Report cites warnings before 9/11
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. intelligence officials had several warnings that terrorists might attack the United States on its home soil -- even using airplanes as weapons -- well before the September 11, 2001 attacks, two congressional committees said in a report released Wednesday.
In 1998, U.S. intelligence had information that a group of unidentified Arabs planned to fly an explosives-laden airplane into the World Trade Center, according to a joint inquiry of the House and Senate intelligence committees.
However, the Federal Aviation Administration found the plot "highly unlikely given the state of that foreign country's aviation program," and believed a flight originating outside the United States would be detected before it reached its target inside the country, the report said.
"The FBI's New York office took no action on the information," it said.
Another alert came just a month before the attacks, the report said, when the CIA sent a message to the FAA warning of a possible hijacking "or an act of sabotage against a commercial airliner." The information was linked to a group of Pakistanis based in South America.
That warning did not mention using an airliner as a weapon and, the report said, "there was apparently little, if any, effort by intelligence community analysts to produce any strategic assessments of terrorists using aircraft as weapons."
Sen. Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the goal of Wednesday's hearing was "not to point a finger or pin blame" but to correct "systemic problems (that) might have prevented our government from detecting and disrupting al Qaeda's plot."
Nothing found is a "smoking gun," Graham said. "But collectively I think there was enough there that we should have done a better job of seeing what was coming and hopefully, with luck, stopping it."
Graham told CNN "It wouldn't have taken a lot of luck. It would have taken someone who could have asked and gotten answers to the right follow-up questions and then put it together."
The report, which looked at more than a dozen federal intelligence agencies, suggests the United States had more information that might have helped to prevent the terror attacks than the government has previously said.
As early as 1994 the government received information that international terrorists "had seriously considered the use of airplanes as a means of carrying out terrorist attacks," the report says.
In July 2001, the report says, a briefing prepared for senior government officials warned of "a significant terrorist attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties ... (it) will occur with little or no warning."
The joint committee's report discusses information federal intelligence agencies gathered about Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.
It said that in 1998, officials received reports concerning a "bin Laden plot involving aircraft in the New York and Washington, areas." Officials received reports that al Qaeda was trying to establish an operative cell in the United States and that bin Laden was attempting to recruit a group of five to seven young men from the United States to travel to the Middle East for training in conjunction with his plans to strike U.S. domestic targets.
The intelligence reports "generally did not contain specific information as to where, when, and how a terrorist attack might occur," the committee said, and they represented only "a small percentage of the threat information that the Intelligence Community obtained during this period, most of which pointed to the possibility of attacks against U.S. interests overseas."
Nonetheless, the report said, "the totality of the information in this body of reporting clearly reiterated a consistent and critically important theme: Osama bin Laden's intent to launch terrorist attacks inside the United States."
In fact in December 1998, the report says, the director of central intelligence, George Tenet, told his deputies, "We must now enter a new phase in our effort against bin Laden. ... We are at war."
"Relatively few of the FBI agents interviewed by the joint inquiry staff seem to have been aware of Tenet's declaration," the report said.
The report says that in July and August 2001, intelligence reporting "began to decrease" -- even though the al Qaeda threat was growing.
On September 10, 2001, some 35 to 40 personnel were assigned to a unit created by the director of central intelligence with the specific task of tracking bin Laden. Fewer than 20 people were part of a similar unit at the FBI. The report raises "questions about the adequacy of these resources with respect to the magnitude of the threat."
The report also suggests intelligence officials did not focus enough attention on a critical al Qaeda operative, unnamed in the report, whom officials had known about since 1995 "but did not recognize his growing importance" to the organization or to Osama bin Laden.
The report says the director of central intelligence has refused to declassify two pieces of information: precisely what the White House knew and information about a key al Qaeda operative involved in the attacks.
Government sources told CNN that operative is Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, whom they describe as one of the masterminds of the September 11 attacks. He was indicted by the United States for plotting to bomb U.S. airliners in 1995. Officials believe he also plotted to have airplanes hijacked and flown into U.S. buildings.
Listed as one of the government's 22 most wanted terrorists, Mohammed is in hiding. U.S. officials believe he was in Pakistan when last heard from.
Stephen Push, who lost his wife in the World Trade Center, told lawmakers at the hearing, "Our loved ones paid the ultimate price for the worst American intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor."
Push said the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy must be thoroughly restructured. "If it isn't," he said, "the next attack may involve weapons of mass destruction -- and the death toll may be in the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands."