Terror fight seen as uneven before 9/11

Interviews, early reports show White House aides were warned, didn't act

April 04, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - On July 5, 2001, as threats of an impending attack against the United States were pouring into Washington, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, and Andrew H. Card Jr., the president's chief of staff, summoned top officials from many domestic agencies to a meeting in the White House Situation Room.

Even though the warnings focused mostly on threats overseas, Rice and Card wanted the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and other agencies put on alert inside the United States. When the meeting broke up, several new security advisories were issued, including an FAA bulletin warning of an increased risk of air hijackings aimed at freeing terrorists imprisoned in the United States.

That was as far as the Bush administration ever got to placing the nation on high alert before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The issue of whether the July 5 meeting and the actions that preceded and followed it were a reasonable response to the gathering threat in the summer of 2001 now lie at the heart of the independent inquiry into the attacks. Rice will be questioned about these matters when she appears before the independent commission investigating the 2001 attacks on Thursday.

A review of the Bush administration's deliberations and actions in the summer of 2001 shows that the White House's impulse to deal more forcefully with terrorist threats within the United States peaked on July 5 and leveled off after that until Sept. 11.

The warnings during the summer were more dire and more specific than generally recognized. Descriptions of the threat were communicated repeatedly to the highest levels within the White House. In more than 40 briefings, Bush was told by George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, of threats involving al-Qaida.

The review suggests that the government never collected in one place all the information that was flowing into Washington about al-Qaida and its interest in using commercial aircraft to carry out attacks, and about extremist groups' interest in pilot training. A congressional inquiry into intelligence activities before Sept. 11 found 12 reports over a seven-year period suggesting that terrorists might use airplanes as weapons.

There were also no specific new military plans for attacking al-Qaida forces or the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The Pentagon's top priorities that summer were developing a national missile defense plan and conducting a broad strategy and budget review. Military planners had previously offered a comprehensive plan to incorporate military, economic, diplomatic and political activities to pressure the Taliban to expel al-Qaida's leader, Osama bin Laden. But the plan was never acted on by either the Clinton or Bush administrations.

On March 7, 2001, President Bush's national security team, cautioned by CIA officials and departing aides to President Bill Clinton that terrorism would be a serious problem, met for the first time to begin a broad review of the government's approach to al-Qaida and Afghanistan.

Stephen Hadley, Rice's deputy, told the congressional committee, "The goal was to move beyond the policy of containment, criminal prosecution and limited retaliation for specific attacks, toward attempting to roll back al-Qaida."

The warnings began almost immediately. In March, the CIA said that "a group of bin Laden operatives was planning to conduct an unspecified attack in the United States in April 2001. One operative allegedly resided in the United States," according to the congressional report.

The CIA warnings created what the congressional report called "a stressful summer." Between May and July, the National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on communications around the world, reported 33 communications suggesting "a possibly imminent terrorist attack," according to the congressional report, without providing specific details about how, when or where an attack might occur.

In June, a CIA report said that important operatives in the bin Laden network were "disappearing" and that others were preparing for "martyrdom." In July, the agency was told about an unidentified source who had recently been in Afghanistan. The source had reported, "Everyone is talking about an impending attack."

In June 2001, American forces in the Persian Gulf region were placed on heightened alert because of the threat of attacks.

The broad quadrennial policy review Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld conducted in the months before the attacks was aimed in part at addressing a major shortcoming related to terrorism: The Defense Department was not organized or trained adequately to deal with what the military called asymmetric threats, including attacks at home or abroad.

Yet Rumsfeld spent little time on terrorism issues that summer, aides said in interviews. Counterterrorism officials in the Pentagon told the commission that Rumsfeld and his aides "were not especially interested" in their agenda.

Military options against al-Qaida and its Taliban hosts were limited and sketchy.

The Pentagon was painfully aware that Afghanistan was 8,000 miles from the United States, a landlocked nation surrounded by neighbors that were unwilling to support military operations.

No specific plans were developed before the Sept. 11. attacks. Rumsfeld testified that he was briefed shortly after taking office on "a series of concepts or approaches" that he said "was not something I would characterize as a comprehensive plan" for dealing with al-Qaida. The proposals submitted to him were sent back for more work.

"The short answer is there was no specific planning for Afghanistan in the summer of 2001," one former senior military planner said.

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