by Judith Miller
New York Times
December 30, 2001
This article was reported by Judith Miller, Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. and written by Ms. Miller.
Inside the White House situation room on the morning terrorism transformed America, Franklin C. Miller, the director for defense policy, was suddenly gripped by a staggering fear: "The White House could be hit. We could be going down."
The reports and rumors came in a torrent: A car bomb had exploded at the State Department. The Mall was in flames. The Pentagon had been destroyed. Planes were bearing down on the capital.
The White House was evacuated, leaving the national security team alone, trying to control a nation suddenly under siege and wondering if they were next. Mr. Miller had an aide send out the names of those present by e-mail "so that when and if we died, someone would know who was in there."
Somewhere in the havoc of the moment, Richard A. Clarke, then the White House counterterrorism chief, recalled the long drumbeat of warnings about terrorists striking on American soil, many of them delivered and debated in that very room. After a third hijacked jet had sliced into the Pentagon, others heard Mr. Clarke say it first: "This is Al Qaeda."
An extensive review of the nation's antiterrorism efforts shows that for years before Sept. 11, terror experts throughout the government understood the apocalyptic designs of Osama bin Laden. But the top leaders never reacted as if they believed the country was as vulnerable as it proved to be that morning.
Dozens of interviews with current and former officials demonstrate that even as the threat of terrorism mounted through eight years of the Clinton administration and eight months of President Bush, the government did not marshal its full forces against it.
The defensive work of tightening the borders and airport security was studied but never quite completed. And though the White House undertook a covert campaign to kill Mr. bin Laden, the government never mustered the critical mass of political will and on-the-ground intelligence for the kind of offensive against Al Qaeda it unleashed this fall.
The rising threat of the Islamic jihad movement was first detected by United States investigators after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. The inquiry into that attack revealed a weakness in the immigration system used by one of the terrorists, but that hole was never plugged, and it was exploited by one of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
In 1996, a State Department dossier spelled out Mr. bin Laden's operation and his anti-American intentions. And President Bill Clinton's own pollster told him the public would rally behind a war on terrorism. But none was declared.
By 1997, the threat of an Islamic attack on America was so well recognized that an F.B.I. agent warned of it in a public speech. But that same year, a strategy for tightening airline security, proposed by a vice- presidential panel, was largely ignored.
In 2000, after an Algerian was caught coming into the country with explosives, a secret White House review recommended a crackdown on "potential sleeper cells in the United States." That review warned that "the threat of attack remains high" and laid out a plan for fighting terrorism. But most of that plan remained undone.
Last spring, when new threats surfaced, the Bush administration devised a new strategy, which officials said included a striking departure from previous policy - an extensive C.I.A. program to arm the Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan. That new proposal had wound its way to the desk of the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and was ready to be delivered to the president for final approval on Monday, Sept. 10.
The government's fight against terrorism always seemed to fall short.
The Sept. 11 attack "was a systematic failure of the way this country protects itself," said James Woolsey, a former director of central intelligence. "It's aviation security delegated to the airlines, who did a lousy job. It's a fighter aircraft deployment failure. It's a foreign intelligence collection failure. It's a domestic detection failure. It's a visa and immigration policy failure."
The Clinton administration intensified efforts against Al Qaeda after two United States Embassies in Africa were bombed in 1998. But by then, the terror network had gone global - "Al Qaeda became Starbucks," said Charles Duelfer, a former State Department official - with cells across Europe, Africa and beyond.
Even so, according to the interviews and documents, the government response to terrorism remained measured, even halting, reflecting the competing interests and judgments involved in fighting an ill-defined foe.
The main weapon in President Clinton's campaign to kill Mr. bin Laden and his lieutenants was cruise missiles, which are fired from thousands of miles away. While that made it difficult to hit Mr. bin Laden as he moved around Afghanistan, the president was reluctant to put American lives at risk.
But a basic problem throughout the fight against terrorism has been the lack of inside information. The C.I.A. was surprised repeatedly by Mr. bin Laden, not so much because it failed to pay attention, but because it lacked sources inside Al Qaeda. There were no precise warnings of impending attacks, and the C.I.A. could not provide an exact location for Mr. bin Laden, which was essential to the objective of killing him.
At the F.B.I., it was not until last year that all field offices were ordered to get engaged in the war on terrorism and develop sources. Inside the bureau, the seminars and other activities that accompanied these orders were nicknamed "Terrorism for Dummies," a stark acknowledgment of how far the agency had not come in the seven years since the first trade center attack.
"I get upset when I hear complaints from Congress that the F.B.I. is not sharing its intelligence," said a former senior law enforcement official in the Clinton and Bush administrations. "The problem is that there isn't any to share. There is very little. And the stuff we can share is not worth sharing."
Officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency said that they had some success in foiling Al Qaeda plots, but that the structure of the group made it difficult to penetrate. "It is understandable, but unrealistic, especially given our authorities and resources, to expect us to be perfect," said Bill Harlow, a C.I.A. spokesman.
The reasons the government was not more single-minded in attacking Al Qaeda will be examined exhaustively and from every angle by Congress and others in the years ahead.
In an era of opulence and invincibility, the threat of terrorism never took root as a dominant political issue. Mr. bin Laden's boldest attack on American property before Sept. 11 - the embassy bombings - came in the same summer that the Monica Lewinsky scandal was engulfing President Clinton. A full fight against terrorism might have meant the sacrifice of money, individual liberties and, perhaps, lives - and even then without any guarantee of success.
Mr. Clarke, until recently the White House director of counterterrorism, warned of the threat for years and reached this conclusion: "Democracies don't prepare well for things that have never happened before."
The First Warning
A Horrible Surprise At the Trade Center
On Feb. 26, 1993 - a month after Bill Clinton took office, having vowed to focus on strengthening the domestic economy "like a laser" - the World Trade Center was bombed by Islamic extremists operating from Brooklyn and New Jersey. Six people were killed, and hundreds injured.
Today, American experts see that attack as the first of many missed warnings. "In retrospect, the wake-up call should have been the 1993 World Trade Center bombing," said Michael Sheehan, counterterrorism coordinator at the State Department in the last years of the Clinton presidency.
The implications of the F.B.I.'s investigation were disturbingly clear: A dangerous phenomenon had taken root. Young Muslims who had fought with the Afghan rebels against the Soviet Union in the 1980's had taken their jihad to American shores.
The F.B.I. was "caught almost totally unaware that these guys were in here," recalled Robert M. Blitzer, a former senior counterterrorism official in the bureau's headquarters. "It was alarming to us that these guys had been coming and going since 1985 and we didn't know."
One of the names that surfaced in the bombing case was that of a Saudi exile named Osama bin Laden, F.B.I. officials say. Mr. bin Laden, they learned, was financing the Office of Services, a Pakistan-based group involved in organizing the new jihad. And it turned out that the mastermind of the trade center attack, Ramzi Yousef, had stayed for several months in a Pakistani guest house supported by Mr. bin Laden.
But if the first World Trade Center bombing raised the consciousness of some at the F.B.I., it had little lasting resonance for the White House. Mr. Clinton, who would prove gifted at leading the nation through sorrowful occasions, never visited the site. Congress tightened immigration laws, but the concern about porous borders quickly dissipated and the new rules were never put in effect.
Leon E. Panetta, the former congressman who was budget director and later chief of staff during Mr. Clinton's first term, said senior aides viewed terrorism as just one of many pressing global problems.
"Clinton was aware of the threat and sometimes he would mention it," Mr. Panetta said. But the "big issues" in the president's first term, he said, were "Russia, Eastern bloc, Middle East peace, human rights, rogue nations and then terrorism."
When it came to terrorism, Clinton administration officials continued the policy of their predecessors, who had viewed it primarily as a crime to be solved and prosecuted by law enforcement agencies. That approach, which called for grand jury indictments, created its own problems.
The trade center investigation produced promising leads that pointed overseas. But Mr. Woolsey said in an interview that this material was not shared with the C.I.A. because of rules governing grand jury secrecy.
The C.I.A. faced its own obstacles, former agency officials say. In the wake of the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the agency virtually abandoned the region, leaving it with few sources of information about the rising radical threat.
Looking back, George Stephanopoulos, the president's adviser for policy and strategy in his first term, said he believed the 1993 attack did not gain more attention because, in the end, it "wasn't a successful bombing." He added: "It wasn't the kind of thing where you walked into a staff meeting and people asked, what are we doing today in the war against terrorism?"
Two years later, however, terrorism moved to the forefront of the national agenda when a truck bomb tore into the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people.
President Clinton visited Oklahoma City for a memorial service, signaling the political import of the event. "We're going to have to be very, very tough in dealing with this," he declared in an interview.
Mr. Panetta said that plans to reorganize the government's counterterrorism
efforts were quickly revived. Senior officials recognized that the United States remained vulnerable to terrorism. The bombing proved to be the work of two Americans, both former soldiers, but if Oklahoma City could be hit, an attack by terrorists of any stripe could "happen at the White House," Mr. Panetta said.
Two months after the bombing, Mr. Clinton ordered the government to intensify the fight against terrorism. The order did not give agencies involved in the fight more money, nor did it end the bureaucratic turf battles among them.
But it did put Mr. bin Laden, who had set up operations in Sudan after leaving Afghanistan in 1991, front and center.
Diplomacy and Politics
A Growing Effort Against bin Laden
As Mr. Clinton prepared his re-election bid in 1996, the administration made several crucial decisions. Recognizing the growing significance of Mr. bin Laden, the C.I.A. created a virtual station, code-named Alex, to track his activities around the world.
In the Middle East, American diplomats pressed the hard-line Islamic regime of Sudan to expel Mr. bin Laden, even if that pushed him back into Afghanistan. To build support for this effort among Middle Eastern governments, the State Department circulated a dossier that accused Mr. bin Laden of financing radical Islamic causes around the world.
The document implicated him in several attacks on Americans, including the 1992 bombing of a hotel in Aden, Yemen, where American troops had stayed on their way to Somalia. It also said Mr. bin Laden's associates had trained the Somalis who killed 18 American servicemen in Mogadishu in 1993.
Sudanese officials met with their C.I.A. and State Department counterparts and signaled that they might turn Mr. bin Laden over to another country. Saudi Arabia and Egypt were possibilities.
State Department and C.I.A. officials urged both Egypt and Saudi Arabia to accept him, according to former Clinton officials. "But both were afraid of the domestic reaction and refused," one recalled.
Critics of the administration's effort said this was an early missed opportunity to destroy Al Qaeda. Mr. Clinton himself would have had to lean hard on the Saudi and Egyptian governments. The White House believed no amount of pressure would change the outcome, and Mr. Clinton risked spending valuable capital on a losing cause. "We were not about to have the president make a call and be told no," one official explained.
Sudan obliquely hinted that it might turn Mr. bin Laden over to the United States, a former official said. But the Justice Department reviewed the case and concluded in the spring of 1996 that it did not have enough evidence to charge him with the attacks on American troops in Yemen and Somalia.
In May 1996, Sudan expelled Mr. bin Laden, confiscating some of his substantial fortune. He moved his organization to Afghanistan, just as an obscure group known as the Taliban was taking control of the country.
Clinton administration officials counted it as a positive step. Mr. bin Laden was on the run, deprived of the tacit state sponsorship he had enjoyed in Sudan.
"He lost his base and momentum," said Samuel R. Berger, Mr. Clinton's national security adviser in his second term.
In July 1996, shortly after Mr. bin Laden left Sudan, Mr. Clinton met at the White House with Dick Morris, his political adviser, to hone themes for his re-election campaign.
The previous month, a suicide bomber had detonated a truck bomb at a military barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American servicemen. Days later, T.W.A. Flight 800 had exploded off Long Island, leaving 230 people dead in a crash that was immediately viewed as terrorism.
Mr. Morris said he had devised an attack advertisement of the sort that Senator Bob Dole, the Republican candidate, might use against Mr. Clinton and had shown it to a sampling of voters. Seven percent of those who saw it said they would switch from Mr. Clinton to Mr. Dole.
"Out of control. Two airline disasters. One linked to terrorism," the advertisement said. "F.A.A. asleep at the switch. Terror in Saudi Arabia." Mr. Morris said he told Mr. Clinton that he could neutralize such a line of attack by adopting tougher policies on terrorism and airport security. He said his polls had found support for tightening security and confronting terrorists. Voters favored military action against suspected terrorist installations in other countries. They backed a federal takeover of airport screening and even supported deployment of the military inside the United States to fight terrorism.
Mr. Morris said he tried and failed to persuade the president to undertake a broader war on terrorism.
Mr. Clinton declined repeated requests for an interview, but a spokeswoman, Julia Payne, said: "Terrorism was always a top priority in the Clinton administration. The president chose to get his foreign policy advice from the likes of Sandy Berger and Madeleine Albright and not Dick Morris."
On July 25, Mr. Clinton announced that he had put Vice President Al Gore at the head of a commission on aviation safety and security. Within weeks, the panel had drafted more than two dozen recommendations. Its final report, in February 1997, added dozens more.
Among the most important, commission members said, was a proposal that the F.B.I. and C.I.A. share information about suspected terrorists for the databases maintained by each airline. If a suspected terrorist bought a ticket, both the airline and the government would find out.
Progress was slow, particularly after federal investigators determined that the crash of T.W.A. Flight 800 resulted from a mechanical flaw, not terrorism. The commission's recommendation languished - until Sept. 11, when two people already identified by the government as suspected terrorists boarded separate American Airlines flights from Boston using their own names.
That morning, no alarms went off. The system proposed by the Gore commission was still not in place. The government is now moving to share more information with the airlines about suspected terrorists.
"Unfortunately, it takes a dramatic event to focus the government's and public's attention, especially on an issue as amorphous as terrorism," said Gerry Kauvar, staff director of the commission and now a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation.
Focusing on Al Qaeda
A Clearer Picture, A Disjointed Fight
As Mr. Clinton began his second term, American intelligence agencies were assembling a clearer picture of the threat posed by Mr. bin Laden and Al Qaeda, which was making substantial headway in Afghanistan.
A few months earlier, the first significant defector from Al Qaeda had walked into an American Embassy in Africa and provided a detailed account of the organization's operations and ultimate objectives.
The defector, Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, told American officials that Mr. bin Laden had taken aim at the United States and other Western governments, broadening his initial goal of overthrowing Saudi Arabia and other "infidel" Middle Eastern governments.
He said that Al Qaeda was trying to buy a nuclear bomb and other unconventional weapons. Mr. bin Laden was also trying to form an anti-American terrorist front that would unite radical groups. But Mr. Fadl's statements were not widely circulated within the government. A senior official said their significance was not fully understood by Mr. Clinton's top advisers until his public testimony in 2000.
The war against Al Qaeda remained disjointed. While the State Department listed Mr. bin Laden as a financier of terror in its 1996 survey of terrorism, Al Qaeda was not included on the list of terrorist organizations subject to various sanctions released by the United States in 1997.
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