- A US Air Force officer in California recently accused
President Bush of deliberately allowing the September 11 terror attacks
to take place. The officer has been relieved of his command and faces further
discipline. The controversy surrounding Lt. Col. Steve Butler's letter
to the editor, in which he affirmed that Bush did nothing to warn the American
people because he "needed this war on terrorism," received scant
coverage in the media.
- Universally ignored by the press, however, was that the
officer was not merely expressing a personal opinion. He was in a position
to have direct knowledge of contacts between the US military and some of
the hijackers in the period before the terrorist attacks that destroyed
the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon.
- Lieutenant Colonel Butler, who wrote in a letter to the
editor of the Monterey County Herald charging that "Bush knew about
the impending attacks," was vice chancellor for student affairs at
the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California " a US military
facility that one or more of the hijackers reportedly attended during the
1990s. In his May 26 letter to the newspaper, Butler responded to Bush
supporters, who had written the paper opposing the congressional investigation
into the September 11 events. He wrote:
- "Of course President Bush knew about the impending
attacks on America. He did nothing to warn the American people because
he needed this war on terrorism. His daddy had Saddam and he needed Osama.
His presidency was going nowhere. He wasn't elected by the American people,
but placed in the Oval Office by a conservative supreme court. The economy
was sliding into the usual Republican pits and he needed something on which
to hang his presidency.... This guy is a joke. What is sleazy and contemptible
is the President of the United States not telling the American people what
he knows for political gain."
- The letter provoked immediate retaliation against the
24-year Air Force veteran. Butler was transferred from the Monterey installation
and threatened with court martial under Article 88 of the military code,
which prohibits officers from publicly using "contemptuous words"
against the president and other officials.
- Last week the Air Force announced it had concluded its
investigation of the case and suggested Butler would likely face "nonjudicial
punishment," such as a fine or a letter of reprimand, rather than
a stiffer sentence. If he refuses this punishment, however, Butler, who
is ready to retire, could still face a court martial.
- The issue is a particularly sensitive one for the Pentagon
and the Bush administration. While many people believe that the Bush administration
viewed September 11 as a priceless opportunity to implement an ultra-reactionary
program of militarism and repression, Butler is different. His military
assignment brought him into contact with at least one of the alleged hijackers.
- Shortly after September 11, several US news outlets reported
that Saeed AlghamdiÑnamed as taking part in the hijacking of United
Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in western PennsylvaniaÑhad taken
courses at the Defense Language Institute, the US military's primary foreign
language facility, where Butler was a leading officer overseeing students
(essentially, dean of students).
- Alghamdi, a 41-year-old Saudi national, was one of several
alleged hijackers, including accused ringleader Mohamed Atta, who reportedly
trained at US military facilities, according to a series of articles published
between September 15 and 17 in the Washington Post, Newsweek magazine,
the New York Times and several other newspapers.
- On September 15, Newsweek reported: "U.S. military
sources have given the FBI information that suggests five of the alleged
hijackers of the planes used in Tuesday's terror attacks received training
at secure U.S. military installations in the 1990s."
- The magazine said that Saeed Alghamdi was among three
who had taken flight training at the Navy Air Station in Pensacola, FloridaÑknown
as the "cradle of US Navy aviation"Ñwhich also administers
training of foreign aviation students for the Navy. The magazine, citing
"a high-ranking Pentagon official" as its source, reported that
two othersÑboth former Saudi air force pilots who had come to the
USÑalso attended such facilities. One received tactical training
at the Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama and the other language training
at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Over the next few
days, more detailed information appeared in several other newspapers. A
September 16 article in the New York Times reported:
- "Three of the men identified as the hijackers in
the attacks on Tuesday have the same names as alumni of American military
schools, the authorities said today. The men were identified as Mohamed
Atta, Abdulaziz al-Omari and Saeed al-Ghamdi.
- "The Defense Department said Mr. Atta had gone to
the International Officers School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama;
Mr. al-Omari to the Aerospace Medical School at Brooks Air Force Base in
Texas; and Mr. al-Ghamdi to the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio
in Monterey, Calif."
- The Knight Ridder news service also reported that Saeed
Alghamdi had been to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey and the
Associated Press cited Air Force sources indicating that more than one
of the hijackers may have received language training at the installation.
The media dropped the story after the Air Force officials issued a cursory
statement aimed at preventing any further inquiry into links between the
US military and the terrorists. While acknowledging that some of the suspected
terrorists "had similar names to foreign alumni of U.S. military courses,"
the statement said discrepancies in biographical information, such as birth
dates and name spellings, "indicate we are probably not talking about
the same people." Without providing any substantiation, the statement
suggested the hijackers may have stolen the identities of foreign military
personnel who received training at the bases.
- Following this less than convincing explanation, the
Air Force refused to release the ages, countries of origin or any other
information about the individuals whose names matched those of the alleged
hijackersÑmaking it virtually impossible to verify the claim that
these were not the same individuals.
- Attorney General John Ashcroft and the FBI also refused
to make public any information. Asked by Florida Senator Bill Nelson whether
any of the hijackers were trained at the Pensacola base, the Justice Department
refused to give a definitive answer, and the FBI said it could not respond
until it could "sort through something complicated and difficult,"
according to the senator's representative.
- To receive such training, the hijackers would have had
connections to Arab governments that enjoyed close relations with the US
government. A former Navy pilot at the Pensacola air station told Newsweek
that during his years on the base, "We always, always, always trained
other countries' pilots. When I was there two decades ago, it was Iranians.
The Shah was in power. Whoever the country du jour is, that's whose pilots
- Military officials acknowledged that the US has a longstanding
agreement with Saudi Arabia to train pilots for the kingdom's national
guard. Candidates receive air combat training and other courses on several
Army and Navy bases, in a program paid for by Saudi Arabia. Significantly
15 of the 19 hijackers were believed to be Saudi nationals.
- According to its web site, the Defense Language Institute
Foreign Language Center in MontereyÑfounded in 1946 as the Military
Intelligence Service Language SchoolÑ"provides foreign language
services to Department of Defense, government agencies and foreign governments"
to support "national security interests and global operational needs."
- As vice chancellor for student affairs, Butler had extensive
contact with students, according to Pete Randazzo, a close associate of
the officer and president of the National Association of Government Employees
Local 1690, which represents civilian employees at the language school.
- "He would go and have lunch with the students, sit
in their classrooms. He was a very caring officer over there," Randazzo
told the Herald. Butler was also navigator of a B-52 bomber during the
Persian Gulf War, which made it likely he was familiar with Saudi military
operations, given the close relations between the US and Saudi Arabia during
the 1990-91 war against Iraq.
- In the 1990s, several officers were disciplined under
Article 88 of the military code for publicly denouncing Clinton, including
an Air Force general who went so far as to ridicule the president as a
"gay-loving, pot-smoking, draft-dodging womanizer" in front of
250 people at an awards banquet.
- With Butler's comments, however, the Pentagon faces a
more delicate problem. The Lieutenant Colonel may well know considerably
more than he is saying about US military-intelligence apparatus involvement
in the September 11 events, and, on the eve of his retirement, took the
opportunity to set the record straight.