One cannot reasonably assume that the attacks of September 11, 2001, were a seamless conspiracy.  Even a successful plot is not a well-oiled machine, and, whatever the plotting behind the scenes, as Shakespeareans say about Romeo and Juliet, the skyjackings of September 11 were, in some ways, tragedy snatched from the jaws of comedy.

Take, for example, the suspects’ numerous plane and road trips before they convened aboard the vessels they used for their attacks.  Alleged ringleader Muhammad Atta and Abdulaziz Al-Omari arrived at Boston’s Logan International Airport, where two of the jumbo jets were hijacked, on a flight from Portland, Maine, the morning of September 11.  For reasons unknown, Atta had driven from Boston to Portland the previous afternoon, before flying back, cutting his connection so close that his baggage missed the flight.

The skyjackers had already shuttled between Florida and Baltimore, California and Baltimore, Maryland and Florida, New Jersey and Maryland, Florida and New Jersey, etc., within the previous 18 days.  Why?  As any old OSS hand would anticipate, their moving around made them visible.

Every move, every stop, increased their chances of being seen or accosted.  According to the FBI, during their one evening in Portland, Atta and Al-Omari registered at a Comfort Inn; were seen at a Pizza Hut, a gas station, and a Wal-Mart; and were photographed by surveillance cameras at a restaurant and at least one ATM.  Their Massachusetts rental car was also caught on camera, including its license plate.  They checked out of the Comfort Inn about 5:30 the next morning and, within 30 minutes, were aboard a Colgan Air flight back to Boston, after being filmed again going through airport security in Portland.  Short of waving their arms and yelling, “Here we are,” they could hardly have presented more opportunities for vigilance.  The hijackers did, however, manage to bypass security and avoid being photographed at Dulles.

What was the point of all this last-minute skipping around?  If it makes any sense, it gave their watchers time and opportunity to note problems, to wave a hand frantically (so to speak), and to call the whole thing off.

In addition, it is worth considering the many international and domestic trips that the skyjackers took before summer 2001, particularly the numerous trips they took from May to August 2001, a period described by investigators as a “spike” in “chatter” and a rising “threat level” for those monitoring terrorism.

At least five of the September 11 suspects visited Las Vegas several times between May and August 2001.  At least one suspect from each of the four hijacked planes stayed in Las Vegas.  Suspected ringleader Muhammad Atta checked in to a Vegas hotel on June 29, checked out on July 1, and returned on August 13.  Marwan Al-Shehhi, Hani Hanjour, Nawaf Al-Hazmi, and Ziad Jarrah all traveled there at least once.  Altogether, the hijackers made at least six trips to Vegas.

Yet, a few days after September 11, 31 passengers were allowed to fly out of Las Vegas, including one named Al-Hazmi.  Four manifests from these flights have been released by Craig Unger, author of the best-seller House of Bush, House of Saud.

A September 13 flight from Lexington, Kentucky, to London carried 15 passengers, including 8 Saudis; a flight from Las Vegas to Switzerland the next day carried 7 Saudis; a “VIP flight” from New York to Paris on September 22 carried 12 passengers, including 4 Saudis; and another Las Vegas-to-Paris VIP flight on September 24 carried 24 passengers, including 11 Saudis.  Some who jetted away would have been “persons of interest” in any traditional investigation, and others had round-the-clock knowledge of them.

If Saudi royals and other Muslims feared reprisals and were allowed to leave for their personal safety, how could that rationale have applied to British citizens Jack Rusbridge and Anthony John Stafford, on the flight out of Lexington, or to U.S. citizen Dean Earl Knect, on the Vegas-Paris flight?  Assuming that diplomatic immunity covers the 20,000-member Saud family, does it also cover Saud family employees of other nationalities, including British and American?  Why was a CEO of a Middle Eastern bank flown out, given the importance of the “money trail” in investigating terrorism?  If allowing the Saudis’ servants out of the country was an humanitarian gesture, why was an award-winning Egyptian physicist also aboard?  Some family members of September 11 victims, through the Family Steering Committee, have also asked why Saudi royals and others were permitted to fly in commercial airspace, when victims’ relatives were not given that permission.

What were the Saudi royals and the others doing in Las Vegas?  When did they go to Las Vegas, and how long were they there?  Given that any extra movement increased their chances of getting caught, what reason could the hijackers have had for trips to Vegas in the first place other than to rendezvous with authorities?  Is it likely that five skyjackers, including the devout Atta, went to Vegas, separately and together at different times, only to fit in a little gambling?

Back to the morning of September 11: Having boarded their planes, the skyjackers faced flight delays on each aircraft.  American Airlines Flight 11 took off 14 minutes late (7:59 A.M.); United Flight 175 took off 16 minutes late (8:14); American Airlines Flight 77 left Dulles 10 minutes late (8:20); and United Flight 93 left Newark 41 minutes late (8:42).  Junctures for intervention continued to open up.  Two flight attendants on Flight 11, Betty Ong and Amy Sweeney, independently phoned American Airlines (8:21) and said that the plane was being hijacked.  Heroically, they continued to narrate the situation by phone for 25 minutes, until the plane crashed.  From 8:24 to 8:38, pilot John Ogonowski periodically activated cockpit speakers, allowing Boston flight controllers to hear the hijacking.  In fact, there was so much unscripted telephoning that passengers on Flight 93 deduced what was taking place and successfully downed their plane, directly or indirectly, before it reached its target.

Unfortunately, there were puzzling delays in notifying the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and flight-control centers about the hijackings.  Once NORAD had been notified, further missteps slowed the scrambling of fighter jets.  A “Vigilant Guardian exercise” on that date is credited for increasing air readiness, but other reports suggest that some personnel mistook alarm messages for part of the exercise.

The Pentagon has not stated how many people knew about the “Vigilant Guardian exercise” beforehand and still has not revealed the identities of hijackers who received flight training on U.S. military bases.  Military service usually involves giving up a degree of privacy, including vital statistics—height, weight, blood type, etc.  Surely any information collected on the suspects might help other investigators, but the White House is not forcing the Pentagon to disclose it.  Instead, the investigations of nominally independent September 11 Commission are being impeded at every juncture by the White House.

This is not a politically astute move by the Bush administration, which is opening itself up to the most devastating of arguments: Why, Mr. President, are you covering up September 11, even while sending our young people out to die, ostensibly in response to it?