TIME.com: Nation -- How the U.S. Missed the Clues

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TIME.com: Nation -- How the U.S. Missed the Clues

Saturday, May. 18, 2002
How the U.S. Missed the Clues
Last summer the White House suspected that a terrorist attack was coming. But four key mistakes kept the U.S. from knowing what to do. An inside look at what went wrong and what must be fixed

None of this is pretty. In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, members of the American political establishment stood together, determined to fight the war against terrorism, supporting those in military uniform and the buttoned-down bureaucrats whose job it was to make sure that something so awful would not happen again. Everyone inside the Bush Administration as well as outside it knew there had been massive failures of intelligence in the period before the attacks. But after Sept. 11, the Administration earned a reputation for steely-eyed competence, and its political opponents couched their legitimate criticism in language politer than that to which Washington is accustomed.

That was then. In the past month, a series of disclosures have cast doubt on the most basic abilities of the national-security establishment. The Administration has looked alternately shifty and defensive; Democrats some of them presidential candidates-in-waiting have postured on motormouth TV. And the nation has been forced into a period of painful second-guessing, asking whether Sept. 11 could have been prevented. In August, it turns out, the President was briefed by the CIA on the possibility that al-Qaeda, the terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden, might use hijacked airliners to win concessions from the U.S. Sources tell Time that the briefing, which was first reported by CBS News, was in response to a request by Bush for detailed information on the kind of threat posed by al-Qaeda, not to American interests overseas which had long preoccupied the spooks but at home. During the period in which the brief was prepared, says a senior intelligence official, the CIA came to the conclusion that "al-Qaeda was determined to attack the U.S." After the strike came, White House sources concede, the Administration made a conscious decision not to disclose the August briefing, hoping that it would be discussed "in context" and months later when congressional investigations into the attacks eventually got under way. And that wasn't the only embarrassing paper kept under wraps. Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported new details from a July 2001 memo by an FBI agent in Phoenix, Ariz., who presciently noted a pattern of Arab men signing up at flight schools. The agent, Kenneth Williams, 42, has spent 11 years working in an FBI antiterrorism task force. He recommended an investigation to determine whether al-Qaeda operatives were training at the schools. He was ignored, and after the existence of the memo became known, the FBI insisted that even if it had been acted upon, it would not have led to the detention of the Sept. 11 hijackers. (Only one of them, Hani Hanjour, had trained in Arizona, and did so before Williams focused on flight schools.) But sources tell Time that at least one of the men Williams had under watch a Muslim who has now left the U.S. did indeed have al-Qaeda links. And Williams identified a second pair of suspected Islamic radicals now living in the U.S. as resident aliens, the sources say. They are currently under FBI surveillance. As if those missed signals weren't enough, last week it was also disclosed that in August, when the U.S. detained Zacarias Moussaoui a man the French government knew was associated with Islamic extremists and who apparently wanted to learn to fly jumbo jets but not land them, and has since been charged with complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks the FBI told nobody in the White House's Counterterrorism Security Group. But the CSG, which comes under the aegis of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, is supposed to coordinate the government's response to terrorist threats.

At high levels of government, the awful possibility is dawning that things could have been different. "If we'd had access to Moussaoui, if we'd had access to the Phoenix memo, could we have broken up the plot?" asks a White House official who works on counterterrorism. Then he answers his own question: "We would have taken action, and there's at least a distinct possibility that we may at the very least have delayed it." Bush was outraged at the suggestion that he might have been warned about impending strikes and failed to act. To ward off Democratic criticism, Vice President Dick Cheney warned against trying to "seek political advantage" from the new revelations; such commentary, he said, "is thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war." He should have saved his breath; the blame game is under way, long before the lessons of all that happened last summer have been absorbed. And one thing we now know: there is plenty of blame to go around.

George W. Bush, they say, is a quick study, and last summer he needed to be. Threats and warnings of possible terrorist outrages against American interests were howling into Washington like a dirty blizzard. Fighting terrorism hadn't been a top priority in the early months of the Administration; cutting taxes, building a missile shield and other agenda items had crowded it out. Bush's national-security aides had been warned during the transition that there was an al-Qaeda presence in the U.S., but in the first months of the Administration, says one official, a sense of urgency was lacking: "They were new to this stuff."

By the time Bush left for a month's vacation on his ranch in Crawford, Texas, on Aug. 4, that mood had changed. Where the President goes, the responsibilities of office follow, and so, each morning, Bush sat in the ranch office and received the CIA's Presidential Daily Brief. The brief or PDB, in Langley-speak is the CIA's chance to mainline its priorities into the President's thinking. Each day, the PDB is winnowed to a few pages; when the President is in Washington, one of two "briefers" agency up-and-comers who flesh out the written text gets to work at 2 a.m. to bone up on background material. The brief itself is delivered at 8 a.m. in front of the President's national-security team. (Sometimes CIA Director George Tenet delivers it himself.) One briefer had moved to Texas for the vacation, and the PDB was transmitted to Crawford over a secure system. At the briefing on Monday, Aug. 6 a day when the Texas heat would reach 100*none Bush received a 11/2-page document, which, according to Rice, was an "analytic report" on al-Qaeda. Included was a mention that al-Qaeda might be tempted to hijack airliners, perhaps so that they might use hostages to secure the release of an al-Qaeda leader or sympathizer. Rice was not present but discussed the briefing with Bush immediately after it had ended, as she always does.

They had much to talk about. Throughout the summer, top officials had become convinced, with a growing sense of foreboding, that a major operation by al-Qaeda was in the works. For many in the loop, it seemed likely that any attack would be aimed at Americans overseas. But sources tell Time that the Aug. 6 briefing had a very different focus; it was explicitly concerned with terrorism in the homeland. The Aug. 6 briefing had been put together, says one official, because the President had told Tenet, "Give me a sense of what al-Qaeda can do inside the U.S." At a press conference last week, Rice said the brief concentrated on the history and methods of al-Qaeda. Since much of the material in it was a rehash of intelligence dating to 1997 and '98, it is doubtful that it was much use in answering Bush's question.

According to Rice, there was just a sentence or two on hijacking and the passage did not address the possibility that a hijacked plane would ever be flown into a building. That was the first of four crucial mistakes made last summer. Administration officials insisted all last week that turning a plane into a suicide bomb was something that nobody had contemplated. But that just isn't so. In 1995, authorities in the Philippines scuppered a plan masterminded by Ramzi Yousef, who had also plotted the 1993 World Trade Center bombing for mass hijackings of American planes over the Pacific. Evidence developed during the investigation of Yousef and his partner, Abdul Hakim Murad, uncovered a plan to crash a plane into CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. And as long ago as 1994, in an incident that is well known among terrorism experts, French authorities foiled a plot by the Algerian Armed Islamic Group to fly an airliner into the Eiffel Tower. "Since 1994," says a French investigator into al-Qaeda cases, "we should all have been viewing kamikaze acts as a possibility for all terrorist hijackings." But if Rice's account is accurate, nobody significant in the Bush Administration did.

There might have been more discussion of the risks of hijackings in the President's briefing if its writers had known about the Phoenix memo. But they hadn't seen it, nor had anyone in the CIA or the White House. Yet Senator Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, calls the memo, which is said to contain detailed descriptions of named suspects, "one of the most explosive documents I've seen in eight years." The memo, on which the Senate Intelligence Committee was briefed last November, has now become the focus of a huge political row in Washington. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee including Republican Arlen Specter, who had an angry exchange over the memo with FBI Director Robert Mueller on Saturday are desperate to see it, and may yet subpoena it. "The fact that the Phoenix memo died on somebody's desk takes your breath away," says Senator Richard Durbin, a Democratic committee member from Illinois. "They just shuffled it off."

Agent Williams wrote the memo on July 5, detailing his suspicions about some Arabs he had been watching, who he thought were Islamic radicals. Several of the men had enrolled at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. Williams posited that bin Laden's followers might be trying to infiltrate the civil-aviation system as pilots, security guards or other personnel, and he recommended a national program to track suspicious flight-school students. The memo was sent to the counterterrorism division at FBI headquarters in Washington and to two field offices, including the counterterrorism section in New York, which has had long experience in al-Qaeda investigations.

That experience counted for nothing. In all three offices, the memo was pretty much ignored, disappearing into the black hole of bureaucratic hell that is the FBI. That was the second key mistake. Sources tell Time that the memo was never forwarded not even to the level of Mike Rolince, chief of the international-terrorism section. "The thing fell into the laps of people who were grossly overtaxed," says a senior FBI official. The G-men claim to have been swamped by tips about coming al-Qaeda operations. But Williams was onto something. The flight students he was tracking were supporters of radical Islamic groups. Some of them, sources say, are believed to be connected to Hamas and Hizballah, terrorist organizations based in the Middle East, while at least one other who has left the U.S. had links to al-Qaeda. Another pair mentioned in the memo, neither of whom attended flight school, are the ones under FBI surveillance which, sources say, is the reason Mueller won't make the memo public.

However fevered the analysis of the Williams memo is now, it didn't get much attention when it was written. Last July, FBI headquarters wasn't concentrating on an attack within the U.S. "Nobody was looking domestically," says a recently retired FBI official. "We didn't think they had the people to mount an operation here."

That was the third huge mistake and a somewhat baffling conclusion to draw, given the evidence at hand. In spring of 2001, Ahmed Ressam, the "millennium bomber," was on trial in Los Angeles, charged with being part of a plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport and other locations at the end of 1999. In her press conference last week, Rice conceded that in 2001 the FBI "was involved in a number of investigations of potential al-Qaeda personnel operating in the United States."

But investigators had some reasons for being preoccupied with attacks and threats outside the U.S. Al-Qaeda's most notorious blows against American interests had taken place in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the sites of the 1998 embassy bombings, and in Yemen, where the U.S.S. Cole was bombed in October 2000. And in the first half of last year, the CSG monitored information suggesting the likelihood of another attack overseas. In June 2001, the State Department issued a worldwide caution warning American citizens of possible attacks. That month, says a recently retired senior FBI official, "we were constantly worried that something was going to happen. Our best guesstimate was something in Southeast Asia." A French investigator involved in al-Qaeda cases confirms the thought. "The prevailing logic from around 1998," he says, "was that al-Qaeda and bin Laden had very openly designated America as its prime target but it was a target that it preferred to attack outside the U.S."

By July the level of noise about terrorism from intelligence sources around the world was deafening. The CSG, then chaired by Richard Clarke, a Clinton Administration holdover who was consumed with terrorist threats to the point of obsession, was meeting almost every day. A specific threat was received on the life of Bush, who was due to visit Genoa, Italy, for a G-8 summit that month. Roland Jacquard, a leading French expert on terrorism, says that when Russian and Western intelligence agencies compared notes before the summit, they were stunned to find they all had information indicating that a strike was in the offing. When the Genoa summit passed without incident, says a French official, attention turned to the possibility of attacks on U.S. bases in Belgium and Turkey. Then, at the end of July, Djamel Beghal, a Franco-Algerian al-Qaeda associate, was picked up in Dubai on his way from Afghanistan back to Europe. Beghal started talking and implicated a network of al-Qaeda operatives in Europe, who, he said, were planning to blow up the American embassy in Paris. (Beghal, who has since been extradited to France, has said his confession was coerced.) "We shared everything we knew with the Americans," says a French justice official.

They may have shared too much. At least in France, investigators now acknowledge that al-Qaeda may have been involved in a massive feint to Europe while the real attack was always planned for the U.S. "People were convinced that Europe remained the theater for Islamic terrorists," says Jacquard. "It's anyone's guess whether that was a technique to get people looking in the wrong place. But that's what happened."

By the beginning of August, the President had made his request for a briefing on domestic threats. One of them was about to be uncovered. And therein lay the fourth mistake. On Aug. 16, Moussaoui was arrested in Minnesota for an immigration violation, just a day after the staff at the flight school where he was training told the FBI of their suspicions about him. The Minnesotans weren't alone; when American officials checked with their French counterparts, they discovered that Moussaoui had long been suspected of mixing in extremist circles. (The Zelig of modern terrorism, Moussaoui has been associated with al-Qaeda networks everywhere from London to Malaysia.) The FBI started urgently investigating Moussaoui's past; agents in Minneapolis sought a national-security warrant to search his computer files but were turned down by lawyers at FBI headquarters who said they didn't have sufficient evidence that he belonged to a terrorist group. Immediately after Moussaoui's arrest, agents twice visited the Airman Flight School in Norman, Okla., where he had studied before heading to Minnesota; two of the Sept. 11 hijackers had visited Norman in July 2000. The FBI did inform the CIA of Moussaoui's arrest, and the CIA ran checks on him while asking foreign intelligence services for information. But neither the FBI nor the CIA ever informed the counterterrorism group in the White House. "Do you think," says a White House antiterrorism official, "that if Dick Clarke had known that the FBI had in custody a foreigner who couldn't speak English, who was trying to fly a plane in midair, he wouldn't have done something?"

Since at least two of the four failures those involving Moussaoui and the Phoenix memo can be laid at the door of the FBI, the bureau is feeling the heat. "The FBI has a long pattern of not sharing information with others," says a former Clinton Administration official. "Now it's not even sharing the information with itself." Mueller, who knew about the Phoenix memo shortly after Sept. 11, plainly did not anticipate the criticism it would engender. Since it became public, officials have defensively pointed out that if the bureau had tried to track down all Muslim flight-school attendees, it would have been accused of racial profiling. White House officials defend Mueller; he is "tenacious about changing things," says one, who admits, "You can't change a culture that's 60 years in the making overnight." But on Capitol Hill the bureau is running out of friends. "I have no doubt that the FBI needs reform," said Senate Republican leader Trent Lott last week.

Yet when the blame gets assigned, as it will now that a joint congressional investigation into Sept. 11 is getting down to work, the FBI won't monopolize it. The ugly truth is that nine months after huge weaknesses in the national security system were revealed, they remain unaddressed. In Washington, says a senior Clinton Administration official, "information just moves through stovepipes," never getting pooled by different agencies until it is too late. The intelligence services were built to fight the cold war, not an enemy that flits from Afghan caves to apartments in London. The division between domestic and international security made sense when the former was concerned with what criminals did and the latter with foreign countries. But some criminals are now as powerful as countries, and some countries are run by criminals.

Nine months ago, the appointment of Tom Ridge as Homeland Security czar was billed as the shake-up Washington needed. So far, he has been more of a mild foot stamp than an earthquake. Instead of real reform, the Administration has resorted to its usual mode: attempting to control warring satrapies from the White House. The remarkable aspect of last week's events in Washington was the unintended revelation that Rice is the true manager of counterterrorism policy. In the past, the National Security Council got into trouble when it adopted an operational role rather than one of analysis (think Oliver North), and for Bush this identification of one of his closest advisers with the operational failures of counterterrorism policy could yet be politically troubling.

Among his supporters, however, the President still rides high. Bush's simple, passionate argument that he would never have sat idly if he had known what was coming on Sept. 11 helped stiffen spines. Republicans pointed out that members of congressional intelligence committees get the same information the President receives in his PDB and yet had not made a fuss about the Aug. 6 briefing. That claim was disputed; Tom Daschle, the Democrat's leader in the Senate, insisted the Senate and the Administration did not have "identical information" about al-Qaeda threats.

In a sense, the spat over who got what version of which memo epitomizes Washington at its worst. The capital at its best would appreciate that the most important question isn't what Bush (or anyone else) knew before Sept. 11; it is what the Administration and Congress have and have not done to fix a broken system. But November and the midterm elections, you may have noticed, are only six months away. Washington is reverting to form.

Reported by Massimo Calabresi, James Carney, Michael Duffy, Elaine Shannon, Douglas Waller and Michael Weisskopf/Washington, David Schwartz/ Phoenix, Bruce Crumley/Paris and J.F.O. McAllister/London

-- Cherri (whatever@who.cares), June 02, 2002

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