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It wouldn't have been easy, and it's likely that a Gore administration would not have prevented the attacks either. But President Bush's assertion this week that "nobody in our government at least ? and I don't think the prior government ? could envision flying airplanes into buildings on such a massive scale" was disingenuous. So was his refusal to accept responsibility for lapses before 9/11. Just suppose that after the Aug. 6, 2001, presidential briefing about Osama bin Laden's plans, the conversation had gone like this:
Bush So the Evil One wants to attack inside the U.S.? Any idea where?
C.I.A. briefer Sir, it could be almost anywhere, anytime. But pattern analysis suggests a target both huge and symbolic, perhaps another explosion to topple the World Trade Center, or the Sears Tower or the Capitol. And bin Laden has always looked for targets in aviation.
Bush Gosh. Hijacking planes?
Briefer Yes, Mr. President, there are reports of a hijacking plot to ransom the blind sheik. Or bin Laden could seek to shoot a bunch of planes down ? in 1998, we put out a classified report called "Bin Laden Threatening to Attack U.S. Aircraft." Or he could blow up planes and airports.
Bush Whoa. How would he do that?
Briefer Project Bojinka was a terror plot in 1995 to blow up as many as 12 United, Delta and Northwest jumbo jets over the Pacific Ocean at the same time, killing 4,000 people. The Philippine police apprehended a key figure, Abdul Hakim Murad, along with the detonators. We let the Filipinos "interrogate" Murad. After he'd been beaten with a chair, burned with cigarettes and half-drowned, he disclosed a plan for a suicide airplane attack on the C.I.A.'s headquarters.
Bush You mean using a plane as a missile?
Briefer Exactly, Mr. President. We judged this credible partly because Murad was a licensed pilot who had trained at four U.S. flight schools. For that matter, Al Qaeda has shown an intriguing desire to train operatives as pilots. A defector named L'Houssaine Kherchtou was scheduled to go to flight school in Nairobi. A third, Essam al-Ridi, learned flying in Texas. A fourth, Ihab Ali Nawawi, studied flying in Oklahoma.
Bush What about the Tom Clancy novel where the pilot crashes a plane into the Capitol during a joint session of Congress? Could Big Beard be planning something like that?
Briefer Sir, that wasn't just Clancy. In 1974, a man named Sam Byck hijacked a plane in hopes of crashing it into the White House and killing President Nixon. And in 1994, Algerians hijacked a plane so they could crash it into the Eiffel Tower. In 1996, Iranian terrorists reportedly planned to hijack a Japanese plane and crash it into Tel Aviv. The use of planes as weapons has been a growing concern, and that's why we took measures to protect the Atlanta Olympics from aerial attack.
Bush O.K., tell Tenet to get himself down here in the next few days. I want to make sure that we're doing everything possible to prevent whatever the Evil One is planning. I want people at our borders looking out for bad guys. And if Big Beard is into aviation, let's watch flight schools and airports. We're America. Nobody pushes us around.
Briefer Mr. President, the bureau already has 70 investigations open on bin Laden. They're on top of it.
Bush I want to make sure. Word's got to get out that stopping an attack is top priority. If there's chatter about a major attack soon ? Oklahoma City or worse ? I don't want us sitting on our duffs. I want to light a fire under the bureaucracy. Let's kick butt.
Such an imagined conversation is a bit unfair because it has the clarity of hindsight. But we need to learn from our mistakes, and three conclusions flow from the missed opportunities of the Bush and Clinton administrations.
First, it's time to replace George Tenet. I've resisted that until now because he's been great for morale at the C.I.A. But after two major intelligence failures, 9/11 and the missing Iraqi W.M.D., it's time for a new director of central intelligence.
Second, we need to restructure the intelligence community so one person really is in charge of all the pieces and budgets, as the Scowcroft commission recommended.
Third, an apology or a hint of remorse would show leadership and salve our hurt. Mr. Bush should recognize that acceptance of accountability is not a sign of weakness.
Pre-9/11 Files Show Warnings Were More Dire and Persistent By DAVID JOHNSTON and JIM DWYER
WASHINGTON, April 17 ? Early this year, the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks played four minutes of a call from Betty Ong, a crew member on American Airlines Flight 11. The power of her call could not have been plainer: in a calm voice, Ms. Ong told her supervisors about the hijacking, the weapons the attackers had used, the locations of their seats.
At first, however, Ms. Ong's reports were greeted skeptically by some officials on the ground. "They did not believe her," said Bob Kerrey, a commission member. "They said, `Are you sure?' They asked her to confirm that it wasn't air-rage. Our people on the ground were not prepared for a hijacking."
For most Americans, the disbelief was the same. The attacks of Sept. 11 seemed to come in a stunning burst from nowhere. But now, after three weeks of extraordinary public hearings and a dozen detailed reports, the lengthy documentary record makes clear that predictions of an attack by Al Qaeda had been communicated directly to the highest levels of the government.
The threat reports were more clear, urgent and persistent than was previously known. Some focused on Al Qaeda's plans to use commercial aircraft as weapons. Others stated that Osama bin Laden was intent on striking on United States soil. Many were passed to the Federal Aviation Administration.
While some of the intelligence went back years, other warnings ? including one that Al Qaeda seemed interested in hijacking a plane inside this country ? had been delivered to the president on Aug. 6, 2001, just a month before the attacks . . . (More at the link)
By Dan Eggen Washington Post Staff Writer Saturday, April 17, 2004; Page A01
The commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has concluded that the hijackers would probably have postponed their strike if the U.S. government had announced the arrest of suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui in August 2001 or had publicized fears that he intended to hijack jetliners.
A report on the case released this week noted that "publicity about the threat" posed by Moussaoui "might have disrupted the plot." Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean (R) said the conclusion is based in part on extensive psychological profiles of the Sept. 11 hijackers, who were "very careful and very jumpy."
"Everything had to go right for them," Kean said. "Had they felt that one of them had been discovered, there is evidence it would have been delayed."
Such a delay could have given the FBI, the CIA, and British and French intelligence services more time to discover Moussaoui's ties to al Qaeda and the terrorist cell in Germany that planned the attack. The FBI also might have had more time to track down two hijackers who had entered the country but were not located before the attacks.
These and other findings disclosed by the commission this week make it clear that the scope of missed opportunities in the Moussaoui case was broader than previously believed. A wide array of U.S. counterterrorism officials and foreign intelligence services -- including the director of the CIA -- knew about Moussaoui's arrest but repeatedly missed the clues he offered to the catastrophe that was about to unfold, the reports and testimony show.
The findings have led some commission members and investigators to believe that it is plausible, perhaps even likely, that the terrorists' plan could have been detected if Moussaoui's case had been pursued more vigorously.
"A maximum U.S. effort to investigate Moussaoui could conceivably have unearthed his connections to the Hamburg cell, though this might have required an extensive effort, with help from foreign governments," investigators wrote in a staff report released this week. "The publicity about the threat also might have disrupted the plot. But this would have been a race against time."
Timothy J. Roemer, a commission member and former Democratic congressman from Indiana, said the Moussaoui case "is really a plausible way to deflect parts of 9/11, as plausible as they come."
According to staff reports and testimony this week, CIA Director George J. Tenet and his senior deputies were briefed on the case within days of Moussaoui's arrest, but never told the president, the White House counterterrorism group or even the acting director of the FBI, who learned about the case on the day of the attacks. The CIA brief given to Tenet was titled "Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly."
There were numerous other mistakes, according to the commission and previous accounts. The FBI and immigration agents who arrested Moussaoui in Minnesota as he sought flight training feared he wanted to hijack an airplane, but they were blocked by FBI lawyers from searching his belongings. The FAA was warned Sept. 4 about Moussaoui's clumsy attempts to learn to fly jetliners, but it never warned the airlines or the public. British and French intelligence services were queried, but the British in particular were slow to help.
Moussaoui was ultimately charged as a conspirator after the attacks and is jailed in Alexandria awaiting federal trial. He has publicly declared his allegiance to al Qaeda but denied he was part of the plan to strike New York and Washington.
Moussaoui was first detained on immigration charges in Eagan, Minn., on Aug. 17, 2001, by FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service agents. A flight school in which Moussaoui had enrolled reported that he was hostile and suspicious, and that he wanted to learn to fly a Boeing 747 despite minimal skills or experience.
The staff of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, as the panel is formally known, recounted familiar parts of this tale in reports released this week. The FBI agent notified headquarters but was rebuffed in attempts to search Moussaoui's laptop computer and other belongings because of legal squabbling over the need for better evidence tying Moussaoui to terrorists, which FBI officials believed was necessary to secure a warrant.
The agent notified the FBI's legal attaches in London and Paris to try to gain more information about Moussaoui, a French citizen and former London resident. And because the Minneapolis FBI office and its lawyer, whistle-blower Colleen Rowley, were frustrated by what they perceived as a lack of interest from headquarters, the agent also contacted "an FBI detailee and a CIA analyst" at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, according to commission staff and previous accounts.
But what had not been clear before this week was how high, and how quickly, details of the case went from there. Tenet testified Wednesday that he was briefed on the case on Aug. "23rd or 24th." Deputy CIA Director John E. McLaughlin and director of operations James L. Pavitt had learned about it at least a couple days earlier.
Despite the apparent urgency with which the arrest was treated and warnings that summer of an impending terrorist attack, Tenet acknowledged that he and his aides did not notify the White House or counterterrorism officials. In part, CIA officials say, this was a matter of protocol: The original information from the Minneapolis FBI agent was passed along outside usual channels.
"We immediately tried to undertake a way to figure out how to help the FBI get data and deal with this particular problem," Tenet testified.
Tenet also maintained that there was no reason, based on the evidence available at the time, to alert President Bush or to share information about Moussaoui during a Sept. 4, 2001, Cabinet-level meeting on terrorism. "All I can tell you is, it wasn't the appropriate place," Tenet said. "I just can't take you any farther than that."
Tenet had told commission investigators that "no connection to al Qaeda was apparent to him" before the attacks.
Roemer said he found it "shocking" that Tenet and his deputies did not share the Moussaoui information more widely, especially in light of the Aug. 6 briefing document that Bush had received about the domestic terror threat titled "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US."
"This moved its way up the chain at the CIA very quickly," Roemer said. "Why doesn't it continue to circulate? . . . I would think 'Extremist Learns to Fly' would be treated at least as a discussion item, if not a Molotov cocktail."
Daniel Benjamin, a national security official in the Clinton administration, said, "There is such a rich history of jihadists learning to fly, it is really surprising that more was not made of this."
Two other shortcomings were cited as particularly important by investigators. First, the panel noted, the Moussaoui case "was not handled by the British as a priority." Two days after the attacks, the British discovered information that placed Moussaoui in an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan -- which would have provided the FBI the evidence necessary to search his belongings. The panel concluded that if the British had treated the case more urgently, they could have learned about Moussaoui's ties to the camp before the attacks.
Second, the commission staff said, U.S. officials failed to check with terrorist operatives in custody, including convicted millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam. After the attacks, Ressam picked Moussaoui out of a group of photos and said he remembered him from the Afghanistan training camp. "Either the British information or the Ressam identification would have broken the logjam," the commission wrote.
One subject of the panel's inquiry not discussed during this week's testimony was a fledgling deportation plan that called for taking Moussaoui on a government jet to Paris, where he would have been turned over to the French intelligence service, which has more leeway to conduct searches. Moussaoui's computer included, among other things, telephone numbers linked to Ramzi Binalshibh, one of the key organizers of the Sept. 11, 2001, plot.
But that plan may not have mattered in the end: Moussaoui would have arrived in Paris on Sept. 17.
Researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.
? 2004 The Washington Post Company
-------------------- The above is an extract from my fictional novel, "The random postings of Edame".
In the beginning was the word. And man could not handle the word, and the hearing of the word, and he asked God to take away his ears so that he might live in peace without having to hear words which might upset his equinamity or corrupt the unblemished purity of his conscience.
And God, hearing this desperate plea from His creation, wrinkled His mighty brow for a moment and then leaned down toward man, beckoning that he should come close so as to hear all that was about to be revealed to him.
"Fuck you," He whispered, and frowned upon the pathetic supplicant before retreating to His heavens.
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