April 19, 2004


Counterfeit recollections

By KennethR. Timmerman


Published April 19, 2004

Just minutes after the cameras went dark in the Senate hearingroom on Condoleezza Rice on April 8, ABC News anchor Peter Jenningsinvited Richard Clarke -- now an ABC News consultant -- to comment.

    Mr. Clarke reiterated his centralallegation that the Bush administration failed to "shake the trees"by daily meetings with Cabinet officials together and contrasted thatto his own behavior during the Millennium crisis. "And by having theCabinet members come to the White House every day in crisis mode andthen go back to their departments and look for anything that isanywhere in the departments in December 1999, we were able to get thekind of information we needed to stop the [Millennium]attacks," Mr. Clarke said.

    That assertion would have been a powerfulargument -- if it true. But as Mr. Clarke himself knew, the U.S.government managed to stop Millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam, dispatchedby al Qaeda to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on NewYear's Eve 1999, because an alert U.S. Customs inspector at ourborder with Canada acted on instinct, not on information "shaken fromthe trees" by the Cabinet.

    Miss Rice pointed this out in her owntestimony. But she politely refrained for adding the devastatingdetails of how the Clinton administration was nearly hit with acatastrophic terrorist attack because of its own blindness andrefusal to confront the al Qaeda spiderweb. I published those detailsin Reader's Digest in a March 2002 profile of top Frenchcounterterrorism Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a man I had come torespect highly over the 15 years I had known him.

    Judge Bruguiere had been tracking AhmadRessam since 1996, and by early 1999 had his "hair on fire" becausehe knew Ressam was plotting an attack against America.

    Judge Bruguiere didn't have details ofthe actual attack, but he knew how Ressam fit into the al Qaeda"spider's web," and knew he was sent from Europe to Canada to preparehis attack.

    By March 1999, Judge Bruguiere hadgathered enough information from terrorist cells he had broken up inFrance, Jordan and Australia, to send a thick file to the Canadianauthorities, asking that they arrest Ressam and hold him forinterrogation. Months went by, and nothing happened.

    Finally, Judge Bruguiere traveledpersonally to Montreal in October to force the issue. By then, Ressamhad vanished. At one apartment Judge Bruguiere searched that Ressamhad occupied, he seized a pocket datebook that detailed purchases ofbomb-making chemicals. The millennium bomber had slipped through thecracks. He had gone operational.

    Judge Bruguiere returned to France with asense of dread. "We came back to France," Judge Bruguiere told me,"and on Dec. 14, 1999, the news came of Ressam's arrest. As you know,it was completely by chance. Just plain luck."

    The Canadians had two opportunities tostop him and did nothing. Neither they nor apparently Judge Bruguierehimself had thought to give the FBI a heads-up.

    U.S. Customs officer Diana Dean explainedshe had found the olive-skinned Canadian named Benni Norris unusuallynervous. The ferry from Vancouver had just chugged up to its slip atPort Angeles, Wash., on the afternoon of Dec. 14, 1999, and Norrislowered the window of his Chrysler 300. Despite the chilly air,Norris was sweating, Officer Dean noticed.

    When she asked him to open his trunk,Norris bolted. After a brief chase, Officer Dean and another officerarrested him. In the trunk, they found 130 pounds of plasticexplosives, two 22-ounce plastic bottles full of nitro glycol, and amap of LAX, Los Angeles International Airport. Murder was on hismind.

    Not only did Mr. Clarke and hisCabinet-level meetings fail to shake any information from the treesabout the Millennium plot: When U.S. prosecutors encountered the manwho identified himself as Benni Norris, they didn't have a clue whohe was.

    But in a tiny garret office in the Palaisde Justice in Paris, Judge Bruguiere understood what had happened,and immediately telephoned a friend at the U.S. Justice Department inD.C., sketching out what he knew.

    Ultimately, Judge Bruguiere sent thecomplete file on Ressam a k a Benni Norris to U.S. prosecutors, andspent seven hours testifying in a Seattle, Wash., court as a witnessin the case. Without his help, the U.S. case against Ressam wouldhave been much weaker. Thanks to Judge Bruguiere, Ressam agreed tobecome a government witness against Osama bin Laden and to helpexpose elements of the al Qaeda network.

    There is plenty of blame to go around forthe intelligence failures that contributed to September 11. In hisinterviews with me, Judge Bruguiere sketched out six reforms he feltwere essential to help unmask bin Laden's operations in the UnitedStates. We called them "Bruguiere's rules." They involved bettercommunication among prosecutors, better international cooperation andspecialized investigators.

    But this 15-year veteran of trenchwarfare against terrorists did not think more meetings -- Cabinetlevel, or otherwise -- would have any effect. "We are seeing theglobalization of terror," Judge Bruguiere said. "To combat it, weneed a global response, to operate in dozens of countries around theworld, just as the terrorists do."

    One final irony involves another al Qaedaterrorist whose file Judge Bruguiere knew intimately: ZacariasMoussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker, who was arrested on Aug. 17,2001, by Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents becauseof suspicious activity while attending the Pan Am InternationalFlight Academy in Minneapolis, Minn.

    When I went to see him in Paris shortlyafter September 11, 2001, Judge Bruguiere was grinning from ear toear. "You've heard about Moussaoui?" he said, meaning Moussaoui'sarrest. Judge Bruguiere had a file on him that he couldn't wait totransmit to the U.S. prosecutors. One hint: He wasn't the 20thhijacker but was preparing a follow-on wave of attacks.

    In the end, Judge Bruguiere was neverable to transmit his file to the U.S. prosecutors in a form theycould use to prosecute Moussaoui. The Moussaoui case -- lacking thathard information -- remains blocked to this day.

    The French government of PresidentJacques Chirac, stepped in and ordered Judge Bruguiere to break offformal cooperation with the United States. Our one-time ally in thewar on terror was about to demonstrate it had new priorities thatwould play themselves out dramatically during the Iraq crisis a yearlater.


    Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writerfor Insight magazine and author of "The French Betrayal of America"(Crown Forum).



Kenneth R. Timmerman is a seniorwriter for Insight and author of TheFrench Betrayal of America,just released from Crown Forum.