The 9/11 Investigation
The final report notes that the CIA and other intelligence agencies were never able to develop precise intelligence that would have allowed a US attack on bin Laden before 9/11. And it reveals that there were even more warnings than previously indicated that Al Qaeda was aiming to strike at the United States directly. In an interim report released last year, the committees provided a long list of intelligence reports noting that Al Qaeda was eager to hit the United States and that terrorists were interested in using airliners as weapons. The new material in the report includes the following:
§ A summer 1998 intelligence report that suggested bin Laden was planning attacks in New York and Washington.
§ In September 1998 Tenet briefed members of Congress and told them the FBI was following three or four bin Laden operatives in the United States.
§ In the fall of 1998 intelligence reports noted that bin Laden was considering a new attack, using biological toxins in food, water or ventilation systems for US embassies.
§ In December 1998 an intelligence source reported that an Al Qaeda member was planning operations against US targets: "Plans to hijack US aircraft proceeding well. Two individuals...had successfully evaded checkpoints in a dry run at a NY airport."
§ In December 1999 the CIA's Counterterrorism Center concluded that bin Laden wanted to inflict maximum casualties, cause massive panic and score a psychological victory. To do so, it said, he might seek to attack between five and fifteen targets on the millennium, including several in the United States.
§ In April 2001 an intelligence report said that Al Qaeda was in the throes of advanced preparation for a major attack, probably against an American or Israeli target.
§ In August 2001 the Counterterrorism Center concluded that for every bin Laden operative stopped by US intelligence, an estimated fifty operatives slip through, and that bin Laden was building up a worldwide infrastructure that would allow him to launch multiple and simultaneous attacks with little or no warning.
Despite these warnings, the intelligence bureaucracy did not act as if bin Laden was a serious and pressing threat. A CIA briefing in September 1999 noted that its unit focusing on bin Laden could not get the funding it needed. In 2000 Richard Clarke, the national coordinator for counterterrorism, visited several FBI field offices and asked what they were doing about Al Qaeda. He told the committees, "I got sort of blank looks of 'what is al Qaeda?" Lieut. Gen. Michael Hayden, director of the National Security Agency, said that in 2001 he knew that the NSA had to improve its coverage of Al Qaeda but that he was unable to obtain intelligence-community support and resources for that effort.
According to the report, an FBI budget official said that counterterrorism was not a priority for Attorney General John Ashcroft prior to 9/11, and the bureau faced pressure to cut its counterterrorism program to satisfy Ashcroft's other priorities. (The report did not state what those other priorities were.) In a particularly damning criticism, the report notes, "there was a dearth of creative, aggressive analysis targeting bin Laden and a persistent inability to comprehend the collective significance of individual pieces of intelligence."
One crucial matter is missing from the report: how the White House responded to the intelligence on the Al Qaeda threat. That is because the Administration will not allow the committees to say what information reached Bush. The Administration argued, according to a Congressional source, that to declassify "any description of the president's knowledge" of intelligence reports--even when the content of those reports have been declassified--would be a risk to national security. It is difficult to see the danger to the nation that would come from the White House acknowledging whether Bush received any of the information listed above or the other intelligence previously described by the committees. (The latter would include a July 2001 report that said bin Laden was looking to pull off a "spectacular" attack against the United States or US interests designed to inflict "mass casualties." It added, "Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning. They are waiting us out, looking for a vulnerability.")
It is unusual--if not absurd--for an administration to claim that the state of presidential knowledge is top-secret when the material in question has been made public. But that's what Bush officials have done. Consequently, the public does not know whether these warnings made it to Bush and whether he responded.