Probe: U.S. Knew of Jet Terror Plots
By Ken Guggenheim
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, 18 September, 2002
WASHINGTON (AP) – American intelligence agencies received far more reports of terrorist plotting to use planes as weapons before Sept. 11 than the U.S. government has previously acknowledged, congressional investigators said Wednesday.
While it was unclear whether any of the reports were in fact signs of the impending attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, investigators said the agencies never looked closely at the potential threat of hijacked airliners flying into buildings. Those assertions came in a 30-page statement by Eleanor Hill, staff director for the House and Senate intelligence inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks.
Hill’s statement was being presented to committee members Wednesday at the inquiry’s first public hearings. Lawmakers have been meeting behind closed doors since June, looking into intelligence failures leading up to the attacks and how they can be corrected.
“These public hearings are part of our search for the truth — not to point fingers or pin blame, but with the goal of identifying and correcting whatever systemic problems might have prevented our government from detecting and disrupting al Qaida’s plot,” said Sen. Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Hill outlined 12 examples of intelligence information on the possible terrorist use of airplanes as weapons, dating back to 1994. The last example occurred a month before the attacks, when intelligence agencies were told of a possible bin Laden plot to bomb the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, or crash a plane into it. But it contained no specifics pointing to the impending Sept. 11 attacks.
In August 1998, U.S. intelligence learned that a “group of unidentified Arabs planned to fly an explosive-laden plane from a foreign country into the World Trade Center,” says the report. The report was given to the Federal Aviation Administration and FBI, which took little action on it. The group may now be linked to bin Laden, the report says.
Other intelligence suggested that bin Laden supporters might crash a plane into a U.S. airport, or conduct a plot involving aircraft at New York and Washington, the report said.
While generally aware of the possibility of this method of attack, “the Intelligence Community did not produce any specific assessments of the likelihood that terrorists would use airplanes as weapons,” the report said.
With revelations in the spring that President Bush had learned a month before the attacks that that bin Laden wanted to hijack airplanes, the White House defended the lack of disclosure of the information by saying the president’s briefing detailed plans for traditional hijackings, not the use of airplanes as weapons.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said at the time that the threat was vague and uncorroborated.
“I don’t think anybody could have predicted … that they would try to use an airplane as missile,” Rice said. “Had this president known of something more specific or known that a plane was going to be used as a missile, he would have acted on it.”
Congressional investigators also said that an intelligence briefing two months before the Sept. 11 attack warned that Osama bin Laden would launch a spectacular terrorist attack against U.S. or Israeli interests.
Between May and July 2001, the National Security Agency reported at least 33 communications indicating a possible, imminent terrorist attack.
The July 2001 briefing for senior government officials said that based on a review of intelligence information over five months “we believe that (bin Laden) will launch a significant terrorist attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks.”
But Hill said the credibility of the sources was sometimes questionable and no specific details about the attacks were available.
“They generally did not contain specific information as to where, when and how a terrorist attack might occur and generally are not corroborated by further information,” her statement said.
At Wednesday’s hearing, leaders of two groups of victims’ relatives, Stephen Push and Kristin Breitweiser, were the first witnesses. Both lost spouses in the attacks.
Breitweiser, whose husband Ron died at the World Trade Center, told lawmakers that if the public had been aware of possible terrorist attacks, airport security could have been bolstered and passengers may have thought twice before boarding airplanes.
“How many victims may have taken notice of these Middle Eastern men that were boarding their plane?” said Breitweiser, of Middletown, N.J. She is co-founder of September 11th Advocates.
As Breitweiser spoke, a group of family members and advocates sitting behind her began to weep. Mary Fetchet, of Voices of September 11, clutched a picture of her son and wiped away tears that were streaming down her face.
The hearings are believed to mark the first time that standing committees from both houses of Congress have sat together for an investigation.
The Bush administration has looked to the intelligence inquiry to produce the definitive report on problems leading up to the attack. Committee members say they have become frustrated by delays, blamed on both the difficulties of declassifying information for public hearings and what they see as lack of cooperation by the administration.
Hill’s report notes CIA Director George J. Tenet has declined to declassify information on two key issues being looked at by the inquiry: References to intelligence agencies supplying information to the White House, and details of an al-Qaida leader involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.