Failure to connect the dots

April 19, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - After weeks of testimony before the 9/11 commission, the wide assumption that nothing could have been done to prevent the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has, at the very least, been subject to credible challenge.

Four pieces of information known to the FBI before the assaults by the al-Qaida network - four "dots" that if connected might have spilled the beans - have been confirmed.

The first was the so-called Phoenix memo dated July 10, 2001, in which an FBI agent warned that foreign Arabs were applying to flight schools in Arizona for instruction in piloting large commercial jets.

The second was the arrest on Aug. 15, 2001, of one such suspect, French-Moroccan Zacarias Moussaoui, who had sought such training in Minnesota. The news of the arrest was first conveyed about a week later to CIA Director George J. Tenet in a briefing entitled "Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly."

The third was the knowledge by the CIA, not relayed to the FBI until late August 2001, that two terrorists first spotted in Malaysia in January 2000 had obtained American visas and were in the United States.

An FBI analyst sent a cable to the New York office asking that the names of the two suspects be placed on a terrorist watch list. But according to a 9/11 commission report, "No one apparently felt they needed to inform higher levels of management in either the FBI or CIA about the case." The pair were later identified as Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, two of the hijackers of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

Finally, there was the matter of factoring in the possibility of using a commercial jet as a suicide missile. Although President Bush and other high administration figures said they never conceived of such an idea, others in the government did recognize the threat.

In advance of the so-called Group of Eight meeting of international economic leaders in Italy in late July 2001, planned in Naples and held in Genoa, both cities were declared no-fly zones, a clear indication that such a threat was understood.

While stating, "We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that ... [Osama] bin Laden wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft to gain the release" of U.S.-held terrorists, the now-famous presidential daily brief to Mr. Bush from the CIA dated Aug. 6, 2001, went on: "Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York."

Testifying the other day, the acting FBI director at the time, Thomas J. Pickard, said he didn't learn until a few hours after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks about the Phoenix memo and the arrest of Mr. Moussaoui, and not until a day or two later about his own agency's search in the United States for Mr. al-Midhar and Mr. Alhazmi.

Former Clinton administration Attorney General Janet Reno, in her testimony, colorfully observed, "When I came into office, I learned that the FBI didn't know what it had. We found stuff in files here that the right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing."

She blamed a weak computer system in the agency for much of the failure, a system that continued in use in the Bush administration.

But the problem in this case was not simply what the government did not know. It was that what it did know was not adequately conveyed to analysts who by experience and imagination conceivably could have foreseen the nature of the 9/11 plot.

Harry Truman's famous motto, expressed by the sign on his Oval Office desk that read "The Buck Stops Here," obviously is out of vogue now. President Bush basically said in his press conference the other night that he couldn't be blamed for bad information given to him. Or, he might have said, good information not given to him.

At any rate, the argument that connecting the dots might have prevented the 9/11 catastrophe cannot be dismissed out of hand, thanks to the probing labors of the commission.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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