“We need to honor all those who perished on those flights and also honor those that responded and answered the call, not just on 9/11, but in the 20 years since.”
In this episode, Kash Patel and Jan Jekielek look back at the harrowing events that led up to the worst terrorist attack in American history, the War on Terror that followed, and what the United States should do now.
“We have to be more forward-looking and not just reactionary as terrorist acts occur,” Patel says.
Kash Patel: Hello, everybody, and welcome back to Kash’s Corner.
Jan Jekielek: So, Kash, I’ve been watching “One Day in America,” this frankly gripping, unbelievable documentary that National Geographic made, a six-part series. I’ve watched four of them now. Basically, 9/11 from the perspective of people who survived 9/11. Unbelievable. It’s the 20th anniversary of 9/11 that’s coming up. I think we’re gonna have to talk about this.
Mr. Patel: It’s not just the 20-year anniversary, but that means an entire generation of Americans have been born and become adults since that tragic day and I think it’s worth time to discuss and educate some folks on our history there.
Mr. Jekielek: I guess a lot of people remember where they were when this was happening. I remember where I was. I was in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, kind of in the midst of what ended up being towards the end of a degree that I was doing there. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. But at the same time, I was a bit distant from it compared to certainly, New Yorkers, but the people that were actually there on the site, and of course, Americans in general.
Mr. Patel: Yeah, I mean, look, as a born and raised New Yorker, 9/11 hits you a little harder maybe than others. Where was I? I was a senior at the University of Richmond in my college dorm room with my roommates and we had on one of those old televisions with the big boxes.
We got messages in those days on the computer to turn on the TV. It was eight o’clock in the morning, and we turned it on. That’s where we saw the coverage of that day. And as a 21, 22 year old kid about to graduate college, it was surreal, is putting it mildly, and also just completely tragic. But being a New Yorker, then your mind runs to the people you grew up with—family and friends. It was not something that you can prepare for.
Mr. Jekielek: Yeah, I’ve gone through four of the six, I guess you could call it a mini series of this “One Day in America Documentary” told through the eyes of these people that you’re describing; a few of the first responders that actually survived. There weren’t many of them. Many of them perished. One person I just started watching was one of only 14 people that survived the collapse of both towers. I don’t fully understand entirely what that means even.
Mr. Patel: I think I know who you’re talking about and what he’s saying. He was one of 14 people who survived the collapse of the Marriott building next door, next to the towers that was connected to One World Trade.
Mr. Jekielek: I see.
Mr. Patel: Yeah. Luckily, because of the first responders, as everybody was running out of One World Trade, these heroes were running in. Literally thousands of people survived because they went up the fire well and up the staircase as the building was burning to get people out, and they did an unbelievable job on that day.
You can’t even train for something like that, you just, you know, I’m biased, but when you’re born in New York and you’re raised in that community, that’s what you do. You just don’t get said no to—it’s in your blood.
Mr. Jekielek: And there was something else that kind of came through in there and it was interesting, you would expect- Of course there was a ton of panic and so forth, but a number of the people were relating the fact that people were genuinely helping each other through the process.
Mr. Patel: Yeah.
Mr. Jekielek: I’m talking about the people, civilians up in the towers and the ones that made it of course.
Mr. Patel: From just the very next day, there was obviously a need for blood transfusions to treat the thousands of people that were injured. The hospitals literally were turning away people who were willing to donate blood because they said they had all they needed the next day.
To me, that was just a tribute to how America responds. Not just our law enforcement and our first responders, but the civilians who responded and just said, “How can we help?” And that’s how they immediately started helping. It was one of those things that you just remember, and it never leaves you.
Mr. Jekielek: So approximately 3000 people perished and another 6,000 were injured and I suppose, were recipients of these transfusions.
Mr. Patel: On that day, 2,977 Americans lost their lives in the three attacks. And what’s probably not tracked as well is the 20 years since, because of the toxicity of the fumes from the planes hitting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, thousands of other people have lost their lives due to 9/11 related illnesses. So the death toll probably approaches close to 8,000 in the 20 years since. That’s a lot. That is the single greatest terrorist attack in U.S. history.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s dive into the past a little bit here. You know, like essentially everything that kind of led up to 9/11—this is something that we’ve been discussing.
Mr. Patel: Absolutely. Look, that’s why I think this is so important. 9/11 didn’t happen on 9/11. 9/11 was in the works and being planned for years. I would take us back to the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 by this guy called Ramzi Yousef. That was a car bomb or a van bomb that exploded underneath one of the World Trade Centers in the parking garage. And thankfully, the buildings did not collapse. There was not a significant loss of life, but that was one of the first terrorist acts in New York City.
And, if you go five years down the road to 1998, there were the twin embassy bombings of the U.S. embassies in East Africa, in Kenya and Tanzania, where hundreds of people were killed, including U.S. citizens who are serving in those embassies. Both of those attacks were engineered by people who would either affiliate later with Osama Bin Laden, who is obviously the 9/11 architect, or folks that he helped train.
But back in the nineties, Al-Qaeda wasn’t the Al-Qaeda that we would come to know in 2001. Osama bin Laden and this other guy, named Iman al-Zawahiri, his deputy, were building this terrorist organization. Originally, first by setting up shop in Sudan and then later Osama bin Laden would move to Afghanistan, where he would link up with the Taliban. And there, they would allow Al-Qaeda to become an international terrorist organization, or that was their plan.
Then 9/11 is sort of the culmination of it, unfortunately, but there was an event that happened that a lot of people don’t talk about just before 9/11. It was a bombing of the USS Cole in the Gulf of Aden in the Middle East. A number of U.S. Navy sailors lost their lives in that attack, which was also perpetrated by Al-Qaeda at the behest of Osama bin Laden.
So these events were being planned against the United States, both on American soil and overseas against Americans for a number of years. Part of the 9/11 commission stuff, which we’ll get to later, was to figure out why didn’t we prevent 9/11? But that’s a little bit of the history that leads up to 9/11, the genesis of Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and the reach that they ended up ultimately having.
If you asked anyone before 9/11 whether somebody could fly a commercial airliner into the World Trade Center, people would have thought you were rightfully crazy. And then, they did it and the world stopped. We had to rejigger how we protected this nation. I think that was a process that took decades and we’re still tweaking it.
Mr. Jekielek: So, why was the USS Cole attack so significant? You said it’s often overlooked, but important.
Mr. Patel: Because it was another way that Al-Qaeda attacked America overseas. What they were showing in that attack was they could attack the United States military directly and not just at home. They had done the ’93 bombings in a World Trade Center bombing. They had done the ’98 bombings in Africa against the U.S. embassies.
And just a quick reminder, U.S. embassies are American soil. They’re just overseas and they killed Americans. So, they were showing their reach and from their perspective, they were delivering a blow to the American military apparatus directly—killing American military service members.
So, I think they were unfortunately showing the measure of their resolve against America by attacking the Cole and also, why it’s key is because so many individuals involved in the attack on the Cole were individuals associated directly with bin Laden and Al-Qaeda at that time. It was just before the attacks on September 11th.
Mr. Jekielek: So, as a little bit of background also in terms of the findings of the 9/11 commission, these attacks on U.S. soil were planned well in advance. It was obviously all done from U.S. soil.
Mr. Patel: Yeah. So for 9/11 specifically, there were 19 hijackers that hijacked the three aircraft that struck the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the airplane in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Those hijackers, we would learn later from the 9/11 commission, were trained directly at the behest of Osama bin Laden in places like Afghanistan and other regions in the Middle East. Then they had to be sent to America.
These individuals boarded domestic flights. All of these flights were domestic flights—American Airlines Flight 11 that crashed into the North Tower. Excuse me, four flights, because there were two planes that went into the World Trade Center. So, four flights total were hijacked. The one that crashed into the Pentagon was another domestic flight, and the fourth was the one that crashed into the field in Shanksville was another domestic flight.
So Al-Qaeda had to plan an operation to move these individuals into America—these terrorists on American soil. Allow them to assimilate to American culture so they wouldn’t be spotted. We did miss them. Then figure out how to board a plane, hijack it, and literally fly it into buildings and towers.
So, that’s an extensive operation for a terrorist organization that operates on the other side of the world in Afghanistan. How they got in was another failure of our national security apparatus—putting the attacks themselves aside.
Mr. Jekielek: You know, we’ve been hearing that some of the findings that have up to now been classified, the plan is I guess, within six months or something like this, to have some declassification to that material. But maybe you can kind of refresh our memory. Like how did this actually happen? How is this possible?
Mr. Patel: Right. What we had to do was launch an investigation that searched across the United States government and an oversight investigation falls to Congress. They created the 9/11 commission—a bipartisan congressional inquiry as to how a 9/11 was perpetuated on American soil. What security measures failed, what intelligence measures failed, and how are these terrorists able to attack us here at home in America in such a spectacular fashion.
So, that was the purpose of the commission. It was also, let’s not just highlight the problems, but how do we fix them? And from a congressional perspective, from a guy who ran a congressional investigation, the 9/11 Commission was a true bipartisan commission that did, I think you’ll find over 95 percent close to unanimity that it was really well done, an excellent work product, and something that could be released more publicly to the American people to say, “This is how we were attacked and this is how we are going to change going forward.”
And of course, there’s classified components like any investigation to all that. But I do think Democrats and Republicans got together and issued a report that was troubling in what it found in terms of our lacking and failures that led up to 9/11. But also impressive in how they responded together as a nation to fix it so that doesn’t ever happen again.
Mr. Jekielek: How did these people actually manage to get in and take over these planes?
Mr. Patel: There were 19 hijackers that ultimately got in. Many of them flew in; some of them crossed the border illegally, fake documents, and then planted themselves in American cities and towns. And certain individuals were close to military installations, others were just living in their, what they would call normal American lives, but obviously receiving information directly from Al-Qaeda overseas on how to perpetuate these attacks.
So the report unveils how they entered the U.S., how they hid in the U.S. somewhat in plain sight, and how they received information to carry out these attacks and resources to do so. It was unfortunately a shocking failure of multiple agencies to allow them, just this group of individuals as terrorists to come into the country and then another even bigger failure to allow them to carry out these attacks.
As you know now, airport security was totally changed after 9/11. You and I are old enough to remember flying before versus flying right after then. It was completely revamped—rightly so. And continues to be revamped so that no airplane is ever hijacked again or blown up over American skies. I think we have done a good job, but we can still do more.
Mr. Jekielek: Yeah, since that time I’ve lost a lot of pocket knives. So, a question that always comes to my mind is, it’s incredible that these people were sufficiently skilled to actually fly these planes as they did, right?
Mr. Patel: Some of them were trained partly here in America, in aviation. That was another finding of the 9/11 commission. And some of them were trained overseas and brought that talent here. And you’re right, to actually hijack a commercial airliner while it’s in flight and then direct it to crash into buildings and American people is something that takes an enormous amount of strategizing effort.
Mr. Jekielek: And sophistication.
Mr. Patel: And sophistication for, unfortunately, lack of a better word for that. They were here and planning for years. That’s why we highlighted the World Trade Center bombing in ’93, the embassy bombings and the USS Cole. Al-Qaeda was forming itself to be an international terrorist organization under bin Laden. They were showing their efficacy on the world stage and they were honing their specialties to create 9/11.
Mr. Jekielek: So, I guess this has led to the 20 years in Afghanistan of course that we’ve been discussing recently quite a bit. The effect was profound and, you could argue this is an area where these terrorists actually succeeded. It led to the Patriot act, you know? Dramatic reduction in civil liberties. It led to, you know, weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist in Iraq and could be used as a pretext that led to all these things that were not, many people would argue certainly were not, you know, the best things for America, right? In response to trying to deal with this threat.
Mr. Patel: Well, I think in response, that’s just it. America was looking for a response. So if we look back at it 20 years since, we can maybe criticize some of the actions that were taken, right? You know, whether or not the Patriot Act was the right thing to do. I think it provided valuable response from a congressional perspective and then a law enforcement and military perspective to allow the commander in chief to exercise actions against terrorism.
So, I do think there’s a lot of good in there, but like anything that is reactionary from a tragedy like 9/11, we don’t get it all right—right away. But as a former terrorism prosecutor who has utilized the Patriot Act, who has utilized the FISA application process and the FISC, I’ll be the first guy to tell you that the FISA process needs to stay.
It is valuable in targeting terrorists and preventing terrorist acts against Americans, both here and abroad, and our allies, as also the individual who led the Russia Gate investigation into FISA abuse during a presidential election. I will also tell you that the FISA system needs reform.
It’s not perfect and I think there are many ways to reform that court that we can get into later, but in terms of utilizing intelligence and sharing intelligence, it’s gotten better. How we present it to a foreign intelligence surveillance court to protect America is a good process, but not perfect.
I think the Patriot Act has largely been successful in response, but not perfect and we need to continue to change the ways in which we engage the war on terror. We have to be more forward-looking and not just reactionary as terrorist acts occur, and make sure that those acts never happen again. But ultimately you need a congress that’s willing to adapt legislation and a commander in chief to sign that.
Then, the current environment doesn’t bode well for too many changes in the national security arena, but I think ultimately with time, we will be able to get back to increasing American security while also not decreasing Americans’ privileges and rights under the constitution. I think we’ve done a good job in balancing that act, but it needs some more work.
Mr. Jekielek: So, my intention isn’t to second guess the decisions that were done there, but like objectively, the civil liberties of Americans and frankly, a lot of other people in a lot of other free countries were reduced significantly.
Mr. Patel: Yeah.
Mr. Jekielek: Right, and then there were these, for example, what we discovered years later, significant questionable intelligence was used to justify big decisions to the American public and the world, right?
Mr. Patel: Well, there’s a lot in that. In terms of a, from just an airport security perspective to the Patriot Act to FISAs and then ultimately to invading Iraq, those are all separate things that were addressed as a result of 9/11.
And for those kids who were born right around 9/11, or are just turning into adults and probably graduating college soon, asking why airport security is so extensive and why there are so many restrictions when they travel using mass transportation, not just domestically but overseas as well.
It’s because the world responded to 9/11 in terms of how it handles security screening procedures at transportation hubs like airports around the world. Those processes kept changing. It also led to the Patriot Act, as we talked about, and the implementation of stricter intelligence apparatus is being utilized against terrorism, but it also created, I think, correctly, a stronger ability for the U.S. to respond at the military law enforcement level against acts of terrorism to prevent them because that’s the ultimate goal, finding them and preventing them and not reacting to them as we had to do during 9/11.
But I understand over the course of time, people have found flaws in the response to 9/11, be it in the Patriot Act, be it in how we went into Iraq, or be it an airport security measures because they’re not 100 percent effective. They can’t be, unfortunately, and we’ve had individuals such as the Underwear Bomber who flew on an international flight into Michigan and luckily his device didn’t go off after 9/11.
So, obviously we missed something there and we are constantly learning from that and those types of incidents and trying to prevent another airliner from going down or crashing into a building. It’s a difficult situation to juxtaposition your civil liberties versus preventing another 9/11. It’s a very hard balance and I think the 9/11 commission tried to address a lot of it.
Mr. Jekielek: At this point, is America safer than it was 20 years ago from terrorism?
Mr. Patel: I think so and I think that we have responded to a lot of terrorists threats and we’ve shut a lot of them down that the American public probably doesn’t really know about, unless you’re following federal court cases about terrorism prosecutions, which I myself handled about the application of FISA in those cases to prevent acts of terrorism on American soil.
Unless you’re following that, you probably don’t know the extent of the 9/11 response by America, and it was thorough and it was, I think, rightly so, effective in most places. Now, that’s different from the military operations overseas in response to 9/11 and how we went into Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria or Somalia or what have you in the name of the war on terror.
And unfortunately, terrorist groups grew after 9/11—they didn’t shrink. And you had other groups created, like ISIS, which ballooned and ended up taking over in terms of a numbers perspective, the number of ISIS fighters versus the number of Al-Qaeda fighters.
And so, you have to constantly respond to those situations. It can’t be a static defense posture, it has to change. Your intelligence posture has to change. Your military posture has to change. And whether or not the commander in chief says, “Yes, we’re going into another war zone.” That decision-making process needs to adapt with the times.
Mr. Jekielek: So, Kash, I mean this might sound overly simplistic, but did the war on terror work?
Mr. Patel: I think it has been far more effective than not effective, than ineffective, because we, as someone who ended up in the national security arena, as someone who was a terrorism prosecutor, a civilian in the military and then held positions at the White House, and I ended up running our intelligence community and our Department of Defense, I’ve seen it firsthand how it operates.
And by utilizing the laws that were changed and created after 9/11, I can personally speak to how we’ve applied them to protect Americans, both here domestically and from a law enforcement perspective and also overseas from a military perspective, because that’s the only people who can function overseas.
So, I think it has worked. It has not been perfect. It definitely has flaws in how we executed some of our missions overseas. I think Iraq is probably the biggest failure in terms of why we initially went in. I do think we’ve had success in places like East Africa, in places like Syria, even in places like Afghanistan, we’ve had success there.
We have targeted terrorists and annihilated them, and we have had terrorists who have taken American hostages and rescued them. So, I think America needs to remember that these situations are continuously ongoing and we are responding to them, but it’s not a perfect response, but I think it’s far more good than bad.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned that the way that we entered Iraq was a big problem.
Mr. Patel: Well, at the time, you know, I wasn’t in national security yet, but at the time the big question was, should we invade Iraq? Should we invade another country? And the justification we Americans were given was what sounded like a righteous one was that Saddam Hussein was collecting and creating weapons of mass destruction [WMD], nuclear weapons and the like, to utilize against America.
Now, that’s an act of terrorism. So, on its face I think based on that justification, it seemed like the appropriate measure. What we would later find out is that he, Saddam Hussein, never possessed WMD or had a WMD program, and I think that’s another significant intelligence failure that caused a nation, America, to launch a war and invasion of Iraq which caused further loss of American service members.
And I think that we got that one entirely wrong and that’s what caused so many people, rightfully so, to be so angered with our government and our leadership. And it’s different from why we went into Afghanistan in 2001—very different. Because we went to where the enemy, Al-Qaeda, was residing and housed.
So, if you take Afghanistan and put it next to Iraq, the reasons we went into one versus the other are different. But I think Iraq could have been handled entirely differently and it was again, a failure of intelligence sharing and also a failure of our leadership at the time to recognize the intelligence that existed and say, “There aren’t WMD, why are we going?” We cannot start a war based on faulty intelligence and I think that rightfully so angered many Americans.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, let’s talk a little bit about going back to 9/11 now. You mentioned the Underwear Bomber, that was obviously an intelligence failure. There were very significant intelligence failures in the intelligence community and I’m just wondering, 20 years on, have these things been resolved?
Mr. Patel: Not 100 percent—it’s not 100 percent. So, if you go back to the 9/11 commission, the big question, “How did this happen?” The 9/11 commission’s response was, it was a failure to share intelligence.
That is to say, it’s since been declassified that in the 9/11 commission itself, that there were pieces of information held by certain components of the intelligence community regarding bin Laden and Al-Qaeda’s origins and his operatives overseas and what they were doing and who they were communicating with in America, that information wasn’t shared throughout what we call the intelligence community.
It didn’t cross over into the law enforcement community, and it didn’t cross over entirely into the military community because you have to remember, you know, our CIA and NSA cannot operate domestically—our FBI can. So, for example, if our CIA has a piece of information on bin Laden that they didn’t share with our FBI who operates in New York, in Washington and across America, then they can’t execute their authorities based on that information.
I think what the 9/11 commission found was that there was critical information that was not shared, and so the Patriot Act and other pieces of legislation broke down some of the walls that prevented that sharing of intelligence.
It used to be siphoned off into different pipes and they tried to bring that together with places like the creation of the office and the director of national intelligence, who oversees the intelligence community and law enforcement agencies when it comes to intelligence collection.
Still not perfect, but better. A better way, I’ve been in the middle of it, I’ve run it and I’ve seen how intelligence is supposed to move across the United States government and it’s a huge operation. It’s not perfect, but it’s gotten much better.
Mr. Jekielek: We’ve talked a bit about the, you know, the civilian courts and FISA and so forth. What we haven’t talked about yet is, there’s been a lot of criticism of Guantanamo Bay and the military courts.
Mr. Patel: Yeah, there has been, and probably rightfully so, but again, we’re looking 20 years and backwards. So 9/11 happens and people who were being terrorists were being captured on the battlefield overseas and America needed somewhere to put them until they could be tried. And Guantanamo Bay was used for that purpose.
It still houses, at its peak it houses something like 800 suspected terrorists. Now, it’s down to less than 50 are still at Guantanamo Bay and there’s problems with the release of many of those individuals who have returned to terrorism that I disagree with, but some of those individuals I do also agree, some of them probably should never have been there in the first place. But the majority of them I think should have.
The problem, ultimately, for someone who was a federal public defender and a federal former federal prosecutor is, you can try these cases and we proved it, the National Security Division at the Department of Justice’s job is to try terrorism cases in part and we tried them across America for acts of terrorism.
The World Trade Center bombing in ’93, Ramzi Yousef was tried and is currently serving 255 years at a supermax facility. It’s possible to try these terrorists.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who happens to be Ramzi Yousef’s uncle. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, KSM, the 9/11 architect, has been in Guantanamo Bay since 2002 and he has not been tried.
And I recommended a sort of hybrid approach to solving the Guantanamo Bay or the failures of the military tribunals in Guantanamo, which is, there is a reluctance to bring those terrorists to American soil in America to try them, which I understand, but you can set up with modern technology a system where a jury, and that’s the difference between a military tribunal and federal court.
When we try terrorist suspects in America in federal court, it’s like any other criminal case and I believe we’ve shown that we can successfully do that. I think we can do the same for the individuals in Guantanamo Bay using our, what we call video capabilities to have the juries view them from American soil and host a federal judge and say, “We are going to try you criminally for your acts of terrorism , and we are going to apply the laws of the constitution, the rules of evidence. We’re going to try you, you’re going to have your rights to appeal, and if you’re convicted, then you can take it all the way up to the supreme court.”
I think there just needs to be a bigger movement to tackle it rather than just castigate Guantanamo entirely. I think the victims of 9/11 deserve it, and it’s not just 9/11 perpetrators we’re housing in Guantanamo. There are other terrorists and I think also from their end, from a due process end which is what the U.S. criminal justice system is based on, we need to show the world that we can utilize our due process and our constitution to prosecute those terrorists and I think we can do it.
Mr. Jekielek: So, Kash, tomorrow, a lot of Americans, certainly a lot of New Yorkers will be commemorating 9/11. What would you like to say to them?
Mr. Patel: I would say that as many Americans as possible should go and support Americans across America, not just in New York and Washington and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, but everywhere. Support the families of those that lost their family members in the attacks on 9/11.
Support our military who have paid the ultimate price in serving overseas during the war on terror, and also go and support our first responders, our EMT, our firemen, our law enforcement and our cops, who responded on 9/11 and also lost their lives helping others get out.
I would say to them that the war on terror is not one that’s over. The enemy is going to continue to change and I think America needs to change its approach on how we engage them, respond to them, and preemptively protect America and American citizens.
But for those like myself who will be in attendance at some events for 9/11, it’s a time that America needs to remember what happened on 9/11 and who was lost on 9/11, and who was lost in response to 9/11. And I think that’s the only thing I would ask for tomorrow. Beyond that, I would say we are continuously changing and I do think that we are in a better security situation now than we were 20 years ago. But the work’s not done.
Mr. Jekielek: So, I think I might have an idea who your shout out might be for today.
Mr. Patel: So, for today, since we’re talking about 9/11, I’d like to talk about one thing specifically in closing and that is at 08:46, American airlines flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. At 09:03, United Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. At 09:37, another hijacked airliner crashed into the west side of the Pentagon, and then finally at 10:03, United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I think we need to honor all those who perished on those flights, all those Americans, and also honor those that responded and answered the call, not just on 9/11, but in the 20 years since. So, this episode is for you guys, we remember you and we will continue to honor your memory.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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