U.S. Overlooked Terrorism Signs Well Before 9/11

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The nation's intelligence agencies failed to heed serious warnings dating back to the mid-1990s that the Al Qaeda terrorist network was increasingly focused on striking targets in the United States and using aircraft as weapons, according to a report issued by congressional investigators Wednesday.

The document, which represents the first comprehensive look at intelligence failures surrounding Sept. 11, 2001, lists newly disclosed terrorist plots and other clues that did not point directly to last year's attacks, but suggest that U.S. spy agencies should have been looking for just such a plot.

Among the revelations is an intelligence report of a 1998 plot in which Arab suspects possibly linked to Al Qaeda were to pilot an explosive-packed plane into the World Trade Center. That same year, intelligence officials learned that Al Qaeda was trying to establish an active cell in the United States. And just one month before the attacks on the trade center and the Pentagon, intelligence agencies obtained information suggesting Al Qaeda operatives were possibly plotting to crash an airplane into the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.

The disclosures were released as part of Congress' first public hearings on intelligence failures surrounding Sept. 11. The House and Senate Intelligence committees are expected to hold a series of public hearings over the next month before producing a final report early next year.

Wednesday's document represents preliminary findings that seem to undercut administration officials' repeated assertions over the last year that the nature and magnitude of the attacks were all but inconceivable until they happened.

Indeed, the report raises serious questions about the extent to which U.S. spy agencies had mobilized to respond to the emerging Al Qaeda threat. As recently as 2000, the report says, the CIA's counterterrorism center had just five analysts focused full-time on Al Qaeda, and the FBI had just one.

That was despite the fact that in 1998, CIA Director George J. Tenet had written a memo declaring "war" on Al Qaeda and saying, "I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside CIA or the [intelligence] community."

Though money and manpower aimed at terrorist targets grew subsequent to that memo, the report says "there was no massive shift in budget or reassignment of personnel to counter-terrorism until after Sept. 11, 2001."

In fact, the report says, "relatively few of the FBI agents interviewed by [investigators] seem to have been aware of Tenet's declaration."

Many lawmakers said the report points to systemic intelligence breakdowns.

"We now know that our inability to detect and prevent the Sept. 11 attacks was an intelligence failure of unprecedented magnitude," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Some people who couldn't seem to utter the words 'intelligence failure' are now convinced of it."

Shelby appeared to be referring to Tenet, who in testimony before the committee earlier this year insisted that Sept. 11 was not an intelligence failure.

The report, the product of an ongoing investigation of the attacks by congressional intelligence committees, is likely to put new pressure on the White House to account for intelligence breakdowns and push for substantial reform. But there were new signs at Wednesday's hearing that lawmakers and the White House remain at odds over how much of what the investigation uncovers should be released to the public.

Members complained Wednesday that they have been blocked by the White House from disclosing whether any intelligence warnings mentioned in the report were ever conveyed to Presidents Clinton or Bush.

The White House has refused to allow such disclosures even in cases in which the underlying information has already been declassified or publicly reported, said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

As a result, the report contains repeated references to intelligence that was brought to the attention of "senior government officials," without making clear who the officials were.

Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman, said that the administration's stance stems from its concern that "the president should be able to receive candid intelligence assessments and advice without congressional interference," and that exposing such communications "could have a chilling effect" on what intelligence officials share with the president.

Eleanor Hill, the staff director of the congressional investigation, stressed during testimony Wednesday that the investigation has not uncovered a "smoking gun" indicating that any federal agency or official had information before Sept. 11, 2001, identifying when, where or how the attacks would be carried out.

But the report, based on reviews of more than 400,000 documents and interviews with nearly 500 people, lists dozens of pieces of data that point to at least the possibility of an event like the attacks of Sept. 11.

Many of the findings are sketched out only in general terms because details remain classified. The report, for instance, doesn't spell out the exact nature of many of the warnings intelligence officials were said to have received, or whether they were pursued.

Some of the joint committee's most significant findings have already been reported, including the so-called Phoenix memo in which an Arizona FBI agent made a futile effort to urge bureau headquarters to investigate Arabs in flight schools; the failure to grasp the implications of the August 2001 arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui, now believed by authorities to have been the intended 20th hijacker; and the failure of the CIA to put two of the Sept. 11 hijackers on a terrorism watch list until they had already entered the United States.

But the report also contained a number of provocative findings not previously disclosed. Many center on a series of warnings that Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups might use airplanes as weapons.

In January 1996, the report says, the intelligence community obtained information regarding a planned suicide attack by individuals associated with a "key Al Qaeda operative" to fly a plane from Afghanistan and attack the White House.

The report also says the CIA had been aware of a key Al Qaeda figure involved in the Sept. 11 plot since 1995, "but did not recognize his growing importance" and paid scant attention to him. The figure is not identified in the report but is believed to be Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the plot.

In 1998, intelligence officials obtained information that "a group of unidentified Arabs planned to fly an explosive-laden plane from a foreign country into the World Trade Center." Intelligence officials have since found possible links between that group and Al Qaeda.

That same year, intelligence officials got another warning, this time indicating that "Osama bin Laden's next operation could possibly involve flying an aircraft loaded with explosives into a U.S. airport and detonating it."

Two years later, in 2000, a would-be informant walked into the FBI's Newark, N.J., office saying he had attended a training camp in Pakistan and that he was supposed to meet others in the United States to take part in a hijacking plot, the report says. He warned agents that "there would be pilots among the hijacking team." But although the informant passed an FBI polygraph test, the FBI "was never able to verify any aspect of his story," the report says.

Despite these and other warnings, the report says, intelligence officials never seriously studied the possibility that airplanes could be used as weapons.

Indeed, less than a year before the attacks, "the FBI and Federal Aviation Administration had assessed the prospects of a terrorist incident targeting domestic civil aviation in the United States as relatively low."

The report's findings challenge White House officials' repeated claims that they couldn't have foreseen the nature of the attacks.

In May, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said at a White House news conference, "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center ... that they would try to use an airplane as a missile."

The report indicates that intelligence and law enforcement agencies also underestimated the likelihood that Al Qaeda would launch an attack on U.S. soil. This was true even though intelligence showed Al Qaeda was seeking to establish a cell in the United States in 1998, and that by 2000 Bin Laden was considering targets including skyscrapers, ports, airports, nuclear plants and the Statue of Liberty.

These warnings were followed by a spike in intelligence traffic in the summer of 2001 indicating an Al Qaeda attack of devastating proportions was imminent.

Between May and July, the National Security Agency--which eavesdrops on electronic signals around the globe--intercepted at least 33 communications indicating possible imminent attack. Reports indicated Bin Laden followers were planning to enter the U.S. via Canada and other routes, and were plotting operations using high explosives.

But instead of bracing for a domestic strike, Hill said, agencies were overwhelmingly focused on vulnerabilities overseas. One senior FBI official interviewed as part of the inquiry told investigators "he thought there was a high probability--98%--that the attack would occur overseas."

Wednesday's hearing also included emotional testimony from spouses of two victims of the Sept. 11 attacks: Kristen Brietweiser, 31, whose husband worked in the World Trade Center; and Stephen Push, whose wife was a passenger on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

Both called for an independent commission to conduct further investigations of the intelligence failures surrounding Sept. 11. Legislation creating such a commission could be considered by the Senate as early as this week.

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