A quest for truth

April 08, 2004|By John Milton Wesley

ON A COLD and windy morning last Sunday, on what would have been Sarah Alyce Miller Clark's 68th birthday, I went to St. Paul's Missionary Baptist Church in Gastonia, N.C., to experience the world of her childhood.

I wanted to feel where she attended Sunday school, sang in the choir and played piano for worship services. I wanted to walk up the steps she climbed countless times clutching the hands of her mom and dad. I wanted to walk where she hunted Easter eggs and learned the Ten Commandments and sang "Jesus Loves Me."

Hopefully, those were the words that filled her final thoughts on that Sept. 11 as her plane, American Airlines Flight 77 was crashed into the Pentagon.

I held a photo of Sarah and her brother, Douglas Jr., when they were children.

In my coat pocket I carried vials of Sarah's ashes to be sprinkled on the places she experienced love, laughter and her childhood beliefs about God and country. It was the least I could do for her children and for my own closure, to take some of her essence home. She had been my fiancM-ie.

I had removed the ashes from the wooden urn that all victims' families received - if they were able to retrieve any remains. Inside the urn was a bag, and inside the bag a pair of scorched dog tags that read "Sarah Clark CIV" (civilian), held together with a safety pin.

As I held the tags in my hand, I thought of the thousands of survivors and our unending pain crying out for answers.

So today, as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testifies before the 9/11 commission and the nation, I want to hear more than political maneuvering. The horror of America's vulnerability screams for moving beyond containment of the truth about 9/11. I want Ms. Rice to tell us whether and how this nation's foreign policy, military, technological and political collateral could have been better deployed to prevent 9/11.

Here are some of the questions I want answered:

Was there a fundamental difference between the Bush administration's plan for protecting Americans from enemies such as al-Qaida and the Clinton administration's plan when you were first briefed for your job?

Was there a plan for monitoring and responding to threats made by al-Qaida or Osama bin Laden in 2000 as the government was in transition? If so, when was the strategy in place and the funding made available?

What was your relationship with counterterrorism expert Richard A. Clarke during his tenure with the Bush administration, and how well did you know him when you recommended that he remain on the National Security Council staff?

When you started your job as national security adviser, how often did you point out to the White House that the inability of the various intelligence agencies to share information posed a grave threat to America's national security?

FBI translator Sibel Edmonds reported that al-Qaida was planning to use aircraft to attack America. Were you aware of this, and when?

Why didn't you attend the meeting on July 5, 2001, which you and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card called, in which al-Qaida's use of aircraft was discussed?

Was there a central repository for known intelligence about al-Qaida before 9/11?

Did you review Federal Aviation Administration response protocols for hijackings before 9/11? If the FAA was unprepared for scenarios involving hijackers seeking to use aircraft as missiles, did you take any steps to suggest new protocols after the July 5 meeting?

Since the potential for use of aircraft by al-Qaida to either crash into cities or other major targets was known, did you engage either the airline industry or the FAA in considering the hardening of cockpit doors?

Finally, Ms. Rice owes the victims' families and all of America an explanation: In her mind, what's the difference between testifying under oath or not when all we are demanding of her is the plain and simple truth?

John Milton Wesley of Columbia is the author of the forthcoming Salvos (Cune Press), a collection of poetry and essays.

Columnists Clarence Page and Ellen Goodman will return next week.

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