Reports Preceded August 2001 Memo
by Dana Priest
By the time a CIA briefer gave President Bush the Aug. 6, 2001, President’s Daily Brief headlined “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US,” the president had seen a stream of alarming reports on al Qaeda’s intentions. So had Vice President Cheney and Bush’s top national security team, according to newly declassified information released yesterday by the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In April and May 2001, for example, the intelligence community headlined some of those reports “Bin Laden planning multiple operations,” “Bin Laden network’s plans advancing” and “Bin Laden threats are real.”
The intelligence included reports of a hostage plot against Americans. It noted that operatives might choose to hijack an aircraft or storm a U.S. embassy. Without knowing when, where or how the terrorists would strike, the CIA “consistently described the upcoming attacks as occurring on a catastrophic level, indicating that they would cause the world to be in turmoil,” according to one of two staff reports released by the panel yesterday.
“Reports similar to these were made available to President Bush in the morning meetings with [Director of Central Intelligence George J.] Tenet,” the commission staff said.
The information offers the most detailed account to date of the warnings the intelligence community gave top Bush administration officials, and it provides the context in which a CIA briefer put together a memo on Osama bin Laden’s activities in the Aug. 6 brief for Bush.
The government moved on several fronts to counter the threats. The CIA launched “disruption operations” in 20 countries. Tenet met or phoned 20 foreign intelligence officials. Units of the 5th Fleet were redeployed. Embassies went on alert. Cheney called Crown Prince Adbullah of Saudi Arabia to ask for help. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice asked the CIA to brief Attorney General John D. Ashcroft about an “imminent” terrorist attack whose location was unknown.
“The system was blinking red,” Tenet told the commission in private testimony, the panel’s report noted.
In this context, Bush “had occasionally asked his briefers whether any of the threats pointed to the United States,” the report said. Or, as one U.S. senior official more intimately involved in the summer reporting paraphrased the president’s question to the CIA: “This guy going to strike here?”
A partial answer was contained in the very first sentence of the Aug. 6 President’s Daily Brief: “Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate Bin Ladin since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US.”
The document ended with two paragraphs of circumstantial evidence that al Qaeda operatives might already be in the United States preparing “for hijackings or other types of attacks” and said that the FBI and the CIA were investigating a call to the U.S. Embassy in the United Arab Emirates in May “saying that a group of Bin Ladin supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives.”
The commission also released new details showing how the CIA and FBI failures to track the movements of two hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, and share information foiled what now appears to have been the best chance to disrupt the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The CIA knew Almihdhar had attended a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000 where, officials later learned, he had helped plan the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Aden, Yemen. After the meeting, Almihdhar and others went to Bangkok, but the CIA station in Malaysia did not inform the CIA station in Bangkok in a timely manner.
Only two months later, in March, did the CIA learn that Almihdhar had left Bangkok with a visa to the United States.
In January 2001, two surveillance photographs from the Kuala Lumpur meeting were shown to an informant who was helping both the CIA and the FBI. He helped them understand that Almihdhar was at the meeting with a man identified as “Khallad” — who by then was known to have planned the Cole bombing. But “we found no effort by the CIA to renew the long-abandoned search for [Almihdhar] or his traveling companions,” the staff report noted.
Also, contrary to the previous testimony of Tenet, the CIA did not tell the FBI about this discovery until late August 2001, according to the report.
Almihdhar had left the United States in June 2000 but had plans to return.
“It is possible that if, in January 2001, agencies had resumed their search for him” or had placed him on a terrorist watch list, “they might have found him” before he applied for a new visa in June 2001, the report said. “Or they might have been alerted to him when he returned to the United States the following month. We cannot know.”
In mid-May 2001, during the height of threat reporting, a CIA official went back through the Almihdhar files and discovered that he had a U.S. visa and that Alhazmi had come to Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2000. The official concluded “something bad was definitely up,” the staff report said, but he did not alert his FBI counterparts. “He was focused on Malaysia.”
But the report said he did ask an FBI analyst detailed to the CIA to review the Kuala Lumpur material again — “in her free time.” She began on July 24, 2001, and learned from the Immigration and Naturalization Service that the two might be in the country. She drafted a cable asking that Almihdhar and Alhazmi be put on a terrorist watch list. The FBI analyst, meanwhile, “took responsibility for the search effort inside the United States.”
The analyst thought Almihdhar was in New York and informed the FBI’s New York field office. But she labeled her first e-mail to the office “routine,” which gave the FBI 30 days to respond.
“No one apparently felt they needed to inform higher levels of management in either the FBI or CIA about the case,” the commission staff said.
The search was assigned to an FBI agent who had never before handled a counterterrorism lead.
“Many witnesses have suggested that even if [Almihdhar] had been found, there was nothing the agents could have done except follow him onto the planes,” the report said. “We believe this is incorrect.
“Both [Alhazmi] and [Almihdhar] could have been held for immigration violations, or as material witnesses in the Cole bombing case,” the commission report said. Interrogations “also may have yielded evidence of connections to other participants in the 9/11 plot. In any case, the opportunity did not arise.”