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- Politics
Release date: 5/27/02

Issue date: 06/17/02


Investigative Report
What They Knew; When They Knew It

By Kenneth R. Timmerman

A fountainhead of new clues to the Sept. 11 attacks and the far-flung international network that spawned them is becoming public, apparently fed by heavily partisan cries of a massive intelligence failure on the part of the Bush administration. Democrats on Capitol Hill, led by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), are demanding creation of a special investigation to determine possible Bush-administration misfeasance.

The alleged smoking gun was a July 10 memo from FBI Special Agent Kenneth Williams in Phoenix to FBI headquarters in Washington urging the bureau to launch a nationwide investigation after he had identified Middle Eastern men he believed might be tied to a terrorist group undergoing training at a local flight school. A congressional source who has seen the memo tells Insight: "This was as actionable a memo as could have been written by anyone." It required action.

But the FBI admitted last week that the Williams memo never made it past midlevel managers, who claimed they lacked the resources to implement the agent's far-reaching recommendations. It was not passed on to the National Security Council, the CIA or even top FBI officials. Robert Mueller, President George W. Bush's pick to succeed outgoing FBI Director Louis Freeh, had only taken the reins of the bureau a week before the attacks.

In fact, the White House now has revealed that its Counterterrorism Security Group (CSG), which brought together White House officials with those from all relevant federal agencies, began meeting several times a week within months after Bush took office and issued no fewer than five separate Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Information Circulars to alert private air carriers to various potential terrorist threats:

 

  • On June 22, 2001, the FAA alerted carriers to a possible hijacking aimed at pressuring the government to free terrorists then sitting in U.S. jails.

     

  • On July 2, the FAA warned of a possible attempt to place a bomb at a major airport terminal, based on the testimony of millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam. His plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport was foiled in December 1999 by an alert U.S. Customs official who arrested Ressam at the Canadian border as he tried to enter the United States (see "Canadian Border Open to Terrorists," Dec. 17, 2001).

     

  • On July 18, the FAA issued a "general alert" urging all carriers to maintain a high degree of alertness, but disclaiming knowledge of any specific threat. At that time, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters in a televised briefing, "Contingency planning was done on how to deal with multiple, simultaneous attacks around the world," because that's where the intelligence suggested the attacks would occur, not in the United States. Buttressing that impression, Rice revealed that "the CIA ... managed through these intelligence activities and liaison activities to disrupt attacks in Paris, Turkey and Rome."

     

  • On July 31, the FAA warned that intelligence reports suggested that known (but unnamed) terrorist groups were actively training to conduct hijacking operations.

     

  • On Aug. 16, the FAA warned air carriers to be on the alert for passengers attempting to board with disguised weapons in support of a hijacking attempt. The concern, Rice said, was "that the terrorists had made breakthroughs in cell phones, key chains and pens as weapons."

Furthermore, we now know that when the president was given a detailed intelligence briefing on potential terrorist threats on Aug. 6, the analysts mentioned that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network was believed to be considering a possible hijacking operation. Rice and other White House officials say the analysts ran through the scenario of a hijacking in which passengers would be held hostage to force the release of terrorist operatives and their "spiritual leader," blind Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was convicted in 1994 of plotting to blow up the Lincoln and Holland tunnels in New York City. Intelligence on the blind sheik's ties to bin Laden also was becoming more solid, law-enforcement sources tell Insight, making such a scenario all the more likely.

And yet, reporters and Democrats from House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri to Daschle and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York continued to claim there had been an intelligence failure and a lack of judgment on the part of the administration because "clear warnings" of suicide hijackings had gone unheeded.

Any such warnings, while fascinating in hindsight, were dismissed by U.S. and foreign-intelligence agencies as far-fetched and improbable. As Rice put it, "There was no time, there was no place, there was no method of attack" contained in any of the specific recent intelligence. "It simply said, 'These are people who train and seem to talk possibly about hijackings.' That you would have risked shutting down the American civil-aviation system with such generalized information ó I think you would have had to think five, six, seven times about that very, very hard."

As a congressional source with access to the intelligence briefings tells Insight, anyone suggesting such a dramatic response to a nonspecific threat "would have been carted off in a straitjacket."

The raw data pouring into the system from local law enforcement, federal criminal investigations, overseas intelligence probes, satellite surveillance and communications intercepts in half a dozen foreign languages became an information overload, not an intelligence gold mine. "There was so much of it," noted one informed observer, "it was like trying to sip from a fire hose."

Nowhere has there been more tantalizing details of missed investigative leads than in the Philippines. In early January 1995, the Philippines police captured Abdul Hakim Murad after a fire in a Manila apartment he shared with wanted terrorist Ramzi Yousef óthe mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing ó attracted the attention of neighbors and local police.

Police also seized Yousef's laptop computer, which contained an encrypted address book and detailed plans of a plot to hijack 12 U.S. jetliners over the Pacific Ocean and crash them into U.S. airports. Yousef fled after the fire to Pakistan, where he was arrested in February 1995 by U.S. and Pakistani law-enforcement officials and flown back to this country to face trial.

The plot, known as "Project Bojinka" (bojinka is Serbo-Croat for "big bang"), was an elaborate scheme involving only a handful of bombers who were supposed to place explosives onboard the aircraft then change planes and do it again. On Yousef's white Toshiba laptop were delayed-timer settings for each flight, varying from 13 to 25 hours, depending on the flight time and destination. Prosecutors alleged that Yousef and his coconspirators, Murad and Wali Khan Amin Shah, "would have killed 4,000 in planes flying to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Honolulu and New York" had they succeeded.

Just two days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Philippines Chief Police Superintendent Avelino Razon told reporters there was "too much coincidence" between Sept. 11 and Bojinka, especially since the attacks came just one week after the anniversary of Yousef's conviction for the Bojinka plot on Sept. 5, 1996.

But what caught Razon's attention ó and has fired up "gotcha" journalists ó was the fact that Bojinka included a second, much less publicized phase to hijack an airliner and crash it into a large U.S. government building, such as CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

Insight has obtained copies of the original Philippines-police interrogation of Murad (a report code-named Blue Marlin) in which he detailed his own training as a pilot at more than a half-dozen U.S. flight schools, along with other Middle Eastern and Pakistani men. He began at the Alfa-Tango Flying School in San Antonio in 1990, then transferred to Richmore Aviation in Schenectady, N.Y., and subsequently to Coast Aviation Flying School in New Bern, N.C. Ultimately, he was certified by the FAA to fly small propeller aircraft.

As Murad's interrogation continued into February and early March 1995, he began telling police more about Project Bojinka. "With regards in [sic] their plan to dive-crash a commercial aircraft at the CIA headquarters in Virginia, subject alleged that the idea of doing more came out during his casual conversation with Abdul Basit [Yousef] and there is no specific plan yet for its execution," according to Blue Marlin. "What the subject have [sic] in his mind is that he will board any American commercial aircraft pretending to be an ordinary passenger. Then he will hijack said aircraft, control its cockpit and dive it at the CIA headquarters. There will be no bomb or any explosive that he will use in its execution. It is simply a suicidal mission that he is very much willing to execute. That all he need is to be able to board the aircraft with a pistol so that he could execute the hijacking."

There in a nutshell was the Sept. 11 plot, laid out in detail in the Blue Marlin file fully seven years earlier.

So, was the U.S. intelligence community asleep? Not entirely. As Fox News and the Associated Press reported in March, FBI officials took Blue Marlin and ran with it, visiting each of the flight schools Murad had mentioned and interrogating all the Middle Eastern men he had named, "but did not find evidence that any Middle Easterners other than Murad were plotting anything. With no other evidence to go on, they took no further action," officials said.

The potential intelligence failure lies elsewhere. Once the Philippines police had finished with him at the end of March 1995, Murad was brought to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York to await trial on the Bojinka plot. A scant two weeks after his arrival in the United States, Murad was listening to the radio when a news report came on the air announcing that the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City had been bombed. Lt. Philip Rojas, a prison guard, asked Murad what he thought and found his response so startling that he informed his superiors. They, in turn, called the FBI.

Special Agents Francis J. Pellegrino and Brian G. Parr arrived later that morning, within hours after the Oklahoma City blast. "Murad responded to the guard's question by stating that the Liberation Army was responsible for the bombing," they reported in a witness report (No. 302). "A short time later, Murad passed a note to the guard, again claiming that the Liberation Army was responsible for the bombing in Oklahoma City."

What was the mysterious Liberation Army? A Philippines government agent, Edwin Angeles, who came in from the cold in 1995 and turned state's evidence against Yousef and the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group, told his police handlers that it was the "Palestine Liberation Army and/or the Islamic Jihad" (see "Iraqi Connection to Oklahoma Bombing," April 29). But in the Blue Marlin file Murad calls it a "fictitious organization" used as a code by Yousef and his terrorist colleagues "whenever they are making announcements" of responsibility for terrorist attacks.

In late 1994, Murad claimed that Yousef gave him a text he was to phone into the U.S. Embassy in Oman once the planned bombing in New York City was announced. "This is A1168 of the Liberation Army. We are claiming responsibility over the bombing of the underground railroad in New York," the text read, a reference to the plot to bomb the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, which led to the conviction of Sheik Omar.

Additional circumstantial evidence linking Yousef to the Oklahoma City bombing ó which occurred two months after he was arrested in Pakistan and brought to the United States for trial ó is beginning to emerge as well.

FBI forensic experts found that the huge Oklahoma City bomb, which was made from fertilizer and diesel fuel, was distinctive. In the FBI database that contains the profile and composition of some 73,000 explosions, they found only two other bombs of the same type. Both had been made by Yousef.

The first was the bomb that killed six people at the World Trade Center in February 1993. The second was discovered by police on March 11, 1994, after an aborted effort to blow up the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand.

Angeles and his widow both have stated that Yousef met in the Philippines with convicted Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols prior to the bombing. In fact, Insight now has learned Yousef may have had additional contacts with Nichols after placing a bomb onboard Philippines Airline Flight 434 that killed a Japanese passenger on Dec. 11, 1994 ó an attack federal prosecutors in Chicago are calling a "test run" for Project Bojinka. After placing the bomb, Yousef disembarked at Cebu City, where Terry Nichols then was residing.

Nichols had left an unusual sealed letter in the United States with his former wife before traveling to the Philippines (which he did regularly), to be opened in the event of his death. Investigators working with Oklahoma City attorney Mike Johnston, who is suing the government of Iraq for alleged involvement in the Oklahoma City bombing, believe Yousef had recruited Nichols to take part in the Bojinka plot. Once Yousef fled the Philippines after setting fire to his apartment while mixing explosives, Nichols broke his excursion ticket and booked a one-way return flight to the United States on Jan. 17, 1995.

Federal prosecutors in Chicago have tied Yousef to al-Qaeda through his contacts with bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mohammad Khalifa. In an affidavit filed with federal Magistrate Ian Levin in the Eastern District of Illinois on April 29, the FBI links Khalifa, Yousef and the Bojinka plot to a series of U.S.-based Islamic charities tied to the Benevolence International Foundation (BIF), whose premises were raided and whose assets were seized by federal authorities in April.

As prosecutors trace these links further, they are stumbling onto a web of U.S.-based Islamic "charities" that not only raised money for bin Laden and his terrorist operations, but have provided money to terrorist activities in the West Bank, Gaza, Israel, Bosnia, Chechnya and elsewhere (see "Documents Detail Saudi Terror Links," June 10).

Steve Pomerantz, a former assistant FBI director who retired in 1995, tells Insight that terrorist sympathizers hiding behind a veil of "civil liberties" severely have hampered the ability of law enforcement to investigate Muslim charities and others suspected of operating as front groups for terrorist organizations. "An aura of extreme caution has influenced the FBI in recent years in the collection of intelligence for fear of being accused of bigotry and violating people's legitimate rights," says Pomerantz. "These foreign-born organizations have covered themselves in a mantle of religion and legitimate civil rights. And they have gained significant political support."

Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.