The attacks of September 11 might have been prevented had the US intelligence community been more competent. And the Bush Administration is refusing to tell the public what intelligence the President saw before 9/11 about the threat posed by Al Qaeda.
These are two findings contained in the long-awaited, 800-page final report of the 9/11 joint inquiry conducted the Senate and House intelligence committees, which was released on July 24. As is traditional in Washington, the contents of the report were selectively leaked before it was officially unveiled. And several news outfits noted that the report contained “no smoking guns” and concluded, as the Associated Press put it, that “no evidence surfaced in the probe…to show that the government could have prevented the attacks.” Those reports were wrong–and probably based on information parceled out by sources looking to protect the government and the intelligence community.
In the report’s first finding, the committees note that the intelligence community did not have information on the “time, place and specific nature” of the 9/11 attacks, but that it had “amassed a great deal of valuable intelligence regarding Osama bin Laden and his terrorist activities,” and that this information could have been used to thwart the assault. “Within the huge volume of intelligence reporting that was available prior to September 11,” the report says, “there were various threads and pieces of information that, at least in retrospect, are both relevant and significant. The degree to which the [intelligence] community was or was not able to build on that information to discern the bigger picture successfully is a critical part of the context for the September 11 attacks.” One Congressional source familiar with the report observes, “We couldn’t say, ‘Yes, the intelligence community had all the specifics ahead of time.’ But that is not the same as saying this attack could not have been prevented.”
The final report is an indictment of the intelligence agencies–and, in part–of the administrations (Clinton and Bush II) that oversaw them. It notes, “The intelligence community failed to capitalize on both the individual and collective significance of available information…. As a result, the community missed opportunities to disrupt the September 11 plot by denying entry to or detaining would-be hijackers; to at least try to unravel the plot through surveillance and other investigative work within the United States; and, finally, to generate a heightened state of alert and thus harden the homeland against attack. No one will ever know what might have happened had more connections been drawn between these disparate pieces of information…. The important point is that the intelligence community, for a variety of reasons, did not bring together and fully appreciate a range of information that could have greatly enhanced its chances of uncovering and preventing Osama bin Laden’s plan to attack the United States on September 11, 2001.”
The committees’ report covers many missed–and botched–opportunities. It shows that warnings and hints were either ignored or neglected. Some of this has been covered in interim reports released last year and in media accounts. But the final report does contain new information and new details that only confirm an ugly conclusion: A more effective and more vigilant bureaucracy would have had a good chance of detecting portions of the 9/11 plot. “The message is not to tell the intelligence community,” said the source familiar with the report, “that you didn’t have the final announcement of the details of the September 11 attacks and therefore you could not prevent it. We have to have an intelligence community that is able to connect dots and put the pieces together and investigate it aggressively.”
An example: The FBI had an active informant in San Diego who had numerous contacts on 2000 with two of the 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. And he may also have had more limited contact with a third hijacker, Hani Hanjour. In 2000, the CIA had information that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar–who had already been linked to terrorism–were or might be in the United States. Yet it had not placed them on a watch list for suspected terrorists or shared this information with the FBI. The FBI agent who handled the San Diego informant told the committees that had he had access to the intelligence information on al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, “it would have made a huge difference.” He would have “immediately opened” an investigation and subjected them to a variety of surveillance. It can never be known whether such an effort would have uncovered their 9/11 plans. “What is clear, however,” the report says, “is that the informant’s contacts with the hijackers, had they been capitalized on, would have given the San Diego FBI field office perhaps the intelligence community’s best chance to unravel the September 11 plot. Given the CIA’s failure to disseminate, in a timely manner, the intelligence information on…al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, that chance, unfortunately, never materialized.” (The FBI’s informant–who is not named in the report–has denied any advance knowledge of 9/11, according to the report, but the committees raise questions about his credibility on this point, and the Bush Administration objected to the joint inquiry’s efforts to interview the informant.)
The CIA was not the only agency to screw up. So did the FBI. In August 2001, the bureau did become aware that al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were in the United States and tried to locate them. But the San Diego field office never learned of the search. The FBI agent who was handling the informant in San Diego told the committees, “I’m sure we could have located them and we could have done it within a few days.” And the chiefs of the financial crime units at the FBI and the Treasury Department told the committees that if their outfits had been asked to search for these two terrorists they would have been able to find them through credit card and bank records. But no one made such a request.
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.
The White House also refused to release to the committees the contents of an August 6, 2001, President’s Daily Brief (PDB) that contained information on bin Laden. In May 2002 National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice claimed this PDB only included information about bin Laden’s methods of operation from a historical perspective and contained no specific warnings. But the joint inquiry appears to have managed to find a source in the intelligence community who informed it that “a closely held intelligence report” for “senior government officials” in August 2001 (read: the PDB prepared for Bush) said that bin Laden was seeking to conduct attacks within the United States, that Al Qaeda maintained a support structure here and that information obtained in May 2001 indicated that a group of bin Laden supporters were planning attacks in the United States with explosives. This is quite different from Rice’s characterization of the PDB. Did she mislead the public about it? And presuming that this “closely held intelligence report” was indeed the PDB, the obvious question is, how did Bush react? But through its use–or abuse–of the classification process, the Administration has prevented such questions from inconveniencing the White House.
The committees tried to gain access to National Security Council documents that, the report says, “would have been helpful in determining why certain options and program were or were not pursued.” But, it notes, “access to most information that involved NSC-level discussions were blocked…by the White House.” Bush has said, “We must uncover every detail and learn every lesson of September the 11th.” Just not those details about him and his National Security Council.
One big chunk of the report that the Administration refused to declassify concerns foreign support for the 9/11 hijackers. Of these twenty-seven pages, all but one and a half have been redacted. The prevailing assumption among the journalists covering the committees–and it is well-founded–is that most of the missing material concerns Saudi Arabia and the possibility that the hijackers received financial support from there. Is the Bush Administration treading too softly on a sensitive–and explosive–subject? “Neither CIA nor FBI officials,” the report says, “were able to address definitively the extent of [foreign] support for the hijackers globally or within the United States or the extent to which such support, if it exists, is knowing or inadvertent in nature. Only recently, and at least in part due to the joint inquiry’s focus on this issue, did the FBI and CIA strengthen their efforts to address these issues…. [T]his gap in US intelligence coverage is unacceptable.” At one point in the final report, the committees reveal that a July 2002 CIA cable included a CIA officer’s concerns that persons associated with a foreign government may have provided financial assistance to the hijackers. “Those indications addressed in greater detail elsewhere in this report obviously raise issues with serious national implications,” the report notes. But these “indications” are not addressed elsewhere in the report. The Administration would not declassify the material.
The report does include a list of quotes from unnamed US officials each of whom says that Saudi Arabia has been reluctant to cooperate with the United States on matters related to bin Laden. “In May 2001,” according to the report, “the US government became aware that an individual in Saudi Arabia was in contact with a senior al Qaeda operative and was most likely aware of an upcoming operation.” The following sentences–which likely cover how the United States responded to this intelligence and what the Saudis did or did not do–is deleted from the report, thanks to the Bush Administration.
It’s a pity that the committees were, on a few matters, rolled by the White House, and that Bush has gotten away with concealing from the public what he knew and when, and what he did (or did not do) about a serious threat to the nation. But for seven months, the joint inquiry has been engaged in trench warfare with the Administration over the declassification of this report. It is a credit to the joint inquiry and its staff director, Eleanor Hill, that the committees squeezed as much out of the Administration as they did. The joint inquiry has done far better in this regard than the average Congressional intelligence committee investigation.
The report is a good start in establishing the historical record. It reads at times like tragedy, at other times almost as farce. The signs were there. Few paid attention. Two, if not more, of the hijackers were within reach of US law enforcement, but nobody saw that. Five days after the attacks, Bush said, “No one could have conceivably imagined suicide bombers burrowing into our society.” And in May 2002, Rice said, “I don’t think anyone could have predicted these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center.” Actually, the report has proof that the attacks of 9/11 were foreseen. Not in terms of date and time. But intelligence reporting indicated and terrorism experts warned that Al Qaeda was interested in mounting precisely these types of attacks. Yet the US government–the Bush II and Clinton administrations–did not prepare adequately. The attacks were far less outside the box than Bush and his aides have suggested. Thwarting them was within the realm of possibility.
The Administration has yet to acknowledge that–let alone reveal how–Bush responded to the intelligence he saw. The joint inquiry’s work provides a solid foundation for the 9/11 independent commission, which is now conducting its own inquiry. Perhaps that endeavor will be able to learn even more and address the questions the Bush Administration did not allow the committees to answer.