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February 19, 2002
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Pedestrians scramble for safety
Pedestrians scramble for safety in front of New York City Hall as the first World Trade Center tower collapses after being hit by an aircraft. (Paul Hawthorne/AP Photo)
Early Warnings
Pre-Sept. 11 Cautions Went Unheeded

Feb. 18 The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the worst in U.S. history, came as a complete surprise to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

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There were no alerts, no increased security, no warnings. An ABCNEWS investigation of the failure of intelligence on Sept. 11 has found a trail of missed signals, missed opportunities, and warnings ignored.

There were warnings about the possibility of an airborne terrorist attack on U.S. targets as early as 1994, when terrorism expert Marvin Cetron underlined the threat in a report to the Pentagon.

"We saw Osama bin Laden. We spelled it out and we said the United States was very vulnerable," Cetron told ABCNEWS. "You could make a left turn at the Washington Monument and take out the White House. And you could make a right turn and take out the Pentagon."

Cetron said he warned the Pentagon that two events earlier that year the crash-landing of a small airplane at the White House by an apparently unstable man, and French authorities' storming of a hijacked airliner that Algerian terrorists had planned to fly into the Eiffel Tower made an airborne terrorist attack on the United States a very real possibility. "We knew that was going happen and we were scared," he told ABCNEWS.

But Cetron said Pentagon officials told him to delete the warning from the report. "I said, 'It's unclassified, everything is available,' and they said, 'We don't want it released because you can't handle a crisis before it becomes a crisis, and no one is going to believe it anyhow,' " Cetron said. Even with the warnings of an airborne attack deleted, the report was not released to the public.

Aversion to Risk

Four years later, in 1998, U.S. authorities faced a terrorist crisis with the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The United States accused bin Laden of involvement, and Congress and the Clinton administration commissioned two new reports on terrorism.

Both of the reports rang alarm bells, but little was done.

The reports noted that the United States had virtually no human intelligence sources inside groups like bin Laden's al Qaeda.

"We found that over the years both the overseas intelligence community, and at home the FBI had developed a risk aversion," said Paul Bremer, chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism, which released its report in 2000.

An aversion to risk meant that the CIA failed to penetrate al Qaeda with a single agent, according to U.S. intelligence sources.

The reports criticized Clinton administration guidelines restricting U.S. intelligence agencies from hiring informants with questionable human rights records.

"You don't get too many monks or nuns to get information for the CIA," said former Sen. Warren Rudman, who co-chaired the U.S. Commission on National Security, which submitted its report to Congress in three parts, beginning in June 2000. "There are some pretty rotten people, some of them with pretty bad records. But if they had the information that would protect our national security, we damn well should have used them."

Critics say the United States was too dependent on satellites and other high-tech means to gather intelligence on bin Laden's network, and that there was a shortage of people to translate and analyze the vast amounts of data.

For example, ABCNEWS has learned that shortly before Sept. 11, NSA intercepts detected multiple phone calls from Abu Zubaida, bin Laden's chief of operations, to the United States. The intercepts were never passed on.

"We do have a joint antiterrorism center, and that is a failure of information consolidation and analysis," said Rudman. "It obviously (a) wasn't consolidated and (b) wasn't analyzed. I mean, those are serious shortcomings."

After the Fact

All three reports recognized the shortcomings and made recommendations including closer monitoring of student visas, the creation of a homeland security office, the freezing of financial assets that supported terrorism, and more coordination between the CIA and the FBI on intelligence.

But, the reports' authors say, their recommendations went largely unheeded.

Bremer said that no action was taken on any of his commission's recommendations until the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon: "Interestingly, since Sept. 11 almost every one of our recommendations has either been enacted by the executive branch or been put into law by Congress, which suggests that we probably had a pretty good menu of things to do before Sept. 11."

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