Israeli security issued urgent
warning to CIA of large-scale terror attacks
By David Wastell in Washington and Philip Jacobson in
ISRAELI intelligence officials say that they warned
their counterparts in the United States last month that large-scale
terrorist attacks on highly visible targets on the American mainland
on the World Trade Centre's twin towers and the Pentagon were
humiliating blows to the intelligence services, which
failed to foresee them, and to the defence forces of the most
powerful nation in the world, which failed to deflect them.
The Telegraph has learnt that two senior experts with
Mossad, the Israeli military intelligence service, were sent to
Washington in August to alert the CIA and FBI to the existence of a
cell of as many of 200 terrorists said to be preparing a big
"They had no specific information about what was
being planned but linked the plot to Osama bin Laden and told the
Americans that there were strong grounds for suspecting Iraqi
involvement," said a senior Israeli security official.
The CIA has said that it had no hard information that
would have led to the prevention of the hijacking, but the FBI said
it believed that cells operating within America and totalling at
least 50 terrorists were behind last week's devastating hijacks; the
names of new suspects are being added to the list daily.
America's intelligence agencies are being widely
blamed for their failure to predict the attacks, or anything like
them, and for not discovering any of the terrorist cells before the
hijackings on Tuesday. Some of those who took part had lived in the
US for months, or even years.
Evidence that a clear Israeli warning was delivered
to American authorities, but ignored, would be a further blow to the
reputation of the CIA, which is under fire for its failure last
An administration official in Washington said: "If
this is true then the refusal to take it seriously will mean heads
will roll. It is quite credible that the CIA might not heed a Mossad
warning: it has a history of being overcautious about Israeli
For years, staff at the Pentagon joked that they
worked at "Ground Zero", the spot at which an incoming nuclear
missile aimed at America's defences would explode. There is even a
snack bar of that name in the central courtyard of the five-sided
building, America's most obvious military bullseye.
This weekend, five days after that target was struck
with devastating effect by a hijacked plane, the joking has
It is far from certain that any military commander
would have had the courage to recommend shooting down a passenger
airliner, even in the unprecedented circumstances of last
For three of the four airliners hijacked last week,
however, the question did not even arise. Two pairs of combat
fighters were scrambled into action but did not get near enough to
shoot any of them down.
Norad, the command headquarters in Colorado
responsible for defending all of North America from air attack, was
notified of the first hijack at 8.38am and six minutes later two
F-15 fighter jets were ordered into the air from Otis airforce base
on Cape Cod.
Before they could take off, however, the first
hijacked airliner crashed into the World Trade Centre's north tower
at 8.46am. Six minutes later the two military jets were airborne,
but when the second hijacked airliner hit the south tower shortly
after 9am they were still 70 miles from Manhattan.
The only successful action against the hijackers was
taken by passengers of the fourth airliner, whose
heroic decision to fight back led to its crashing into the
fields of Pennsylvania.
The reason lies in the strict distinction America
draws between civil and military power, combined with the fact that
until last week nobody had confronted the possibility that a
terrorist hijacker might turn kamikaze pilot.
Although Norad has its own radar system to track
aircraft over the US, its prime task is to watch for hostile
aircraft approaching America from outside. "We assume anything
originating in US airspace is friendly," said a spokesman.
For the same reason, the 20 or so American fighter
planes on permanent full alert in case of a suspect intruder, were
deployed at half a dozen bases in the likeliest flightpaths of an
attack from the former Soviet Union, several hundred miles from New
York or Washington DC.
All aircraft flying over American airspace are
monitored and controlled by a network of 20 regional Federal
Aviation Authority air traffic control centres, backed up by
individual airport control towers. Military aircraft under Norad
control can intervene with domestic traffic only if called on for
help by their civilian colleagues.
That is what happened on Tuesday, but in no case was
there apparently enough time after the FAA's warning for fighter
planes to reach the hijacked airliners.
More puzzling, there were 45 minutes between air
traffic controllers losing contact with the third airliner, which
took off from Dulles airport just outside Washington, and its crash
on to the Pentagon.
At that point, however, the aircraft was still flying
on its intended course westwards. It may not have been until later,
possibly after a passenger's mobile phone call to the Justice
Department, that the civil authorities finally twigged what was
It was not the military but civilian air traffic
controllers at Washington's Reagan National Airport - tipped off by
their colleagues at Dulles - who alerted the White House to the fact
that an unauthorised jet was flying at full throttle towards it.
As shaken White House staff began a frantic
evacuation, the aircraft banked, performed a 270 degree turn and
sailed past lines of aghast drivers on expressways to crash
explosively into the west side of the Pentagon.
If the airliner had approached much nearer to the
White House it might have been shot down by the Secret Service, who
are believed to have a battery of ground-to-air Stinger missiles
ready to defend the president's home.
The Pentagon is not similarly defended. "We are an
open society," said a military official. "We don't have soldiers
positioned on the White House lawn and we don't have the Pentagon
ringed with bunkers and tanks."
It emerged last night that two F-16 fighters took off
from Langley airforce base in Virginia just two minutes before the
American Airlines Boeing 767 crashed into the Pentagon, again too
late to have a chance of intercepting.
Only the fourth hijacked airliner, which was less
than 30 minutes from Washington when it crashed, might have been
successfully intercepted: air traffic controllers at a regional
centre in Nashua, New Hampshire, told a Boston newspaper that at
least one F-16 fighter was in hot pursuit, and defence officials
confirmed that the fighters already launched from Langley were on
their way to intercept the flight when passengers apparently took
matters into their own hands.
Deep inside the Pentagon, in the hardened bunkers of
the National Military Joint Intelligence Centre, senior officials
were said to be "stunned" by the terrorists' achievement.
Within minutes of the attack American forces around
the world were put on one of their highest states of alert - Defcon
3, just two notches short of all-out war - and F-16s from Andrews
Air Force Base were in the air over Washington DC.
A flotilla of warships was deployed along the east
coast from bases in Virginia and Florida, with two aircraft-carriers
to help protect the airspace around New York and Washington DC. Off
the west coast, a further 10 ships put to sea to take up station
close to the shore.
Extra Awacs aerial reconnaissance aircraft were sent
aloft to ensure that nothing other than military aircraft flew in
American airspace - a home-grown version of the "no-fly zones"
enforced for many years over Iraq. For much of the rest of the week,
the unsettling roar of F-15 and F-16 fighters patrolling the skies
high above America's biggest cities replaced the usual rumble of
On Friday, in a tacit admission that America must in
future be better prepared, Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary,
announced that fighters were being put on a 15-minute "strip" alert
at 26 bases nationwide.
There was anger among politicians at what many saw as
the failure of the intelligence services, and some officials on
Capitol Hill began canvassing support for a move to force George
Tenet, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, originally
appointed by Clinton, to step aside.
James Traficant, a Democratic congressman from
Pennsylvania, said that for years Congress had poured billions of
dollars of largely unscrutinised funding into America's intelligence
services, "yet we learnt of every one of these tragedies from Fox
News and CNN"- two television channels. Senator Richard Shelby, a
Republican member of the Senate intelligence committee, said it was
"a failure of great dimension".
There are moves to address one severe shortcoming
noted by many critics: the CIA's reliance on technological rather
than "human" means to gather information, and its weakness as a
means of finding out what Osama bin Laden is up to.
During the Clinton administration, Congress banned
the CIA from recruiting as a paid informer anyone with a criminal
record or who was guilty of human rights violations. James Woolsey,
another former CIA director, said: "Inside bin Laden's organisation
there are only people who want to be human rights violators. If you
don't recruit them then you don't recruit anyone."