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Nyt 911 connecting { May 16 2002 }

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May 16, 2002
Clues Before Sept. 11 Were Plentiful

Filed at 6:17 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Bit by bit, over weeks, months and years, the clues mounted.

Last summer, an FBI memo from Arizona reported many Arabs seeking U.S. flight training. Weeks later, a suspicious flight student was arrested in Minnesota. Back in 1995, there was talk in the Philippines about hijacking a U.S. plane and flying it into the CIA.

And now: word this week of a warning given to President Bush a month before the Sept. 11 attacks that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network might hijack American airplanes.

``You tie it all together,'' said Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, ``and you have some information that should have been acted upon, but it wasn't.''

The Bush administration says pulling it all together is a lot easier in hindsight.

``There was no way we could have, let's say, connected the dots to point to what happened on the 11th of September,'' Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said Thursday. ``These ... were general points of information, nothing specific.''

The warning signs go back years and come from around the globe.

In 1994, Muslim militants from Algeria hijacked an Air France jetliner and killed three passengers before the terrorists were captured during a stop in Marseille.

It came out that they had hoped to blow up the jet over the Eiffel Tower, debunking the notion that a suicidal airline attack on a prominent target was unthinkable before Sept. 11.

In 1995, there was more talk of suicide hijackings and a high-profile target, this time coming from the Philippines.

FBI officials were told that one man involved in a plot to blow up U.S.-bound airlines had suggested dive-bombing a plane into the CIA building just outside Washington.

``It is a suicidal mission that he is very much willing to execute,'' reads one Filipino police report about Abdul Hakim Murad. Murad told of crisscrossing the United States to attend flight schools in New York, Texas, California and North Carolina as he earned a commercial pilot's license.

Just last summer, there were new warnings to federal authorities about suspicious activity at flight schools.

FBI counterterrorism officials in Arizona became concerned about several Arab men seeking training at a U.S. aviation school as well as information about airport operations and security. In July, the FBI office in Phoenix sent a memo to Washington urging that agents nationwide find out where others from the Mideast were training. The FBI was considering such a nationwide canvass when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred.

There were other alarm bells in the summer of 2001.

In August, Zacarias Moussaoui, a Frenchman of Moroccan descent, was arrested in Minnesota after the FBI becoming suspicious of his efforts to receive training in flying passenger jets. Moussaoui, who had trained at al-Qaida-affiliated camp in Afghanistan, has been charged as a conspirator in the suicide hijackings. He was in jail on Sept. 11.

Before the attacks, the Justice Department had refused an FBI request to search Moussaoui's computer. The computer files, searched after Sept. 11, showed no direct link to the attacks but did contain data related to jetliners, crop-dusting planes and dispersal of chemicals.

Also last August, the CIA told the Immigration and Naturalization Service to add two men -- eventual hijackers -- to its watch list, to prohibit them from entering the country. The INS told the CIA it believed the men were already in the United States, information then relayed to the FBI.

August 2001 also brought the warning to Bush of a potential terrorist hijacking, making direct mention of possible involvement by bin Laden's network.

A senior CIA official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the information was mentioned to Bush among a variety of possible terrorist attacks being plotted against the United States, and did not result in any lengthy discussion. The official said it was not clear whether the information had anything to do with the Sept. 11 plot.

By itself, said Shelby, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the warning may not have seemed particularly ominous. But when put together with the FBI memo from Arizona and the arrest in Minnesota, he said, ``you've got more than just a little bit of information.''

Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, said she did not recall information about the Arizona or Minnesota concerns reaching her or the president before Sept. 11, nor did Bush's security briefing include background on past talk of blowing up planes at the Eiffel Tower or the CIA.

She said the administration is trying to do a better job of ``fusion'' -- to make sure all the right people have the right information.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a member of the Intelligence Committee, said the FBI's July 2001 memo from Phoenix did not reach the CIA's counterterrorism center until 10 days ago.

``That's a huge flaw in our system,'' she said.

Copyright 2002 The Associated Press | Privacy Policy

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