DANA PRIEST and DAN EGGEN
September 19, 2002
U.S. intelligence agencies received many more indications than previously disclosed that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network was planning imminent "spectacular" attacks in the summer of 2001 aimed at inflicting mass casualties, according to the preliminary findings of a joint congressional intelligence panel report released yesterday.
Although the panel's staff unearthed no single intelligence report foreshadowing the particulars of the Sept. 11 strikes, the investigators assert that U.S. agencies failed to commit adequate resources and analysis to understanding and apprehending al Qaeda terrorists. They also say that policymakers failed to alert the public to the gravity and immediacy of the threats they were receiving.
The report suggests that al Qaeda's fascination with using airplanes as terror weapons was more widely known within intelligence circles than Bush administration officials have acknowledged. While administration officials have previously stressed that much of the intelligence in the months leading up to Sept. 11 was focused on threats overseas, the new report also documents repeated indications that bin Laden and his network were especially interested in carrying out attacks on U.S. soil.
In July 2001, for instance, the CIA warned senior government officials that "based on a review of all-source reporting over the last five months, we believe that UBL [bin Laden] will launch a significant terrorist attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against U.S. facilities or interests. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning."
The report was formally released at the first public hearing of a House-Senate intelligence panel that has been probing failures relating to the Sept. 11 attacks. It immediately revived the debate over whether the government did all that it could to detect and thwart the hijackings, which killed more than 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon , and in a Pennsylvania field.
It also brought new calls for a more in-depth, independent inquiry and for answers about President Bush's actions regarding al Qaeda threats in the months and days leading up to the attacks.
The White House refused the panel's request to put on the public record what Bush had been told about bin Laden and possible attacks prior to Sept. 11, according to the committee staff. Bush receives a daily intelligence briefing which included some of the most serious threat reporting.
White House spokesman Sean McCormick said last night that "in the interest of protecting the confidentiality of information and advice provided to the president and his senior advisers, White House lawyers asked that references to specific information that was provided to the president be removed from the report."
While the staff report strove for a tone of detachment, the testimony of two family members killed in the attacks offered an emotional coda to the hearing.
"September 11 was the devastating result of a catalogue of failures on behalf of our government and its agencies," said Kristen Brietweiser, whose husband perished on the 84th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. "Our intelligence agencies suffered an utter collapse in their duties and responsibilities leading up to and on September 11."
Representatives of the CIA and the FBI did not testify at yesterday's hearing but afterward offered their standard defense from criticism of their performance, that the congressional report contained only a fraction of all the threat information that the agencies collected in the period before Sept. 11. They said that most of the intelligence was too vague to act on.
"This was a small percent of what was coming in," said one CIA official. "What about the trains, cars, bombs, camels ... there were a lot more dots out there that don't connect to anything."
The congressional report covers a time period that includes actions taken during Bill Clinton's presidency as well as the Bush administration. It offers considerable new information about threat intelligence collected prior to Sept. 11, especially in the summer of 2001 :
The report portrays a dramatic concern at senior levels, and in particular at the CIA, that did not, in all cases, reach frontline field personnel.
In a Dec. 4, 1998, memo to his deputies, for example, CIA Director George J. Tenet issued guidance "declaring, in effect, war" with bin Laden.
"We must now enter a new phase in our effort against bin Laden," Tenet wrote. "We are at war. ... I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside the CIA or the Community."
But the panel's staff director , Eleanor Hill, said yesterday that Tenet's fervor did not "reach the level in the field that is critical so [FBI agents] know what their priorities are." Some FBI agents interviewed, in fact, "were not focused on al Qaeda," she said. Likewise, the FBI's analytic unit had been "gutted" by transfers to other units, she noted.
FBI and CIA officers and analysts on the frontlines were frequently overwhelmed by the volume of intelligence information they were expected to assess. "There was no massive shift in budget or reassignment" of people to counterterrorism after Tenet's declaration of war, Hill said.
Tenet's war memo came at a time of significant threat reporting, some of it quite specific and alarming, according to the report :
On the question of whether the intelligence community should have been more alert to the possibility of al Qaeda hijacking planes and flying them into buildings, the report contradicts assertions by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and others that this was not a tactic under active consideration.
Beginning in 1994, the report said, the intelligence agencies received information, some of it from foiled plots or interrogations and court testimony from terrorists, that one tactic being employed by al Qaeda was to use airplanes as flying bombs.
Among the new warnings related to airplanes :
An FBI spokesman said yesterday that the 1998 report "was not ignored, it was thoroughly investigated by numerous agencies " and found to be unrelated to al Qaeda.
These specific reports came after authorities disrupted a series of other terrorist plots in the early- to mid-1990s involving airplanes, including a well-publicized 1995 plot in the Philippines to crash airplanes into CIA headquarters and other targets.
"While this method of attack had clearly been discussed in terrorist circles, there was apparently little, if any, effort by Intelligence Community analysts to produce any strategic assessments of terrorists using aircraft as weapons." Without this intense focus, Hill suggested, that tactic was never elevated in importance above all others.
September 18, 2002
Intelligence agencies failed to anticipate terrorists flying planes into buildings despite a dozen clues in the years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that Osama bin Laden or others might use aircraft as bombs, a congressional investigator told lawmakers Wednesday as they began public hearings into the attacks.
JUST A MONTH before the attacks, intelligence agencies were told of a possible bin Laden plot to hit the U.S. Embassy in Kenya or crash a plane into it.
The preliminary report by Eleanor Hill, staff director of the joint House and Senate intelligence committee investigation of the terrorist strike, showed that authorities had many more warnings — knowledge of at least 12 terrorist plots or purported plots — than were previously disclosed.
The reports were generally vague and uncorroborated. None specifically predicted the Sept. 11 attacks. But collectively the reports “reiterated a consistent and critically important theme :
Osama bin Laden’s intent to launch terrorist attacks inside the United States,” Hill said. Despite the drumbeat of warnings, intelligence experts never looked closely at the potential threat of hijacked airliners’ being flown into buildings, Hill told lawmakers.
Nor did authorities alert the public or take other actions to significantly “harden the homeland” against an assault, apparently acting on the belief that any attack was more likely to take place overseas, she said.
FINDINGS CALLED PRELIMINARY
Hill read the report, which was described as preliminary findings based on the staff’s review of 400,000 documents and testimony during four months of closed-door hearings and then answered questions from lawmakers taking part in what is believed to be the first joint investigation by standing congressional committees. The committee is examining intelligence failures leading up to the attacks and seeking to determine how they can be corrected.
Hill’s testimony touched on a variety of threats. For example, she said, bin Laden also offered a $9 million bounty each for the assassination of the heads of the Defense and State departments, the CIA and the FBI.
But the revelations about possible prior awareness of threats from airplanes dominated lawmakers’ attention.
Pressed by Rep. Ray Lahood, R-Ill., about whether agencies had enough information to have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks, Hill said that it was possible but that there were no guarantees.
Hill outlined 12 examples of intelligence information on terrorists’ possible use of airplanes as weapons dating to 1994.
In a report to Congress in December 2000, the FBI and Federal Aviation Administration assessed the prospects of a terrorist incident targeting domestic civil aviation in the United States as relatively low.
Planes as weapons
Beginning in 1994 and continuing through August 2001, U.S. intelligence was aware that international terrorists “had seriously considered the use of airplanes as a means of carrying out terrorist attacks.” Intelligence agencies learned of at least a dozen separate plots to use aircraft as weapons prior to Sept. 11, including a purported bin Laden-led plot in the fall of 1998 to target the New York and Washington areas. Despite this, there was little, if any, analysis of terrorists using aircraft as weapons.
U.S. terror cells
Intelligence obtained in October 1998 indicated that al-Qaida was trying to establish an operative terror cell in the United States and might be attempting to recruit Islamic U.S. citizens and U.S.-based expatriates from the Middle East and North Africa.
In recognition of the growing threat posed by Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network, CIA Director George Tenet, in a December 1998 memorandum distributed to his deputies, in effect “declared war” on the Saudi exile. But despite Tenet’s declaration that “no resources or people (be) spared,” investigators said there was no significant shift of resources or personnel to counterterrorism, and members of both the CIA and FBI units charged with assessing and disrupting al-Qaida reported being “seriously overwhelmed by the volume of information and workload” prior to Sept. 11.
Sept. 11 planner
Information obtained since Sept. 11 “suggests that a particular al-Qaida leader may have been instrumental in the attacks.” U.S. intelligence experts have known about the individual since 1995, but “did not recognize his growing importance to al-Qaida … and did not anticipate his involvement in a terrorist attack of Sept. 11’s magnitude.” The individual is not identified in the report because the CIA declined to declassify material referring to him.
Analysts had “general indications” during the spring and summer of 2001 that a possible terrorist attack against the United States or U.S. interests overseas was being planned, and internal warnings were circulated in the government. In a July 2001 briefing for senior administration officials, intelligence officials said that bin Laden was planning to launch a “spectacular (attack) … designed to inflict mass casualties against U.S. facilities or interests” in the coming weeks. But no information has been uncovered that specifically indicated that attacks were planned on Sept. 11 or identified the targets to be hit.
There were large blocks of information suggesting that terrorist attacks were in the offing, but the pieces of information were not effectively shared by the 14 agencies and military branches that make up the U.S. intelligence community and therefore could not be assembled into a greater whole that could have led to prevention of the Sept. 11 attacks.
In August 1998, U.S. intelligence learned that a “group of unidentified Arabs planned to fly an explosive-laden plane from a foreign country into the World Trade Center,” the report says. The report was given to the Federal Aviation Administration and the FBI, which took little action on it. The group now may be linked to bin Laden, the report says.
Other intelligence suggested that bin Laden supporters might crash a plane into a U.S. airport or conduct a plot involving aircraft at New York and Washington, the report said.
While generally aware of the possibility of this method of attack, “the intelligence community did not produce any specific assessments of the likelihood that terrorists would use airplanes as weapons,” the report said.
Details of intelligence about terrorist use of airplanes could embarrass the White House. After questions were raised in the spring about what President Bush knew about terrorist threats before Sept. 11, 2001, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said May 15 that the president was briefed on the intelligence last summer but received no information to suggest that bin Laden’s al-Qaida network planned to use airplanes as missiles.
“Until the attack took place, I think it’s fair to say that no one envisioned that as a possibility,” Fleischer said.
The report released Wednesday does not detail whether intelligence suggesting that terrorists might use airliners as flying bombs was provided to Bush because the director of the CIA refused to declassify that information, Hill’s report said.
In addition to knowing that terrorists had concocted plots using airliners, intelligence officials briefed “senior U.S. officials ” two months before the attacks that bin Laden was planning something big, possibly inside the United States, the report said.
BIN LADEN WARNING
At the July 2001 briefing, intelligence officials said that based on a review of intelligence information over five months, “We believe that [bin Laden] will launch a significant terrorist attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks.”
“The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against U.S. facilities or interests. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning,” the officials said.
The National Security Agency also reported at least 33 communications between May and July 2001 indicating a possible imminent terrorist attack.
But Hill also told lawmakers that the credibility of the sources of the information was sometimes questionable and that no specific details about the attacks were available.
“They generally did not contain specific information as to where, when and how a terrorist attack might occur and generally are not corroborated by further information,” she said in her report to the committee.
Before the hearing began, Bob Graham, D-Fla., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the public hearings “are part of our search for the truth — not to point fingers or pin blame, but with the goal of identifying and correcting whatever systemic problems might have prevented our government from detecting and disrupting al-Qaida’s plot.”
VICTIMS’ SPOUSES TESTIFY
The leaders of two groups of victims’ relatives, Stephen Push and Kristin Breitweiser, both of whom lost spouses in the attacks, were the first witnesses to testify.
“If the intelligence community had been doing its job, my wife, Lisa Raines, would be alive today,” said Push, citing the government’s failure to place Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi on a terrorist watch list until long after they were photographed meeting with alleged al-Qaida operatives in Malaysia.
Raines died aboard American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11. Authorities believe that Almihdhar was at the controls of the plane.
Breitweiser, whose husband, Ronald, died at the World Trade Center, questioned how the FBI was so quickly able to assemble information on the hijackers, citing a Sept. 12, 2001, report in The New York Times stating that agents descended on flight schools within hours of the attacks and rapidly assembled biographies of the hijackers.
“How did the FBI know where to go a few hours after the attacks?” she asked. “Were any of the hijackers already under surveillance?”
LACK OF COOPERATION CHARGED
Before the hearings opened, the senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee and joined Graham in criticizing the Bush administration for not allowing key officials to testify before lawmakers.
“Are we getting the cooperation we need? Absolutely not,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said on NBC’s “Today” show.
Graham echoed the complaint. “What we are trying to do is get people who had hands on these issues,” Graham said, “... and what we’re being told is no, they don’t want to make those kinds of witnesses available.”
The administration says “we can only talk to the top of the pyramid,” Graham said. “Well, the problem is, the top of the pyramid has a general awareness of what’s going on in the organization, but if you want to know why Malaysian plotters were not put on a watch list ... you’ve to talk to somebody at the level where those kinds of decisions were made.”
SOME INFORMATION ALREADY PUBLICIZED
Shelby , vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said some of the most troubling information seen by the committees had already been made public : the so-called Phoenix memo, in which an FBI agent warned that U.S. flight schools may be training terrorist pilots, and the handling of the Zacarias Moussaoui case. Moussaoui was arrested in August 2001 after he raised suspicions when he sought training at a Minnesota flight school. He has since been charged with conspiring in the attacks.
An FBI spokesman told NBC News that the bureau did not intend to respond to the preliminary findings or to criticism leveled by lawmakers.
The spokesman said the bureau had offered “full cooperation” to the committee , producing top FBI agents and management to privately brief committee staff over the past few months and turning over tens of thousands of documents.
The spokesman also said FBI Director Robert Mueller was likely to comment on the alleged intelligence shortcomings during his testimony Thursday before the House Financial Services Committee, which is exploring the FBI’s use of the USA Patriot Act and the financial war on terrorists. Mueller also is expected to testify Oct. 10 before the joint congressional committee on intelligence failures.
A CIA official, who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity , disputed that the report was damning, saying, “The committee acknowledges the hard work done by intelligence community, the successes it achieved, the variety of intelligence obtained and the difficulty of obtaining it.”
With just weeks left in the congressional year, momentum has grown in Congress for a separate, independent commission to look into the attacks.
“I’m afraid if we try to publish at the end of this session a definitive paper on what we found that there will be some things that we don’t know because we hadn’t had time to probe them and we have not had enough cooperation,” Shelby said.
The White House has opposed an independent commission, saying it could lead to more leaks and tie up personnel needed to fight terrorism.
NBC’s Mike Viqueira and Jim Popkin, MSNBC.com’s Mike Brunker, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.