is headed by former FBI Director William Webster. Leahy’s fellow senator, Charles Grassley (R-IA), says: “As with any reorganization, the devil will be in the details. I hope for new accountability measures, not just structural changes.” Ashcroft says: “Defending our nation and defending the citizens of America against terrorist attacks is now our first and overriding priority. To fulfill this mission, we are devoting all the resources necessary to eliminate terrorist networks, to prevent terrorist attacks, and to bring to justice all those who kill Americans in the name of murderous ideologies.” [New York Times, 11/3/2001; Rich, 2006, pp. 35] “It is amazing to me that Ashcroft is essentially trying to dismantle the bureau,” says a former FBI executive director. “They don’t know their history and they are not listening to people who do.” [Harper's, 12/4/2001]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mindy Tucker, John Ashcroft, US Immigration and Naturalization Service, Patrick J. Leahy, Charles Grassley, US Department of Justice, William H. Webster

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Former FBI director William Webster and eight former FBI officials publicly criticize Attorney General John Ashcroft’s post-9/11 policies (see Spring 2001, September 12, 2001, October 9, 2001, October 11, 2001, and November 9, 2001). The criticisms come less over Ashcroft’s civil liberties abrogations and more because Ashcroft’s policies violate law-enforcement common sense. By capturing suspected low-level terrorists in public sweeps, the Justice Department and the FBI lose the ability to track those suspects to their superiors in their organizations and groups. (None of the 900 or so suspects rounded up in the Ashcroft sweeps will be charged with any 9/11-related crimes—see October 20, 2001 and November 5, 2001.) [Rich, 2006, pp. 35-36] Webster says that long-term surveillance and undercover operations are much more effective than mass arrests. [Harper's, 12/4/2001] The former FBI officials also ridicule Ashcroft’s idea of interviewing 5,000 Middle Eastern men (none of whom will ever be convicted of a terrorism-related crime). Kenneth Walton, who founded the FBI’s first Joint Terrorism Task Force, says: “It’s the Perry Mason school of law enforcement, where you put them in there and they confess. Well, it just doesn’t work that way. You say, ‘Tell me everything you know,’ and they give you the recipe to Mom’s chicken soup.… It is ridiculous.” Most of those “invited” to interview never showed up, the officials note, and those who did merely answered “yes” or “no” to rote questions. [Time, 11/29/2001; Rich, 2006, pp. 35-36] Many local police officers are reluctant to participate in Ashcroft’s public sweeps. Eugene, Oregon police spokeswoman Pam Alejandere tells reporters, “Give us some legitimate reason to talk to the people—other than that they’re from the Middle East—and we’ll be glad to.” [Time, 11/29/2001]

Entity Tags: William H. Webster, John Ashcroft, Pam Alejandere, Kenneth Walton, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The cover of ‘Bush at War.’The cover of ‘Bush at War.’ [Source: Amazon (.co.uk)]Author and famed reporter Bob Woodward’s book Bush at War is published.
Unprecedented Access - Woodward, who made his reputation uncovering the Watergate conspiracy from 30 years before (see June 15, 1974), is no longer an unknown young reporter working to find sources that will confide in him. Now he is an established Washington insider. For this book, Woodward was granted “unprecedented access” to Bush administration officials, including notes from National Security Council meetings and two long interviews with President Bush himself, far more access than even that granted to the 9/11 Commission and Congressional inquiries into other events of interest. Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich will find this level of access inexplicable, saying that “it makes no sense for an administration that has jealously guarded its executive privilege to allow a reporter the access it denies to members of Congress.”
Hagiographic Account - The Observer’s Peter Preston calls Woodward’s book a “more-or-less instant study of the White House after 9/11,” and writes that while Woodward could have created “a classic of investigative journalism,” instead he gave us a compendium of “painful, obsessively useless detail” that generally paints the picture the White House wants painted. If Woodward’s book is to be believed, Preston writes, the Colin Powell moderates and the Dick Cheney hawks “had their snappy moments, but they’re OK-ish now.” CIA Director George Tenet “is a far-sighted man” who not only immediately divined that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks, but while the towers were still burning, wondered if the attacks had anything to do with “that guy taking pilot training,” Zacarias Moussaoui. Iraq war planner General Tommy Franks usually feels “finer than the hair on a frog’s back.” Former President Clinton’s “weak-willed men used to ‘pound the desert’ ineffectually, while his brilliant successors like to hit something, if at all possible.” And President Bush “is bright and talented and eloquent and decisive,” who runs National Security Council meetings himself and knows all he needs to know about the state of the world (Woodward quotes Bush as saying, “I’m not a textbook player—I’m a gut player”). Both Preston and author Frank Rich accuse Woodward of “burnishing” Bush’s image at the expense of the truth. A few potentially embarrassing tidbits manage to poke their way through what both Preston and Rich call the “hagiography,” mostly relating to senior administration officials’ lack of knowledge about Afghan tribal politics and the lack of evidence tying Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 attacks. But all told, the book seems to tell a clear story: where Clinton was indecisive, Bush is forthright; where Clinton muddled around with bin Laden and Middle East terrorism, Bush is taking the war straight into the heart of the Islamist redoubt. [Observer, 12/1/2002; Rich, 2006, pp. 66-67] The book gives such a favorable impression of Bush and his administration that the Republican National Committee will recommend it on its Web site. [New York Times, 11/12/2006]
Selective Reporting - The administration officials who talked to Woodward are painted in largely glowing terms, while those who did not (including Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security head Tom Ridge) are, in Preston’s words, “written out of the script.” Potentially embarrassing incidents such as the administration’s complete failure to find the source of the anthrax mailings of 2001 (see September 17-18, 2001 and October 5-November 21, 2001) and the ineffective roundup of thousands of Middle Eastern “terror suspects” after 9/11 (see Late November, 2001) are ignored entirely. The pivotal Afghan battle of Tora Bora, where bin Laden was allowed to escape US clutches (see Mid-November 2001-Mid-December 2001), gets two paragraphs. [Observer, 12/1/2002; Rich, 2006, pp. 66-67] Guardian reviewer Peter Symon notes that Woodward even fails to ask the most “obvious questions” about the 9/11 attacks, instead accepting the administration’s accounts of events and its responses as absolute and unquestionable. [Guardian, 1/29/2003] Rich notes that Woodward grants Bush and his officials tremendous individual credence, taking their word on one issue after another without question: for example, when Bush calls investigative journalist Seymour Hersh “a liar,” Woodward takes Bush’s word without giving Hersh a chance to respond. More generally, Woodward never asks the obvious follow-up questions. Bush explains why the US didn’t attack Afghanistan and Iraq simultaneously after the 9/11 attacks: “If we tried to do too many things… militarily, then… the lack of focus would have been a huge risk.” Rich notes, “The follow-up question that was not to be found in Bush at War was simple enough: If it was a huge risk to split our focus between Saddam and al-Qaeda then, why wasn’t it now?” Preston concludes: “Maybe the Woodward of three decades ago would have given [the Bush administration more intense scrutiny]. No longer. Today’s Woodward, eight bestsellers later, skates breathlessly from interview to interview and notepad to notepad without ever, seemingly, stopping to think, ‘Why am I being told all this? What does it mean?’ It isn’t investigation, just cross-referenced compilation.” [Observer, 12/1/2002; Rich, 2006, pp. 66-67]

Entity Tags: Peter Preston, National Security Council, John Ashcroft, Frank Rich, Bob Woodward, Bush administration (43), Newt Gingrich, Thomas Franks, Peter Symon, George W. Bush, Republican National Committee, Seymour Hersh, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda

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