By Chris Strohm
March 24, 2004Federal intelligence agencies came under heated criticism Wednesday for failing to adequately respond to increased threat warnings in the months leading up to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The U.S. intelligence community received a flood of threat warnings in the summer of 2001 that "spectacular" terrorist attacks were likely, but conflicts about how to react rose between new Bush administration officials and officials held over from the Clinton administration, according to a staff report released Tuesday by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. Commission members sharply questioned CIA Director George Tenet about how threat warnings were handled during that time.
"I don't understand why we didn't put an order out, get everything the FBI had, get everything that everybody had in and try to determine whether or not it was possible an attack was going to occur in the United States of America," said commission member Bob Kerrey during the second consecutive day of hearings by the group, which aims to gauge what the government knew before the Sept. 11 attacks, how government agencies and officials acted, and why so much went wrong.
Senior officials from the Clinton and Bush administrations testified during the hearings, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Defense Secretary William Cohen, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Samuel Berger, former assistant to Clinton for national security affairs.
According to their testimonies, during the summer of 2001 all signs pointed to an attack abroad rather than inside the U.S.
But while all of those who testified said they did not believe the government could have done anything by the summer of 2001 to stop the Sept. 11 terrorist plot, they also described internal government struggles over how to react to threat warnings and deal with the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network in the months before the attacks.
For example, Richard Clarke, who was chief of counterterrorism at the time, said he asked to be reassigned because he did not believe the Bush administration took the threat seriously. Clarke, who served in four administrations, published a book this week, Against All Enemies, that is highly critical of the Bush administration's war on terrorism. Clarke left government last summer. The White House has launched a defense against Clarke's accusations, questioning his motives for writing the book and actions while he served in office.
In the summer of 2001, two veteran officers of the CIA's counterterrorist center who were deeply involved in issues dealing with bin Laden were so worried about an impending disaster that they considered resigning and going public with their concerns, the staff reported.
"Some CIA officials expressed frustration about the pace of policymaking during the stressful summer of 2001," according to the staff report. "Although Tenet said he thought the policy machinery was working in what he called a rather orderly fashion, Deputy [CIA Director John] McLaughlin told us he felt a great tension, especially in June and July 2001, between the new administration's need to understand these issues and his sense that this was a matter of great urgency."
Although intelligence in late July indicated that there were "multiple, possibly catastrophic, terrorist attacks being planned," Tenet said by early August "intelligence suggested that whatever terrorist activity might have been originally planned had been delayed," the staff reported. The report did not elaborate on what specifically changed from late July to early August, and commission members did not probe the issue in detail during the hearing.
According to the staff, intelligence officials also were divided over what authority the CIA had to conduct covert operations against al Qaeda, and whether the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle could be armed to go after bin Laden.
Commission member Jamie Gorelick challenged part of Tenet's testimony during the hearing.
"You have told us our collection sources lit up during this intense period, they indicated that multiple, spectacular attacks were planned, some of them in the final stages," Gorelick said. "My view of the reporting is that it talked about threats to American interests, and … by no means could you say don't worry about the domestic United States."
Tenet defended the actions of U.S. agencies and officials, saying numerous federal agencies took preparations and issued alerts.
"This period of time saw an enormous amount of activity typical to the kind of activity we saw in previous threat periods and all I can tell you is policymakers got it, because I talked to all of them about it and they understood the nature of what we were dealing with," Tenet said.
Gorelick said, however, she did not believe the threats were taken as seriously as the government took threats in late 1999 and early 2000 during the change of the millennium.
Questions also were raised during the hearings regarding how much the government knew about the possibility of attacks inside the U.S.
Clarke testified that he thought attacks might take place in the country, and felt the FBI was not adequately addressing the threat. "I didn't think the FBI would know whether or not there was anything going on in the United States," he said.
On Tuesday, Cohen testified that during the Bush administration transition, he told Rumsfeld that a domestic attack was possible, and presented Rumsfeld with a list of about 50 items during one briefing.
"The very first subject had to do with a major threat to the United States involving al Qaeda or bin Laden's associates … launching an attack domestically," Cohen said. He quickly added: "I don't think I want to talk about it any more than that, but that was at No. 1 out of everything else."
A former FBI translator said Wednesday that the bureau had "real, specific" information relating to the Sept. 11 attacks before they happened. Sibel Edmonds worked for the agency working from Sept. 20, 2001 to March 2002.
Edmonds said she was hired to retranslate material that was collected prior to Sept. 11 to determine if anything was missed in the translations that related to the plot. In her review, Edmonds said the documents clearly showed that the Sept. 11 hijackers were in the country and plotting to use airplanes as missiles. The documents also included information relating to their financial activities. Edmonds said she could not comment in detail because she has been under a Justice Department gag order since October 2002.
Edmonds has testified before the Sept. 11 commission, the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Select Intelligence Committee.
By Chris Strohm
March 24, 2004