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Arab terrorists' plan to fly a bomb-laden plane into the World Trade Center
is in the first sentence.
September 19, 2002, Thursday
THREATS AND RESPONSES: THE INVESTIGATION; U.S. FAILED TO ACT ON
WARNINGS IN '98 OF A PLANE ATTACK
By JAMES RISEN (NYT) 1370 words
WASHINGTON, Sept. 18 -- The
United States intelligence community was told in 1998 that Arab terrorists
were planning to fly a bomb-laden plane into the World Trade Center, but
the F.B.I. and the Federal Aviation Administration did not take the threat
seriously, a Congressional investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks has found.
That August 1998 intelligence report from the
Central Intelligence Agency was just one of several warnings the United
States received, but did not seriously analyze, in the years leading up to
the Sept. 11 attacks that were detailed today at a Congressional hearing.
The existence of the 1998 intelligence report
was disclosed in a presentation by the committee's staff director, Eleanor
The report concluded that there was evidence
of a growing interest by Al Qaeda and related groups in high-profile
attacks inside the United States years before the attacks on the trade
center and the Pentagon.
The Congressional report was the first
disclosure that there was specific intelligence about terrorist plans to
crash airplanes into the trade center, though officials said that those
plans did not appear to be connected to the Sept. 11 attack.
And while the joint committee made public
several intelligence reports that had been received in the years before
Sept. 11 that related to Al Qaeda's intentions to launch an attack inside
the United States and its interest in using aircraft for terrorism, Ms.
Hill emphasized that the joint committee had still not found a ''smoking
gun'' that could have helped prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.
''People have said there was no smoking
gun,'' Ms. Hill said. ''But there was still a lot out there that was never
In fact, from 1998 to the summer of 2001, the
C.I.A., the F.B.I. and other agencies repeatedly received reports of Al
Qaeda's interest in attacking Washington and New York, either with
airplanes or other means. The threat level grew so high that by December
1998, the director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet, issued a
''declaration of war'' on Al Qaeda, in a memorandum circulated in the
intelligence community. Yet, Ms. Hill said, the intelligence agencies
failed to adequately follow up on the declaration, and by Sept. 10, 2001,
the F.B.I. still had only one analyst assigned full time to Al Qaeda.
The 1998 intelligence report about the trade
center cited plans by a group of unidentified Arabs, who the United States
now believes had ties to Al Qaeda, to fly an explosives-laden plane from a
foreign country into the trade center. American intelligence officials said
today that despite the similarities, they did not believe that the 1998
report was related to the Sept. 11 attack.
Still, the Congressional panel criticized the
way in which the intelligence was handled, particularly by the F.B.I. and
aviation agency. The committee said the F.B.I.'s New York office ''took no
action on the information.'' The flight agency, meanwhile, ''found the plot
highly unlikely,'' because of the state of the unidentified foreign
country's aviation program.
''We did review the technical aspects of the
information, but any decisions about whether it was credible was based on
an F.B.I. determination,'' a spokesman for the Transportation Department
Law enforcement officials said the F.B.I.'s
conclusion that the threat was not credible was based on the seeming
difficulty of launching the attack from the unidentified country.
Recent months have seen a flood of reports
concerning what kind of information intelligence agencies had about plans
for a terrorist attack on the United States. For example, it has already
been reported that in 1996, a Pakistani terrorist, Abdul Hakim Murad,
confessed to federal agents that he was learning to fly an aircraft in
order to crash a plane into the C.I.A. headquarters. It was disclosed in
June that the National Security Agency had intercepted two cryptic
communications the day before the Sept. 11 attacks. One indicated that
''the big match'' was scheduled for the next day; the other referred to
Sept. 11 as ''zero hour.''
Some officials say it was not clear the
messages related to the Sept. 11 attacks. Agency analysts did not translate
them until Sept. 12.
Still, today's disclosures provide the most
detailed official description of intelligence lapses.
While that August 1998 report most closely
paralleled the final attack, the C.I.A. received other warnings in that
period of Al Qaeda's interest in using aircraft against targets in United
In September 1998, intelligence agencies
obtained information warning that Osama bin Laden's next major operation
could involve flying an aircraft loaded with explosives into an American
airport and then detonating it. That same fall, another intelligence report
stated that there was a Qaeda plot in the works that involved the use of
aircraft in both New York and Washington.
Yet the reports did not prompt the C.I.A. or
other intelligence agencies to conduct an analysis of that specific threat
to American aviation, the joint committee found. In addition, the aviation
agency did not change its traditional assumptions that airplane hijackings
were not suicide missions. American airlines directed their flight crews
not to fight back against hijackers.
But the reports of Al Qaeda's interest in
attacks in the United States extended beyond aircraft. In the spring of
1999, the C.I.A. received another report that Mr. bin Laden wanted to
attack a government building in Washington.
In August 1999, another report said Al Qaeda
had apparently chosen the secretary of state, the defense secretary and the
C.I.A. director for assassination. The C.I.A. had been told the previous
year that Mr. bin Laden and his lieutenants had also agreed to issue $9
million bounties for the assassination of four top intelligence officers,
whom the report did not identify, after the United increased a reward for
Mr. bin Laden.
In the spring and summer of 2001, American
intelligence picked up several reports that strongly indicated that Al
Qaeda intended a major attack against American targets. Since Sept. 11,
American intelligence officials have said that most of that intelligence suggested
that the attack was to be overseas.
Still, there were some reports in that period
that referred to domestic attacks, the joint committee revealed in its
interim report released today. In April 2001, an individual with terrorist
connections speculated that Mr. bin Laden would be interested in using
commercial pilots as terrorists. The individual warned that Al Qaeda wanted
to mount ''spectacular and traumatic'' attacks like the first bombing of
the trade center in 1993.
The C.I.A. first created a unit inside its
counterterrorism center to track Mr. bin Laden in 1996. But the joint
committee's report strongly suggests that it was not until 1998 that
officials throughout the F.B.I., C.I.A. and other agencies began to
recognize the urgent threat posed by Al Qaeda, after the August 1998
bombings of two American embassies in East Africa.
The response of intelligence agencies to the
Qaeda threat varied widely. On Dec. 4, 1998, Mr. Tenet issued his
declaration of war, saying, ''I want no resource or people spared.'' Yet
the joint committee found that few of the F.B.I. agents interviewed by it
had ever heard of Mr. Tenet's declaration.
The panel also concluded that prior to Sept.
11, only one F.B.I. analyst was assigned full time to Al Qaeda, although
others were working on individual terrorist cases related to Mr. bin
Laden's network. The joint committee report also said that in 1999, the
C.I.A.'s counterterrorism center had only three analysts assigned full time
to Al Qaeda.
Both the C.I.A. and the
F.B.I. disputed those figures today. Law enforcement officials said the
committee's numbers were misleading, because at the time of last year's
attacks, the F.B.I.'s Al Qaeda analysts were not assigned to a separate
analytical section, but to two operational groups with about 30 people.
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