/11 Documents Show Hijacking Warnings
Fri Apr 9, 8:39 PM ET
By CURT ANDERSON, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - U.S. government agencies issued repeated warnings in the summer of 2001 about potential terrorist plots against the United States masterminded by Osama bin Laden (news - web sites), including a possible plan to hijack commercial aircraft, documents show.
While there were no specific targets mentioned in the United States, there was intelligence indicating al-Qaida might attempt to crash a plane into the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. And other reports said Islamic extremists might try to hijack a plane to gain release of comrades.
The escalating seriousness was reflected in a series of warnings issued by the State Department, Federal Aviation Administration (news - web sites), Defense Department and others detailing a heightened risk of terror attacks targeting Americans.
Whether the Bush administration had enough information to take more aggressive action is at the heart of the dispute over the contents of an Aug. 6, 2001, intelligence briefing the White House was working to declassify at the urging of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. White House officials said the document would not come out Friday and probably would not be ready for release until early next week.
Several Democrats on the commission claim the memo, called a presidential daily brief, or PDB, included current intelligence indicating a high threat of hijackings. It was titled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States."
"Something was going to happen very soon and be potentially catastrophic," said one of the Democrats, former Indiana Rep. Timothy Roemer. "I don't understand, given the big threat, why the big principals don't get together."
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice (news - web sites) repeatedly told the panel Thursday that the document was a history of al-Qaida threats and contained no new imminent threat information requiring different government action. The possibility of hijackings was being investigated by the FBI (news - web sites) and the Federal Aviation Administration, she said, adding that most of the summer 2001 threats concerned U.S. interests abroad.
"The country had taken the steps that it could given that there was no threat reporting about what might happen within the United States," Rice said.
Congress already has conducted an investigation into the attacks and its final report includes a detailed timeline of the increasing threats U.S. officials picked up during the summer of 2001. It also includes some of the material from the PDB.
The memo mentioned intelligence that bin Laden wanted to hijack aircraft to gain release of prisoners in the United States. The PDB also contains FBI information about "patterns of activity consistent with preparations for hijackings or other attacks," according to congressional investigators.
A key event occurred on June 21, 2001, when a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., returned a 46-count indictment charging 13 Saudis and one Lebanese with the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. service personnel.
Rumors of the coming indictment had been circulating for weeks before that, according to officials familiar with the intelligence, leading to increased worries that terrorists might take some action in connection with the case.
The next day, June 22, the FAA issued a nationwide circular "referring to a possible hijacking plot by Islamic terrorists to secure release of 14 persons incarcerated in the United States" in the Khobar Towers case. In fact, the 14 were still at large, although the circular did not mention that. They remain fugitives to this day.
More terrorism warnings quickly followed, including:
_ A worldwide caution issued June 22 by the State Department warning Americans abroad of increased risk of terror attacks.
_ Four Defense Department alerts between June 22 and July 20 alerting U.S. military personnel that "bin Laden's network was planning a near-term, anti-U.S. terrorist operation."
_ A July 2 bulletin from the FBI to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies describing "increased threat reporting" about bin Laden or groups allied with al-Qaida. The bulletin suggested the greatest risk of an attack was overseas "although the possibility could not be discounted" of an attack inside the United States.
_ Intelligence received by U.S. agencies in August about the plot to either bomb the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi from an airplane or crash an aircraft into the building. The report cited two unidentified people who met in October 2000 to discuss this plot on instructions from bin Laden.
A senior law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the FBI issued at least two other bulletins in 2001 about the terror threat intelligence but did not include directives for field offices to take specific actions because there was no imminent threat to the homeland.
NBC said Friday that former acting FBI Director Tom Pickard told the commission that Attorney General John Ashcroft (news - web sites) was somewhat dismissive of terror warnings two months before the attacks.
"I think Mr. Pickard is just totally off," Corallo said. "Frankly, the AG was very interested in counter-terrorism from the day he took office."
There had been numerous earlier reports of bin Laden's interest in using aircraft for terror attacks, including a 1998 plot to fly an explosives-laden plane from a foreign country into the World Trade Center and an April 2000 plot to hijack a Boeing 747 and either fly it to Afghanistan (news - web sites) or blow it up.
But in December 2000, the FBI and FAA issued a classified threat assessment that minimized the possibility of a threat to domestic aviation from terror operatives known to be in the United States.
"Terrorist activity within the U.S. has focused primarily on fund-raising, recruiting new members and disseminating propaganda," that report says. "While international terrorists have conducted attacks on U.S. soil, these acts represent anomalies in their traditional targeting which focuses on U.S. interests overseas."
The congressional intelligence inquiry's report suggests that this mind-set, less than a year before the Sept. 11 attacks, may have contributed to an overall U.S. view that there was a low probability of attacks on American soil, particularly using aircraft as weapons.