Since 1946, the prime directive of the intelligence community has been to prevent another Pearl Harbor, to never again fail to collect, collate, and analyze information in a coordinated, centralized manner that would warn the President of an impending attack on America. Since 1947, that responsibility has rested with the Director of Central Intelligence, currently George J. Tenet, a Clinton appointee held over by the Bush administration. Tenet is nominally responsible for overseeing the entire intelligence community, which includes the FBI, and he is the President’s chief intelligence advisor.
The attacks on September 11, 2001 killed more Americans than the attack on Pearl Harbor, but the Bush administration has consistently rejected the analogy to December 7, 1941. During Congressional testimony, for example, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III explained that the intelligence community couldn’t possibly have detected preparations for the attacks because the hijackers were just too clever. He said, “In short, the terrorists managed to exploit loopholes and vulnerabilities in our systems, to stay out of sight, and to not let anyone know what they were up to beyond a very closed circle.” National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice took the same tack, say-ing, “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon.”
Up until May 15, when CBS News reported that President Bush had been briefed on August 6, 2001 on warnings of terrorist attacks, the media have tended to accept the administration’s line that there were no warnings and that the hijackers were just too slick to be caught. The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, in particular, has consistently relayed the “spin” coming out of CIA depicting George Tenet in the most favorable terms. When the Congress passed the FY2003 intelligence authorization bill Pincus concluded that the increase in the budget “suggests the growing confidence Congress and Bush have placed in CIA Director George J. Tenet.”
Newsweek, which is owned by the Post, has also portrayed Tenet and the CIA in glowing terms. It recently reported that Tenet had the CIA “focused” and was doing a bang-up job fighting the terrorist war in Afghanistan. After the 9/11 tragedy, when many thought Tenet might resign or be fired, the Post and the New York Times published front-page photos of Tenet meeting with President Bush and Condoleezza Rice.
The “spin” worked and the establishment media paid little or no attention to information that indicated that there had been a colossal intelligence failure because those responsible for uncovering and foiling terrorist plots, primarily the FBI and the CIA, had fallen down on the job. On Sept. 13, Accuracy in Media sent out a column about an Agence France-Presse (AFP) story on the Internet that ran in the Sydney Morning Herald. AFP had immediately connected the dots between the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and Project Bojinka, an ambitious plan to plant bombs in 11 U.S. airliners, use a suicide bomber to kill the pope, and to crash planes into high profile American buildings, specifically naming CIA headquarters. Of the three, the crashing of planes into buildings was the only one that al Qaeda succeeded in executing.
Bojinka had been discovered by the Philippine National Police in January 1995, when Ramzi Yousef and Abdul Hakim Murad, who had links to al Qaeda, started a fire in their Manila apartment while making a bomb. Yousef escaped and was later cap-tured in Pakistan. Murad was caught and interrogated by the Philippine police. They claim the information about Bojinka, which means “big bang” in Serbo-Croatian, came from Ramzi Yousef’s laptop. The Washington Post, which sent several reporters to Manila to look into the story, published a long report on September 23, which accepted Murad’s claim that it was extracted from him by torture.
Murad, who learned to fly at U.S. flight schools, said one of the Bojinka scenarios had him flying a small plane loaded with explosives into CIA headquarters. That may have been inspired by an attempt to crash a small plane into the White House in 1994. The Philippine police claim that he had mentioned a number of high profile buildings as possible targets and that they shared all the information they got from him with the FBI and the CIA. Both Yousef and Murad are serving life sentences in a federal prison in Colorado, Yousef for his role in the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and for having conspired with Murad to destroy American airliners.
That was the reaction of a Filipino investigator when he saw airliners crash into the Twin Towers on TV . He told reporters, “We told the Americans everything about Bojinka. Why didn’t they pay attention?” If our counterterrorism experts at the FBI and CIA had paid attention, they would have been watching for any indications that bin Laden was still thinking of using planes as missiles to destroy big buildings. We said in our 9/13 column, “Reports that bin Laden was training pilots should have set alarm bells ringing. Only a few months ago an American Airlines crew had their uniforms and ID badges stolen from their hotel room in Rome. At the end of August, the airline alerted its employees to be on the lookout for impostors, but apparently no one saw this as a possible link to Project Bojinka. Airport security remained as lax as ever. Next came bin Laden’s warning in mid-August that there would be ‘an unprecedented attack on U.S. interests.’ With Bojinka in mind, the government should have taken the strongest possible measures to prevent hijackings.
“Bin Laden showed his contempt for our intelligence agencies by training some of his hijackers at flight schools in this country, right under their noses. Had they forgotten about Project Bojinka in only six years? It should have been engraved in the collective memory of the CIA, the one target that Abdul Hakim Murad had mentioned by name. The FBI should have been asked to check out the flight schools, seeking information about any Middle Eastern students they had enrolled. The NSA should have been monitoring phone calls from the cities in which flight schools with Middle Eastern students were located. The CIA should have checked them for ties to bin Laden.”
Chief Police Superintendent Avelino Razon 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.”
In February 1998, Bojinka was described by Dale L. Watson, then the Chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section of the FBI, in testimony before a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, 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.
After Bojinka was uncovered, federal authorities received further indications that the plan was being implemented. In early 1998, the Federal Aviation Administration was told of “concerns” of instructors at the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Phoenix, Arizona about a Saudi student named Hani Hanjour. They said he lacked the English skills necessary to fly multi-engine jet aircraft, a requirement for the civil aviation industry. The FAA responded by offering to provide an interpreter for Hanjour. He was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77 which crashed into the Pentagon on September 11th. The FBI was also informed that al Qaeda agents had attended flight schools in the U.S. and Kenya in 1999 and 2000.
A very important clue that they failed to exploit was a tip from the Pan Am Flight Academy near Minneapolis concerning Zacarias Moussaoui, a Moroccan-French citizen who on Aug. 13 had paid $8,300, of which $6,800 was in cash, for training on a Boeing or Airbus 300 simulator. He had spent three months at the Airman Flight School in Norman, Oklahoma, where he had paid $5,000, half in cash, for pilot training. He completed 57 hours of flight time without soloing. Trainees there usually solo after 12 to 20 hours. The University of Oklahoma Daily quoted Airman’s admissions director as saying, “He paid a large amount of cash to do this, but did not want to know how to take off or land. He wanted to know all about the navigation system.” This was widely reported as an odd request Moussaoui made. Airman Flight School won’t comment, but it was apparently a conclusion reached by his instructors at Airman.
He was at the Pan Am Flight Academy only two days. The instructor in his first ground school class saw that he wasn’t pilot material. A New York Times story of Feb. 8, 2002 quoted him as saying, “He seemed particularly interested in flying once the plane was in the air,” confirming the impression he gave the Airman instructors. It took only 24 hours for the Pan Am staff to conclude that his motives were not pure. Some thought he might be a hijacker, and, according to the Times, they discussed how much damage a 747 loaded with fuel would cause if it hit something. One of the managers offered to call a friend of his in the FBI office in Minneapolis. He was given permission to do so after class on Aug. 14. An FBI agent and an immigration agent came the next day and arrested Moussaoui on an immigration charge. On Aug. 17, they told the academy that he would not be returning.
A week later, FBI agents made inquiries about him at the Airman Flight School where they were no doubt told about his lack of interest in learning how to take off and land. They then asked headquarters to get a warrant to authorize a search of Moussaoui’s computer and possessions. The FBI lawyers denied this request, saying there were not sufficient grounds to submit it to a judge. If the lawyers had been told about Bojinka they might have approved it. They might have been even more likely to approve it if they had known about the recommendations made in a July 10, 2001 memo to headquarters by Kenneth Williams, a counterterrorism specialist in Phoenix, AZ. He was concerned about the number of Middle Easterners being trained in our flight schools. His memo recommended that headquarters launch a nation-wide review of aviation schools, do visa checks, and take other steps to investigate the presence of potential terrorists in these schools. It also recommended sharing the information with the CIA. FBI headquarters did nothing but send the memo to the New York field office, which had responsibility for counterterrorist operations.
The memo was not shared with the CIA or agents investigating Moussaoui, who is believed to be the missing twentieth hijacker and is facing trial in Virginia. If the requested search had been authorized last August, the FBI would have learned that one of his tasks was to gather information about crop dusting. That was viewed as evidence that he was involved with a terrorist group planning to attack us with chemicals or pathogens.
That information might have spurred the FBI to give priority to Kenneth Williams’ recommendation that the Middle Easterners who were taking flight training be investigated. They might have identified enough of the hijackers to disrupt their 9/11 plans. They have been busy checking the flight schools since then and have learned a lot. If they had done it earlier, three thousand deaths and billions of dollars in property damages might have been avoided. A thorough Congressional investigation of this incredibly costly failure is imperative.
When FBI Director Robert Mueller testified before the joint Senate and House investigative committee, Senator John Edwards (D-NC) asked Mueller if the Williams memo had made any reference to Osama bin Laden. Mueller said he was not certain. He couldn’t recall. The senators begged him to release the memo or at least a redacted version of it, but Mueller refused, claiming it was necessary that he protect sources and methods.
The next day, the media reported that there had been a very prominent reference to bin Laden in the memo. Its very first sentence read, “The purpose of this communication is to advise the bureau and New York of the possibility of a coordinated effort by Osama Bin Laden to send students to the United States to attend civilian aviation universities and colleges.” Mueller must not have read it.
Another document that has attracted a lot of media attention is the “analytic report” included in President Bush’s morning intelligence briefing on August 6. Interest in it intensified when it was revealed that it also mentioned Osama bin Laden and hijacking. In a press briefing given by Condoleezza Rice, the President’s National Security Advisor, she stressed that this was not a warning, simply an “analytic report.” She said it provided no specific warnings and cited only information back to 1997 .
If so, it did not discuss Project Bojinka, which was discovered in January 1995. This is another example of Bojinka not getting the attention it deserved. The Washington Post’s long story on Sept. 23 did not get picked up by other papers. Other news organizations, including the New York Times and the Washington Times, ignored it. Last September, AIM sent Howell Raines, executive editor of the New York Times, what we had written on Bojinka on Sept. 13 and a copy of the Washington Post story that filled over two pages. We asked why the Times had not even mentioned Bojinka. Raines responded that they didn’t report it because it was old news that they had reported in 1995. We told him that was all the more reason to remind readers of its importance now. A few days later, the Times ran a brief account of Bojinka buried deep in another story.
In the wake of the controversy stirred up by the President’s August 6 intelligence briefing, Bojinka suddenly became important news. On May 18, it was on the front page of the New York Times under a photo of the President and a three-column headline reading, “FBI Knew for Years About Pilot Training,” followed by this sub-head: “Bureau Failed to Share Its Findings and to Connect the Dots.” That is a fair criticism of the FBI and CIA, but it also applies to the New York Times and other news media that for over eight months failed to recognize Bojinka as an important dot. By finally putting it on page one, the New York Times tacitly acknow-ledged that AIM was right in treating it as important news on Sept. 13, and Howell Raines was wrong in ignoring it.
The only way 9/11could have been prevented was to find and arrest the bin Laden agents on the same charge that was brought against Ramzi Yousef and Abdul Hakim Murad-conspiracy to destroy American airliners. It took the staff at the Pan Am Flight Academy only one day to see that Zacarias Moussaoui had an ulterior motive in taking flying lessons. His training was obviously being paid for by someone else. Finding the source of the money could have led to others in the conspiracy. A week passed before the FBI checked on Moussaoui with the Airman Flight School where he paid half his tuition with a personal check. It was also where his lack of interest in learning to take off and land had been observed. The refusal of the FBI’s lawyers in Washington to seek a warrant authorizing the Minneapolis field office to search Moussaoui’s computer was another costly mistake.
The frustration felt in the FBI’s Minneapolis office was expressed in a 13-page letter from its general counsel, Coleen Rowley, to the Congressional investigating committee. She disputed Mueller’s claim that there was no information that would have helped prevent 9/11. She believed there was sufficient evidence to get a warrant to search Moussaoui’s computer and charged that headquarters had ignored it, including Ken Williams’ July 10 memo. She said they were also rebuffed when they sought permission to use grand jury subpoenas and open a criminal investigation. The FBI has classified her letter, and she has sought whistleblower status.
Condoleezza Rice offered the fullest accounting to date of what was known and how it was assessed prior to 9/11. She said that an attack was anticipated, most likely overseas. In December 1941, Japan was expected to attack south, not east. Rice says that the “threat information” was non-specific, vague, and generalized, that the intelligence came in “little snippets.” She seemed to be saying that it was just too hard to put it all together, and she admitted that a “reorganization” was necessary to ensure that there would be a greater fusion of intelligence from all sources. We are relearning Pearl Harbor’s lessons at the cost of nearly 3,000 American lives.
The agencies that were set up specifically for that objective failed. No matter how the White House, Congressional Republicans, or George Tenet’s friends in the media try to spin this, the nation’s intelligence agencies failed miserably in their most important mission, the prevention of another Pearl Harbor.
A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal on May 20 reported that a week before the 9/11 attacks “investigators told the Federal Aviation Administration that student-pilot Zacarias Moussaoui had been arrested and was under investigation as a potential terrorist with a particular interest in flying Boeing 747s.” It said the FAA “decided against warning U.S. airlines to increase security. The story by three reporters, Stephen Power, David S. Cloud and Gary Fields, asserted FAA officials had said that at the time they did not have enough information to act. It went on to quote “a senior law enforcement official” as saying of Moussaoui, “Whatever he was going to do he was going to do it with a 747, and [the FBI] communicated that with the FAA. The logic at the time was that he intended to hijack a plane.”
The Journal said the FAA’s response to this was being scrutinized by Congressional investigators. It said FAA officials would not say what the FBI had told them about Moussaoui, but they said they didn’t have enough information to warrant issuing an advisory to airlines. It quoted Scott Brenner, the FAA’s public information officer, who asserted that they had not been told anything by the FBI “that would prompt us to take action.” The Journal noted that Moussaoui was in custody and that the FBI didn’t have enough evidence to connect him to “a larger plot.”
It compared the FAA’s response in this case to its action last June, when it cited “unconfirmed reports that American interests may be the target of terrorist threats from extremist groups” and advised the airlines that there was a “potential for a terrorist operation, such as an airliner hijacking to free terrorists incarcerated in the United States.” However, that warning was in response to information from the CIA that there had been talk of hijacking a Pakistani airliner and holding the passengers and crew hostage to secure the release of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who is serving time for plotting to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993. The FAA had been advised by the National Security Council’s counterterrorism coordinator, Richard Clarke, to issue a warning about this hijacking threat.
Prior to 9/11, the FBI did not even inform Mr. Clarke about the arrest of Moussaoui. The FAA was justifiably upset by the implication that the information it got from the FBI about Moussaoui’s arrest was enough to justify issuing a warning to the airlines. They say that all they were told was that this one individual, with no known ties to terrorists was under arrest. The quote from the senior law enforcement official implying that Moussaoui was intending to hijack a 747 should have been included in the information they were given, but it was not. The Journal’s criticism of the FAA was unwarranted. The story went on to report information that reflected badly on the FBI, but that was in the last five paragraphs.
First, there was the report of the FBI’s failure to notify the National Security Council’s counterterrorism coordinator or other White House officials about Moussaoui. Next came the information that the reports on the Moussaoui investigation were routed to the office whose task was to monitor “radical fundamentalists,” the same office that essentially bottled up Kenneth Williams’ July 10 memo recommending an investigation of Middle Easterners studying at our flight schools. The Journal pointed out that this memo would have bolstered the argument for obtaining a search warrant in the Moussaoui case, a request that FBI lawyers rejected.
In the last paragraph, the Journal reported what might have been a more appropriate lead. It said that “agents working on the Moussaoui case in Minneapolis had a ‘brainstorming session’ about his possible intentions.” At the flight school, Moussaoui had filed a mock flight plan that involved JFK airport. The Journal said that one of the agents wrote in the margins of his notes that one possibility was that he was planning to hijack a plane and fly it into the World Trade Center. The Journal said, “Those notes were part of an internal report that never left Minnesota, although they are now in the hands of Congressional investigators.”
The FBI not only failed to provide the FAA with that information, but it also gave Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta information that contradicted a widely publicized report that supported the suspicion that Moussaoui was planning to hijack an airliner and crash it. On May 21, Mineta testified to the Senate Commerce Committee that the FBI had informed him that it was not true that Moussaoui had told his flight instructors that he was not interested in learning how to take off and land a plane, only in how to steer it. This is somewhat misleading. As we show in the story above, the assertion that he had little interest in learning to take off and land was a conclusion reached by his instructors at the Airman Flying School in Oklahoma, not what he told them. An instructor in Minnesota got the same impression, according to the New York Times.
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