How U.S. Counterterrorism
Failed on 9/11, and Why the Bush Administration Can't Fix It
September 26, 2002
By Mark G. Levey
PART 1: ANATOMY OF THE NOT SO UNTHINKABLE CRIME
On 9/11, a long and complex chain of events came together when four hijacked airliners crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Central Pennsylvania, an attack which left 3,000 innocent people dead. That eventuality was neither unforeseeable nor unforeseen, which is the overwhelming message of the Congressional Joint Intelligence Committee Staff Statement released on Wednesday, September 18, 2002. Shocking testimony heard two days later by the panel showed that investigators in the FBI office in New York, then the Bureau's antiterrorism center, received orders from Washington on August 29, 2001 to abort a criminal probe of the hijackers after NY agents learned that one of the terrorist suspects whose identity and intentions had been known to the CIA for 18 months - had reentered the US on July 4.
Contrary to repeated Bush Administration claims since September 11, 2001, US intelligence had specific, credible and corroborated forewarning that terrorists planned to use airliners to attack New York and Washington, DC area targets. The 9/11 mode of terrorist attack had, in fact, been known of and planned for by American intelligence years in advance. Among the findings of the Congressional staff report released last week:
"[S]hortly after Usama Bin Ladin's May 1998 press conference, the Intelligence Community began to acquire intelligence information indicating that Bin Ladin's network intended to strike inside the United States. Many of these reports were disseminated throughout the Intelligence Community and to senior U.S. policy makers." (Joint Inquiry Staff Statement, Part 1, 9-18-2002, pg. 14)
"In June 1998, the Intelligence Community obtained information from several sources that Usama bin Laden was considering attacks in the U.S., including Washington, DC and New York. This information was provided to senior U.S. Government officials in July 1998." (Joint Inquiry Staff Statement, Part 1, 9-18-2002, pg. 15)
"In August 1998, the Intelligence Community obtained information that a group of unidentified Arabs planned to fly an explosive-laden plane from a foreign country into the World Trade Center. The information was passed to the FBI and the FAA. The FAA found the plot highly unlikely given the state of that foreign country's aviation program. Moreover, they believed that a flight originating outside the United States would be detected before it reached its intended target inside the United States. The FBI's New York office took no action on the information, filing the communication in the office 's bombing repository file. The Intelligence Community has acquired additional information since then indicating there may be links between this group and other terrorist groups, including al-Qa'ida." (Joint Inquiry Staff Statement, Part 1, 9-18-2002, pg. 15 and pg. 27)
"In September 1998, the Intelligence Community obtained information that Usama Bin Ladin's next operation could possibly involve flying an aircraft loaded with explosives into a U.S. airport and detonating it; this information was provided to senior U.S. Government officials in late 1998." (Joint Inquiry Staff Statement, Part 1, 9-18-2002, pg. 15)
"In the fall of 1998, the Intelligence Community received information concerning a Bin Ladin plot involving aircraft in the New York and Washington, DC areas." (Joint Inquiry Staff Statement, Part 1, 9-18-2002, pg. 15)
"In November 1998, the Intelligence Community obtained information that a Bin Ladin terrorist cell was attempting to recruit a group of five to seven young men from the United States to travel to the Middle East for training. This was in conjunction with planning to strike U.S. domestic targets.." (Joint Inquiry Staff Statement, Part 1, 9-18-2002, pg. 15) · "A December 1, 1998 Intelligence Community assessment of Usama Bin Ladin read in part: 'UBL is actively planning against U.S. targets . . . Multiple reports indicate UBL is keenly interested in striking the U.S. on its own soil . . . al-Qa'ida is recruiting operatives for attacks in the U.S. but has not yet identified potential targets'." (Joint Inquiry Staff Statement, Part 1, 9-18-2002, pg. 17)
"A classified document signed by a senior U.S. Government official in December 1998 read in part: 'The intelligence community has strong indications that Bin Ladin intends to conduct or sponsor attacks inside the United States'." (Joint Inquiry Staff Statement, Part 1, 9-18-2002, pg. 17)
"In the spring of 1999, the Intelligence Community obtained information about a planned Bin Ladin attack on a U.S. Government facility in Washington, D.C." (Joint Inquiry Staff Statement, Part 1, 9-18-2002, pg. 16)
"In March of 2000, the Intelligence Community obtained information regarding the types of targets that operatives in Bin Ladin's network might strike. The Statue of Liberty was specifically mentioned, as were skyscrapers, ports, airports, and nuclear power plants." (Joint Inquiry Staff Statement, Part 1, 9-18-2002, pg. 16)
"A briefing prepared for senior government officials at the beginning of July 2001 contained the following language: 'Based on a review of all source reporting over the last five months, we believe that UBL will launch a significant terrorist attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against U.S. facilities or interests. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning'." (Joint Inquiry Staff Statement, Part , 9-18-2002)
"[I]n August 2001, a closely held intelligence report, for senior government officials, included information that bin Laden had wanted to conduct attacks in the United States since 1997. The information included discussion of the arrest of Ahmed Ressam in December 1999, and the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. It mentioned that members of al Qaeda, including some U.S. citizens, had resided or traveled in or traveled to the United States for years, and that the group apparently maintained a support structure here. The report cited uncorroborated information obtained in 1998 that bin Laden wanted to hijack airplanes to gain the release of U.S.-held extremists. F.B.I. judgments about patterns of activity, consistent with preparation of hijackings . . ."(Ibid.)
"Two weeks before the September 11 terrorism attacks, a desperate FBI agent begged his superiors to launch an aggressive hunt for one of the the men who would participate in the suicide hijackings, warning that 'someday someone will die' because his request was denied . . . on August 29, 2001 [the NY field office agent asked his Washington superiors] to allow his office to search for Khalid Almihdhar, who would later help commandeer the aircraft that slammed into the Pentagon. But lawyers in the FBI's National Security Law Unit refused. . . The CIA [had] monitored Almihdar at a meeting of al Qaeda operatives in Malaysia more than 18 months before the September 11 attacks, and knew at that time that he held a visa that allowed him to enter and exit the United States repeatedly. But the [congressional] report found that the CIA did not adequately inform other agencies and made no effort to until summer 2001 to add the names of Almidhar or Alhazmi [a second 9/11 hijacker who also attended the Malaysia al Qaeda meeting] to immigration watch lists . . ." (Washington Post, A1, Sept. 21, 2002)
Prior to the September 2002 Congressional findings, it was unthinkable to suggest (in any reputable U.S. publication) that Americans in high positions of trust and responsibility had advance knowledge of the attacks but, for whatever reason, allowed them to happen nonetheless, the evidence now supports precisely that conclusion by a preponderance of the evidence, simply because there is no other explanation that makes sense in light of the best available facts. Readers are invited to make up their own minds, and to consider the alternative explanations (including the various stories offered by White House, Pentagon and CIA officials) which must be given careful consideration. The closer one looks, however, the more implausible the various Administration accounts become. Consider the sampling of quotes below in light of the foregoing Congressional findings of fact:
George W. Bush. On September 16, 2001, Bush claimed, "Never did anybody's thought process about how to protect America ‹ did we ever think that the evildoers would fly not one but four commercial aircraft into precious U.S. targets. Never." (cited in Don Van Natta, Jr., NYT On-line, "Democrats Raise Questions Over Remarks on Warnings" 5-18-2002)
Dick Cheney. In an hour-long interview on 'Meet the Press' on September 16, 2001, Dick Cheney admitted that the government had information that a ''big operation'' was planned by the terrorists. But, he said, there was "no specific threat involving really a domestic operation." (Ibid.)
Colin Powell, Secretary of State. On September 12, 2001, Powell stated, "I have not seen any evidence that there was a specific signal that we missed." (Id.)
Ari Fleischer, Press Secretary. In response to a reporter's question hours after the attacks, Fleischer stated "Had there been any warnings that the president knew of?" the White House spokesman alleged, "No warnings." (Id.)
George Tenet, CIA director. The New York Times reported, "The director said the CIA knew 'in broad terms' last summer that terrorists might be planning major operations in the United States. But, he said, 'we never had the texture' - meaning enough specific information - to stop what happened." In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, CIA director Tenet "objected to the very word 'failure' in connection with the intelligence gathering ahead of the devastating surprise attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon . . . 'Failure means no focus, no attention, no discipline,' Mr. Tenet said, waving his finger for emphasis.'" (James Risen, NYT, February 7, 2002, "Qaeda Still Able to Strike the US, Head of CIA Says")
James Pavitt, Deputy Director of CIA Operations. On April 12, 2002, Pavitt, speaking at the Duke University Law School Conference, stated, "We had very, very good intelligence of the general structure and strategies of the al Qaeda terrorist organization. We knew and we warned that al Qaeda was planning a major strike. There need be no question about that. What didn't we know? We never found the tactical intelligence, never uncovered the specifics that could have stopped those tragic strikes that we all remember so well. . . . Against that degree of control, that kind of compartmentation, that depth of discipline and fanaticism, I personally doubt, and I draw again upon my 30 years of experience in this business, that anything short of one of the knowledgeable inner circle personnel or hijackers turning himself in to us would have given us sufficient foreknowledge to have prevented the horrendous slaughter that took place on the 11th." (Pavitt 4-12-2002 on CIA Public Affairs website)
Marine Corps Major Mike Snyder, spokesperson for NORAD headquarters in Colorado. The Boston Globe reported, "He said the two F-15s on alert at Otis were not immediately ordered into the sky because a Cold War approach to air defense - protecting US borders from incoming military aircraft - did not anticipate the terrorist threat posed by hijackers commandeering domestic, civilian aircraft." (Boston Globe, Johnson 9-15-2001)
Robert Mueller III, FBI Director. a) On September 17, Mueller told the press, "There were no warning signs that I'm aware of that would indicate this type of operation in the country." (cited in Hirsh and Isikoff, Newsweek, 5-27-2002). b) In an April 19, 2002 speech to the Commonwealth Club of California, Mueller stated, "There was never even anything [referring to evidence and intelligence] saying, 'Something is planned in the United States,' (Mueller III 4-19-2002; Remarks prepared for delivery by Robert S. Mueller III, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation Commonwealth Club of California San Francisco, CA April 19, 2002, www.fbi.gov/pressrel/speeches/speech041902.htm)
Published reports and articles of record. The New York Times reaffirmed administration's assertion that they had received no warnings. "Bush administration officials have said they had no evidence that any agency had warning of the attacks." (Johnston 5-9-2002)
The above pronouncements are controverted by a wealth of published reports. Major media accounts show that U.S. intelligence knew of al Qaeda's intentions and operational plans to attack targets in the U.S. years before 9/11, and the attacks were indeed facilitated by the suppression of counterterrorism field investigations. For some time prior to the September 18 Congressional findings a pattern of criminal negligence (or worse) has been apparent in American counterterrorism efforts. The findings confirm those earlier reports that 9/11 occurred after FBI and CIA commanders actively stifled preventative action by rank-and-file investigators and counter-terrorism experts who were pushing to arrest known al Qaeda operatives. The smartest and most effective advocates for a more aggressive counterterrorism policy were reportedly driven out of the Bureau. Additional details have emerged that show that field investigations were apparently ignored or derailed by FBI and CIA superiors:
1996-2001. The CIA learned in 1996 that al Qaeda was planning to used aircraft to attack US targets, including the Trade Center and Pentagon, and had identified several of the terrorists actually involved, but these persons were allowed into the U.S., despite (or because of) their known ties to terrorist planners. FBI field agents, meanwhile, were investigating suspected terrorists enrolled in flight schools, but these findings were ignored in Washington. In 1996, after the Philippine police had discovered the 'Bojinka' plot, US officials began investigating al Qaeda terrorist suspects who were training in U.S. flight schools. "Since 1996, the FBI had been developing evidence that international terrorists were using US flight schools to learn to fly jumbo jets. A foiled plot in Manila to blow up U.S. airliners and later court testimony by an associate of bin Laden had touched off FBI inquiries at several schools, officials say." (Washington Post, Steve Fairnaru and James Grimaldi 9-23-2001)
1997-2001. FBI Counterterrorist specialist John O'Neil, head of the NY counterterrorism office, had complained that the Bush administration had impeded his investigations into suspected Saudi terrorists and ignored his warnings of terrorist capabilities. His FBI career ended "under a cloud' after someone stole his briefcase containing classified papers from a locked hotel room, and the briefcase later turned up empty. He died on 9/11 at the World Trade Center where he was newly appointed chief of security. "Soon after the late John O'Neil had become head of the FBI's New York unit, he warned, 'A lot of these groups now have the capability and the support infrastructure in the United States to attack us here if they choose to' . . . Among his colleagues, O'Neill was regarded as one of the FBI's smartest counterterrorism officials - and one of the most pugnacious. He clashed with the U.S. ambassador in Yemen, Barbara K. Bodine, during his investigation into the bombing of the USS Cole. . . " (Washington Post, A6, 9-12-2001)
1998. FBI was investigating Middle Eastern flight school students in Phoenix. Summarizing a letter written by former FBI Special Agent James Hauswirth, the Los Angeles Times (5-27-2002) wrote: "In 1998, the office's international terrorism squad investigated a possible Middle Eastern extremist taking flight lessons at a Phoenix airport, wrote Hauswirth, who retired from the FBI in 1999."
1998. In 1998, the Federal Aviation Administration warned airlines to be on a 'high degree of alertness' against possible hijackings by members of Osama bin Laden's organizations. (AP 5-26-2002)
May 18, 1998. FBI memo observed that an 'unusually' large number of Middle Eastern men were attending flight schools. The memo revealed that an Oklahoma FBI pilot had warned his supervisor "that he has observed large numbers of Middle Eastern males receiving flight training at Oklahoma airports in recent months." The FBI pilot further observed, "this is a recent phenomena and may be related to planned terrorist activity." (Washington Post 5-30-2002)
2001. The Federal Aviation Administration published a report called Criminal Acts Against Aviation on its Web site in 2001 before the hijackings that said that although Osama bin Laden 'is not known to have attacked civil aviation, he has both the motivation and the wherewithal to do so.' It added, 'Bin Laden's anti-Western and anti-American attitudes make him and his followers a significant threat to civil aviation, particularly to U.S. civil aviation'." (FAA website)
February - July 2001. In early 2001, during the trial of four men accused of being involved in the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, it was publicly revealed that members of bin Laden's network had received flying lessons in Texas and Oklahoma. Government witness, L'Houssaine Kherchtou, testified that he had been asked by bin Laden to take flying lessons in 1993. Another former bin Laden aide turned government informant, Essam al-Ridi, stated that since 1998 he had been passing the FBI information about an al Qaeda pilot-training scheme. That information started to be received by the FBI three years before the September 11 attack. (US v. bin Laden, et al., Court transcript available at www.cryptome.org).
July 2001. The Phoenix FBI office again tried unsuccessfully to draw attention to suspected terrorists taking flight training. Meanwhile, Attorney General John Ashcroft, cognizant of the warnings going out of the hijacking threat to American commercial air carriers, for security reasons began to fly only on private charter and military aircraft. Newsweek magazine reported, "Back in July 2001, Bill Kurtz and his team hit pay dirt, and no one seemed to care. A hard-driven supervisor in the FBI's Phoenix office, Kurtz was overseeing an investigation of suspected Islamic terrorists last July when a member of his team, a sharp, 41-year-old counterterrorism agent named Kenneth Williams, noticed something odd: a large number of suspects were signing up to take courses in how to fly airplanes. . ."
"Kurtz, who had previously worked on the Osama bin Laden unit of the FBI's international terrorism section, was convinced he and his colleagues might have stumbled on to something bigger. Kurtz's team fired off a lengthy memo ["the Phoenix memo"] raising the possibility that bin Laden might be using U.S. flight schools to infiltrate the country's civil-aviation system. . .
"[U]nder Attorney General John Ashcroft, the department was being prodded back into its old law-and-order mind-set: violent crime, drugs, child porn. Counterterrorism, which had become a priority of the Clintonites (not that they did a better job of nailing bin Laden), seemed to be getting less attention. When FBI officials sought to add hundreds more counterintelligence agents, they got shot down even as Ashcroft began, quietly, to take a privately chartered jet for his own security reasons.
"The attorney general was hardly alone in seeming to de-emphasize terror in the young Bush administration. Over at the Pentagon, new Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld elected not to relaunch a Predator drone that had been tracking bin Laden, among other actions." (Hirsh and Isikoff, Newsweek, 5-27-2002)
August 15, 2001 - September 11, 2001. TIME Magazine, quoting FBI agent Coleen Rowley's open memo to FBI Director Mueller, reported that FBI Minneapolis field agents investigating Zakararia Massaoui "'became desperate' to probe the laptop computer they seized from Moussaoui and 'conduct a more thorough search of his personal effects.' As Rowley describes it, the agents then encountered the first in the series of "roadblocks" thrown up by their superiors in Washington that, she says, ultimately scuttled their attempts to investigate Moussaoui."
TIME also stated, " In the late 1990s, it turns out, French police had placed Moussaoui on a watch list: using London as his base, Moussaoui shuttled in and out of Kuwait, Turkey and Continental Europe, forming ties with radical Islamist groups and recruiting young men to train and fight the jihad in Chechnya. French intelligence officials also believed Moussaoui spent time in Afghanistan, and his last trip before arriving in the U.S. last February was to Pakistan. A French justice official says the government gave the FBI 'everything we had' on Moussaoui, 'enough to make you want to check this guy out every way you can. Anyone paying attention would have seen he was not only operational in the militant Islamist world but had some autonomy and authority as well.' . . ."
"In her memo, Rowley maintains that before Sept. 11, the Minneapolis agents had 'certainly established,' based on French sources and other intelligence, that Moussaoui 'had affiliations with radical fundamentalist groups and activities connected to Osama bin Laden. . . ."
"Her memo rails against but doesn't name a handful of midlevel officials who 'almost inexplicably' blocked 'Minneapolis [FBI agents] ' by now desperate efforts to obtain a FASA search warrant ... HQ personnel brought up almost ridiculous questions in their apparent efforts to undermine the probable cause." One supervisor complained that there might be plenty of men named Zacarias Moussaoui in France; how did the agents know this was the same man? (The agents checked the Paris phone books and found but one Moussaoui.) At another point the field office tried to bypass their bosses altogether and alert the CIA's Counterterrorism Center; Rowley says FBI officials chastised the agents for going behind their backs. She reserves her toughest words for a supervisor who repeatedly belittled the French intelligence on the case. Rowley claims that in late August the supervisor did forward the FASA request to lawyers at the National Security Law Unit, an FBIHQ office that vets warrant proposals before passing them on to the Justice Department. But the supervisor 'deliberately further undercut' the request by withholding 'intelligence information he promised to add and making several changes in the wording of the information.' The resistance from Washington got so bad, she writes, that agents in her office joked that some FBI officials 'had to be spies or moles, like Robert Hansen [sic], who were actually working for Osama bin Laden.' On Aug. 28, the NSLU turned down the Minnesotans' FISA request." (TIME Magazine, May 22, 2002, "How the FBI Blew the Case").
Basic fairness demands that the reader understand, despite the overwhelming evidence that contradicts the statements of innocence made by Bush officials, that there are many details about 9/11 that remain unanswered or obscured. Before Mr. Bush and his staff are condemned in the public mind of a cover-up, there are the normal rules of evidence proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake or accident - to be taken into consideration before sound conclusions can be drawn. These missing pieces of the elaborate jigsaw puzzle may only be answered with some certainty in a court of law, when and if American intelligence officials in key operational positions are placed under oath, and under the penalty of perjury compelled to tell the whole truth about what they knew, when they knew it, and what information and recommendations they passed up the chain of command to the top. Right now, the Bush Administration is resisting an independent commission of inquiry with full subpoena power and the ability to question ranking American officials about the intelligence failure.
Perhaps, most important, are the unanswered gaps in the existing record about the decision-making process at the top. It was these actions by decisionmakers that resulted in orders and policies that were handed down to American intelligence, law enforcement, immigration and military personnel that allowed 9/11 to happen. The tragedy occurred not because of the incompetence among the rank-and-file, but because their diligent efforts were repeatedly subverted and derailed from above. The American people need to know and understand that fact.