May 17, 2002
For years, signs suggested 'that something was up'
By Bill Gertz
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
U.S. intelligence agencies had indications for months and even years before September 11 that terrorists were planning attacks with aircraft.
But National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that the most-recent intelligence indicated hijackers only would take hostages. A senior official last night told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity that the only mention of hijacking was "one sentence buried in one briefing."
"I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon, that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile," Miss Rice told reporters at a news conference yesterday. "All of this reporting about hijacking was about traditional hijacking."
As early as 1995, the FBI and CIA were notified by police in the Philippines that Abdul Murad, a pilot and al Qaeda terrorist linked to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, had revealed plans to fly a small plane filled with explosives into CIA headquarters.
In late 1998, U.S. intelligence reports said Osama bin Laden was planning strikes on Washington or New York to avenge a U.S. missile strike on his headquarters in Afghanistan.
Beginning in December 2000 and continuing through the spring of 2001 there was an increase in intelligence "traffic" indicating that bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist group was planning an attack.
"Now, there was a clear concern that something was up, that something was coming," she said. "But it was principally focused overseas. The areas of most concern were the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula and Europe."
That "chatter," Miss Rice said, increased in summer 2001.
The Federal Aviation Administration in late July issued a notice stating "there's no specific target, no credible info of attack to U.S. civil-aviation interests, but terror groups are known to be planning and training for hijackings, and we ask you, therefore, to urge — to use caution," she said.
cPresident Bush was given an analytic intelligence report during a daily briefing on Aug. 6 that terrorists were planning to hijack airliners, but the intelligence did not indicate that the airliners would be used as missiles in suicide attacks.
"It mentioned hijacking, but hijacking in the traditional sense, and in a sense said that the most important and most likely thing was that they would take over an airliner holding passengers and demand the release of one of their operatives," Miss Rice said.
A hijacking might have been aimed at winning the release of imprisoned terror leader Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was convicted of plotting the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, she said.
"I want to reiterate: It's not a warning," Miss Rice said. "There's no specific time, place or method mentioned. What you have seen in the run-up that I've talked about is that the FAA was reacting to the same kind of generalized information about a potential hijacking as a method that al Qaeda might employ, but no specific information saying that they were planning such an attack at a particular time."
Miss Rice also said most of the intelligence indicated that an attack was likely to take place outside the United States.
"But at home, while there was much less reporting or chatter about something at home, people were thinking about the U.S., and the FBI was involved in a number of investigations of potential al Qaeda personnel operating in the United States," she said.
No public notification was made about the hijacking threat because there were no specifics "about when, where, under what circumstances," Miss Rice said.
"You would have risked shutting down the American civil-aviation system with such generalized information," she said. "You would have to think five, six, seven times about that, very, very hard. I don't think we ever thought a warning made sense in this context."
In 2001, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies had at least two chances to discover the September 11 plot.
The first was Aug. 16, when Zacarias Moussaoui, a Moroccan-born French national, was arrested by the FBI in Minnesota on immigration charges.
Moussaoui had enrolled in the Pan Am International Flying Academy in Eagan, Minn., and had paid $8,000 to learn how to fly a commercial jetliner but had expressed disinterest in learning to take off and land.
After the arrest, the FBI suspected that he was involved in some type of terrorist activity, but FBI investigative rules at the time prohibited agents from conducting the kind of intelligence probe that might have uncovered a role in the September 11 plot.
Moussaoui has since been indicted on conspiracy charges that carry the death penalty.
A second chance was an FBI memorandum from July from the Phoenix field office that stated that several Arabs were seeking flight training and other courses involving airport security and airport operations at at least one U.S. flight school.
The agent, who has not been identified by name, asked FBI headquarters to order a check of all flight schools to look for other Arabs who might also be involved.
The five-page memo referred to Osama bin Laden and suggested that his al Qaeda terrorist network or others might be involved. The memo offered no specific evidence but raised questions that went to FBI officials in Washington.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican and vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said yesterday that the FBI did not do enough to uncover the plot after the Phoenix memorandum and the arrest of Moussaoui in Minnesota.
"The FBI basically kept this [information] in," Mr. Shelby said. "They should have given it to the president. They should have given it to the [intelligence] committee, but in reality they sat on it."
Miss Rice defended the FBI for not sharing the information.
"It's unusual that anything like that would get to the president," she said. "He doesn't recall seeing anything. I don't recall seeing anything of this kind."
The pieces of intelligence information were "hard to put together," she said.
Administration intelligence officials said shortly after September 11 that there was no warning of an attack, although there were signs of terrorist planning overseas.
CIA officials, saying the agency was too busy taking part in the war on terrorism, did nothing to review the intelligence failure until after Congress formed a joint committee to investigate the matter earlier this year. CIA Director George J. Tenet then formed a secret task force to look into the matter.
Mr. Tenet told a Senate hearing in February that there was no intelligence failure, saying, "We are proud of our record."
Vice President Richard B. Cheney said in an interview in December that good intelligence is only part of preventing attacks.
"You can do all you can in terms of trying to penetrate the organizations of the terrorists, in terms of trying to harden the targets here at home," Mr. Cheney said. "But the ultimate defense, the only thing that guarantees your security, is to destroy your enemy."
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said in a speech last month that the terrorist plot was "hatched and financed overseas" up to five years ago.
All 19 hijackers entered the United States legally and "while here, the hijackers did all they could to stay below our radar," he said.
"In short, the terrorists had managed to exploit loopholes and vulnerabilities in our systems, to stay out of sight, and to not let anyone know what they were up to beyond a very closed circle," Mr. Mueller said.
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