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U.S. Overlooked Terrorism Signs Well Before 9/11

Inquiry: A House-Senate panel report says Al Qaeda was focusing on a domestic attack and the use of planes as weapons as far back as mid-'90s.

September 19, 2002|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The nation's intelligence agencies failed to heed serious warnings dating back to the mid-1990s that the Al Qaeda terrorist network was increasingly focused on striking targets in the United States and using aircraft as weapons, according to a report issued by congressional investigators Wednesday.

The document, which represents the first comprehensive look at intelligence failures surrounding Sept. 11, 2001, lists newly disclosed terrorist plots and other clues that did not point directly to last year's attacks, but suggest that U.S. spy agencies should have been looking for just such a plot.

Among the revelations is an intelligence report of a 1998 plot in which Arab suspects possibly linked to Al Qaeda were to pilot an explosive-packed plane into the World Trade Center. That same year, intelligence officials learned that Al Qaeda was trying to establish an active cell in the United States. And just one month before the attacks on the trade center and the Pentagon, intelligence agencies obtained information suggesting Al Qaeda operatives were possibly plotting to crash an airplane into the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.

The disclosures were released as part of Congress' first public hearings on intelligence failures surrounding Sept. 11. The House and Senate Intelligence committees are expected to hold a series of public hearings over the next month before producing a final report early next year.

Wednesday's document represents preliminary findings that seem to undercut administration officials' repeated assertions over the last year that the nature and magnitude of the attacks were all but inconceivable until they happened.

Indeed, the report raises serious questions about the extent to which U.S. spy agencies had mobilized to respond to the emerging Al Qaeda threat. As recently as 2000, the report says, the CIA's counterterrorism center had just five analysts focused full-time on Al Qaeda, and the FBI had just one.

That was despite the fact that in 1998, CIA Director George J. Tenet had written a memo declaring "war" on Al Qaeda and saying, "I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside CIA or the [intelligence] community."

Though money and manpower aimed at terrorist targets grew subsequent to that memo, the report says "there was no massive shift in budget or reassignment of personnel to counter-terrorism until after Sept. 11, 2001."

In fact, the report says, "relatively few of the FBI agents interviewed by [investigators] seem to have been aware of Tenet's declaration."

Many lawmakers said the report points to systemic intelligence breakdowns.

"We now know that our inability to detect and prevent the Sept. 11 attacks was an intelligence failure of unprecedented magnitude," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Some people who couldn't seem to utter the words 'intelligence failure' are now convinced of it."

Shelby appeared to be referring to Tenet, who in testimony before the committee earlier this year insisted that Sept. 11 was not an intelligence failure.

The report, the product of an ongoing investigation of the attacks by congressional intelligence committees, is likely to put new pressure on the White House to account for intelligence breakdowns and push for substantial reform. But there were new signs at Wednesday's hearing that lawmakers and the White House remain at odds over how much of what the investigation uncovers should be released to the public.

Members complained Wednesday that they have been blocked by the White House from disclosing whether any intelligence warnings mentioned in the report were ever conveyed to Presidents Clinton or Bush.

The White House has refused to allow such disclosures even in cases in which the underlying information has already been declassified or publicly reported, said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

As a result, the report contains repeated references to intelligence that was brought to the attention of "senior government officials," without making clear who the officials were.

Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman, said that the administration's stance stems from its concern that "the president should be able to receive candid intelligence assessments and advice without congressional interference," and that exposing such communications "could have a chilling effect" on what intelligence officials share with the president.

Eleanor Hill, the staff director of the congressional investigation, stressed during testimony Wednesday that the investigation has not uncovered a "smoking gun" indicating that any federal agency or official had information before Sept. 11, 2001, identifying when, where or how the attacks would be carried out.

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