April 17 - Early this year, the independent
commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks
played four minutes of a call from Betty Ong,
a crew member on American Airlines Flight
11. The power of her call could not have been
plainer: in a calm voice, Ms. Ong told her
supervisors about the hijacking, the weapons
the attackers had used, the locations of their
first, however, Ms. Ong's reports were greeted
skeptically by some officials on the ground.
"They did not believe her," said Bob Kerrey,
a commission member. "They said, `Are you
sure?' They asked her to confirm that it wasn't
air-rage. Our people on the ground were not
prepared for a hijacking."
most Americans, the disbelief was the same.
The attacks of Sept. 11 seemed to come in
a stunning burst from nowhere. But now, after
three weeks of extraordinary public hearings
and a dozen detailed reports, the lengthy
documentary record makes clear that predictions
of an attack by Al Qaeda had been communicated
directly to the highest levels of the government.
threat reports were more clear, urgent and
persistent than was previously known. Some
focused on Al Qaeda's plans to use commercial
aircraft as weapons. Others stated that Osama
bin Laden was intent on striking on United
States soil. Many were passed to the Federal
some of the intelligence went back years,
other warnings - including one that Al Qaeda
seemed interested in hijacking a plane inside
this country - had been delivered to the president
on Aug. 6, 2001, just a month before the attacks.
new information produced by the commission
so far has led 6 of its 10 members to say
or suggest that the attacks could have been
prevented, though there is no consensus on
when, how or by whom. The commission's chairman,
Thomas H. Kean, a Republican, has described
failures at every level of government, any
of which, if avoided, could have altered the
outcome. Mr. Kerrey, a Democrat, said, "My
conclusion is that it could have been prevented.
That was not my conclusion when I went on
the commission was created to diagnose mistakes
and to recommend reforms, its examination
has powerful political resonance. The panel
has reviewed the records of two presidents,
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Bush, who is in the midst of a campaign for
re-election, said last Sunday that none of
the warnings gave any hint of the time, place
or date of an assault. "Had I known there
was going to be an attack on America I would
have moved mountains to stop the attack,"
an intense stretch this month, the commission
pried open some of the most closely guarded
compartments of government, revealing the
flow and details of previously classified
information given to two presidents and their
senior advisers, and the performance of intelligence
and law enforcement officials.
inquiry has gone beyond the report of a joint
panel of the House and Senate intelligence
committee in 2002, which chronicled missteps
at the mid-level of bureaucracies. Urged on
by a number of families of people killed in
the attacks, the Kean commission has used
a mix of moral and political leverage to extract
presidential communications and testimony.
Among the new themes that have fundamentally
reshaped the story of the Sept. 11 attacks
Qaeda and its leader, Mr. bin Laden, did not
blindside the United States, but were a threat
recognized and discussed regularly at the
highest levels of government for nearly five
years before the attacks, in thousands of
reports, often accompanied by urgent warnings
from lower-level experts.
Clinton and Bush received regular information
about the threat of Al Qaeda and the intention
of the bin Laden network to strike inside
the United States. Each president made terrorism
a stated priority, failed to find a diplomatic
solution and viewed military force as a last
resort. At the same time, neither grappled
with the structural flaws and paralyzing dysfunction
that undermined the C.I.A. and the F.B.I.,
the two agencies on which the nation depended
for protection from terrorists. By the end
of his second term, Mr. Clinton and the director
of the F.B.I., Louis J. Freeh, were barely
when the two agencies cooperated, the results
were unimpressive. Mr. Kean said that he viewed
the reports on the two agencies as indictments.
In late August 2001, George J. Tenet, the
director of central intelligence, learned
that the F.B.I. had arrested Zacarias Moussaoui
after he had enrolled in a flight school.
Mr. Tenet was given a memorandum titled "Islamic
Extremist Learns to Fly." But he testified
that he took no action and did not tell President
Bush about the case.
the Clinton years, particularly at the National
Security Council, the commission has found,
there was uncertainty about whether the threat
posed by Al Qaeda and Mr. bin Laden justified
military action. Much of the debate was provoked
by Richard A. Clarke, who led antiterrorism
efforts under both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush
and argued for aggressive action.
officials, including an N.S.C. staffer working
for Mr. Clarke, told us the threat was seen
as one that could cause hundreds of casualties,
not thousands," according to one interim commission
report. "Such differences affect calculations
about whether or how to go to war. Even officials
who acknowledge a vital threat intellectually
may not be ready to act upon such beliefs
at great cost or at high risk."
the first eight months of the Bush administration,
the commission found, the president and his
advisers received far more information, much
of it dire in tone and detailed in content,
than had been generally understood.
most striking came in the Aug. 6 memorandum
presented in an intelligence briefing the
White House says Mr. Bush requested. Titled
"Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,"
the memorandum was declassified this month
under pressure from the commission. After
referring to a British tip in 1998 that Islamic
fundamentalists wanted to hijack a plane,
it went on to warn: "Nevertheless, F.B.I.
information since that time indicates patterns
of suspicious activity in this country consistent
with preparations for hijackings or other
types of attacks." Mr. Bush has said the briefing
did not provide specific details of when and
where an attack might take place.
Kerrey said that Mr. Bush showed "good instincts"
by asking for the material, but said the call
from Ms. Ong, the flight attendant on American
Airlines Flight 11 - which crashed into the
north tower of the World Trade Center in the
day's first attack - showed that the threats
and alarms did not get passed down the line.
don't see any evidence that our airports were
on heightened alert," he said. "A hijacking
was not a bolt out of the blue."
Clinton Response: A Growing Priority, Hamstrung
President Clinton's eight years in office,
law enforcement and intelligence agencies
tracked Al Qaeda through a succession of plots
in the United States and overseas. The commission
found new evidence that counterterrorism became
a priority for the Clinton national security
team. But the panel said the effort was stymied
by bureaucratic miscommunications, diplomatic
failures, intelligence lapses and policy miscalculations.
the intelligence side, the commission discovered
confusion about crucial issues. White House
aides believed, for example, that President
Clinton had authorized actions to kill Mr.
bin Laden, but C.I.A. officers thought they
were legally permitted to kill him only during
an attempt to capture him.
the 1990's, the panel found, law enforcement
and intelligence experts, often in lower-level
jobs, repeatedly warned that Mr. bin Laden
wanted to strike inside the United States.
The threat was plainly stated in documents
disclosed by the commission. One, in 1998,
was titled "Bin Laden Threatening to Attack
U.S. Aircraft," and cited the possibility
of a strike using antiaircraft missiles. Another
1998 report, referring to Mr. bin Laden as
"UBL," said, "UBL Plans for Reprisals Against
U.S. Targets, Possibly in U.S." A 1996 review
of a plot to blow up airliners over the Pacific
uncovered evidence of the Qaeda interest in
crashing a hijacked plane into C.I.A. headquarters
in Langley, Va.
the C.I.A.'s efforts to thwart Mr. bin Laden's
network through covert action were ineffectual,
the commission found. The agency's "Issue
Station," which was set up in 1996 to hunt
down Mr. bin Laden, had a half-dozen chances
to attack the Qaeda chief, but each time agency
higher-ups balked. A plan to kill him in February
1999 was called off at the last minute because
of concerns that he might be with a prince
from the United Arab Emirates, regarded as
a useful ally in counterterrorism, the commission
Clinton tried diplomacy, but that too failed.
In 1998, Mr. bin Laden issued a public call
for any Muslim to kill any American anywhere
in the world. That April, Bill Richardson,
the United States representative to the United
Nations, went to Afghanistan and asked the
Taliban government to surrender Mr. bin Laden
to the United States.
Qaeda bombings in August 1998 at American
Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania galvanized
talk of aggressive efforts, but brought no
tangible results. President Clinton ordered
cruise missile strikes against a terrorist
training camp in Afghanistan and a suspected
chemical weapons plant in the Sudan. The missiles
hit their intended targets, but neither Mr.
bin Laden nor any other terrorist leader was
December 1998, Mr. Tenet announced in a memorandm
to his senior staff at the C.I.A. that they
would henceforth be at war with Al Qaeda.
"I want no resources or people spared," he
practice, the commission concluded, Mr. Tenet's
declaration of war, which the C.I.A. director
has frequently cited in his public testimony
since the attacks, had "little overall effect."
Federal Bureau of Investigation, the country's
other principal counterterrorism agency, struggled
to repackage the tools of an interstate crime-fighting
organization against a highly unconventional
foreign-based threat to the United States.
interim panel report described the F.B.I.
as a bureaucracy suffocated by outmoded rules
and legal barriers that barred criminal investigators
from obtaining intelligence data. Agents worked
on an aging computer system that kept them
from knowing what other agents in their own
offices, much less those around the country,
were working on. Some F.B.I. analysts hired
to assess terror threats were assigned to
jobs entering data and answering telephones.
the 1990's, the bureau focused on investigations
of specific terror attacks to bring criminal
cases to court. The most successful were handled
by its New York office, whose agents were
among the most knowledgeable in the world
about Al Qaeda.
late in the decade, the F.B.I. recognized
the need to improve its intelligence collection
and analysis, but the report said that Mr.
Freeh had difficulty reconciling that with
its continuing agenda, including the war on
drugs. As a result, the bureau's counterterrorism
staff was thin. On Sept. 11, 2001, only about
6 percent of the F.B.I.'s agent work force
was assigned to terrorism.
October 2000, two Qaeda suicide bombers in
a small boat packed with explosives attacked
the Navy destroyer Cole in the Yemeni port
of Aden, killing 17 American sailors. President
Clinton did not retaliate, but Samuel R. Berger,
Mr. Clinton's national security adviser, warned
his successor, Condoleezza Rice, that "she
would be spending more time on terrorism and
Al Qaeda than any other issue."
Bush Review: Alerts, but Breaks in Chain of
of the Qaeda threat during the transition,
President Bush's national security team started
work in March 2001 on a comprehensive strategy
to eradicate the terror network. But the effort
seemed to plod ahead almost in isolation from
the urgent notices by the C.I.A. Most of the
threat warnings, but not all, pointed overseas.
the end of May, Cofer Black, chief of the
C.I.A.'s counterterrorism center, told Ms.
Rice that the threat level stood at "7 on
a scale of 10, as compared to an 8 during
the millennium," the period around January
2000. In response, American embassies were
warned to take precautions. The State Department
warned Americans traveling overseas. The C.I.A.
intensified operations to disrupt terror cells
around the world.
Tenet took his terror warnings directly to
Mr. Bush. Ms. Rice said that at least 40 meetings
between the C.I.A. director and the president
dealt "in one way or other with Al Qaeda or
the Al Qaeda threat." Mr. Tenet later said
"the system was blinking red," adding that
no warning indicated that terrorists would
fly hijacked commercial aircraft into buildings
in the United States.
July 5, Ms. Rice and Andrew H. Card Jr., the
White House chief of staff, asked Mr. Clarke
to alert top officials of the country's domestic
agencies. "Let's make sure they're buttoning
down," Ms. Rice said. The F.A.A. issued threat
advisories, but neither the agency's top administrator
nor Norman Y. Mineta, the secretary of transportation,
was aware of the increased threat level, said
Jamie S. Gorelick, a commission member, at
a hearing last week.
July 27, Mr. Clarke informed Ms. Rice that
the threat reporting had dropped. But White
House officials said that Mr. Bush continued
to ask about any evidence of a domestic attack.
In August, C.I.A. officials prepared a briefing
about the possibility of Qaeda operations
inside the United States, including the use
of aircraft in terror attacks.
briefing paper was presented to Mr. Bush on
Aug. 6 at his Texas ranch. The memorandum,
declassified on April 10 by the White House
at the commission's request, included some
ominous information. It said that Qaeda operatives
had been in the United States for years, might
be planning an attack in the United States
and could be focusing on a building in Lower
Manhattan as a target.
Bush said the Aug. 6 report was not specific
enough to order new actions. "I am satisfied
that I never saw any intelligence that indicated
there was going to be an attack on America
at a time and place, an attack. Of course
I knew that America was hated by Osama bin
Laden. That was obvious. The question was,
who was going to attack us, when and where
and with what?"
president noted that the memo said the F.B.I.
had 70 investigations under way related to
Al Qaeda. In addition, the F.B.I. had sent
messages to its field offices urging agents
to be vigilant. Thomas J. Pickard, the F.B.I.'s
acting director from June to August, said
he telephoned top agents to advise them of
the threat. But the commission found that
most F.B.I. personnel "did not recall a heightened
sense of threat from Al Qaeda."
commission found several previously undisclosed
intelligence reports to Mr. Bush, Vice President
Dick Cheney and national security aides dating
back to April and May, when the volume of
warnings began to increase. Mr. Bush was given
briefing papers headlined, "Bin Laden Planning
Multiple Operations," "Bin Laden Threats Are
Real" and "Bin Laden's Plans Advancing."
August 2001, the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. came
as close as the government ever did to detecting
anyone connected to the Sept. 11 plot. That
month investigators finally made progress
in the fractured effort to track down two
men, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi, who
on Sept. 11 were aboard American Airlines
Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.
C.I.A. had investigated the pair off and on
since they had been seen at a Qaeda meeting
in Malaysia in January 2000. But they were
not placed on a State Department watch list
until Aug. 23, after they already were in
the United States. Moreover, the C.I.A. failed
to tell the F.B.I.'s primary investigators
on the Cole case of a key connection between
the two men and a Cole suspect until after
Sept. 11. "No one apparently felt they needed
to inform higher level of management in either
the F.B.I. or C.I.A. about the case," one
commission report said.
mid-August, after the arrest of Mr. Moussaoui
in Minneapolis, the commission disclosed,
Mr. Tenet and his top deputies were sent a
briefing paper labeled "Islamic Extremist
Learns to Fly." But they took no action on
commission found several missed opportunities
in the Moussaoui investigation that might
have detected his connection to a Qaeda cell
in Hamburg, Germany, that planned the Sept.
11 attacks. "A maximum U.S. effort to investigate
Moussaoui could conceivably have unearthed
his connections to the Hamburg cell," one
commission report said. The report added that
publicity about Mr. Moussaoui's arrest "might
have disrupted the plot. But such an effort
would have been a race against time."
was not until Sept. 10 that Mr. Bush's national
security aides approved a three-phase strategy
to eliminate Al Qaeda. The plan, which was
to unfold over three to five years, envisioned
a mission to the Taliban in Afghanistan, where
Al Qaeda was based; increased diplomatic pressure;
and covert action. Military strikes might
be used, but only if all other means failed.
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