Former New Jersey attorney general John Farmer served as senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, tasked with investigating the government response to the attacks. His new book, The Ground Truth, picks up where the commission left off taking a deeper look at the government's disorganized response to the attacks and exposing officials determined to hide their failings from the inquiry. Farmer uses newly released transcripts and recordings to cast doubt on the official version of events and show that the U.S. government was struggling to figure out which planes were hijacked and where they were going, even hours after the initial plane hit the World Trade Center. He spoke with TIME about the attacks and how to improve the U.S. response in a crisis.
What was your involvement with the 9/11 Commission?
I was assigned to head a team looking at the day of 9/11 itself and our response to the attack. I thought it would be one of the easier stories to put together because there was so much already written and broadcast about it. But as we started to get access to primary source material, the stories didn't match. And they didn't match in some pretty significant ways. What became clear was that during the time that the attacks were occurring, there was a complete disconnect between the national command structure and the defenders on the ground, who had to improvise a response based on faulty information.
Why do you think government proved to be so inept at dealing with both the terrorist threat and the actual attack?
The chaos that occurred on 9/11 was really inseparable from the various policy decisions and communication lapses and failures to share information throughout the government in the preceding decade. It all revolved around what I call an estrangement between the people running the departments and agencies and the people who were actually operational. [Former FBI Director] Louis Freeh could identify terrorism as a major threat, but that imperative got lost somewhere in the bureaucracy. The same thing happened throughout the government. It's really foolhardy to single out individual agency heads as we tend to do in our culture when really, I think the problem is deeper the problem is the difficulty of orchestrating a change in mission when government is structured a certain way.
Yet after the 9/11 commission report, government responded by creating even more bureaucracy.
People do what they're comfortable doing. The government was comfortable creating a new Department of Homeland Security, and so that's what they did. If you look at the 9/11 Commission's recommendations and which ones were adopted and which ones weren't, the ones most critical of the bureaucracy were the ones that weren't done.
In the book, you draw a lot of parallels between the response at 9/11 and the response to Hurricane Katrina.
The chaos of 9/11 has been ascribed in large degree to the fact that the nature of the attack was a surprise. We knew there was a terrorist threat; we didn't know it would become manifest in this particular way. What was different with Katrina was that it was an event that had been anticipated and planned for in the gulf region for decades. So whatever you can say about the response to Katrina, it was not a consequence of surprise. With Katrina, you had the same kind of estrangement between officials at the top, who just like on 9/11 were largely talking to themselves on conference calls and passing a lot of flawed information. Their decisions, in turn, were not being communicated to the people on the ground, who were left to improvise.
Why do you think officials tried to obscure some of the faulty decision making and communication on 9/11?
It's almost a culture of concealment, for lack of a better word. You have someone like Sandy Berger, who by all accounts is a decent guy, taking rather extreme measures to remove documents from the National Archives and hide them at a construction site where he could retrieve them later and destroy them. There were interviews made at the FAA's New York center the night of 9/11 and those tapes were destroyed. The CIA tapes of the interrogations were destroyed. The story of 9/11 itself, to put it mildly, was distorted and was completely different from the way things happened.
Some of the distortions you've discussed have fed various conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11. Did you ever see any evidence of a conspiracy?
One of the harmful byproducts of not telling the truth about what happened is that it did fuel all sorts of conspiracy theories about what might have happened. If what the government is telling you isn't true, then the truth could be anything. But my experience suggests that government lacks competence to carry off an elaborate conspiracy like what is being talked about with 9/11. I think there is evidence that the truth wasn't told and that at least some of that was deliberate but it did not occur on any sort of scale that people are imagining.
What sort of lessons does government still have to learn, based on the response to both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina?
We have to figure out how to structure government response so that people on the ground are not left to improvise but have the information they need to make critical decisions. We know from Katrina and 9/11 that in the first critical moments, oftentimes civilians are on their own. And yet there's been no systematic attempt to educate everyone over the age of 12 in the rudiments of crisis response. The evidence is pretty strong from Katrina and 9/11 that the people who were versed in the basics of emergency response fared better and were able to help their fellow citizens.