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The 10 unanswered questions of 9/11

Tomorrow's news today. This is a slightly longer [although not necessarily better] version of the article that will be published on the front page of the Daily News:

OK, so you got this one conspiracy theorist in a tin-foil hat who came out the other day with a wild claim that the CIA engaged in a massive cover-up concerning what it knew about al-Qaeda hijackers in America before 9/11.

Then you got this other conspiracy "whack job" who wrote a book claiming that top officials with the North American Air Defemse, or NORAD, lied to investigators about what really happened that morning.

Sigh. Those darn "9/11 truthers."

Actually, no.

The first tin-foil hat guy is actually Richard Clarke, who was chief of America's anti-terrorism efforts under both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The second is John Farmer, who was counsel to the 9/11 Commission and is currently dean of the law school at Rutgers.

The point being this: If you think that on the 10th anniversary you know the whole story of 9/11 — and here I'm talking to conspiracy-minded "truthers" AND the 13 percent who approved of the job Dick Cheney did as vice president -- don't.

Time has upheld the broad story line of how hijackers loyal to Osama bin Laden hijacked four planes and killed nearly 3,000 people ten years ago this week — claims about holograms attacking buildings instead of jetliners notwithstanding. At the same time, the dictum of famed investigative reporter I.F. Stone about all governments — i.e., they lie — is no less true about 9/11 than any other event.

With that in mind, here are 10 questions about 9/11 that remain unanswered.

1. Did the CIA cover up its advance knowledge of at least two of the 9/11 hijackers?

Clarke, the national counter-terrorism czar on Sept. 11, 2001, thinks there was. In an interview for an upcoming 9/11 radio documentary, Clarke leveled the explosive charge that top-level CIA officials deliberately withheld from the White House and the FBI its knowledge that as early as 2000 that two al-Qaeda members — Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar — were living in San Diego under their own names.

The former anti-terror chief said he believes that the CIA kept the info under wraps because it believes it could recruit the two Saudis to serve as double agents within Bin Laden's organization; instead, the two terrorists ended up hijackers on American Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, killing 59 on the plane and 125 on the ground.

Clarke told the documentary filmmakers he would have arrested the two immediately — "We would have found those assholes." he said, adding "There's no doubt in my mind, even with only a week left — and that might have thwarted the attacks. George Tenet, who was CIA director, claims that Clarke is "reckless and profoundly wrong."

Meanwhile, the truth is out there.

2. How strong is the connection between the 9/11 site clean-up and cancer, other diseases?

While the precise answer will never be known, the evidence continues to mount that exposure to toxic dust from the collapse of the World Trade Center is making some New York firefighters, cops, and other first responders very, very sick.

Last week, Dr. David Prezant of the Fire Department of the City of New York published research in the prestigious medical journal Lancet showing that male firefighters who responded to 9/11 now have a cancer rate that's 19 percent higher than co-workers who were not exposed. That comes on top of earlier reports of higher rates of asthma and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, among the responders at Ground Zero.

Indeed, the real questions about 9/11 responders in health is a) why was the Bush administration so lax in issuing warnings about the toxicity of the site in the days immediately after the attack and b) why did it take a comedian, Jon Stewart, to shame Congress into finally funding a health care bill for the ailing heroes of Ground Zero?

3. Who was really in charge on the morning of 9/11 - Bush or Cheney?

There was always something weird about how George W. Bush and Dick Cheney dealt with the bipartisan 9/11 Commission that probed the attacks. Although the then-president and vice president agreed to be interviewed by investigators, it was with the odd condition that they be interviewed together and there would be no transcript.

The issue may have been this: The administration's claim that at some point shortly after the initial 9/11 attacks, Bush — who had been speaking at a school in Sarasota, Fla. — gave Cheney the verbal OK for an order to shoot down hijacked planes if necessary, which Cheney then passed down the chain of command from the White House command center.

But while there are detailed records of other 9/11 calls, there's no record of the critical Bush-Cheney conversation. In 2006, Newsweek reported that "none of the [9/11 Commission] staffers who worked on this aspect of the investigation believed Cheney's version of events" about the call — but bureaucratic wrangling kept that out of the final report.

In his new autobiography In My Time, Cheney insists the call took place but added more mystery when he admits he urged Bush not to rush back to the White House. Was that for the president's safety, or did the man that some aides called "Edgar" — after famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergen — have other motives?

4. Why did NORAD mislead investigators on why its planes didn't intercept the 9/11 hijackers?

In the days following the 2001 attacks, military officials assured the public that while none of the four hijacked planes were ultimately intercepted, it did get planes in the air quickly and was ready to shoot down the final plane, United Flight 93, if it had approached the Pentagon instead of crashing into a field near Shanksville, Pa.

Investigators for the 9/11 Commission concluded that none of that was true and that even provided false information — claiming for example that it responded to the Flight 93 hijacking at 9:16 a.m., for example, when tapes proved the jet wasn't even hijacked until 12 minutes later. The Washington Post reported in 2006 that commission staffers debated referring their suspicions to the Justice Department for a possible criminal probe of a cover-up.

"I was shocked at how different the truth was from the way it was described," Farmer, the top lawyer for the commission, told the newspaper, and he later wrote a book called Higher Ground that detailed some of the deceptions. But why did they lie?

Most likely it was to cover up incompetence and nothing more, but without a further investigation — unlikely at this point — we may never know the answer.

5.Did top Saudi officials provide financial support for the hijackers?

The final 9/11 Commission report in 2004 delved deeply into some areas, but an entire 28-page section was blacked out — the section that dealt with the sensitive area of 9/11 and Saudi Arabia, the nation that was birthplace to 15 out of the 19 hijackers.

In a new book called The Eleventh Day, the investigative reporters Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan make a compelling argument that the Saudi royal family was paying what amounted to "protection money" to bin Laden as early as 1995 and that there may have been contacts between Saudi representatives in the United States and some of the hijackers in the months leading up to 9/11.

In July 2002, three Saudi royals met bizarre deaths with a week of each other — allegedly after they had been named in the interrogation of a captured al-Qaeda member, Abu Zubaydah. Coincidence? History may be the final judge.

6. Who killed five Americans with anthrax in the fall of 2001?

Adding to the national sense of dread right after 9/11 was news that a highly lethal strain of anthrax had been mailed to Democratic senators and members of the news media, killing five people who somehow came into contact with the deadly letters.

The initial belief was that the attacks were linked either to al-Qaeda or Iraq's Saddam Hussein, but forensics showed the biological weapon came from American stockpiles. One U.S. researcher was publicly named, then exonerated, and is now suing. In 2008, the government announced that its prime suspect — a scientist at Maryland's Fort Detrick named Bruce Ivins — had committed suicide and that the case is considered closed.

But is it? Remarkably, a disputed U.S. Justice Department filing just this August claimed Ivins didn't have access to the equipment that would be needed to execute the attacks, causing some members of Congress to call for a new probe.

7. Did Pakistan's notorious spy agency, the ISI, support the 9/11 hijackers?

In the days after 9/11, there were numerous reports of links between the ISI — longtime supporters of Afghanistan's Taliban which had sheltered bin Laden before 9/11 — and the hijackers. For example, al-Qaeda suspect Zybaydah — who fingered top Saudis — also named a high-ranking Pakistani air force officer Mushaf Ali Mir — who died in a plane crash in 2003 (sound familiar?)

Most of these questions are still unanswered and probably won't be, given the sensitive relationship between America and nuclear-armed Pakistan. But it didn't clear things up when bin Laden was found hiding in Pakistan, where he was killed this year.

8. Why did so many Bush officials fixate on Iraq in the hours after the attacks?

Despite a lack of concrete evidence tying Saddam Hussein's Iraq to 9/11. Bush administration officials looked immediately toward Baghdad. Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld questioned whether to "hit S.H." — Saddam — "at the same time" while the Pentagon was still on fire, and Bush pressed Clarke on whether there was an Iraqi connection.

Ten years later, U.S. troops are still in Iraq...but why? Was the motivation purely oil, or revenge for Saddam's assassination plot toward Bush's dad, or an excuse to get American troops out of Saudi Arabia but keep them in the Persian Gulf? The final chapter has yet to be written.

9. What really happened aboard Flight 93?

In the immediate period after 9/11, based on accounts of phone calls from the hijacked passengers aboard the doomed flight, it was widely speculated that they'd succeeded in crashing the cockpit, wrested control of the United jet and caused it to crash well before its intended target, reportedly the U.S. Capitol.

But the release of transcripts from the recovered cockpit voice recorder offered evidence that the passengers were indeed trying to enter the cockpit but there's nothing to suggest they got there. Instead, comments from the hijackers led investigators to believe they crashed the plane on purpose, but the real story of the doomed jet will never be known.

10. Has the 9/11-fueled "war on terror" really made America safer?

The "pro" argument: Improved intelligence and domestic security measures at airports and elsewhere and regime change in Afghanistan have led to no new major attacks inside the U.S., and bin Laden and many of his former lieutenants from a decimated al-Qaeda are dead or behind bars.

The "con" argument: The $1 trillion-plus cost of the post 9/11 wars, including the completely unnecessary one in Iraq, the morally unconscionable torture program OK'ed by Bush and Cheney, and the gulag-like prison at Guantanamo have depleted not just America's coffers but its moral standing in the world, while inspiring a new generation of terrorists.

The answer? Get back to us on the 20th anniversary.