Before Sept 11; Unshared Clues and Unshaped Policy
by Barton Gellman
Friday, May 17, 2002
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On July 5 of last year, a month and a day before President Bush first heard that al Qaeda might plan a hijacking, the White House summoned officials of a dozen federal agencies to the Situation Room.
"Something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it's going to happen soon," the government's top counterterrorism official, Richard Clarke, told the assembled group, according to two of those present. The group included the Federal Aviation Administration, along with the Coast Guard, FBI, Secret Service and Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Clarke directed every counterterrorist office to cancel vacations, defer nonvital travel, put off scheduled exercises and place domestic rapid-response teams on much shorter alert. For six weeks last summer, at home and overseas, the U.S. government was at its highest possible state of readiness -- and anxiety -- against imminent terrorist attack.
That intensity -- defensive in nature -- did not last. By the time Bush received his briefing at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., on Aug. 6, the government had begun to stand down from the alert. Offensive planning against al Qaeda remained in a mid-level interagency panel, which had spent half a year already in a policy review. The Deputies Committee, the second tier of national security officials, had not finished considering the emerging plan, and Bush's Cabinet-rank advisers were still a month away from their first meeting on terrorism. That took place Sept. 4, a week before hijacked planes were flown into the Pentagon and World Trade Center in synchronized attacks.
What Bush and his government did with the information they had in August became the subject of a political brawl on Capitol Hill yesterday, largely shorn of the context of those weeks before Sept. 11. A close look at the sequence of events, based on lengthy interviews early this year with participants and fresh accounts yesterday, appears to support the White House view that Bush lacked sufficient warning to stop the attack. But it also portrays a new administration that gave scant attention to an adversary whose lethal ambitions and savvy had been well understood for years.
Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet had been "nearly frantic" with concern since June 22, according to one frequent interlocutor, and a written intelligence summary for national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said on June 28: "It is highly likely that a significant al Qaeda attack is in the near future, within several weeks." By late summer, one senior political appointee said, Tenet had "repeated this so often that people got tired of hearing it."
The president's daily briefing, a CIA distillation of noteworthy current intelligence, seldom includes a threat "so important and so precise that everyone stops in their tracks" to head it off, one senior foreign policy official said yesterday. The reference to hijacking on Aug. 6, said another source with first-hand knowledge, was speculative and backed by no specific threat report more recent than 1998.
But it is also true that Bush and his Cabinet advisers were not yet disposed to respond to al Qaeda as a first-tier national security threat. The alerts of the early and mid-summer -- described by two career counterterrorist officials as the most urgent in decades -- had faded to secondary concern by the time of Bush's extended Crawford vacation. As late as Sept. 9, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld threatened a presidential veto when the Senate proposed to divert $600 million to counterterrorism from ballistic missile defense.
"I knew he was a menace and I knew he was a problem," Bush said of Osama bin Laden in a Dec. 20 interview with The Washington Post. "I was prepared to look at a plan that would be a thoughtful plan that would bring him to justice, and would have given the order to do that. I have no hesitancy about going after him. But I didn't feel that sense of urgency."
One major U.S. government error before Sept. 11, according to some counterterrorist officials, was the FBI's failure to share its field reports from aviation schools.
A senior FBI official attended Clarke's urgent White House meeting on July 5. He committed the bureau to redoubling contacts with its foreign counterparts and to speed up transcription and analysis of wiretaps obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, among other steps. But when a field agent in Phoenix reported suspicions of a hijacking plot just five days later, the FBI did not share the report with any other agency.
"I'm fit to be tied," said one top official from another agency. "People are saying we didn't connect the dots. It's awfully hard to connect the dots if people don't give you the dots."
The July 10 report from Phoenix was a five-page electronic communication to headquarters outlining links between a group of suspected Middle Eastern terrorists and the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. The agent, whose name has not been divulged, suggested that the FBI should canvass U.S. flight schools for information on other Middle Eastern students. He speculated that bin Laden might be attempting to train operatives to infiltrate the aviation industry.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has acknowledged that the bureau should have responded more aggressively to that report. But the FBI did not share it within the interagency Counterterrorism Security Group, which had a "threat subgroup" meeting three times a week. According to sources, the Phoenix report reached no further than FBI headquarters and the New York field office.
"Even today I get dozens of reports a day from the CIA and none from the FBI," said a government counterterrorism official. "When an FBI SAC [special agent in charge] sends in a message, it never leaves the bureau. In fact, they can still get in trouble if they show it to you."
Mueller testified last week that the bureau is cooperating comprehensively with other agencies. He said none of the men under investigation in Arizona have been linked with the Sept. 11 attacks, and that the memo would not have led investigators to unravel the plot.
The last concrete hijacking threat report, sources said, came in 1998. A son of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, convicted in 1995 of conspiring to blow up tunnels and other New York City landmarks, was reported to say then that the best way to free his father from a U.S. prison might be to hijack an American plane and exchange the hostages.
In the 10 weeks before Sept. 11, most of the thousands of intelligence leads pointed to an attack on Americans or their properties overseas.
"Most of the al Qaeda network is anticipating an attack," said a highly classified analysis at the end of June. "Al Qaeda's overt publicity has also raised expectations among its rank and file, and its donors. We have increased security at U.S. facilities, warned Americans, threatened the Taliban, stretched intelligence collection efforts, caused the arrest of some of those al Qaeda members we have located, and placed consequence management teams on alert."
On June 22, the military's Central and European Commands imposed "Force Protection Condition Delta," the highest anti-terrorist alert. The next day the State Department ordered all diplomatic posts to convene emergency action committees. The CIA, including the Rome station chief, said the most probable targets included the U.S. Embassy in Italy, the Genoa summit of the Group of Eight leaders in July, and the Vatican -- a threat that caused Bush to change the venue of his meeting with Pope John Paul II to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo outside Rome.
On July 3, Tenet made an urgent special request to 20 friendly intelligence services, asking for the arrest of a list of known al Qaeda operatives.
As late as July 31, the FAA urged U.S. airlines to maintain a "high degree of alertness." All those alert levels dropped by the time hijackers armed with box cutters took control of four jetliners on the morning of Sept. 11.