All nine pages of the article are provided below. The quote on the prevention of Bin Laden strikes is in the middle
of the section titled "The Battle Intensifies" and is highlighted for your convenience.
December 30, 2001
Many Say U.S. Planned for Terror but Failed to Take Action
By THE NEW YORK
Inside the White House situation room on the
morning terrorism transformed America, Franklin C. Miller, the director for
defense policy, was suddenly gripped by a staggering fear: "The White
House could be hit. We could be going down."
The reports and rumors came in a torrent: A
car bomb had exploded at the State Department. The Mall was in flames. The
Pentagon had been destroyed. Planes were bearing down on the capital.
The White House was evacuated, leaving the
national security team alone, trying to control a nation suddenly under
siege and wondering if they were next. Mr. Miller had an aide send out the
names of those present by e-mail "so that when and if we died, someone
would know who was in there."
Somewhere in the havoc of the moment, Richard
A. Clarke, then the White House counterterrorism chief, recalled the long
drumbeat of warnings about terrorists striking on American soil, many of
them delivered and debated in that very room. After a third hijacked jet
had sliced into the Pentagon, others heard Mr. Clarke say it first:
"This is Al Qaeda."
An extensive review of the nation's
antiterrorism efforts shows that for years before Sept. 11, terror experts
throughout the government understood the apocalyptic designs of Osama bin
Laden. But the top leaders never reacted as if they believed the country
was as vulnerable as it proved to be that morning.
Dozens of interviews with current and former
officials demonstrate that even as the threat of terrorism mounted through
eight years of the Clinton administration and eight months of President
Bush, the government did not marshal its full forces against it.
The defensive work of tightening the borders
and airport security was studied but never quite completed. And though the
White House undertook a covert campaign to kill Mr. bin Laden, the
government never mustered the critical mass of political will and
on-the-ground intelligence for the kind of offensive against Al Qaeda it
unleashed this fall.
The rising threat of the Islamic jihad
movement was first detected by United States investigators after the 1993
bombing of the World Trade Center. The inquiry into that attack revealed a
weakness in the immigration system used by one of the terrorists, but that
hole was never plugged, and it was exploited by one of the Sept. 11
In 1996, a State Department dossier spelled
out Mr. bin Laden's operation and his anti-American intentions. And
President Bill Clinton's own pollster told him the public would rally
behind a war on terrorism. But none was declared.
By 1997, the threat of an Islamic attack on
America was so well recognized that an F.B.I. agent warned of it in a
public speech. But that same year, a strategy for tightening airline
security, proposed by a vice- presidential panel, was largely ignored.
In 2000, after an Algerian was caught coming
into the country with explosives, a secret White House review recommended a
crackdown on "potential sleeper cells in the United States." That
review warned that "the threat of attack remains high" and laid
out a plan for fighting terrorism. But most of that plan remained undone.
Last spring, when new threats surfaced, the
Bush administration devised a new strategy, which officials said included a
striking departure from previous policy an extensive C.I.A. program to
arm the Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan.
That new proposal had wound its way to the desk of the national security
adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and was ready to be delivered to the president
for final approval on Monday, Sept. 10.
The government's fight against terrorism
always seemed to fall short.
The Sept. 11 attack "was a systematic
failure of the way this country protects itself," said James Woolsey,
a former director of central intelligence. "It's aviation security
delegated to the airlines, who did a lousy job. It's a fighter aircraft
deployment failure. It's a foreign intelligence collection failure. It's a
domestic detection failure. It's a visa and immigration policy
The Clinton administration intensified
efforts against Al Qaeda after two United States Embassies in Africa were
bombed in 1998. But by then, the terror network had gone global "Al
Qaeda became Starbucks," said Charles Duelfer, a former State
Department official with cells across Europe, Africa and beyond.
Even so, according to the interviews and
documents, the government response to terrorism remained measured, even
halting, reflecting the competing interests and judgments involved in fighting
an ill-defined foe.
The main weapon in President Clinton's
campaign to kill Mr. bin Laden and his lieutenants was cruise missiles,
which are fired from thousands of miles away. While that made it difficult
to hit Mr. bin Laden as he moved around Afghanistan, the president was
reluctant to put American lives at risk.
But a basic problem throughout the fight
against terrorism has been the lack of inside information. The C.I.A. was
surprised repeatedly by Mr. bin Laden, not so much because it failed to pay
attention, but because it lacked sources inside Al Qaeda. There were no
precise warnings of impending attacks, and the C.I.A. could not provide an
exact location for Mr. bin Laden, which was essential to the objective of
At the F.B.I., it was not until last year
that all field offices were ordered to get engaged in the war on terrorism
and develop sources. Inside the bureau, the seminars and other activities
that accompanied these orders were nicknamed "Terrorism for
Dummies," a stark acknowledgment of how far the agency had not come in
the seven years since the first trade center attack.
"I get upset when I hear complaints from
Congress that the F.B.I. is not sharing its intelligence," said a
former senior law enforcement official in the Clinton and Bush
administrations. "The problem is that there isn't any to share. There
is very little. And the stuff we can share is not worth sharing."
Officials at the Federal Bureau of
Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency said that they had some
success in foiling Al Qaeda plots, but that the structure of the group made
it difficult to penetrate. "It is understandable, but unrealistic,
especially given our authorities and resources, to expect us to be
perfect," said Bill Harlow, a C.I.A. spokesman.
The reasons the government was not more
single-minded in attacking Al Qaeda will be examined exhaustively and from
every angle by Congress and others in the years ahead.
In an era of opulence and invincibility, the
threat of terrorism never took root as a dominant political issue. Mr. bin
Laden's boldest attack on American property before Sept. 11 the embassy
bombings came in the same summer that the Monica Lewinsky scandal was
engulfing President Clinton. A full fight against terrorism might have
meant the sacrifice of money, individual liberties and, perhaps, lives
and even then without any guarantee of success.
Mr. Clarke, until recently the White House
director of counterterrorism, warned of the threat for years and reached
this conclusion: "Democracies don't prepare well for things that have
never happened before."
The First Warning
A Horrible Surprise At the Trade Center
On Feb. 26, 1993 a month after Bill Clinton took office, having vowed to
focus on strengthening the domestic economy "like a laser" the
World Trade Center was bombed by Islamic extremists operating from Brooklyn
and New Jersey. Six people were killed, and hundreds injured.
Today, American experts see that attack as
the first of many missed warnings. "In retrospect, the wake-up call
should have been the 1993 World Trade Center bombing," said Michael
Sheehan, counterterrorism coordinator at the State Department in the last
years of the Clinton presidency.
The implications of the F.B.I.'s
investigation were disturbingly clear: A dangerous phenomenon had taken
root. Young Muslims who had fought with the Afghan rebels against the
Soviet Union in the 1980's had taken their jihad to American shores.
The F.B.I. was "caught almost totally
unaware that these guys were in here," recalled Robert M. Blitzer, a
former senior counterterrorism official in the bureau's headquarters.
"It was alarming to us that these guys had been coming and going since
1985 and we didn't know."
One of the names that surfaced in the bombing
case was that of a Saudi exile named Osama bin Laden, F.B.I. officials say.
Mr. bin Laden, they learned, was financing the Office of Services, a
Pakistan-based group involved in organizing the new jihad. And it turned
out that the mastermind of the trade center attack, Ramzi Yousef, had
stayed for several months in a Pakistani guest house supported by Mr. bin
But if the first World Trade Center bombing
raised the consciousness of some at the F.B.I., it had little lasting
resonance for the White House. Mr. Clinton, who would prove gifted at
leading the nation through sorrowful occasions, never visited the site.
Congress tightened immigration laws, but the concern about porous borders
quickly dissipated and the new rules were never put in effect.
Leon E. Panetta, the former congressman who
was budget director and later chief of staff during Mr. Clinton's first
term, said senior aides viewed terrorism as just one of many pressing
"Clinton was aware of the threat and
sometimes he would mention it," Mr. Panetta said. But the "big
issues" in the president's first term, he said, were "Russia,
Eastern bloc, Middle East peace, human rights, rogue nations and then
When it came to terrorism, Clinton
administration officials continued the policy of their predecessors, who
had viewed it primarily as a crime to be solved and prosecuted by law
enforcement agencies. That approach, which called for grand jury
indictments, created its own problems.
The trade center investigation produced
promising leads that pointed overseas. But Mr. Woolsey said in an interview
that this material was not shared with the C.I.A. because of rules
governing grand jury secrecy.
The C.I.A. faced its own obstacles, former
agency officials say. In the wake of the Soviet Union's withdrawal from
Afghanistan in 1989, the agency virtually abandoned the region, leaving it
with few sources of information about the rising radical threat.
Looking back, George Stephanopoulos, the
president's adviser for policy and strategy in his first term, said he
believed the 1993 attack did not gain more attention because, in the end,
it "wasn't a successful bombing."
He added: "It wasn't the kind of thing
where you walked into a staff meeting and people asked, what are we doing
today in the war against terrorism?"
Two years later, however, terrorism moved to
the forefront of the national agenda when a truck bomb tore into the Alfred
P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168
President Clinton visited Oklahoma City for a
memorial service, signaling the political import of the event. "We're
going to have to be very, very tough in dealing with this," he
declared in an interview.
Mr. Panetta said that plans to reorganize the
government's counterterrorism efforts were quickly revived. Senior
officials recognized that the United States remained vulnerable to
terrorism. The bombing proved to be the work of two Americans, both former
soldiers, but if Oklahoma City could be hit, an attack by terrorists of any
stripe could "happen at the White House," Mr. Panetta said.
Two months after the bombing, Mr. Clinton
ordered the government to intensify the fight against terrorism. The order
did not give agencies involved in the fight more money, nor did it end the
bureaucratic turf battles among them.
But it did put Mr. bin Laden, who had set up
operations in Sudan after leaving Afghanistan in 1991, front and center.
Diplomacy and Politics
A Growing Effort Against bin Laden
As Mr. Clinton prepared his re-election bid
in 1996, the administration made several crucial decisions. Recognizing the
growing significance of Mr. bin Laden, the C.I.A. created a virtual
station, code-named Alex, to track his activities around the world.
In the Middle East, American diplomats
pressed the hard-line Islamic regime of Sudan to expel Mr. bin Laden, even
if that pushed him back into Afghanistan.
To build support for this effort among Middle
Eastern governments, the State Department circulated a dossier that accused
Mr. bin Laden of financing radical Islamic causes around the world.
The document implicated him in several
attacks on Americans, including the 1992 bombing of a hotel in Aden, Yemen,
where American troops had stayed on their way to Somalia. It also said Mr.
bin Laden's associates had trained the Somalis who killed 18 American
servicemen in Mogadishu in 1993.
Sudanese officials met with their C.I.A. and
State Department counterparts and signaled that they might turn Mr. bin
Laden over to another country. Saudi Arabia and Egypt were possibilities.
State Department and C.I.A. officials urged
both Egypt and Saudi Arabia to accept him, according to former Clinton
officials. "But both were afraid of the domestic reaction and
refused," one recalled.
Critics of the administration's effort said
this was an early missed opportunity to destroy Al Qaeda. Mr. Clinton
himself would have had to lean hard on the Saudi and Egyptian governments.
The White House believed no amount of pressure would change the outcome,
and Mr. Clinton risked spending valuable capital on a losing cause.
"We were not about to have the president make a call and be told
no," one official explained.
Sudan obliquely hinted that it might turn Mr.
bin Laden over to the United States, a former official said. But the
Justice Department reviewed the case and concluded in the spring of 1996
that it did not have enough evidence to charge him with the attacks on
American troops in Yemen and Somalia.
In May 1996, Sudan expelled Mr. bin Laden,
confiscating some of his substantial fortune. He moved his organization to
Afghanistan, just as an obscure group known as the Taliban was taking
control of the country.
Clinton administration officials counted it
as a positive step. Mr. bin Laden was on the run, deprived of the tacit
state sponsorship he had enjoyed in Sudan.
"He lost his base and momentum,"
said Samuel R. Berger, Mr. Clinton's national security adviser in his
In July 1996, shortly after Mr. bin Laden
left Sudan, Mr. Clinton met at the White House with Dick Morris, his
political adviser, to hone themes for his re-election campaign.
The previous month, a suicide bomber had
detonated a truck bomb at a military barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing 19
American servicemen. Days later, T.W.A. Flight 800 had exploded off Long
Island, leaving 230 people dead in a crash that was immediately viewed as
Mr. Morris said he had devised an attack
advertisement of the sort that Senator Bob Dole, the Republican candidate,
might use against Mr. Clinton and had shown it to a sampling of voters.
Seven percent of those who saw it said they would switch from Mr. Clinton
to Mr. Dole.
"Out of control. Two airline disasters.
One linked to terrorism," the advertisement said. "F.A.A. asleep
at the switch. Terror in Saudi Arabia." Mr. Morris said he told Mr.
Clinton that he could neutralize such a line of attack by adopting tougher
policies on terrorism and airport security. He said his polls had found
support for tightening security and confronting terrorists. Voters favored
military action against suspected terrorist installations in other
countries. They backed a federal takeover of airport screening and even
supported deployment of the military inside the United States to fight
Mr. Morris said he tried and failed to persuade
the president to undertake a broader war on terrorism.
Mr. Clinton declined repeated requests for an
interview, but a spokeswoman, Julia Payne, said: "Terrorism was always
a top priority in the Clinton administration. The president chose to get
his foreign policy advice from the likes of Sandy Berger and Madeleine
Albright and not Dick Morris."
On July 25, Mr. Clinton announced that he had
put Vice President Al Gore at the head of a commission on aviation safety
and security. Within weeks, the panel had drafted more than two dozen
recommendations. Its final report, in February 1997, added dozens more.
Among the most important, commission members
said, was a proposal that the F.B.I. and C.I.A. share information about
suspected terrorists for the databases maintained by each airline. If a
suspected terrorist bought a ticket, both the airline and the government
would find out.
Progress was slow, particularly after federal
investigators determined that the crash of T.W.A. Flight 800 resulted from
a mechanical flaw, not terrorism. The commission's recommendation
languished until Sept. 11, when two people already identified by the
government as suspected terrorists boarded separate American Airlines
flights from Boston using their own names.
That morning, no alarms went off. The system
proposed by the Gore commission was still not in place. The government is
now moving to share more information with the airlines about suspected
"Unfortunately, it takes a dramatic
event to focus the government's and public's attention, especially on an
issue as amorphous as terrorism," said Gerry Kauvar, staff director of
the commission and now a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation.
Focusing on Al Qaeda
A Clearer Picture, A Disjointed Fight
As Mr. Clinton began his second term,
American intelligence agencies were assembling a clearer picture of the
threat posed by Mr. bin Laden and Al Qaeda, which was making substantial
headway in Afghanistan.
A few months earlier, the first significant
defector from Al Qaeda had walked into an American Embassy in Africa and
provided a detailed account of the organization's operations and ultimate
The defector, Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, told
American officials that Mr. bin Laden had taken aim at the United States
and other Western governments, broadening his initial goal of overthrowing
Saudi Arabia and other "infidel" Middle Eastern governments.
He said that Al Qaeda was trying to buy a
nuclear bomb and other unconventional weapons. Mr. bin Laden was also trying
to form an anti-American terrorist front that would unite radical groups.
But Mr. Fadl's statements were not widely circulated within the government.
A senior official said their significance was not fully understood by Mr.
Clinton's top advisers until his public testimony in 2000.
The war against Al Qaeda remained disjointed.
While the State Department listed Mr. bin Laden as a financier of terror in
its 1996 survey of terrorism, Al Qaeda was not included on the list of
terrorist organizations subject to various sanctions released by the United
States in 1997.
The F.B.I.'s counterterrorism experts, who
were privy to Mr. Fadl's debriefings, were growing increasingly concerned
about Islamic terrorism. "Almost all of the groups today, if they
chose, have the ability to strike us in the United States," John P.
O'Neill, a senior F.B.I. official involved in counterterrorism, warned in a
June 1997 speech.
The task, Mr. O'Neill said, was to "nick
away" at terrorists' ability to operate in the United States. (Mr.
O'Neill left the F.B.I. this year for a job as chief of security at the
World Trade Center, where he died on Sept. 11.)
As Mr. O'Neill spoke in Chicago, the F.B.I.
and C.I.A. was homing in on a Qaeda cell in Nairobi, Kenya.
The National Security Agency began
eavesdropping on telephone lines used by Al Qaeda members in the country.
On several occasions, calls to Mr. bin Laden's satellite phone in
Afghanistan were overheard. The F.B.I. and C.I.A. searched a house in
Kenya, seizing a computer and questioning Wadih El-Hage, an American
citizen working as Mr. bin Laden's personal secretary.
American officials counted the operations as
a success and believed they had disrupted a potentially dangerous terrorist
cell. They were proved wrong on Aug. 7, 1998, when truck bombs were
detonated outside the United States embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam,
Tanzania, killing 224 people, including 12 Americans, and injuring more
Stunned by the plot's ambition and precision,
Mr. Clinton vowed to punish the perpetrators, who were quickly identified
as Al Qaeda adherents. "No matter how long it takes or where it takes
us," the president said, "we will pursue terrorists until the
cases are solved and justice is done."
The political calculus, however, had changed
markedly since the president's triumph in the fall of 1996, and Mr. Clinton
was in no position to mount a sustained war against terrorism.
His administration was weighed down by a
scandal over his relationship with a White House intern. Mr. Clinton was
about to acknowledge to a grand jury that his public and private denials of
the affair had been misleading. Republicans depicted every foreign policy
decision as an attempt to distract voters.
Thirteen days after the embassy bombings,
President Clinton nonetheless ordered cruise missile strikes on a Qaeda
camp in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that officials said
was linked to Mr. bin Laden and chemical weapons.
But the volley of cruise missiles proved a
setback for American counterterrorism efforts. The C.I.A. had been told
that Mr. bin Laden and his entourage were meeting at the camp, but the
missiles struck just a few hours after he left. And the owner of the
pharmaceutical factory came forward to claim that it had nothing to do with
chemical weapons, raising questions about whether the Sudan strike had been
The Clinton administration stood by its
actions, but several former officials said the criticism had an effect on
the pursuit of Al Qaeda: Mr. Clinton became even more cautious about using
force against terrorists.
Unfortunately, the quarry was becoming more
dangerous. In the two years since leaving Sudan, Mr. bin Laden had built a
formidable base in Afghanistan. He lavished millions of dollars on the
impoverished Taliban regime and in exchange was allowed to operate a
network of training camps that attracted Islamic militants from all over
the world. In early 1998, just as he declared war on Americans everywhere
in the world, he cemented an alliance with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a
ruthless and effective group whose leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was known for
his operational skills.
The Battle Intensifies
Struggling to Track 'Enemy No. 1'
In the years after the embassy bombings, the
Clinton administration significantly stepped up its efforts to destroy Al
Qaeda, tracking its finances, plotting military strikes to wipe out its
leadership and prosecuting its members for the bombings and other crimes.
"From August 1998, bin Laden was Enemy No. 1," Mr. Berger said.
The campaign had the support of President
Clinton and his senior aides. But former administration officials
acknowledge that it never became the government's top priority.
When it came to Pakistan, for example,
American diplomats continued to weigh the war on terrorism against other
pressing issues, including the need to enlist Islamabad's help in averting
a nuclear exchange with India.
Similarly, a proposal to vastly enhance the
Treasury Department's ability to track global flows of terrorist money
languished until after Sept. 11. And American officials were reluctant to
press the oil-rich Saudis to crack down on charities linked to radical
Still, the fight against Al Qaeda gained new,
high-level attention after the embassy attacks, present and former
officials say. Between 1998 and 2000, the "Small Group" of the
Cabinet-rank principals involved in national security met almost every week
on terrorism, and the Counterterrorism Security Group, led by Mr. Clarke,
met two or three times a week, officials said.
The United States disrupted some Qaeda cells,
and persuaded friendly intelligence services to arrange the arrest and
transfer of Al Qaeda members without formal extradition or legal
proceedings. Dozens were quietly sent to Egypt and other countries to stand
President Clinton also ordered a more
aggressive program of covert action, signing an intelligence order that
allowed him to use lethal force against Mr. bin Laden. Later, this was
expanded to include as many as a dozen of his top lieutenants, officials
On at least four occasions, Mr. Clinton sent
the C.I.A. a secret "memorandum of notification," authorizing the
government to kill or capture Mr. bin Laden and, later, other senior
operatives. The C.I.A. then briefed members of Congress about those plans.
The C.I.A. redoubled its efforts to track Mr.
bin Laden's movements, stationing submarines in the Indian Ocean to await
the president's launch order. To hit Mr. bin Laden, the military said it
needed to know where he would be 6 to 10 hours later enough time to
review the decision in Washington and program the cruise missiles.
That search proved frustrating. Officials
said the C.I.A. did have some spies within Afghanistan. On at least
three occasions between 1998 and 2000, the C.I.A. told the White House it
had learned where Mr. bin Laden was and where he might soon be.
Each time, Mr. Clinton approved the
strike. Each time, George Tenet, the director of central intelligence,
called the president to say that the information was not reliable enough to
be used in an attack, a former senior Clinton administration official
In late 1998, according to former officials,
intelligence agents reported that Abu Hafs, a Mauritanian and an important
figure in Al Qaeda, was staying in Room 13 at the Dana Hotel in Khartoum.
With such specific information in hand, White
House officials wanted Abu Hafs either killed or, preferably, captured and
transferred out of Sudan to a friendly state where he could be
interrogated, the former officials said.
The agency initially questioned whether it
could accomplish such a mission in a hostile, risky environment like Sudan,
putting it in the "too hard to do box," one former official said.
An intelligence official disputed this account, saying the C.I.A. made "a
full-tilt effort in a very dangerous environment."
Eventually, the C.I.A. enlisted another
government to help seize Abu Hafs, a former official said, but by then it
was too late. The target had disappeared.
Officials said the White House pushed the
Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop plans for a commando raid to capture or
kill Mr. bin Laden. But the chairman, Gen. Henry H. Shelton, and other
senior Pentagon officers told Mr. Clinton's top national security aides
that they would need to know Mr. bin Laden's whereabouts 12 to 24 hours in
Pentagon planners also considered a White
House request to send a hunter team of commandos, small enough to avoid
detection, the officer said. General Shelton discounted this option as
naοve, the officer said.
White House officials were frustrated that
the Pentagon could not produce plans that involved a modest number of
troops. Military planners insisted that an attack on Al Qaeda required
thousands of troops invading Afghanistan. "When you said this is what
it would take, no one was interested," a senior officer said.
A former administration official recently
defended the decision not to employ a commando strike. "It would have
been an assault without the kind of war we've seen over the last three
months to support it," the official said. "And it would have been
very unlikely to succeed."
Clinton administration officials also began
trying to choke off Al Qaeda's financial network. Shortly after the embassy
bombings, the United States began threatening states and financial institutions
with sanctions if they failed to cut off assistance to those who did
business with Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
In 1999 and early 2000, some $255 million of
Taliban-controlled assets was blocked in United States accounts, according
to William F. Wechsler, a former White House official.
Mr. Wechsler said the search for Al Qaeda's
assets was often stymied by poor cooperation from Middle Eastern and South
The United States, too, he added, had
problems. "Few intelligence officials who understand the nuances of
the global banking system" were fluent in Arabic. While the C.I.A. had
done a "reasonably good job" analyzing Al Qaeda, he wrote, it was
"poor" at developing sources within Mr. bin Laden's financial
network. The F.B.I., he argued, had similar shortcomings.
Senior officials were frustrated by the
C.I.A.'s inability to find hard facts about Al Qaeda's financial
Intelligence officials said the C.I.A. had
amassed considerable detail about the group's finances, and that information
was used in the broad efforts to freeze its accounts after Sept. 11.
At the State Department, officials reacted
sharply to the assault on the embassies. Michael Sheehan, the department's
former counterterrorism coordinator, said that after the bombings,
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright met with her embassy security
director every morning and became increasingly focused on efforts to
protect her employees and installations.
But to Mr. Sheehan, the response was
inadequate. He believed that terrorism could be contained only if
Washington devised a "comprehensive political strategy to pressure
Pakistan and other neighbors and allies into isolating not only Mr. bin
Laden and Al Qaeda, but the Taliban and others who provide them
sanctuary," he said, and that did not happen. There were competing
priorities. "Our reaction was responsive, almost never
proactive," he said.
'We Were Flying Blind'
An Arrest, a Review And New Obstacles
The arrest of Ahmed Ressam was the clearest
sign that Osama bin Laden was trying to bring the jihad to the United
Mr. Ressam was arrested when he tried to
enter the United States in Port Angeles, Wash., on Dec. 14, 1999. Inside
his rental car, agents found 130 pounds of bomb-making chemicals and
His arrest helped reveal what intelligence
officials later concluded was a Qaeda plot to unleash attacks during the
millennium celebrations, aimed at an American ship in Yemen, tourist sites
and a hotel in Jordan, and unknown targets in the United States.
"That was a wake-up call," a senior
law enforcement officer said, "not for law enforcement and
intelligence, but for policy makers." Just as the embassy bombings had
exposed the threat of Al Qaeda overseas, the millennium plot revealed
gaping vulnerabilities at home.
"If you understood Al Qaeda, you knew
something was going to happen," said Robert M. Bryant, who was the
deputy director of the F.B.I. when he retired in 1999. "You knew they
were going to hit us, but you didn't know where. It just made me sick on
Sept. 11. I cried when those towers came down."
A White House review of American defenses in
March 2000 found significant shortcomings in nearly a decade of government
efforts to improve defenses against terrorists at home. The F.B.I. and the
Immigration and Naturalization Service, it said, should begin "high
tempo, ongoing operations to arrest, detain and deport potential sleeper
cells in the United States."
The review called for the government to
greatly expand its antiterrorism efforts inside the United States, creating
an additional dozen joint federal-local task forces like the one that had
been set up in New York.
The review identified particular weaknesses
in the nation's immigration controls, officials said. The government
remained unable to track foreigners in the United States on student visas,
despite a 1996 law passed after the first World Trade Center bombing that
required it to do so.
In June 2000, after the millennium plot was
revealed, the National Commission on Terrorism recommended that the
immigration service set up a system to keep tabs on foreign students.
Academic institutions opposed the recommendation, fearing that a strict
reporting requirement might alienate prospective foreign students,
according to government officials. Nothing changed.
As the commission was completing its work,
the Sept. 11 hijackers began entering the United States. One of the 19
hijackers, Hani Hanjour, who had traveled on a student visa, failed to show
up for school and remained in the country illegally.
The F.B.I. had some problems of its own. It
had no intelligence warning of an attack on Los Angeles International
Airport, which investigators eventually learned was Mr. Ressam's intended
Beginning in 1997, senior officials at the
bureau had begun to rethink their approach to terrorism, viewing it now as
a crime to be prevented rather than solved. But it was the millennium plot
that revealed how ill equipped the bureau was to radically shift its
culture, former officials say.
It lacked informers within terrorist groups.
It did not have the computer and analytical capacity for integrating
disparate pieces of information.
"We did not have any actionable
intelligence," one senior official said. "We were flying
In March 2000, Dale L. Watson, the F.B.I.'s
assistant director for counterterrorism, started a series of seminars with
agents who headed the bureau's 56 field offices. Each field office was
required to establish a joint terrorism task force with local police
departments, modeled after the arrangement begun in New York in the
mid-1980's. Field office chiefs were also told to hire more Arabic
translators and develop better sources of information.
Mr. Watson said that the meetings were a
centerpiece of efforts to shore up the bureau's counterterrorism work that
had begun several years earlier. The meetings, he said, were "designed
to bring every office, no matter how small, to the same top terrorism
capacities resident in our larger offices like New York."
The F.B.I. renewed its push on Capitol Hill
for money to create a computer system that would allow various field
offices to share and analyze information collected by agents. Until late
last year, Congress had refused to pay for the project.
Without the analytical aid of a computer
system, Mr. Bryant said, the bureau's counterterrorism program would be
hobbled, particularly if the goal was to avert a crime. "We didn't
know what we had," he said. "We didn't know what we knew."
Overseas, the Clinton administration searched
for new ways to obtain the intelligence needed to attack Mr. bin Laden. In
September 2000, an unarmed, unmanned spy plane called the Predator flew
test flights over Afghanistan, providing what several administration
officials called incomparably detailed real-time video and photographs of
the movements of what appeared to be Mr. bin Laden and his aides.
The White House pressed ahead with a program
to arm the Predator with a missile, but the effort was slowed by
bureaucratic infighting between the Pentagon and the C.I.A. over who would
pay for the craft and who would have ultimate authority over its use. The
dispute, officials said, was not resolved until after Sept. 11.
On Oct. 12, an explosive-laden dinghy piloted
by two suicide bombers exploded next to the American destroyer Cole in Yemen,
killing 17 sailors. Intelligence analysts linked the bombing to Al Qaeda,
but at a series of Cabinet-level meetings, Mr. Tenet of the C.I.A. and
senior F.B.I. officials said the case was not conclusive.
Mr. Clarke, the White House counterterrorism
director, had no doubts about whom to punish. In late October, officials
said, he put on the table an idea he had been pushing for some time:
bombing Mr. bin Laden's largest training camps in Afghanistan.
With the administration locked in a fevered
effort to broker a peace settlement in Israel, an election imminent and the
two- term Clinton administration coming to a close, the recommendation went
nowhere. Terrorism was not raised as an issue by either Vice President Al
Gore or George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential campaign.
In October 2000, the administration took
another shot at killing Mr. bin Laden. When Mr. Berger called the president
to tell him the effort had failed, he recalled, Mr. Clinton cursed.
"Just keep trying," he said.
The New Team
Seeing the Threat But Moving Slowly
As he prepared to leave office last January,
Mr. Berger met with his successor, Condoleezza Rice, and gave her a
According to both of them, he said that
terrorism and particularly Mr. bin Laden's brand of it would consume
far more of her time than she had ever imagined.
A month later, with the administration still
getting organized, Mr. Tenet, whom President Bush had asked to stay on at
the C.I.A., warned the Senate Intelligence Committee that Mr. bin Laden and
Al Qaeda remained "the most immediate and serious threat" to
security. But until Sept. 11, the people at the top levels of the Bush
administration may, if anything, have been less preoccupied by terrorism
than the Clinton aides.
At the C.I.A., according to former Clinton
administration officials, Mr. Tenet's actions did not match his words. For
example, one intelligence official said, the C.I.A. station in Pakistan
remained understaffed and underfinanced, though the C.I.A. denied that.
In March, the White House's Counterterrorism
Security Group began drafting its own strategy for combating Al Qaeda. Mr.
Clarke was still nominally in charge, but Bush aides were on the way to
approving Mr. Clarke's recommendation that his group be divided into
several new offices.
Mr. Bush's principals did not formally meet
to discuss terrorism in late spring when intercepts from Afghanistan warned
that Al Qaeda was planning to attack an American target in late June or
perhaps over the July 4 holiday.
They did not meet even after intelligence
analysts overheard conversations from a Qaeda cell in Milan suggesting that
Mr. bin Laden's agents might be plotting to kill Mr. Bush at the European
summit meeting in Genoa, Italy, in late July.
Administration officials say the president
was concerned about the growing threat and frustrated by the halfhearted
efforts to thwart Al Qaeda. In July, Ms. Rice said, Mr. Bush likened the
response to the Qaeda threat to "swatting at flies." He said he
wanted a plan to "bring this guy down."
The administration's draft plan for fighting
Al Qaeda included a $200 million C.I.A. program that, among other things,
would arm the Taliban's enemies. Clinton administration officials had
refused to provide significant money and arms to the Northern Alliance, which
was composed mostly of ethnic minorities. Officials feared that large-scale
support for the rebels would involve the United States too deeply in a
civil war and anger Pakistan.
President Bush's national security advisers
approved the plan on Sept. 4, a senior administration official said, and it
was to be presented to the president on Sept. 10. (However, the leader of
the Northern Alliance was assassinated by Qaeda agents on Sept. 9.) Mr.
Bush was traveling on Sept. 10 and did not receive it.
The next day his senior national security
aides gathered shortly before 9 a.m. for a staff meeting. At roughly the
same moment, a hijacked Boeing 767 was plowing into the north tower of the
World Trade Center.
This article was reported by Judith
Miller, Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. and written by Ms. Miller.