What Went Wrong

The inside story of the missed signals and intelligence failures that raise a chilling question: did September 11 have to happen?

by Michael Hirsh and Michael Isikoff
May 27, 2002 issue

So much comes in, rumor, hearsay, disinformation, so little of it more than trash: once in a blue moon an agent-prospector may get lucky. But even then an agent’s warning is likely to be dismissed as what Condoleezza Rice last week called “chatter.” “There’s always TMI—too much information,” says former CIA agent Milt Bearden. Often agents poke fun at the sometimes obsessive quirks of their colleagues. “If a confidential memorandum comes from a guy out in, say, Phoenix, the first thing that goes up the line is, ‘That’s Harry again. He’s like a broken clock twice a day’, ” one ex-agent says. Even today, long after 9-11, streams of new threats pass unnoticed through Washington. In recent weeks, for instance, the FBI has gotten specific threats about a car- or truck-bomb attack on an “all-glass” building near the U.S. Capitol, and another threat against a Celebrity cruise ship off Florida. Neither was corroborated, or publicized.

Yet every now and then, amid the piles of dross, a nugget of pure gold turns up in intel files. The key for American national security—now and into the future—is to know it when we see it. Back in July 2001, Bill Kurtz and his team hit pay dirt, and no one seemed to care. A hard-driven supervisor in the FBI’s Phoenix office, Kurtz was overseeing an investigation of suspected Islamic terrorists last July when a member of his team, a sharp, 41-year-old counterterrorism agent named Kenneth Williams, noticed something odd: a large number of suspects were signing up to take courses in how to fly airplanes. The agent’s suspicions were further fueled when he heard that some of the men at the local Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University were asking a lot of questions about airport security.


Kurtz, who had previously worked on the Osama bin Laden unit of the FBI’s international terrorism section, was convinced he and his colleagues might have stumbled on to something bigger. Kurtz’s team fired off a lengthy memo raising the possibility that bin Laden might be using U.S. flight schools to infiltrate the country’s civil-aviation system. “He thinks of everything in terms of bin Laden,” one colleague recalled. The memo outlined a proposal for the FBI to monitor “civil aviation colleges/universities around the country.”

Williams, the agent who sniffed out the link, was described by one former colleague as a “superstar,” a former SWAT sniper and family man who coaches Little League and, in 1995, helped track down Michael Fortier, Timothy McVeigh’s former Army buddy. “Anything he says you can take to the bank,” says former agent Ron Myers.

But little of that seemed to make a difference back in Washington, where the Kurtz team suffered a fate even worse than Cassandra’s: not only were they not believed, they were ignored altogether. The FBI was concerned about racial profiling. Moreover, it wasn’t used to gathering intelligence, especially domestically, given American sensitivities about intrusive government and civil liberties. Its intelligence-assessment system was almost laughably antiquated. And under Attorney General John Ashcroft, the department was being prodded back into its old law-and-order mind-set: violent crime, drugs, child porn. Counterterrorism, which had become a priority of the Clintonites (not that they did a better job of nailing bin Laden), seemed to be getting less attention. When FBI officials sought to add hundreds more counterintelligence agents, they got shot down even as Ashcroft began, quietly, to take a privately chartered jet for his own security reasons.

The attorney general was hardly alone in seeming to de-emphasize terror in the young Bush administration. Over at the Pentagon, new Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld elected not to relaunch a Predator drone that had been tracking bin Laden, among other actions. In self- absorbed Washington, the Phoenix memo, which never resulted in arrests, landed in two units at FBI headquarters but didn’t make it to senior levels. Nor did the memo get transmitted to the CIA, which has long had a difficult relationship with the FBI—and whose director, George Tenet, one of the few Clinton holdovers, was issuing so many warnings that bin Laden was “the most immediate” threat to Americans he was hardly heeded any longer.


Last week the tale of the missed signal from Phoenix became, for thousands of families of 9-11 victims, yet another tendril of pain stemming from that day. Indeed, it was part of a whole summer of missed clues that, taken together, seemed to presage the terrible September of 2001. The same week in early July that Kurtz and his team were dispatching their memo, the White House acknowledged for the first time, Bush was privately beginning to worry about the stream of terror warnings he was hearing that summer, most of them aimed at U.S. targets abroad. On July 5, five days before the Phoenix memo, Bush directed Rice to figure out what was going on domestically. A month later, America learned for the first time last week—nine months after the attacks—Bush received a “presidential daily brief” in Crawford, Texas, that mentioned the possibility of an airline hijacking as a domestic threat. The Aug. 6 briefing was only “an analytic report that talked about [bin Laden’s] methods of operation, talked about what he had done historically,” Rice said in a hastily called conference to contain the damage from the news.

Because Bush has long insisted he had no inkling of the attacks, the disclosures touched off a media stampede in a capital long deprived of scandal. The fact that the nation’s popular war president might have been warned a little over a month before September 11—and that the supposedly straight-talking Bushies hadn’t told anyone about it—opened up a serious credibility gap for the first time in the war on terror.

There were, in fact, failures at every level that summer: from the shortcomings in the law-enforcement trenches—the FBI’s poor record at domestic surveillance, the CIA’s poor record at infiltrating Islamic groups and the lack of cooperation between the two agencies—to the fixed strategic mind-set of the Bush administration. Between the claims by the FBI and CIA that they didn’t get enough information and the White House’s insistence that it didn’t receive any reports—”He doesn’t recall seeing anything,” Rice said when asked if Bush had read the Phoenix memo—the buck seems to be stopping nowhere. “If I were an average citizen, I’d be pissed at the whole American government,” says a senior official who has worked on counterterrorism.

The question is not so much what the president knew and when he knew it. The question is whether the administration was really paying much attention. Terrorism is by nature stealthy and hard to crack, even in the face of the most zealous efforts to thwart it. What Americans should be asking is why the Bush administration in its first eight months, like the Clinton administration for much of its eight years, did not demand the intelligence cooperation that was needed. At issue is not whom to blame for the past, but how to learn from it to safeguard our future.


The fact is, in a nation that prides itself on its mastery of the Information Age, almost no one in the U.S. government seemed to know what anyone else was doing. Even as what Rice called “major threat spikes” began to appear on Washington’s radar screen the summer of the Phoenix memo, other new clues began arising in odd places around the country, unknown to senior members of the administration. In mid-August Minneapolis agents arrested a French-Moroccan flight student, Zacarias Moussaoui, and worked themselves into a “frenzy” over the possibility that he was planning a terrorist act involving a large aircraft, one official said. One agent even speculated in his notes that Moussaoui, whom some authorities now believe was supposed to have been the 20th hijacker, might be planning to crash a plane into the World Trade Center. But the Minneapolis agents knew nothing about the Kurtz team’s memo.

Nor did they or senior administration officials appear to know that a few weeks after the Phoenix warning, the FBI got wind that two men who were on a watch list of terror suspects—Khalid Almihdhar, who had been linked to the USS Cole bombing, and an associate, Nawaf Alhazmi—were in the United States. The FBI traced them to southern California, but failed even to check the San Diego phone book to see if they were listed (Alhazmi was), or local banks to see if they had accounts (one of them did). Both men, then in San Diego, were hijackers on American Airlines Flight 77. Rice also disclosed that during the course of last summer, the Federal Aviation Administration issued several “information circulars” warning the aviation industry of possible terror attacks. NEWSWEEK has learned that as many as 10 to 12 such warnings were issued to all U.S. airlines and major airports in the period between June 2001 and September 11. According to sources who have read them, more than two of the warnings specifically mentioned the possibility of hijackings.

Also in early July, about the same time that Bush expressed an interest in learning more about Al Qaeda, Ahmed Ressam was spilling his guts in prison on the West Coast. Ressam had planned to bomb the L.A. Airport after the turn of the millennium but was caught when he bolted from his car. After he was convicted in the spring of 2001, Ressam started giving investigators detailed information on Al Qaeda’s designs in the United States. He left no doubt that U.S. airports were a prime target “because an airport is sensitive politically and economically,” as Ressam said in court on July 3. At least two of the FAA’s summer warnings came from Ressam’s information, which should have given pause to Bush administration officials who remained convinced that the threat was abroad.

NEWSWEEK has learned there was one other major complication as America headed into that threat-spiked summer. In Washington, Royce Lamberth, chief judge of the special federal court that reviews national-security wiretaps, erupted in anger when he found that an FBI official was misrepresenting petitions for taps on terror suspects. Lamberth prodded Ashcroft to launch an investigation, which reverberated throughout the bureau. From the summer of 2000 on into the following year, sources said, the FBI was forced to shut down wiretaps of Qaeda-related suspects connected to the 1998 African embassy bombing investigation. “It was a major problem,” said one source familiar with the case, who estimated that 10 to 20 Qaeda wiretaps had to be shut down, as well as wiretaps into a separate New York investigation of Hamas. The effect was to stymie terror surveillance at exactly the moment it was needed most: requests from both Phoenix and Minneapolis for wiretaps were turned down.

Together all these clues, scattered like tantalizing jigsaw pieces across America, suggest that U.S. airports at least should have been on high alert on September 11. They weren’t. Indeed, the two airlines involved in the hijackings say they were barely aware of the FAA warnings.


Even most of Bush’s critics said the president himself was mostly blameless in the blame game, at least when it came to the kind of briefing he received on Aug. 6. Rice said the memo he got that day was fuzzy and thin, only a page-and-a-half long. But once again the administration sought to fend off hearings—as Vice President Dick Cheney had in early February, when he defiantly told Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle that administration officials might not show up to testify. Meanwhile, the president, still basking in his 70 percent-plus approval rating, put on a defiant, even haughty, front.

Once upon a time, a stern word from George W. Bush on the war on terror would have been enough. But this time the Democrats, and even Republicans like Richard Shelby and John McCain, weren’t buying the Teflon patriotism. The president’s political opponents were backed by some 9-11 victims’ families. “Look at all of the investigations that have been held to examine the Enron collapse, a financial thing,” said Kathy Ashton, whose 21-year-old son Tommy was killed at the World Trade Center on his second day on a contracting job. “Why, eight months later, are we not investigating the mass murder of 3,000 human beings on American soil by an enemy of the United States that was enabled to carry out this mass murder because many agencies in this country dropped the ball?”

The administration’s defensiveness suggested America may have entered the post-post-9-11 period. Washington politics is back to its partisan snarling, and the media, self-muzzled until now, is yapping at the White House’s heels. One sign is that heads in Washington are already rolling. FBI Director Robert Mueller is said by associates to be furious over the bureau’s internal handling of the memo. (Six days after the attack, Mueller had said at a news conference: “There were no warning signs that I’m aware of that would indicate this type of operation in the country.”) On Friday it was learned that the FBI’s and CIA’s top counterterrorism officers were leaving, though officials denied they were being pushed out.


While Bush may have a point in saying he heard no specific threat, other aspects of the administration’s story weren’t holding up. Last week Rice declared, “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center ... All of this reporting about hijacking was about traditional hijacking”; in other words, using passenger jets as hostages. In fact, the government had ample reason to believe that Al Qaeda was no longer interested in traditional terror. The CIA had learned as early as 1995 that Abdul Hakim Murad, an associate of ’93 WTC plotter Ramzi Yousef, had talked about plunging an airliner into the CIA building. Italian authorities had warned of a similar bid at last June’s Genoa summit of the G8 leaders—and they ringed the area with surface-to-air missiles, with CIA cooperation.

In any case, few Americans seem to be in the mood any longer for more-of-the-same from Washington. September 11 has often been compared to Pearl Harbor as a fault line between a complacent and war-ready America. And, like Pearl Harbor, questions about whether it could have been prevented will forever haunt us. To give the Bush administration some credit, no government in modern history has ever predicted a major surprise attack. Britain and France missed the Blitzkrieg in 1940. The Germans missed D-Day in June 1944. And everyone missed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.

Even so, it’s too simple to say that postmortems now are somehow unfair or unpatriotic in “wartime America.” The latest revelations could open up a Pandora’s box of questions about the administration’s pre- 9-11 performance on terror—questions with complicated and interesting roots.

By the end of the Clinton administration, the then national-security adviser Sandy Berger had become “totally preoccupied” with fears of a domestic terror attack, a colleague recalls. True, the Clintonites had failed to act decisively against Al Qaeda, but by the end they were certain of the danger it posed. When, in January 2001, Berger gave Rice her handover briefing, he covered the bin Laden threat in detail, and, sources say, warned her: “You will be spending more time on this issue than on any other.” Rice was alarmed by what she heard, and asked for a strategy review. But the effort was marginalized and scarcely mentioned in ensuing months as the administration committed itself to other priorities, like national missile defense (NMD) and Iraq.

John Ashcroft seemed particularly eager to set a new agenda. In the spring of 2001, the attorney general had an extraordinary confrontation with the then FBI Director Louis Freeh at an annual meeting of special agents in charge in Quantico, Va. The two talked before appearing, and Ashcroft laid out his priorities for Freeh, another Clinton holdover (though no friend of the ex-president’s), “basically violent crime and drugs,” recalls one participant. Freeh replied bluntly that those were not his priorities, and began to talk about terror and counterterrorism. “Ashcroft didn’t want to hear about it,” says a former senior law-enforcement official. (A Justice Department spokeswoman hotly disputed this, saying that in May Ashcroft told a Senate committee terrorism was his “highest priority.”)

That was unfortunate, because Freeh, despite his late-tenure interest in global terrorism, had left behind an FBI that badly needed fixing, especially its antiquated evidence-gathering methods. So fouled up is the FBI’s communications system that it is almost impossible for agents to send classified e-mails to another agency like the CIA; the effect is that little is shared.

It wasn’t that Ashcroft and others were unconcerned about these problems, or about terrorism. But the Bushies had an ideological agenda of their own. At the Treasury Department, Secretary Paul O’Neill’s team wanted to roll back almost all forms of government intervention, including laws against money laundering and tax havens of the kind used by terror groups. At the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld wanted to revamp the military and push his pet project, NMD. Rumsfeld vetoed a request to divert $800 million from missile defense into counterterrorism. The Pentagon chief also seemed uninterested in a tactic for observing bin Laden left over from the Clinton administration: the CIA’s Predator surveillance plane. Upon leaving office, the Clintonites left open the possibility of sending the Predator back up armed with Hellfire missiles, which were tested in February 2001. But through the spring and summer of 2001, when valuable intelligence could have been gathered, the Bush administration never launched even an unarmed Predator. Hill sources say DOD didn’t want the CIA treading on its turf.

And while most of the current controversy is about what America didn’t do defensively, Rumsfeld and Bush didn’t take the offensive, either. Upon entering office, both suggested publicly that the Clinton administration left America with a weak image abroad. The day after the Oct. 12, 2000, attack on the USS Cole, the then candidate Bush said “there must be a consequence.” An FBI document dated January 26, 2001—six days after Bush took office—shows that authorities believed they had clear evidence tying the bombers to Al Qaeda. Yet the new administration mounted no retaliation of its own.


By the time the Bushies did get serious and gear up against Al Qaeda, it was too late. The administration says a long process of revamping the strategy against Al Qaeda culminated—in a supreme irony—on Sept. 10, when the directive reached Rice’s desk for Bush’s signature. And yet even then there were questions about how serious the administration really was. The new strategy called for little more aggressive action than Clinton had adopted: arming and financing anti-Taliban forces inside Afghanistan. And on the same day, Ashcroft submitted his budget request, barely mentioning counterterrorism.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who with Republican Sen. Jon Kyl had sent a copy of draft legislation on counterterrorism and homeland defense to Cheney’s office on July 20, also heard some news that day. Feinstein was told by the veep’s top aide, “Scooter” Libby, as Feinstein described it to NEWSWEEK, “that it might be another six months before he would be able to review the material.”

Today the Bush team is clearly focused, and the CIA and FBI are cooperating more smoothly. They had better: ominous if unconfirmed threats keep pouring over the transom—among them, NEWSWEEK has learned, a recent CIA warning of a “series of explosions using ‘low charge’ nuclear weapons.” Mueller has recentralized FBI analysis in Washington to coordinate intel. The key will be how the Bush administration can learn both from past mistakes and from the investigation that, whether they like it or not, is surely coming.

With Daniel Klaidman, Mark Hosenball, Eleanor Clift, John Barry, Colin Soloway and Tamara Lipper in Washington, Andy Murr in Phoenix, Jamie Reno in San Diego and Christopher Dickey in Paris

© 2002 Newsweek, Inc.

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