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 ó 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 Alghamdi—named as taking part in the hijacking of United Airlines
Flight 93, which crashed in western Pennsylvania—had 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, Florida—known as
the "cradle of US Navy aviation"—which also administers training of
foreign aviation students for the Navy. The magazine, citing "a
high-ranking Pentagon official" as its source, reported that two
others—both former Saudi air force pilots who had come to the US—also
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,
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
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 hijackers—making 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 we train."
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
According to its web site, the Defense Language Institute Foreign
Language Center in Monterey—founded in 1946 as the Military Intelligence
Service Language School—"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
"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