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Bush did not heed several warnings of attacks

Intelligence

By Andrew Gumbel

17 September 2001

George Bush's administration was warned repeatedly that a devastating attack on the United States was on its way, including a State Department advisory as late as 7 September, but either failed to read the signals or was unable to follow up on intelligence tips in time to prevent last Tuesday's onslaught on the country.

Evidence from countless sources has surfaced in the past few days, suggesting that the "colossal failure of intelligence" described by several senior politicians was not entirely the result of ignorance. In the three weeks before the attack, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was actually looking for two suspected associates of Osama bin Laden who turned out to be among the 19 suicide hijackers.

That search was part of a pattern of alarm signals sounding in intelligence circles from late August onwards. Around the time the FBI was receiving its tip-off about the two men, one of whom was wanted for another suspected bin Laden operation – the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbour last October – security was abruptly heightened at the World Trade Centre with the introduction of sniffer dogs and systematic checks on trucks bringing in deliveries. No explanation has been given for this measure.

Also in late August, Mr bin Ladenboasted in an interview with the London-based newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi that he was planning an unprecedentedly large strike against the United States.

Then, four days before calamity struck, the State Department sent out a worldwide advisory, repeating warnings it first made in May that "American citizens may be the target of a terrorist threat from extremist groups with links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida organisation". The reason for the new advisory was a heightened concern over military bases in Japan or Korea.

Although these were clearly not the targets most at risk, the very fact that the State Department chose to put out an advisory was a sign that "something was cooking", according to the former secretary of state George Shultz, who received a copy at his private offices in San Francisco.

"I have no idea what intelligence lies behind the warning," Mr Shultz told the San Francisco Chronicle, "but they put this out because they had some sort of intelligence." There is nothing new about the fear that Mr bin Laden and his organisation might strike against the United States at any time. Particularly since the simultaneous bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, a crime the United States has laid squarely at Mr bin Laden's door, there have been repeated alerts leading to the temporary evacuation of American government buildings overseas.

The night after the attacks on New York and Washington, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts told CNN that the CIA believed it had thwarted an attack by Mr bin Laden's acolytes as recently as August. He gave no further details.

Aside from the general threat, however, there seems to have been some misreading of the evidence at hand. Over the weekend, for example, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Robert Mueller, said he had been taken entirely by surprise by the revelation that a number of last Tuesday's hijackers had received pilot training in the United States. "If we had understood that to be the case, we would have, perhaps one could have, averted this," he said on Saturday.

And yet, during the trial earlier this year of four defendants charged with involvement in the 1998 embassy bombings, it emerged that two suspected contacts of Mr bin Laden's, Essam al Ridi and Ihab Ali Nawawi, had received pilot training in Texas and Oklahoma. Mr al-Ridi, a naturalised US citizen of Egyptian origin who testified that he had bought a military aircraft at Mr bin Laden's request and flown it to Sudan, had been in contact with federal authorities since 1998. That would suggest, contrary to Mr Mueller's statement, that the FBI had solid information about the pilot-training scheme for three years.

There is also mounting evidence that the Bush administration, preoccupied with its "Son of Star Wars" missile defence system to guard against rogue nuclear, biological or chemical attacks from overseas, did not give sufficient weight to the demonstrably more pressing threat of low-tech guerrilla attacks.

Last January, just after Mr Bush took office, a bipartisan commission chaired by former senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, issued a warning that "the relative invulnerability of the US homeland to catastrophic attack" was coming to an end.

The report said: "A direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter century." A series of 50 recommendations was made, including a greater reliance on human intelligence rather than espionage equipment and the creation of a new domestic security agency marshalling the forces of the CIA, immigration, the border patrol, the Coast Guard and the FBI.

Rather than accept the report, which was unanimously approved by all seven Republicans and seven Democrats involved in its drafting and which led to the introduction of congressional legislation advocating the creation of a National Homeland Security Agency, the Bush administration chose to put it to one side and work out its own strategy from scratch.

Senator Hart said he sat tearing his hair out last week while he watched the scenes of carnage and destruction unfold on his television set, feeling that his warnings had not been taken with the appropriate seriousness. "We predicted it," he said forlornly.

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US jets were just eight minutes away from shooting down hijacked plane


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