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Missed Opportunities Shadow 9/11 Attacks

As Al Qaeda plotted, the U.S. couldn't link its intelligence or find a way to kill Bin Laden.

March 28, 2004|Greg Miller and Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Last week's hearings on the Sept. 11 attacks were like rewinding a movie with a hauntingly tragic ending. Again and again, commissioners backed up the tape and hit pause at critical passages, always with a single question in mind: If this sequence or that had taken an alternate turn, could the ending have been different?

And although almost every high-powered witness called before the Sept. 11 commission said they did not think so, the hearings brought years of U.S. counterterrorism efforts into a sharper focus that suggested a more complicated answer.

Testimony detailed unfulfilled efforts and opportunities to kill Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden; to launch Predator aircraft into the skies of Afghanistan; and, in the final months before the attacks, to mobilize intelligence across the federal government in an urgent search for clues.

Each episode was a turning point in the war on terrorism before many Americans even knew there was such a war. Each was an opportunity to deliver a blow to Al Qaeda or roll up cells whose intentions were unclear. In hindsight, they also represented chances to bump the Sept. 11 plot off its course.

Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, said in an interview he thought the attacks were preventable.

"There are probably 16 or 17 different events that, had they happened differently, would have had an effect," said Kean, a Republican.

"Had we been able to get [Bin Laden] back in the late 1990s, and perhaps his No. 2, then I think there's a real chance that they wouldn't have been able to put [the plot] together."

Actions ranging from assassination to surveillance could have made a difference, Kean said.

"If people had been put on watch lists, perhaps some of them would have been stopped before they got on the planes," he said. "There's just a whole string of things that happened, that had enough of that gone the other way, probably it would have been preventable."

In fact, Kean said, U.S. intelligence has compiled psychological profiles of the hijackers, portraying them as so skittish that even minor disruptions very late in the game might have prompted them to cancel or postpone their plans.

"There is evidence from looking at psychological profiles of these hijackers, they were somewhat risk-averse -- very jumpy," Kean said.

For that reason, he said, the hijackers might have changed course if they had known, for example, that Zacarias Moussaoui, a suspected Al Qaeda operative who took flight training in Minnesota, had been arrested by the FBI in the summer of 2001.

"Some officials think that would have spooked them," Kean said.

A former FBI counterterrorism chief thinks that if the CIA was able to eliminate Bin Laden early enough, it would have crippled the Al Qaeda brain trust and forced the plot to be aborted, or at least delayed.

"Certainly if they also had taken out some of his top guys -- it would have been all over," said Robert M. Blitzer, chief of the FBI's Domestic Terrorism and Counterterrorism Planning Section until the end of 1998.

From their headquarters in Afghanistan, Blitzer said, Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri and a few other lieutenants kept a tight rein on Al Qaeda plots in the late 1990s. They worked with the globe-trotting Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to control finances, oversight of their international network and the execution of large-scale plots, including Sept. 11. At the very least, Blitzer said, Bin Laden's death could have caused Mohammed -- the mastermind of the attacks -- and the 19 hijackers to abruptly stop their planning and reassess. "That might have given us time to discover the plot, and roll up these guys," Blitzer said.

No evidence has surfaced to suggest that any U.S. official ever had specific information about the Sept. 11 plot before the attacks. And the missed opportunities cataloged by the commission last week carried costs beyond Sept. 11, as Al Qaeda has since struck numerous other targets.

But to a large extent, the hearings were an exploration of competing chronologies. They showed that while U.S. counterterrorism officials were meeting and drawing up never-used plans to strike Al Qaeda, Bin Laden and his deputies were holding planning meetings of their own, and setting in motion an operation to use airplanes as missiles against highly symbolic American targets. The gnawing question was what would have happened if the United States had executed its plans first.

Most experts and intelligence officials think the Sept. 11 plot was conceived in the mid-1990s by Mohammed, a Kuwaiti who was the operational overseer, maintaining contact with various cells and ensuring that they got resources, instruction and funding. Mohamed is thought to have based the plan on his unsuccessful attempt in 1995 to blow up 12 American passenger jet airliners over the Pacific from his base in the Philippines.

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