Al-Qaida attack foretold in '99
White House says president likely unaware of CIA report
by Michael Hedges, Houston Chronicle, 18 May 2002
WASHINGTON -- A September 1999 report for the National Intelligence Council, an executive branch clearinghouse for data on terrorism, gave a chillingly accurate warning of the carnage that would strike the United States exactly two years later.
"Suicide bombers belonging to al-Qaida's Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives ... into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the CIA or the White House," according to the report.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Friday that he did not believe President Bush knew about the 1999 report, prepared for Clinton administration intelligence officials and circulated to the CIA and others.
But the report, authored by Rex Hudson of the Library of Congress' Federal Research Division, illustrated that within the executive and legislative branches of government, fairly specific concerns about al-Qaida had been accumulating.
President Bush continued Friday to defend his administration's response to an Aug. 6 briefing in which he was told of the possibility that terrorists might use hijacking as a tactic.
But new revelations, including the existence of the 1999 report, promised to increase pressure on officials heading the CIA, FBI and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies to explain how clues did not lead to effective action.
The existence of the 1999 analysis -- titled "The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why?" -- prompted a fresh round of calls from Congress for investigations into why such information apparently went unheeded.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a critic of the FBI and the CIA, sent a letter Friday to the CIA's inspector general asking for an investigation into how the information in the report was handled.
"The 1999 report should serve as a reminder that the focus of Congress and its oversight must be on what the intelligence communities knew and what they did in response to this knowledge," Grassley said.
That study, circulated in 1999 to the CIA and other government intelligence officials, contains striking observations about bin Laden, al-Qaida and potential attacks.
The 132-page examination of worldwide terrorist groups said events like the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center by Islamic fundamentalist Ramzi Yousef "seem a foretaste of the weapons of mass destruction terrorism to come in the first decade of the new millennium."
The report said, "Bin Laden is the prototype of a new breed of terrorist -- the private entrepreneur who puts modern enterprise at the service of a global terrorist network."
It said, "Al-Qaida's retaliation (for the 1998 cruise missile attacks launched by President Clinton) is more likely to take the lower-risk form of bombing one or more U.S. airliners with time-bombs ... "
The report added, "Whatever form an attack may take, bin Laden will most likely retaliate in a spectacular way for the cruise missile attack against his Afghan camp in August 1998."
Former President Clinton, golfing in Hawaii, played down the intelligence value of the 1999 report.
"That has nothing to do with intelligence," he told the Associated Press. "All that it says is they used public sources to speculate on what bin Laden might do. Let me remind you that's why I attacked his training camp and why I asked the Pakistanis to go get him, and why we contracted with some people in Afghanistan to go get him -- because we thought he was dangerous."
The study is based on publicly available information, compiled in an unclassified form. It was available on the Internet well before Sept. 11, officials said, on a Library of Congress Web site.
While the report contains passages that seem eerily accurate in retrospect, there are no specific times, places or dates of potential attacks. Most of its pages contain general information about terrorist groups.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Thursday that the problem with information that was given to Bush, at such briefings as the one on Aug. 6 during which the possibility of a hijacking was raised, was its lack of specificity.
The information in that briefing was "the most generalized kind of information," she said. "There was no time, there was no place, there was no method of attack. It simply said, these are people who train and seem to talk possibly about hijackings."
Before the revelation Wednesday that Bush had received an Aug. 6 briefing at which the possibility of an al-Qaida hijacking was mentioned, Democrats and Republicans in Congress had fixed attention on perceived failures of counterterrorism and intelligence groups to react to potential clues before Sept. 11.
Some key members of Congress, including Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., chairman of the Intelligence Committee, promised to keep the attention on the CIA and the FBI. Graham said it was not the president's job to gather and analyze intelligence, or "connect the dots."
For years before the devastation of Sept. 11 that killed more than 3,000, bin Laden's terrorist group had been on the radar screen of government experts and law enforcement officials.
Some of the information was general, even speculative. But in the months before the attacks, there were also harder clues that pointed more directly toward the looming catastrophe.
On July 10, an FBI agent sent a five-page electronic report to Washington headquarters specifically suggesting bin Laden might be training pilots to hijack aircraft.
Just a few days earlier, the National Security Council's top anti-terrorist expert, Richard Clarke, told top federal law enforcement officials that a "spectacular" terrorist attack was imminent, officials confirmed Friday.
And less than four weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, on Aug. 17, the FBI arrested Zacarias Moussaoui, a man the Justice Department now says was directly involved in the plot, and had planned to be one of the hijackers.
Experts said that before Sept. 11, potential clues into the intentions of terrorists were often lost in the shuffle.
"The question is really, where did all these threads end up, and was anyone weaving them together," said Vince Cannistraro, a top CIA official. "I don't think there was one place where all the threads were gathered."
Well before the furor began this week over the Bush Aug. 6 briefing, Congress was holding hearings on whether clues that should have been seen were missed and what could be done to prevent intelligence failures in the future.
FBI Director Robert Mueller, who took office just two weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, has been candid in assessing the bureau's failure to analyze the pieces of intelligence available to counterterrorism experts.
Earlier this month, he promised a national Office of Intelligence based in Washington, involving hundreds of veteran agents. Mueller said he would go outside the FBI and appoint a CIA analyst to run that office.
"In the future, we have to be more proactive," Mueller told the Senate panel. "We cannot wait until we have evidence of a crime having been committed but have to take what evidence we have and make predictive observations to avoid the next attack."
© 2002 Houston Chronicle
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.