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Pentagon Generals Cancel Travel Plans
On September 10, 2001


http://www.newsweek.com/id/75993 - link to full original article

 


Note: As the quote is not easy to find on the Newsweek website at the link above, we include the full article here. The statement about the Pentagon generals cancelling travel plans the day before 9/11, as mentioned in the 9/11 summaries is highlighted in bold face for your viewing ease.

 


 

'We've Hit the Targets'

 

That message, allegedly sent by Osama bin Laden's men, makes him

suspect No. 1. Can he be stopped at last?

 

By Michael Hirsh

NEWSWEEK

 

Sept. 13 issue – At the time it seemed an empty boast, if a chilling

one. On Feb. 7, 1995, Ramzi Yousef, considered the mastermind of the 1993

World Trade Center bombing, was being escorted in shackles back to New

York City. The FBI had just seized Yousef in Pakistan, and agents felt

they could crow a little. An FBI SWAT commando pulled up his captive's

blindfold and nudged him as they flew in a helicopter over mid-Manhattan,

pointing to the World Trade Center's lights glowing in the clear night.

"Look down there," he told Yousef. "They're still standing." Yousef

replied, "They wouldn't be if I had enough money and explosives."

 

RECALLS LEWIS SCHILIRO, a former head of the FBI's New York field

office, "He was as cold as ice." Today Ramzi Yousef is safely in prison,

as are five of his confederates from the failed 1993 attempt. But Yousef's

passion for killing Americans is flourishing in a loose network of tiny

Islamic fundamentalist terror groups spread around the world. And the main

suspect in the worst foreign attack on the continental United States is

the chief impresario and financier of that network, Osama bin Laden, the

gaunt, bearded Saudi exile who in February 1998 declared all Americans to

be legitimate targets of jihad, or holy war. Bin Laden has nursed a

fervent hatred of the United States since its troops landed on Saudi soil

to fight the gulf war, and he has haunted the worst nightmares of U.S.

security officials for years. The scion of a wealthy Saudi magnate, he was

linked to the 1998 twin U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa and the explosion

aboard the USS Cole in Yemen last year. But until last Tuesday, bin Laden

had not succeeded in shedding blood on American soil.

 

By the end of America's day of horror, U.S. intelligence officials

said, most people inside the federal government were almost certain–about

90 percent certain, the consensus had it–that bin Laden and his global

organization, Al Qaeda (The Base), were behind the attacks. One key

reason: shortly after the suicide attacks, a source with access to

intelligence told NEWSWEEK, U.S. intelligence picked up communications

among bin Laden associates relaying a message: "We've hit the targets."

 

On Wednesday, the FBI detained several people whom they are now

describing as "material witnesses" in Boston and south Florida.

Authorities also said they had identified the two or three terrorists who

hijacked each plane. The suspects were said to have entered the country

from all over the world, and some had been living in the United States for

up to a year. Early leads suggest the team had domestic support networks

rooted in the Boston area, but some of the bombers may have come from

Canada, which also harbored the terrorist cell that planned the millennium

bombing in Los Angeles. A British intelligence source told NEWSWEEK that

"two brothers, working on United Arab Emirates passports, one of them a

trained pilot, have been placed at the Boston airport."

 

Even so, investigators had only just begun to ferret out the full

dimensions of the plot. "We're in Oklahoma mode now," said one FBI

counterterrorism agent, referring to the frenzy of police work that

followed the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. He added: "This is a rubble pile

that makes Oklahoma City look like a sandbox." New FBI chief Robert

Mueller, on only his second week of work, conducted a 6 p.m. conference

call with special agents in charge of all the 56 field offices. He

announced that Washington would take control of the biggest investigation

in the agency's history and appointed veteran deputy director Tom Pickard

to run it. FBI officials said they knew this probe was different from

anything else they'd ever done. "This is not going to be a classic

forensic investigation," said the counterterrorism agent. "You're not

looking for a traditional bomb 'signature' like the rear axle of the Ryder

truck. The bomb signature is a plane in the sky." In other words, there

may be little forensic evidence to investigate.

SEARCHING FOR LINKS

For the moment the link to bin Laden and Ramzi Yousef appeared to

be largely circumstantial. Investigators believe that radical Egyptian

organizations were directly behind the suicide attacks. One, Al Gamaa al

Islamiya, was run by Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind Muslim cleric who

is serving a prison term in Minnesota for allegedly conspiring with World

Trade Center bombing suspects to blow up other New York landmarks. Bin

Laden recently has turned complaints about Abdel-Rahman's imprisonment and

treatment by U.S. authorities into a crusade, committing his followers to

freeing the religious leader. U.S. officials have identified Ayman

al-Zawahiri, the head of another Egyptian militant group that supports the

sheik, as deputy leader of Al Qaeda. Abdel-Rahman is kept in solitary

confinement, and a month ago U.S. authorities seized his radio.

Bush called last Tuesday's searing experience a demonstration of American

fortitude. In truth it was a stunning display of America's

vulnerability–now and well into the future.

 

The fast fingering of bin Laden also did not mask the fact that,

like the rest of the country, U.S. officials were in a state of shock over

what may go down as the most massive failure of military and intelligence

readiness in the nation's history. Bush called last Tuesday's searing

experience a demonstration of American fortitude. In truth it was a

stunning display of America's vulnerability–now and well into the future.

Always before, U.S. experts tended to dismiss the idea that terrorists

could combine both suicidal fervor and technical skill and sophistication.

The 1993 World Trade Center attack, in which conspirators exploded a

bomb-laden van in the basement, was seen as just another ragged effort;

afterward the terrorists gave themselves away when one was stupid enough

to try to get his deposit back on the rental van. Similarly, when an

Algerian terrorist was arrested crossing the border from Canada just

before Y2K, his obvious nervousness gave him away to an alert Customs

official.

 

By contrast, last Tuesday's coordinated assault on the World Trade

Center and the Pentagon was as sophisticated a terror attack as U.S.

investigators have seen. A chief mystery was how the culprits might have

found four apparently trained pilots to fly suicide missions. One

frightening prospect is that bin Laden is winning educated Arab elites to

his cause, especially as the Palestinian intifada inflames the Arab world.

The FBI has picked up previous hints of high-level help: in 1995 Abdul

Hakim Murad, a Pakistani, was accused along with Yousef of a plot to bomb

11 U.S. airliners in a single "day of rage" against the United States.

Murad, a commercial pilot, allegedly told investigators that he had been

trained as a kamikaze pilot.

WAS THERE HELP?

Just as scary, the new attacks also suggested that the terrorists

had an extensive domestic support network–confederates on the ground who

helped them gather intelligence on the targets and possibly provided

shelter and logistical support.

 

Could the bombers have been stopped? NEWSWEEK has learned that

while U.S. intelligence received no specific warning, the state of alert

had been high during the past two weeks, and a particularly urgent warning

may have been received the night before the attacks, causing some top

Pentagon brass to cancel a trip. Why that same information was not

available to the 266 people who died aboard the four hijacked commercial

aircraft may become a hot topic on the Hill. In testimony to the

Intelligence Committee earlier this year, CIA Director George Tenet said

bin Laden posed the most immediate terrorist threat to Americans around

the world and was capable of "multiple attacks with little or no warning."

"There is a giant accountability issue starting today," says former

Afghanistan CIA station chief Milt Bearden, "and in the midst of

legitimate accountability there will be a lot of scapegoating. They're

going to start looking for the modern-day equivalent of General Short and

Admiral Kimmel [the armed-forces commanders at Pearl Harbor], and they're

going to find them."

The deeper problem for counterterrorism experts is that bin

Laden's network is so diffuse and diverse–a patchwork of renegade

Algerian, Palestinian, Egyptian and other cells–and that foreign

governments, including friendly ones, move slowly to crack down on people

they know are his supporters. Only last February, a few weeks before

Tenet's testimony, a NEWSWEEK reporter sat down in a London coffee shop

with Yasser el-Sirri, one of bin Laden's alleged associates. El-Sirri

cheerfully boasted that the Egyptian government had sentenced him to death

for crimes of terrorism. Attempts to snatch or kill bin Laden have been

frustrated by the difficulty of getting precise information on where he is

in the mountains of Afghanistan, not to mention a U.S. presidential order

barring assassination. Though U.S. intelligence had wiretaps on bin

Laden's key lieutenants before the Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombings,

they were unable to pick up enough information to prevent them.

 

TESTING U.S. INTELLIGENCE

Some counterterrorism operatives now speculate that intelligence

picked up by U.S. agencies about possible terrorist attacks on Americans

last June may actually have been leaked by operatives associated with bin

Laden. Now it appears the terrorists "may have been testing where and how

we picked up information–and what were the things we missed," says a U.S.

investigator based in the Persian Gulf. "They saw where we reacted, and

presumably also where we didn't react." Were they casing American airports

to see if extra precautions went into effect? "They not only know how to

plan, but they know how to test," said this source, "and they know,

obviously, where the gaps are."

Among the worst of those gaps is the ramshackle state of security

checks at U.S. airports. The ability of unknown bombers to exploit these

soft spots–and to do it so jarringly, ripping a hole in the heart of

America's financial and military power–could itself have serious

consequences. For it demonstrates that it can be done again. In fact,

terrorism experts say that for years their worst fear has been that a

suicide bomber would hit inside U.S. borders. "If someone really wants to

kill himself in order to blow up a building here, there is no level of

sustainable security in this country that could prevent it," says one

official. "We just aren't equipped to handle it. It is beyond us

psychologically. And the citizens of this country are not willing to

tolerate the lack of freedom that this level of security would mean."

 

That could now change, as part of a tectonic shift in America's

sense of vulnerability. "This shows that you can have mass-destruction

terrorism without weapons of mass destruction," says Gideon Rose, a terror

expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. And that even a missile

defense won't help. "We're going to have to enact laws that some people

from the far left and the far right won't like," adds a senior

intelligence source. He points to Britain's sweeping new law that, as he

puts it, extends the draconian security measures–including surveillance

and holding people on mere suspicion–already used in troubled Northern

Ireland. He adds: "We have to understand that national security will have

to take some precedence over what we have seen as the right to privacy."

 

Sen. Jon Kyl, a member of the Intelligence Committee, says he's

been pushing for years for more intelligence money and less red tape–and

for dropping concerns about recruiting human-rights violators as

infiltrators into terror groups. "My first reaction was that my knees were

weak," he said. "But frankly, my second reaction was that all of the

things we've been saying we have to do–maybe through this disaster they'll

get more attention." No doubt they will.

 

With Mark Hosenball, Daniel Klaidman and Donatella Lorch in Washington and

Peg Tyre, Christopher Dickey and Andrew Nagorski in New York

 

A New Date of Infamy

1 of 9

 

1. A New Date of Infamy

2. Bush's Test of a Lifetime

3. Suspect #1: Can He Be Stopped?

4. An Icon Destroyed

5. A Capital Under Siege

6. New York Voices

7. How the Hijackers Did It

8. Next Chapter: Day of Agony

9. Return to America Under Attack Front

 

© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.

 


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Pentagon Generals Cancel Travel Plans September 10, 2001 - Day Before 9/11