Yesterday the Bush administration tried to explain why it didn’t react more vigorously to information it received last summer about al-Qaida hijack plotting—information passed along to the president on Aug. 6. The best thing you can say about these explanations is that they show political ineptitude. The worst is that they point to a colossal intelligence failure.
This controversy has prompted complaints (especially from relatives of 9/11 victims, understandably) that the government should have warned the general public about what it knew at the time. I doubt it. Establishing an immediate hook-up between intelligence and public warnings creates a “boy who cried wolf” problem that detracts from the public safety. But if the government has a right to secrecy in these matters, it doesn’t have a right to stupidity.
In her Thursday press briefing, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice quickly conceded that “In the April-May time frame, there was specific threat reporting about al-Qaida attacks against U.S. targets or interests [emphasis added] that might be in the works.” Then she added, “In the June time frame … there was testimony by the participants in the millennium plot [emphasis added] that [al-Qaida operations chief] Abu Zubaydah had said that there might be interest in attacking the United States.” That is, although there was no indication of a specific target, by June of last year our intelligence system had corroborated information about al-Qaida’s interest in attacking U.S. targets. So, the first question raised but not answered by Rice’s briefing is:
1) Why did the administration treat corroborated, specific reports with the diminished degree of urgency appropriate to uncorroborated, unspecific ones?
And although U.S. targets—like the previously bombed African embassies and the USS Cole—can be overseas, yesterday Rice artfully neglected to note that the millennium plot was directed against targets in the United States—one was LAX airport in Los Angeles. She stated that a subsequent State Department “caution” was “focusing overseas” and that an FBI message released on July 2 also emphasized overseas threats. So the second question raised is:
2) Why didn’t the administration adequately stress domestic vulnerabilities to the al-Qaida plots it was hearing about?
Rice also said that based on the intelligence take, which included indications of al-Qaida interest in hijackings, the FAA issued a circular to airlines “saying that we have a concern.” Since Rice didn’t mention any specific warnings included in that circular, it’s safe to assume it was a very general advisory. And Rice went on to characterize the briefing given to the president on Aug. 6 as “not a warning briefing, but an analytic report.” Rice revealed that this presidential briefing did in fact mention quite a bit about al-Qaida hijackings. The briefing, she said, “mentioned hijacking, but hijacking in the traditional sense and, in a sense, said that the most important and most likely thing was that they would take over an airliner, holding passengers and demand the release of one of their operatives.” All this prompts another key question:
3) Why wasn’t the FAA circular or the Aug. 6 briefing for the president a warning about al-Qaida hijackings?
Both Rice and presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer yesterday stressed what they see as the gulf between traditional hijacking and the actual 9/11 suicide attacks. Rice: “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon.” Fleischer: “I want to remind you information about hijackings in the pre-9/11 world is totally different from information about hijackings in the post-9/11 world.” That’s a reasonable comment about the broad public mentality but not about what intelligence officials knew or should have known. By the summer of 2001, French authorities had discovered that the Algerian Muslim hijackers of an Air France plane in 1994 had planned to blow their plane up over the Eiffel Tower. And the police in the Philippines had also by then uncovered a terrorist plot to commandeer a plane and fly it into CIA headquarters. Yet the Associated Press reports that neither the Eiffel Tower nor the Philippine plots were mentioned in Bush’s briefing. So:
4) Why wasn’t the president briefed on the possibility of suicide hijacking?
The Rice/Fleischer point is also irrelevant: Even if it were true that the intelligence folks couldn’t have grasped the concept of suicide-missile hijacking, their awareness of al-Qaida interests in traditional hijacking should have prompted them to step up countermeasures against the group’s ability to carry out that threat. Metal detectors at airports could have been made more sensitive. Middle Eastern men on visas and/or one-way and/or cash tickets suddenly might have found it harder to board airplanes. But there is absolutely no evidence that such countermeasures were implemented. Rice demonstrated her inability to consider such responses when she said that last summer, “This government did everything it could,” and that in her view, taking the intelligence information more seriously would have meant “shutting down the American civil aviation system.” Which leaves a fifth question:
5) Why wasn’t the president advised to order stepped-up anti-hijacking security at airports?
The Aug. 6 briefing to the president was prepared by the CIA. That it mentioned neither previous known suicide-hijacking plots nor the FBI’s terror-related concerns about Muslim flight students in Arizona or Minnesota is a damning indictment, not of the president but of the management of American intelligence. The “C” in CIA stands for Central. The agency is supposed to be the nation’s intelligence funnel. Its main job is not protecting its turf or its budget against other agencies—it’s reaching out to all sources of intelligence and distilling them into a meaningful product for decision-makers. Bush has stood by CIA Director George Tenet. But based on what we learned yesterday, it’s hard to see why. It’s clear now that the failure to do more to prevent what happened on 9/11 didn’t stem from a weakness of ground-level sources and methods, but from the intelligence gathering lapses of our top intelligence officials.