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Politics & Policy
Intelligence Agencies Knew of Airplane Terror Threats, Report Says
By Nicholas Kulish
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2002, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
WASHINGTON -- Intelligence agencies were aware of numerous threats that terrorists might use airplanes as weapons against the U.S., despite government claims following Sept. 11 that the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks came like bolts from the blue.
More than a year after the four hijackings, the joint House and Senate intelligence committees held their first public hearing yesterday into intelligence failures leading up to the attacks, detailing intelligence available before the assault.
Based on the comments of several lawmakers, interest appears to be growing for the appointment of an independent commission to delve further into the roots of the attacks and the efforts -- or lack thereof -- to protect the U.S. beforehand. Meanwhile, the two panels will continue their probe into what went wrong and whether it could have been avoided.
A 30-page report they released yesterday showed intelligence officials knew last summer that al Qaeda both hoped to use planes as weapons and sought to strike a violent blow within the U.S. But the investigation has yet to yield direct intelligence that would show with any certainty that the disaster could have been averted.
"From 1994 through as late as August 2001, the intelligence community had received information indicating that international terrorists had seriously considered the use of airplanes as a means of carrying out terrorist attacks," said the report, which was compiled from more than 400 interviews and after reviewing 400,000 pages of documents.
Much if not all of the report's findings already have been reported, however, as information filtered out of the closed-door hearings held by the panels earlier this year.
"These public hearings are part of our search for the truth -- not to point fingers or pin blame," said Sen. Bob Graham (D., Fla.), chairman of the Senate intelligence Committee. He added, though, that more probes are to come.
The top Republican on the Senate panel, Richard Shelby of Alabama, had harsher words, calling the attacks "an intelligence failure of unprecedented magnitude." He also questioned whether congressional investigators had sufficient time or resources to complete a full accounting of any intelligence failures.
For example, the report detailed examples of intelligence showing Osama bin Laden intended to carry out a strike inside U.S. borders, including an August 1998 report that "a group of unidentified Arabs planned to fly an explosive-laden plane from a foreign country into the World Trade Center." The Federal Bureau of Investigation relayed the information to the Federal Aviation Administration, which deemed the plot unlikely, the report said.
While there were signs of an impending attack, officials say there was never anything specific enough to act on.
"All of this seems more apparent with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight," said one U.S. intelligence official. At the same time, the report "certainly points to the CIA and intelligence community having reported on the seriousness and the immediacy of the threat posed by bin Laden and al Qaeda," the official said.
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