WASHINGTON - U.S. officials consistently
underestimated credible warnings about al Qaeda terrorist threats on
U.S. soil -- some involving aircraft and plots against the World
Trade Center and Washington as early as 1998, a congressional
inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks revealed Wednesday.
'Even those of us who couldn't seem to utter the words
`intelligence failure' are now convinced of it,'' Sen. Richard
Shelby, R-Ala., and the ranking Republican on the Senate
Intelligence Committee, said during the first day of public
''A number of these threat warnings were eerily close to what
actually happened,'' said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., the co-chairman
of the hearings. ``How is it that so many blocks of information were
never analyzed collectively?''
''If a single set of eyes could have seen the emerging plot,
leading to more questions, with some good fortune we could have been
able to take down this plot before it was implemented,'' Graham
NO `SMOKING GUN'
Investigators found no ''smoking gun,'' or detailed, specific
information that could have prevented the attacks on the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon.
However, Eleanor Hill, staff director of the joint Senate-House
investigation, presented a 30-page summary of preliminary findings
that contained new, declassified information about threats and
warnings. Some examples:
• Intelligence agencies received
at least a dozen reports of plans to use aircraft as weapons since
• Two months before the Sept. 11
attacks, President Bush was warned that bin Laden was planning an
attack that could involve hijacking. The briefing from the CIA said:
``We believe that bin Laden will launch a significant terrorist
attack against U.S. or Israeli interests in the coming weeks. The
attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass
''Despite these reports,'' Hill said, ``the intelligence
community did not produce any specific assessments of the likelihood
that terrorists would use airplanes as weapons.''
By December 2000, the FBI and FAA in a classified assessment said
their investigations ''do not suggest plans to target domestic civil
aviation.'' The FBI considered attacks on U.S. soil ''anomalies''
from terrorists' focus on overseas targets.
National security advisor Condoleezza Rice said in May that
before Sept. 11, top officials did not seriously consider the
possibility that terrorists would use planes as fuel-laden
Hill's conclusion: ``The intelligence community made mistakes
prior to Sept. 11 and the problems that led to those mistakes need
to be addressed and fixed.''
Hill, a former inspector general in the Defense Department,
emphasized that many warnings were sketchy and difficult to verify,
and that analysts were often ``overwhelmed by a flood of
But, she concluded, ``the totality of information clearly
reiterated a consistent and critically important theme: bin Laden's
intent to launch terrorist attacks inside the United States.''
Her staff report also criticized intelligence officials for not
widely circulating the most serious warnings or devoting more
resources to the anti-terrorist effort.
After the embassy bombings in 1998, for example, CIA Director
George Tenet wrote a memo to his top deputies about bin Laden and al
Qaeda: ``We are at war. I want no resources or people spared in this
effort, either inside the CIA or the community.''
But that declaration of war was not widely communicated
throughout the government, especially to FBI field agents who could
be looking for al Qaeda cells, Hill said.
And from 1998 to the 2001 attacks, the CIA's Counterterrorism
Center had only three analysts assigned full time to bin Laden's
network. The FBI had one strategic analyst tracking al Qaeda before
''The CIA director had declared war on al Qaeda, but the trumpet
call was not widely heard,'' Graham said. 'That raises the question,
`What war?' ''
What top officials in the Clinton or Bush administrations knew
about some of these warnings was not included in Hill's report --
because the Bush White House and CIA refused to turn over that
information, though its substance has been declassified.
''There's an important principle at stake,'' said Anne Womack,
White House spokesperson. ``In the past, information that has been
provided directly to the president by his closest advisors has not
been disclosed in order to preserve the ability of the president to
receive the most candid and frank advice.''
Hill disagreed: ``We believe the American public has a compelling
interest in this information and that public disclosure would not
harm national security.''
Graham and Rep. Porter Goss, the Sanibel Republican who is
co-chairman, said they are still negotiating with the White House to
release some of that information.
Stephen Push, whose wife Lisa Raines died in the airliner that
crashed into the Pentagon, called for a major overhaul of
''The time for incremental reform is over,'' Push said. ``If the
intelligence community had been doing its job, my wife would be
Ron Hutcheson of Knight Ridder contributed to this