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Lat 99 warned plot { May 18 2002 }

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'99 Report Warned About Plot Like 9/11
Times Staff Writers

May 18 2002

WASHINGTON -- A 1999 analysis commissioned by the CIA warned that Osama bin Laden loyalists might crash a plane into the Pentagon or the White House, adding to the controversy Friday over the Bush administration's insistence that it had no way of predicting the Sept. 11 hijackings.

The report's warnings, coupled with new details about the FBI's failure to pass on suspicions about flight schools from its Phoenix office, further inflamed members of Congress who believe authorities missed key opportunities to head off the terrorist attacks.

The report to the CIA, prepared by government researchers in September 1999, included a picture of the World Trade Center towers and warned the CIA that Bin Laden "most likely will retaliate in a spectacular way" for U.S. missile strikes a year earlier on Al Qaeda-linked compounds.

"Suicide bomber(s) belonging to Al Qaida's Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives ... into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the White House," the analysis concluded.

The detailed warning was not included in a classified briefing that the CIA gave President Bush in August about the prospect of Al Qaeda hijackings--a briefing that Bush administration officials said was too vague to warrant concrete action. And White House officials did not see the report until Friday morning, spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters.

The Justice Department is seeking to determine why the report was never relayed to the White House or other national security personnel who might have included it in their pre-Sept. 11 analyses of how the United States should respond to the terrorist threat, according to a department official who asked not to be identified.

"We're looking at any clues ... that might have better informed our understanding of what Al Qaeda was planning," the official said.

Disclosure of the report's existence capped a bruising week for the White House in which Bush administration officials were forced to fend off questions about whether they gave short shrift to possible warning signs before the Sept. 11 attacks.

On Thursday, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration never had a specific warning on which to act. "Had this president known of something more specific, or that a plane was going to be used as a missile, he would have acted," she said.

Speaking at the White House on Friday, Bush bemoaned the widespread "second-guessing" in Washington and declared: "Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to kill on that fateful morning, I would have done everything in my power to protect the American people."

John Gannon, who was director of the CIA's intelligence branch at the time the document was published, said the 1999 report challenges the notion that a Sept. 11-style attack was all but inconceivable before it happened.

"Nobody I know at the time would have ruled this out as an option," Gannon said. "This document very much thought this was an option."

The 1999 document was commissioned by Gannon as material for a broader report on the global trends and threats envisioned through 2015. Unlike Bush's August briefing by the CIA, which was based on classified information, the more detailed, 138-page report in 1999 was culled from publicly available sources by the Federal Research Division, a branch of the Library of Congress, and it was posted last December on its Web site.

The report's reference to a possible hijacking plot was largely drawn from the comments of Ramzi Yousef, who lighted the fuse of the bomb that exploded beneath the World Trade Center in 1993, said a U.S. intelligence official.

Contrary to Rice's assertions, the possibility of terrorists using aircraft to strike other targets "had been thought of a lot," the official said. But it was never considered as likely as other methods of attack, he said. At the time, the intelligence community was far more concerned about Al Qaeda obtaining biological or chemical weapons.

"If you were to rack and stack a list of most likely threats, or the ones people were most worried about, hijacking would have been lower than car bombs and truck bombs," the official said.

However, national security experts say the threat of terrorists using a hijacked plane as a weapon dates back at least to 1973, when the Israelis said they had received reports that Arab terrorists were planning to crash a civilian plane laden with explosives into Tel Aviv or other cities in Israel.

The political firestorm in Washington over what the White House knew has intensified in part because of the administration's refusal to publicly release a memo written by an FBI agent in Phoenix last summer recommending that the bureau canvass flight schools to look for suspicious Middle Eastern students.

A number of lawmakers called again Friday for the administration to turn over to the Senate and House intelligence committees both the CIA's Aug. 6 briefing memo to Bush and the Phoenix memo.

But the FBI is holding its ground on the Phoenix memo. "It's classified. It hasn't been released, and I don't think there are any immediate plans to do so," an FBI official said Friday.

The memo recommends that "the FBI should accumulate a listing of civil aviation universities/colleges around the country" to probe the agent's suspicions that Middle Easterners might be using flight schools as terrorist training grounds, according to a government official.

The CIA, which had never seen the Phoenix memo before Sept. 11, recently obtained a copy for the first time and found its contents "remarkable," a senior U.S. intelligence official said.

"It certainly would have set off additional inquiries and work" within the agency had the CIA been aware of its contents, the official said.

The official said that at the time the memo was written none of the names contained in it would have set off alarms at the CIA. "We didn't have those names connected with Al Qaeda at that time," the official said. But two of the names in the memo have since been linked to Al Qaeda.

Law enforcement officials have become increasingly frustrated by this week's tempest because many believe that even knowing what they did before Sept. 11 about the tremendous threat that Bin Laden posed, they had little recourse in heading off a possible attack.

"If the FBI sought to undertake what the Phoenix memo suggested, it would have opened up a powder keg of protests from the Arab American community and civil liberties groups," a federal law enforcement official said Friday.

The 1999 report to the CIA, while informative, "was just a hypothesis. Similar hypotheses come into FBI field offices every day. The only thing different about this one is that it was somewhat prophetic," the official said.

Because the report was primarily a psychological profile of terrorists rather than a traditional intelligence report, White House spokesman Fleischer said it "did not raise alarms" and never reached the White House.

But Robert David Steele, a national security author who has pushed for years for the U.S. intelligence agencies to make better use of publicly available material, said the episode points out the shortcomings in the system.

"Whether from open sources or from classified sources, the sorry reality is that the existing U.S. intelligence community process is unable to connect the dots because the dots never come together in any one place," Steele said.

And Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) demanded Friday that the CIA inspector general look into how the 1999 report was handled.


Times staff writers Richard A. Serrano and Bob Drogin contributed to this report.

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