Johnston Risen NYT May 2002 TRACES OF TERRORISM THE INTELLIGENCE REPORTS SERIES OF WARNINGS
TRACES OF TERRORISM: THE INTELLIGENCE REPORTS; SERIES OF WARNINGS
By DAVID JOHNSTON and JAMES RISEN
Published: May 17, 2002
Foreboding grew in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks, as President Bush and his national security aides studied intelligence reports hinting that terrorists could be plotting a major attack, Mr. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said today.
Ms. Rice described a hazy, jumbled mosaic of threat signals, none of them precise or clear.
''I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon, that they would try to use an airplane as a missile,'' Ms. Rice said. [Excerpts, Page A22.]
But Mr. Bush and his aides did not have all the threat information that was circulating through lower levels of the government in July and August, some of it more specific.
Bits and pieces of intelligence began to be picked up American counterterrorism officials, but they were never coherently assembled because agencies did not share or act on the information before the Sept. 11 attacks. Even when information did reach the president, its possible relevance to the plot seems evident only in hindsight.
For example, the report provided to the president on Aug. 6, which warned him that Mr. bin Laden's followers might hijack airplanes, was based on 1998 intelligence data drawn from a single British source, government officials said today.
That source said Al Qaeda had an interest in hijacking airplanes in order to obtain hostages who could be used as bargaining chips so the terrorist organization could demand the freedom of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a Muslim cleric who was convicted in 1995 for his role in the failed plot to blow up landmarks in the New York area.
Mr. Bush was told, the officials said, that neither the Central Intelligence Agency nor the Federal Bureau of Investigation had confirmed the information.
Even as President Bush asked for more information about the threats posed by Al Qaeda, Ms. Rice said, the White House was not informed about several developments that, in hindsight, might have provided early warnings.
She said Mr. Bush had not been told before Sept. 11 about a memo written in July by an F.B.I. agent in Phoenix who warned that groups like Al Qaeda might be sending students to American flight schools to train for terror operations.
The White House was also not told that the F.B.I. had arrested Zacarias Moussaoui in Minneapolis after a flight school there reported that he had wanted to train on a 747 flight simulator, even though he had little experience as a pilot.
''As you might imagine,'' Ms. Rice said, ''a lot of things are prepared within agencies. They're distributed internally, they're worked internally. It's unusual that anything like that would get to the president. He doesn't recall seeing anything. I don't recall seeing anything of this kind.''
Beginning in December 2000, Ms. Rice said, the White House received warning signs that continued into the spring and summer of 2001 that indicated that Al Qaeda was planning an attack in the United States, but intelligence and law enforcement officials said they were not certain where or when.
In May and June, American intelligence began to intercept communications between Al Qaeda members discussing an attack, one that could be larger than any previous Al Qaeda operation. Other officials have said that at least one message included a reference to the organization's desire to wage a devastating attack and used the word ''Hiroshima'' to describe its possible scope.
The communications prompted deep concern in counterterrorism units at the C.I.A., F.B.I. and the White House, and the bureau issued threat warnings in June and July about a possible terrorist attack around the Fourth of July. The Federal Aviation Administration also issued warnings to airlines.
''On July 5, the threat reporting had become sufficiently robust, though not, again, very specific, but sufficiently robust -- there was a lot of chatter in the system -- that in his morning meeting, the president asked me to go back and to see what was being done about all of the chatter that was there,'' Ms. Rice said.
Ms. Rice said she met that afternoon with Richard A. Clarke, a White House counterterrorism coordinator, to discuss the increase in threat information. Mr. Clarke convened two meetings that day on possible attacks, including one in which domestic agencies like the Transportation Department were included.
On July 6, the government was so concerned about threats in Turkey, France and Italy that counterterrorism officials were ordered to avoid traveling.
''Contingency planning was done on how to deal with multiple simultaneous attacks around the world,'' Ms. Rice said.
No attack occurred over the holiday. Even so, American counterterrorism experts still believed that a large-scale operation could be coming, officials said.
Ms. Rice said intelligence analysts had long believed that terrorists -- and Al Qaeda in particular -- might resort to hijackings as a weapon against the United States.
The authorities in the Philippines had warned in 1995 of a possible plot to hijack commercial jets for use in terrorist actions. Ms. Rice said,
''That terrorism and hijacking might be associated is not rocket science,'' she said.
In August 2001, the C.I.A. issued a report reviewing the most recent evidence on the threat posed by Al Qaeda. Intelligence officials say the report was designed largely to remind policy makers in the Bush administration that although no major attack had occurred in July, the threat of another attack still existed.
While the report had some new information, it was largely based on the same intelligence that had prompted the threat warnings issued in June and July, officials said.
That report did not mention the possibility of Al Qaeda hijacking airplanes, however, an intelligence official said Thursday.
The personal briefing given to President Bush on Aug. 6 was based largely on the same material included in that August C.I.A. report, officials said.
But President Bush had asked for a briefing that provided greater historical context about what intelligence agencies knew about the threat from Al Qaeda, and so the C.I.A. dug into its files for some older intelligence reports, officials said.
Ms. Rice said that the reference to hijackings was not based on any new intelligence, but rather reflected longstanding evidence that Al Qaeda was interested in conducting hijackings.
''I want to reiterate: It's not a warning,'' Ms. Rice said. ''There's no specific time, place or method mentioned. What you have seen in the run-up that I've talked about is that the F.A.A. was reacting to the same kind of generalized information about a potential hijacking as a method that Al Qaeda might employ, but no specific information saying that they were planning such an attack at a particular time.''
On Aug. 13, a week after the president's briefing, another incident occurred in Minnesota that some counterterrorism officials have said should have raised more red flags about Al Qaeda's interest in aviation, but did not receive high level attention in Washington.
Mr. Moussaoui, a French citizen, was arrested in Minnesota after officials at a flight school there contacted the F.B.I. about their suspicions about his behavior.
He was arrested on immigration charges, and in one F.B.I. interview, an agent accused Mr. Moussaoui of being a terrorist. Mr. Moussaoui denied it, saying only that he wanted to learn to fly.
Meanwhile, in August the C.I.A. notified the Immigration and Naturalization Service that it should place two Middle Eastern men suspected of terrorism on its watch list to prevent them from entering the United States.
After the immigration service responded that the two were already in the country, the F.B.I. was informed that it should begin to look for the two men. The men -- Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi -- were not found before Sept. 11. They were among the 19 hijackers who attacked New York and Washington.
Ms. Rice said that even if Mr. Bush had more information, the attacks would have been difficult to predict.
''The fact is, this, in retrospect even, looks hard to put together,'' Ms. Rice said. ''At the time we were looking at something very different.''