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Our Incredible Intelligence Blunder

Project Bojinka, which was disclosed by Accuracy in Media on September 13, made the front page of The Washington Post ten days later. The Post’s story, written by four of its reporters in Manila, reported that in 1995, Philippine police discovered a plan “that gave a chilling preview of the attack in New York and Washington on September 11.” It said that they found “a clandestine terrorist cell allied with Osama bin Laden” that was plotting to plant bombs in a dozen American airliners and fly an airplane into the CIA headquarters.”

The Post quoted a Filipino investigator as exclaiming as he watched the attack on the World Trade Center on television on September 11, “It’s Bojinka.” That was the code name of the operation. The inspector told reporters, “We told the Americans everything about Bojinka. Why didn’t they pay attention?” The Post did not identify the investigator, but the quotes are similar to remarks made to Philippine reporters by Chief Police Superintendent Avelino Razon.

He told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that the Philippine intelligence report was passed on to the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Joint Task Force on Terrorism. He said, “It was not given credibility, otherwise, it could have prevented the destruction of the World Trade Center.” He said, “Bojinka called for the hijacking of U.S. commercial airliners, bombing them or crashing them into several targets, including the CIA.” The few stories about Bojinka in the U.S. press have mentioned only the CIA as a target and have said nothing about hijacking airliners and crashing them.

In February 1998, “Bojinka,” which means “big bang,” was described by Dale L. Watson, Chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section of the FBI, in testimony before a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Conmmittee, only as a plot to blow up “numerous U.S. air carriers.” He said that the FBI had identified “a significant and growing organizational presence” of foreign terrorists in the U.S. He claimed the bureau had them under control. He said that as a result of the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings, the FBI had developed an “enhanced capability” to track their activities. Watson testified that the information about Bojinka was obtained from the laptop computer of Ramzi Yousef, who was in charge of the operation. The Washington Post claims that it was extracted from his accomplice Abdul Murad by torture and a threat to send him to Israel. Yousef and Murad are now in a supermax federal prison in Colorado.

The FBI agent attached to our embassy in Manila when Project Bojinka was discovered, is now retired there. The Post quoted him as saying, “[t]he information was heeded and everything was done that could have been done.” He obviously didn’t know about a suspected terrorist from Algeria named Zacarias Moussaoui, who had applied to a Minnesota flight school for training on a Boeing 747 flight simulator, and was detained on August 17 for suspected visa violations. He wanted to learn how to steer the jumbo jet, but he had no interest in learning how to take off and land. The Washington Post said, “Our intelligence groups studied him but had no context in which his odd request made sense.”

Moussaoui would not talk to FBI agents. Their efforts to obtain a search warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act were rejected by FBI and Justice Department lawyers, who said there were not sufficient grounds. If the agents had known of the plan to hijack airliners and crash them, they could have made a strong case for getting the warrant. They were either in the dark or dumb.

Even without any knowledge of hijacking plans, Moussaoui’s request should have caused alarm bells to ring at the FBI and CIA. If Dale Watson, who is now in charge of all counter-terrorism at the FBI, knew about Moussaoui, he should have had the wit to query every private flight school to see if there were any other applicants for training who wanted instruction only in steering an airliner or might be suspect for other reasons. Since September 11, the FBI has been busy checking the flight schools and they have learned a lot. If they had done it earlier, over six thousand lives might have been saved and billions of dollars in property damage might have been avoided. It is time for another congressional committee to question them and the CIA about this incredibly costly failure.