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Warning signs
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Should officials have known the terror attacks were coming?
New York prosecutor Michael Cherkasky, who helped prosecute the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, says there were early warning signs of the attacks that just weren't heeded. Click 'play video' to watch a report from Dateline NBC's Chris Hansen.
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Sept. 23 —  They hit it before in 1993. And on Sept. 11, they hit it again — this time taking the World Trade Center down. In the aftermath of the devastating attacks, pieces of the puzzle are beginning to come together. How did the terrorist plot go undetected? Were warning signs missed? Should we have known more? Correspondent Chris Hansen reports.

     
     
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       “GOD GAVE US the chance to understand what our enemies were trying to do to us. Unfortunately, we didn’t adequately learn the lesson,” says Michael Cherkasky.
       Cherkasky should know. As a New York City prosecutor, he was involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing investigation.
       These days, Cherkasky runs one of the world’s best-known security and investigative firms — Kroll Inc., a firm that’s done everything from track down Saddam Hussein’s hidden riches to help ensure that the mob doesn’t regain control of New York’s garbage business. It even advised the World Trade Center on security matters.
       At how many levels did security or intelligence fail here along the way? “I think that we failed in every level,” says Cherkasky. “Every level.”
       Every level Cherkasky says, from intelligence to surveillance to not having the will to take down Osama bin Laden long before September 11.
       First off, Cherkasky says, we should have known that the World Trade Center continued to be a target.
       Here’s what Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 bombing, told FBI agent William Gavin, after his arrest as they flew into Manhattan.
       “I pointed out the windshield,” says Gavin, “and I said to Ramzi, ‘You see the Trade Centers down there, they’re still standing, aren’t they?’ And his comment was, ‘They wouldn’t be if I had enough money and enough explosives.’”

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       Bin Laden himself said in June that he was preparing a “hard hit” against U.S. interests across the globe. In August, there was another warning of an “unprecedented” attack sent to an Arabic newspaper, says editor Abdel Bari Atwan.
       “Like other Arabic newspapers we receive warning and information — people over the phone saying that, look there is something big will happen,” says Bari Atwan.
       “I believe that we had sufficient, specific information to say we were at enormous risk duing the year 2000, 2001 of having a very, very serious incident here,” says Cherkasky.
       There were the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. There were the embassy bomings in Africa.
       “Then you had the attack on the Cole so we had a series of very serious incidents accross the world,” says Cherkasky.
“I believe that we had sufficient, specific information to say we were at enormous risk duing the year 2000, 2001 of having a very very serious incident here.”
MICHAEL CHERKASKY
Security expert, Kroll Inc.
       All the more reason, Cherkasky says, to be on the lookout for even the smallest hint of a terrorist attack. Such as this:
       Just two weeks before the suicide attacks, a radio station in the Cayman Islands received an unsigned letter claiming that three Afghans who’d entered the country illegally were agents of Osama bin Laden.
       The anonymous author warned that they “are organizing a major terrorist act against the U.S. via an airline or airlines.”
       On Sept. 6, the letter was forwarded to a Cayman government official and sat on his desk until after the Sept. 11 attack.
       “The letter was treated as merely speculation on the part of the writer,” says a Cayman Islands spokesman.
       Where did the writer get his information? He now says that it came to him as a “premonition of sorts.”
       U.S. officials have gone to the island to investigate.
       
WHAT IS A SERIOUS THREAT?
       But how do you know what to take seriously? Two years ago, Diane and John Albritton say they called the CIA to report suspicious activity, odd comings and goings at a neighbor’s home — a home where at least one of the suspected suicide pilots is now believed to have lived.
       “I don’t feel they took it seriously, but maybe I didn’t provide the kind of information they wanted,” says Diane Albritton.
       There have even been reports that some of the hijackers were bragging in bars just days before the attacks.

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       “One of the gentlemen actually making the statement, ‘Well, America’s going to see blood, and wait till tomorrow,’” says one bartender.
       Cherkasky says, “You have to look back at the whole sytem of the collection of information, what we were able to do with that information. How we in fact analyze that information to make determinations about how you’re going to prevent this in the future.”
       Especially when you consider that the hijackers didn’t fit the profile for a fanatic suicide bomber. They were older, educated and able to blend in with society.
       “And that’s what makes it so difficult,” says Cherkasky. “When a doctor sees a disease for the first time that he’s never seen before, it’s hard to diagnose it.”
       We now know that the CIA was already looking for two of the supected hijackers in the weeks before the attacks. The agency warned immigration agents and the FBI to be on the lookout for the pair at all U.S. borders. But it was too late. They had already entered the country.
       It turns out that the FBI had the names of two of the hijackers weeks before this happened. They didn’t have an address. They didn’t have any Social Security numbers. They had names.
       “Right,” says Cherkasky. “We have to make sure that the timeliness of the intelligence information from the CIA is in fact disseminated to the people domestically who are going to be able to follow up those leads. So the timeliness, the coordination, is critical.”
       To be fair though, it would seem impossible for anybody even in the FBI or the CIA to predict that somebody would actually hijack a commercial jetliner and fly it into the World Trade Center.
       “As a former prosecutor it’s not our jobs to be fair about this,” says Cherkasky. “They had to get this right. We had to get this right as a country. We have an obligation to our citizens to protect them and we didn’t get it it right. We got it terribly, terribly wrong.”
       
 
       
   
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