LEXIS-NEXIS® Academic Universe-Document
Copyright 2001 The
New York Times Company
New York Times
December 30, 2001, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 1A; Page 1; Column 3; National Desk
LENGTH: 6648 words
HEADLINE: A NATION CHALLENGED: THE RESPONSE;
Planning for Terror but Failing to Act
SERIES: Missed Signals
This article was reported by Judith Miller, Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr.
and written by Ms. Miller.
Inside the White House situation room on the morning terrorism transformed
America, Franklin C. Miller, the director for defense policy, was suddenly
gripped by a staggering fear:
"The White House could be hit. We could be going down."
The reports and rumors came in a torrent: A car bomb had exploded at the State
Department. The Mall was in flames. The Pentagon had been destroyed. Planes
were bearing down on the capital.
The White House was evacuated, leaving the
national security team alone, trying to control a nation suddenly under siege and wondering if they
were next. Mr. Miller had an aide send out the names of those present by e-mail
"so that when and if we died, someone would know who was in there."
Somewhere in the havoc of the moment, Richard A. Clarke, then the White House
counterterrorism chief, recalled the long drumbeat of warnings about terrorists
striking on American soil, many of them delivered and debated in that very
room. After a third hijacked jet had sliced into the Pentagon, others heard Mr.
Clarke say it first:
"This is Al Qaeda."
extensive review of the nation's antiterrorism efforts shows that for years
before Sept. 11, terror experts throughout the government understood the
apocalyptic designs of Osama bin Laden. But the top leaders never reacted as if
they believed the country was as vulnerable as it proved to be that morning.
Dozens of interviews with current and former officials demonstrate that even as
the threat of terrorism mounted through eight years of the Clinton
administration and eight months of President Bush, the government did not
marshal its full forces against it.
The defensive work of tightening the borders and airport security was studied
but never quite completed. And though the White House undertook a covert
campaign to kill Mr. bin Laden, the government never mustered the critical mass
of political will and on-the-ground intelligence for the kind of offensive
against Al Qaeda it unleashed this fall.
threat of the Islamic jihad movement was first detected by United States
investigators after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. The inquiry
into that attack revealed a weakness in the immigration system used by one of
the terrorists, but that hole was never plugged, and it was exploited by one of
the Sept. 11 hijackers.
In 1996, a State Department dossier spelled out Mr. bin Laden's operation and
his anti-American intentions. And President Bill Clinton's own pollster told
him the public would rally behind a war on terrorism. But none was declared.
By 1997, the threat of an Islamic attack on America was so well recognized that
an F.B.I. agent warned of it in a public speech. But that same year, a strategy
for tightening airline security, proposed
by a vice-presidential panel, was largely ignored.
In 2000, after an Algerian was caught coming into the country with explosives,
a secret White House review recommended a crackdown on
"potential sleeper cells in the United States." That review warned that
"the threat of attack remains high" and laid out a plan for fighting terrorism. But most of that plan remained
Last spring, when new threats surfaced, the Bush administration devised a new
strategy, which officials said included a striking departure from previous
policy -- an extensive C.I.A. program to arm the Northern Alliance and other
anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan. That new proposal had wound its way to the
desk of the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and was ready to be
delivered to the president for final approval on Monday, Sept.
The government's fight against terrorism always seemed to fall short.
The Sept. 11 attack
"was a systematic failure of the way this country protects itself," said James Woolsey, a former director of central intelligence.
"It's aviation security delegated to the airlines, who did a lousy job. It's a
fighter aircraft deployment failure. It's a foreign intelligence collection
failure. It's a domestic detection failure. It's a visa and immigration policy
The Clinton administration intensified efforts against Al Qaeda after two
United States Embassies in Africa were bombed in 1998. But by then, the terror
network had gone global --
"Al Qaeda became Starbucks," said Charles Duelfer, a former State Department official -- with cells across
Europe, Africa and beyond.
so, according to the interviews and documents, the government response to
terrorism remained measured, even halting, reflecting the competing interests
and judgments involved in fighting an ill-defined foe.
The main weapon in President Clinton's campaign to kill Mr. bin Laden and his
lieutenants was cruise missiles, which are fired from thousands of miles away.
While that made it difficult to hit Mr. bin Laden as he moved around
Afghanistan, the president was reluctant to put American lives at risk.
But a basic problem throughout the fight against terrorism has been the lack of
inside information. The C.I.A. was surprised repeatedly by Mr. bin Laden, not
so much because it failed to pay attention, but because it lacked sources
inside Al Qaeda. There were no precise warnings of impending attacks, and the
C.I.A. could not provide an exact location
for Mr. bin Laden, which was essential to the objective of killing him.
At the F.B.I., it was not until last year that all field offices were ordered
to get engaged in the war on terrorism and develop sources. Inside the bureau,
the seminars and other activities that accompanied these orders were nicknamed
"Terrorism for Dummies," a stark acknowledgment of how far the agency had not come in the seven years
since the first trade center attack.
"I get upset when I hear complaints from Congress that the F.B.I. is not sharing
its intelligence," said a former senior law enforcement official in the Clinton and Bush
"The problem is that there isn't any to share. There is very little. And the
stuff we can share is not worth sharing."
Officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence
Agency said that they had some success in foiling Al
Qaeda plots, but that the structure of the group made it difficult to
"It is understandable, but unrealistic, especially given our authorities and
resources, to expect us to be perfect," said Bill Harlow, a C.I.A. spokesman.
The reasons the government was not more single-minded in attacking Al Qaeda
will be examined exhaustively and from every angle by Congress and others in
the years ahead.
In an era of opulence and invincibility, the threat of terrorism never took
root as a dominant political issue. Mr. bin Laden's boldest attack on American
property before Sept. 11 -- the embassy bombings -- came in the same summer
that the Monica Lewinsky scandal was engulfing President Clinton. A full fight
against terrorism might have meant the sacrifice of money, individual liberties
and, perhaps, lives -- and even then without any
guarantee of success.
Mr. Clarke, until recently the White House director of counterterrorism, warned
of the threat for years and reached this conclusion:
"Democracies don't prepare well for things that have never happened before."
The First Warning
A Horrible Surprise At the Trade Center
On Feb. 26, 1993 -- a month after Bill Clinton took office, having vowed to
focus on strengthening the domestic economy
"like a laser" -- the World Trade Center was bombed by Islamic extremists operating from
Brooklyn and New Jersey. Six people were killed, and hundreds injured.
Today, American experts see that attack as the first of many missed warnings.
"In retrospect, the wake-up call should have been the 1993 World Trade Center
bombing," said Michael Sheehan, counterterrorism coordinator at the State Department in
the last years of the Clinton
The implications of the F.B.I.'s investigation were disturbingly clear: A
dangerous phenomenon had taken root. Young Muslims who had fought with the
Afghan rebels against the Soviet Union in the 1980's had taken their jihad to
The F.B.I. was
"caught almost totally unaware that these guys were in here," recalled Robert M. Blitzer, a former senior counterterrorism official in the
"It was alarming to us that these guys had been coming and going since 1985 and
we didn't know."
One of the names that surfaced in the bombing case was that of a Saudi exile
named Osama bin Laden, F.B.I. officials say. Mr. bin Laden, they learned, was
financing the Office of Services, a Pakistan-based group involved in organizing
the new jihad. And it turned out that the mastermind of the trade center
attack, Ramzi Yousef, had stayed for
several months in a Pakistani guest house supported by Mr. bin Laden.
But if the first World Trade Center bombing raised the consciousness of some at
the F.B.I., it had little lasting resonance for the White House. Mr. Clinton,
who would prove gifted at leading the nation through sorrowful occasions, never
visited the site. Congress tightened immigration laws, but the concern about
porous borders quickly dissipated and the new rules were never put in effect.
Leon E. Panetta, the former congressman who was budget director and later chief
of staff during Mr. Clinton's first term, said senior aides viewed terrorism as
just one of many pressing global problems.
"Clinton was aware of the threat and sometimes he would mention it," Mr. Panetta said. But the
in the president's first term, he said, were
"Russia, Eastern bloc, Middle East peace, human rights, rogue nations and then
When it came to terrorism, Clinton administration officials continued the
policy of their predecessors, who had viewed it primarily as a crime to be
solved and prosecuted by law enforcement agencies. That approach, which called
for grand jury indictments, created its own problems.
The trade center investigation produced promising leads that pointed overseas.
But Mr. Woolsey said in an interview that this material was not shared with the
C.I.A. because of rules governing grand jury secrecy.
The C.I.A. faced its own obstacles, former agency officials say. In the wake of
the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the agency virtually
abandoned the region, leaving it with few sources of information about the
rising radical threat.
back, George Stephanopoulos, the president's adviser for policy and strategy in
his first term, said he believed the 1993 attack did not gain more attention
because, in the end, it
"wasn't a successful bombing."
"It wasn't the kind of thing where you walked into a staff meeting and people
asked, what are we doing today in the war against terrorism?"
Two years later, however, terrorism moved to the forefront of the national
agenda when a truck bomb tore into the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in
Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people.
President Clinton visited Oklahoma City for a memorial service, signaling the
political import of the event.
"We're going to have to be very, very tough in dealing with this," he declared in an interview.
Mr. Panetta said that plans to reorganize the government's counterterrorism
quickly revived. Senior officials recognized that the United States remained
vulnerable to terrorism. The bombing proved to be the work of two Americans,
both former soldiers, but if Oklahoma City could be hit, an attack by
terrorists of any stripe could
"happen at the White House," Mr. Panetta said.
Two months after the bombing, Mr. Clinton ordered the government to intensify
the fight against terrorism. The order did not give agencies involved in the
fight more money, nor did it end the bureaucratic turf battles among them.
But it did put Mr. bin Laden, who had set up operations in Sudan after leaving
Afghanistan in 1991, front and center.
Diplomacy and Politics
A Growing Effort Against bin Laden
As Mr. Clinton prepared his re-election bid in 1996, the administration made
crucial decisions. Recognizing the growing significance of Mr. bin Laden, the
C.I.A. created a virtual station, code-named Alex, to track his activities
around the world.
In the Middle East, American diplomats pressed the hard-line Islamic regime of
Sudan to expel Mr. bin Laden, even if that pushed him back into Afghanistan.
To build support for this effort among Middle Eastern governments, the State
Department circulated a dossier that accused Mr. bin Laden of financing radical
Islamic causes around the world.
The document implicated him in several attacks on Americans, including the 1992
bombing of a hotel in Aden, Yemen, where American troops had stayed on their
way to Somalia. It also said Mr. bin Laden's associates had trained the Somalis
who killed 18 American servicemen in Mogadishu in 1993.
Sudanese officials met with their C.I.A. and State Department counterparts and
signaled that they might turn Mr. bin Laden over to another country. Saudi
Arabia and Egypt were possibilities.
State Department and C.I.A. officials urged both Egypt and Saudi Arabia to
accept him, according to former Clinton officials.
"But both were afraid of the domestic reaction and refused," one recalled.
Critics of the administration's effort said this was an early missed
opportunity to destroy Al Qaeda. Mr. Clinton himself would have had to lean
hard on the Saudi and Egyptian governments. The White House believed no amount
of pressure would change the outcome, and Mr. Clinton risked spending valuable
capital on a losing cause.
"We were not about to have the president make a call and be told no," one official explained.
Sudan obliquely hinted that it might turn Mr. bin Laden
over to the United States, a former official said. But the Justice Department
reviewed the case and concluded in the spring of 1996 that it did not have
enough evidence to charge him with the attacks on American troops in Yemen and
In May 1996, Sudan expelled Mr. bin Laden, confiscating some of his substantial
fortune. He moved his organization to Afghanistan, just as an obscure group
known as the Taliban was taking control of the country.
Clinton administration officials counted it as a positive step. Mr. bin Laden
was on the run, deprived of the tacit state sponsorship he had enjoyed in
"He lost his base and momentum," said Samuel R. Berger, Mr. Clinton's national security adviser in his second
In July 1996, shortly after Mr. bin Laden left Sudan, Mr. Clinton met
at the White House with Dick Morris, his political adviser, to hone themes for
his re-election campaign.
The previous month, a suicide bomber had detonated a truck bomb at a military
barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American servicemen. Days later, T.W.A.
Flight 800 had exploded off Long Island, leaving 230 people dead in a crash
that was immediately viewed as terrorism.
Mr. Morris said he had devised an attack advertisement of the sort that Senator
Bob Dole, the Republican candidate, might use against Mr. Clinton and had shown
it to a sampling of voters. Seven percent of those who saw it said they would
switch from Mr. Clinton to Mr. Dole.
"Out of control. Two airline disasters. One linked to terrorism," the advertisement said.
"F.A.A. asleep at the switch.
Terror in Saudi Arabia." Mr. Morris said he told Mr. Clinton that he could neutralize such a line of
attack by adopting tougher policies on terrorism and airport security. He said
his polls had found support for tightening security and confronting terrorists.
Voters favored military action against suspected terrorist installations in
other countries. They backed a federal takeover of airport screening and even
supported deployment of the military inside the United States to fight
Mr. Morris said he tried and failed to persuade the president to undertake a
broader war on terrorism.
Mr. Clinton declined repeated requests for an interview, but a spokeswoman,
Julia Payne, said:
"Terrorism was always a top priority in the Clinton administration. The
president chose to get his foreign policy advice from the likes of Sandy
Berger and Madeleine Albright and not Dick Morris."
On July 25, Mr. Clinton announced that he had put Vice President Al Gore at the
head of a commission on aviation safety and security. Within weeks, the panel
had drafted more than two dozen recommendations. Its final report, in February
1997, added dozens more.
Among the most important, commission members said, was a proposal that the
F.B.I. and C.I.A. share information about suspected terrorists for the
databases maintained by each airline. If a suspected terrorist bought a ticket,
both the airline and the government would find out.
Progress was slow, particularly after federal investigators determined that the
crash of T.W.A. Flight 800 resulted from a mechanical flaw, not terrorism. The
commission's recommendation languished -- until Sept. 11, when two people
by the government as suspected terrorists boarded separate American Airlines
flights from Boston using their own names.
That morning, no alarms went off. The system proposed by the Gore commission
was still not in place. The government is now moving to share more information
with the airlines about suspected terrorists.
"Unfortunately, it takes a dramatic event to focus the government's and public's
attention, especially on an issue as amorphous as terrorism," said Gerry Kauvar, staff director of the commission and now a senior policy
analyst at the RAND Corporation.
Focusing on Al Qaeda
A Clearer Picture, A Disjointed Fight
As Mr. Clinton began his second term, American intelligence agencies were
assembling a clearer picture of the threat posed by Mr. bin Laden and Al Qaeda,
which was making substantial headway
A few months earlier, the first significant defector from Al Qaeda had walked
into an American Embassy in Africa and provided a detailed account of the
organization's operations and ultimate objectives.
The defector, Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, told American officials that Mr. bin Laden
had taken aim at the United States and other Western governments, broadening
his initial goal of overthrowing Saudi Arabia and other
"infidel" Middle Eastern governments.
He said that Al Qaeda was trying to buy a nuclear bomb and other unconventional
weapons. Mr. bin Laden was also trying to form an anti-American terrorist front
that would unite radical groups. But Mr. Fadl's statements were not widely
circulated within the government. A senior official said their significance was
not fully understood by Mr. Clinton's top
advisers until his public testimony in 2000.
The war against Al Qaeda remained disjointed. While the State Department listed
Mr. bin Laden as a financier of terror in its 1996 survey of terrorism, Al
Qaeda was not included on the list of terrorist organizations subject to
various sanctions released by the United States in 1997.
The F.B.I.'s counterterrorism experts, who were privy to Mr. Fadl's
debriefings, were growing increasingly concerned about Islamic terrorism.
"Almost all of the groups today, if they chose, have the ability to strike us in
the United States," John P. O'Neill, a senior F.B.I. official involved in counterterrorism, warned
in a June 1997 speech.
The task, Mr. O'Neill said, was to
"nick away" at terrorists' ability to operate in the United States. (Mr. O'Neill
left the F.B.I. this year for a job as chief of security at the World Trade
Center, where he died on Sept. 11.)
As Mr. O'Neill spoke in Chicago, the F.B.I. and C.I.A. was homing in on a Qaeda
cell in Nairobi, Kenya.
The National Security Agency began eavesdropping on telephone lines used by Al
Qaeda members in the country. On several occasions, calls to Mr. bin Laden's
satellite phone in Afghanistan were overheard. The F.B.I. and C.I.A. searched a
house in Kenya, seizing a computer and questioning Wadih El-Hage, an American
citizen working as Mr. bin Laden's personal secretary.
American officials counted the operations as a success and believed they had
disrupted a potentially dangerous terrorist cell. They were proved wrong on
1998, when truck bombs were detonated outside the United States embassies in
Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 224 people, including 12
Americans, and injuring more than 5,000.
Stunned by the plot's ambition and precision, Mr. Clinton vowed to punish the
perpetrators, who were quickly identified as Al Qaeda adherents.
"No matter how long it takes or where it takes us," the president said,
"we will pursue terrorists until the cases are solved and justice is done."
The political calculus, however, had changed markedly since the president's
triumph in the fall of 1996, and Mr. Clinton was in no position to mount a
sustained war against terrorism.
His administration was weighed down by a scandal over his relationship with a
White House intern. Mr. Clinton was about to acknowledge to a grand jury that
his public and private
denials of the affair had been misleading. Republicans depicted every foreign
policy decision as an attempt to distract voters.
Thirteen days after the embassy bombings, President Clinton nonetheless ordered
cruise missile strikes on a Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical
plant in Sudan that officials said was linked to Mr. bin Laden and chemical
But the volley of cruise missiles proved a setback for American
counterterrorism efforts. The C.I.A. had been told that Mr. bin Laden and his
entourage were meeting at the camp, but the missiles struck just a few hours
after he left. And the owner of the pharmaceutical factory came forward to
claim that it had nothing to do with chemical weapons, raising questions about
whether the Sudan strike had been in error.
The Clinton administration stood by its actions, but several former officials
criticism had an effect on the pursuit of Al Qaeda: Mr. Clinton became even
more cautious about using force against terrorists.
Unfortunately, the quarry was becoming more dangerous. In the two years since
leaving Sudan, Mr. bin Laden had built a formidable base in Afghanistan. He
lavished millions of dollars on the impoverished Taliban regime and in exchange
was allowed to operate a network of training camps that attracted Islamic
militants from all over the world. In early 1998, just as he declared war on
Americans everywhere in the world, he cemented an alliance with Egyptian
Islamic Jihad, a ruthless and effective group whose leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri,
was known for his operational skills.
The Battle Intensifies
Struggling to Track 'Enemy No. 1'
In the years after the embassy bombings, the
Clinton administration significantly stepped up its efforts to destroy Al
Qaeda, tracking its finances, plotting military strikes to wipe out its
leadership and prosecuting its members for the bombings and other crimes.
"From August 1998, bin Laden was Enemy No. 1," Mr. Berger said.
The campaign had the support of President Clinton and his senior aides. But
former administration officials acknowledge that it never became the
government's top priority.
When it came to Pakistan, for example, American diplomats continued to weigh
the war on terrorism against other pressing issues, including the need to
enlist Islamabad's help in averting a nuclear exchange with India.
Similarly, a proposal to vastly enhance the Treasury Department's ability to
track global flows of terrorist money languished until after Sept. 11. And
American officials were reluctant to press the oil-rich Saudis to crack down on charities linked to radical causes.
Still, the fight against Al Qaeda gained new, high-level attention after the
embassy attacks, present and former officials say. Between 1998 and 2000, the
"Small Group" of the Cabinet-rank principals involved in national security met almost every
week on terrorism, and the Counterterrorism Security Group, led by Mr. Clarke,
met two or three times a week, officials said.
The United States disrupted some Qaeda cells, and persuaded friendly
intelligence services to arrange the arrest and transfer of Al Qaeda members
without formal extradition or legal proceedings. Dozens were quietly sent to
Egypt and other countries to stand trial.
President Clinton also ordered a more aggressive program of covert action,
signing an intelligence
order that allowed him to use lethal force against Mr. bin Laden. Later, this
was expanded to include as many as a dozen of his top lieutenants, officials
On at least four occasions, Mr. Clinton sent the C.I.A. a secret
"memorandum of notification," authorizing the government to kill or capture Mr. bin Laden and, later, other
senior operatives. The C.I.A. then briefed members of Congress about those
The C.I.A. redoubled its efforts to track Mr. bin Laden's movements, stationing
submarines in the Indian Ocean to await the president's launch order. To hit
Mr. bin Laden, the military said it needed to know where he would be 6 to 10
hours later -- enough time to review the decision in Washington and program the
That search proved frustrating. Officials said the C.I.A. did have some spies
within Afghanistan. On at
least three occasions between 1998 and 2000, the C.I.A. told the White House it
had learned where Mr. bin Laden was and where he might soon be.
Each time, Mr. Clinton approved the strike. Each time, George Tenet, the
director of central intelligence, called the president to say that the
information was not reliable enough to be used in an attack, a former senior
Clinton administration official said.
In late 1998, according to former officials, intelligence agents reported that
Abu Hafs, a Mauritanian and an important figure in Al Qaeda, was staying in
Room 13 at the Dana Hotel in Khartoum.
With such specific information in hand, White House officials wanted Abu Hafs
either killed or, preferably, captured and transferred out of Sudan to a
friendly state where he could be interrogated, the former officials said.
agency initially questioned whether it could accomplish such a mission in a
hostile, risky environment like Sudan, putting it in the
"too hard to do box," one former official said. An intelligence official disputed this account,
saying the C.I.A. made
"a full-tilt effort in a very dangerous environment."
Eventually, the C.I.A. enlisted another government to help seize Abu Hafs, a
former official said, but by then it was too late. The target had disappeared.
Officials said the White House pushed the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop
plans for a commando raid to capture or kill Mr. bin Laden. But the chairman,
Gen. Henry H. Shelton, and other senior Pentagon officers told Mr. Clinton's
top national security aides that they would need to know Mr. bin Laden's
12 to 24 hours in advance.
Pentagon planners also considered a White House request to send a hunter team
of commandos, small enough to avoid detection, the officer said. General
Shelton discounted this option as naive, the officer said.
White House officials were frustrated that the Pentagon could not produce plans
that involved a modest number of troops. Military planners insisted that an
attack on Al Qaeda required thousands of troops invading Afghanistan.
"When you said this is what it would take, no one was interested," a senior officer said.
A former administration official recently defended the decision not to employ a
"It would have been an assault without the kind of war we've seen over the last
three months to support it," the official said.
"And it would have been very unlikely to succeed."
Clinton administration officials also
began trying to choke off Al Qaeda's financial network. Shortly after the
embassy bombings, the United States began threatening states and financial
institutions with sanctions if they failed to cut off assistance to those who
did business with Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
In 1999 and early 2000, some $255 million of Taliban-controlled assets was
blocked in United States accounts, according to William F. Wechsler, a former
White House official.
Mr. Wechsler said the search for Al Qaeda's assets was often stymied by poor
cooperation from Middle Eastern and South Asian states.
The United States, too, he added, had problems.
"Few intelligence officials who understand the nuances of the global banking
system" were fluent in Arabic. While the C.I.A. had done a
"reasonably good job" analyzing Al Qaeda, he wrote, it was
at developing sources within Mr. bin Laden's financial network. The F.B.I., he
argued, had similar shortcomings.
Senior officials were frustrated by the C.I.A.'s inability to find hard facts
about Al Qaeda's financial operations.
Intelligence officials said the C.I.A. had amassed considerable detail about
the group's finances, and that information was used in the broad efforts to
freeze its accounts after Sept. 11.
At the State Department, officials reacted sharply to the assault on the
embassies. Michael Sheehan, the department's former counterterrorism
coordinator, said that after the bombings, Secretary of State Madeleine K.
Albright met with her embassy security director every morning and became
increasingly focused on efforts to protect her employees and installations.
But to Mr. Sheehan, the response was inadequate. He believed that terrorism
could be contained only if Washington devised a
"comprehensive political strategy to
pressure Pakistan and other neighbors and allies into isolating not only Mr.
bin Laden and Al Qaeda, but the Taliban and others who provide them sanctuary," he said, and that did not happen. There were competing priorities.
"Our reaction was responsive, almost never proactive," he said.
'We Were Flying Blind'
An Arrest, a Review And New Obstacles
The arrest of Ahmed Ressam was the clearest sign that Osama bin Laden was
trying to bring the jihad to the United States.
Mr. Ressam was arrested when he tried to enter the United States in Port
Angeles, Wash., on Dec. 14, 1999. Inside his rental car, agents found 130
pounds of bomb-making chemicals and detonator components.
His arrest helped reveal what intelligence officials later concluded was a
Qaeda plot to unleash attacks during the millennium celebrations, aimed at an
American ship in Yemen,
tourist sites and a hotel in Jordan, and unknown targets in the United States.
"That was a wake-up call," a senior law enforcement officer said,
"not for law enforcement and intelligence, but for policy makers." Just as the embassy bombings had exposed the threat of Al Qaeda overseas, the
millennium plot revealed gaping vulnerabilities at home.
"If you understood Al Qaeda, you knew something was going to happen," said Robert M. Bryant, who was the deputy director of the F.B.I. when he
retired in 1999.
"You knew they were going to hit us, but you didn't know where. It just made me
sick on Sept. 11. I cried when those towers came down."
A White House review of American defenses in March 2000 found significant
shortcomings in nearly a decade of government efforts to
improve defenses against terrorists at home. The F.B.I. and the Immigration and
Naturalization Service, it said, should begin
"high tempo, ongoing operations to arrest, detain and deport potential sleeper
cells in the United States."
The review called for the government to greatly expand its antiterrorism
efforts inside the United States, creating an additional dozen joint
federal-local task forces like the one that had been set up in New York.
The review identified particular weaknesses in the nation's immigration
controls, officials said. The government remained unable to track foreigners in
the United States on student visas, despite a 1996 law passed after the first
World Trade Center bombing that required it to do so.
In June 2000, after the millennium plot was revealed, the National Commission
on Terrorism recommended that the
immigration service set up a system to keep tabs on foreign students. Academic
institutions opposed the recommendation, fearing that a strict reporting
requirement might alienate prospective foreign students, according to
government officials. Nothing changed.
As the commission was completing its work, the Sept. 11 hijackers began
entering the United States. One of the 19 hijackers, Hani Hanjour, who had
traveled on a student visa, failed to show up for school and remained in the
The F.B.I. had some problems of its own. It had no intelligence warning of an
attack on Los Angeles International Airport, which investigators eventually
learned was Mr. Ressam's intended target.
Beginning in 1997, senior officials at the bureau had begun to rethink their
approach to terrorism, viewing it now as a crime to be prevented rather than
solved. But it was the millennium plot that revealed how ill equipped the
bureau was to radically shift its culture, former officials say.
It lacked informers within terrorist groups. It did not have the computer and
analytical capacity for integrating disparate pieces of information.
"We did not have any actionable intelligence," one senior official said.
"We were flying blind."
In March 2000, Dale L. Watson, the F.B.I.'s assistant director for
counterterrorism, started a series of seminars with agents who headed the
bureau's 56 field offices. Each field office was required to establish a joint
terrorism task force with local police departments, modeled after the
arrangement begun in New York in the mid-1980's. Field office chiefs were also
told to hire more Arabic translators and develop better sources of
Mr. Watson said that the meetings were a centerpiece of efforts to shore up the
bureau's counterterrorism work that had begun several years earlier. The
meetings, he said, were
"designed to bring every office, no matter how small, to the same top terrorism
capacities resident in our larger offices like New York."
The F.B.I. renewed its push on Capitol Hill for money to create a computer
system that would allow various field offices to share and analyze information
collected by agents. Until late last year, Congress had refused to pay for the
Without the analytical aid of a computer system, Mr. Bryant said, the bureau's
counterterrorism program would be hobbled, particularly if the goal was to
avert a crime.
"We didn't know what we had," he said.
"We didn't know what we knew."
Overseas, the Clinton administration searched for new ways to
obtain the intelligence needed to attack Mr. bin Laden. In September 2000, an
unarmed, unmanned spy plane called the Predator flew test flights over
Afghanistan, providing what several administration officials called
incomparably detailed real-time video and photographs of the movements of what
appeared to be Mr. bin Laden and his aides.
The White House pressed ahead with a program to arm the Predator with a
missile, but the effort was slowed by bureaucratic infighting between the
Pentagon and the C.I.A. over who would pay for the craft and who would have
ultimate authority over its use. The dispute, officials said, was not resolved
until after Sept. 11.
On Oct. 12, an explosive-laden dinghy piloted by two suicide bombers exploded
next to the American destroyer Cole in Yemen, killing 17 sailors. Intelligence
analysts linked the bombing to Al Qaeda, but at a series of Cabinet-level
meetings, Mr. Tenet of the C.I.A. and senior F.B.I. officials said the case was
Mr. Clarke, the White House counterterrorism director, had no doubts about whom
to punish. In late October, officials said, he put on the table an idea he had
been pushing for some time: bombing Mr. bin Laden's largest training camps in
With the administration locked in a fevered effort to broker a peace settlement
in Israel, an election imminent and the two-term Clinton administration coming
to a close, the recommendation went nowhere. Terrorism was not raised as an
issue by either Vice President Al Gore or George W. Bush in the 2000
2000, the administration took another shot at killing Mr. bin Laden. When Mr.
Berger called the president to tell him the effort had failed, he recalled, Mr.
"Just keep trying," he said.
The New Team
Seeing the Threat But Moving Slowly
As he prepared to leave office last January, Mr. Berger met with his successor,
Condoleezza Rice, and gave her a warning.
According to both of them, he said that terrorism -- and particularly Mr. bin
Laden's brand of it -- would consume far more of her time than she had ever
A month later, with the administration still getting organized, Mr. Tenet, whom
President Bush had asked to stay on at the C.I.A., warned the Senate
Intelligence Committee that Mr. bin Laden and Al Qaeda remained
"the most immediate and serious threat" to security. But until Sept. 11, the people at the top levels of the
Bush administration may, if anything, have been less preoccupied by terrorism
than the Clinton aides.
At the C.I.A., according to former Clinton administration officials, Mr.
Tenet's actions did not match his words. For example, one intelligence official
said, the C.I.A. station in Pakistan remained understaffed and underfinanced,
though the C.I.A. denied that.
In March, the White House's Counterterrorism Security Group began drafting its
own strategy for combating Al Qaeda. Mr. Clarke was still nominally in charge,
but Bush aides were on the way to approving Mr. Clarke's recommendation that
his group be divided into several new offices.
Mr. Bush's principals did not formally meet to discuss terrorism in late spring
when intercepts from Afghanistan warned that Al Qaeda was planning to attack an
American target in late June or perhaps over the
July 4 holiday.
They did not meet even after intelligence analysts overheard conversations from
a Qaeda cell in Milan suggesting that Mr. bin Laden's agents might be plotting
to kill Mr. Bush at the European summit meeting in Genoa, Italy, in late July.
Administration officials say the president was concerned about the growing
threat and frustrated by the halfhearted efforts to thwart Al Qaeda. In July,
Ms. Rice said, Mr. Bush likened the response to the Qaeda threat to
"swatting at flies." He said he wanted a plan to
"bring this guy down."
The administration's draft plan for fighting Al Qaeda included a $200 million
C.I.A. program that, among other things, would arm the Taliban's enemies.
Clinton administration officials had refused to provide significant money and
arms to the Northern
Alliance, which was composed mostly of ethnic minorities. Officials feared that
large-scale support for the rebels would involve the United States too deeply
in a civil war and anger Pakistan.
President Bush's national security advisers approved the plan on Sept. 4, a
senior administration official said, and it was to be presented to the
president on Sept. 10. (However, the leader of the Northern Alliance was
assassinated by Qaeda agents on Sept. 9.) Mr. Bush was traveling on Sept. 10
and did not receive it.
The next day his senior national security aides gathered shortly before 9 a.m.
for a staff meeting. At roughly the same moment, a hijacked Boeing 767 was
plowing into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
This is the last of three articles. The first report examined Saudi
Arabia's policies toward militants who left home to wage holy war. The second
looked at how Muslim militancy took root in Europe and how European governments
failed to understand its danger and depth. Articles in this series and related
coverage are on the Web:
GRAPHIC: Photos: DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA -- A truck bomb kills 19 U.S. soldiers in 1996.
(U.S. Navy via Associated Press); NAIROBI, KENYA -- Embassy bombings in 1998
kill 224 people in Africa. (Agence France-Presse); SUDAN -- Days later, U.S.
strikes a factory said to have Al Qaeda ties. (Associated Press)(pg. A1);
(Associated Press)(pg. B4); (Reuters)(pg. B5)
"A Trail of Missed Opportunities"
World Trade Center bomb kills six, injures hundreds. Islamic militants
operating locally but tied to Osama bin Laden are arrested. A plot to blow up
New York monuments is foiled.
Tighter immigration laws are enacted but never put into effect.
F.B.I. evidence points toward Afghanistan training
camps but is not shared with C.I.A., which no longer monitors region.
A domestic car bombing kills 168 in Oklahoma City and a cult releases lethal
gas in Tokyo's subway system; terrorism becomes White House priority. C.I.A.
forms a unit to monitor bin Laden's network, Al Qaeda.
C.I.A circulates document accusing bin Laden of financing Islamic militants
worldwide and implicating him in deadly attacks on Americans, including the
assault by Somali militiamen on servicemen during a peacekeeping mission.
State Department tries to orchestrate a turnover of bin Laden, living in exile
in Sudan, to Saudi Arabia, his homeland, or to Egypt, whose president survived
a bin Laden-financed assassination.
Sudan expels bin Laden, who
moves to Afghanistan and begins financing public works for fledgling Taliban
Militants citing bin Laden's teachings drive truck bomb into American barracks
in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 servicemen.
TWA Flight 800 explodes over Long Island, killing 230. Terrorism is immediately
suspected though ultimately dismissed. President Clinton's pollster finds
support for military action and economic sanctions against countries harboring
Mr. Clinton announces Vice President Al Gore will head commission on aviation
Gore report calls for airlines and intelligence agencies to share a database to
track terrorists. Presented three months after Clinton's re-election, the
report is all but ignored.
Al Qaeda defector tells investigators bin Laden is
training operatives to overthrow Middle East governments, attack America and
other Western countries and acquire a nuclear bomb.
F.B.I.'s chief of international terrorist operations, John O'Neill, delivers a
speech outlining the threat to the United States of a jihad, with soldiers
trained in Afghanistan.
National Security Agency begins eavesdropping on Al Qaeda telephone lines, and
seizes computer of bin Laden's secretary in Nairobi, Kenya.
Truck bombs detonated outside American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam,
Tanzania, kill 224 and injure 5,000.
Mr. Clinton sends cruise missiles to strike a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan
said to be making chemical weapons for bin Laden and a camp in Afghanistan
where he and associates were thought to be meeting.
Bin Laden is unharmed, and questions are
raised as to whether the Sudan strike had been in error. The criticism made it
even more difficult for Mr. Clinton, already weighed down by scandal, to pursue
a military course.
President Clinton signs a secret order allowing the use of lethal force against
bin Laden and his associates. But lack of reliable intelligence thwarts efforts.
Pentagon is asked to send commandos to Afghanistan but instead proposes an
Administration begins blocking $255 million of Taliban-controlled assets in
U.S. accounts; its search for assets in the Middle East and South Asia is
Ahmed Ressam is arrested in Washington State with bomb-making materials for use
during millennium celebrations in the U.S. His arrest helps reveal a
multi-stage Al Qaeda bombing plot with
targets in Jordan and Yemen.
The White House demands hunt for sleeper cells, more federal-local task forces
and visa reviews.
Counterterrorism official begins seminars with F.B.I. field agents nicknamed
"Terrorism for Dummies."
Unarmed spy plane over Afghanistan provides video of bin Laden and aides;
C.I.A. presses for adding a missile.
Explosive-laden dinghy piloted by two suicide bombers explodes next to the
American destroyer Cole in Yemen, killing 17 sailors. Al Qaeda link is seen.
On President Bush's orders advisers draft a comprehensive plan including a $200
million C.I.A. program to arm enemies of the Taliban. It was ready Sept. 10,
but the president was traveling.
On Sept. 11, four U.S. flights are
commandeered by squads linked to bin Laden, who topple the World Trade Center,
killing about 3,000, and ram the Pentagon, killing more than 100. The fourth
flight crashes, killing all aboard. (pg. B4, B5)
LOAD-DATE: December 31, 2001