WASHINGTON, D.C—First they said they’d never heard of an attack with planes. Then they said there had been vague mentions of something like that. But the intelligence info was full of nuance and might have meant this or that, and anyhow, the computers weren’t properly talking to one another. Now, six years after the first alarms went off in the White House under Clinton, and three years after the attacks, the horrid truth emerges: The top levels of the U.S. government knew from 1998 on that a big attack was coming. They never told us.
As reported over the weekend, the Presidential Daily Brief for December 4, 1998, was headed: “Bin Laden preparing to hijack U.S. aircraft and other attacks.” The memo said intelligence reports “suggest Bin Laden and his allies are preparing for attacks in the U.S., including an aircraft hijacking to obtain the release of Shaykh Umar Abd al-Rahman, Ramzi Yousef and Muhammad Sadiq Awda. One source quoted a senior member of [the Egyptian terrorist group] Gama at al-Islamiyya (IG), saying that as of late October the group had completed planning for an operation in the United States on behalf of bin Laden but that the operation was on hold. A senior bin Laden operative from Saudi Arabia was to visit IG counterparts in the United States soon thereafter to discuss options—perhaps including an aircraft hijacking.” All this is from Susan Schmidt of The Washington Post, who was read the text of the brief over the phone by the usual anonymous government official.
There’s more. The same source, or possibly another source, is quoted in the memo as saying the “operational team had evaded security checks during a recent trial run at an unidentified New York airport.” Additionally, the memo says that since Osama bin Laden had no experience in hijacking, he was probably assessing other types of operations against the U.S., notably transporting SA-7 missiles from Yemen into Saudi Arabia “to shoot down an Egyptian plane or, if unsuccessful, a U.S. military or civilian aircraft.” A Bush White House official told the Post on Saturday that there is “no record or recollection of the new White House team having been briefed on that threat information.” Just how the Clinton administration responded to this threat is to be spelled out in the 9-11 Commission report set for release July 22.
Place this memorandum amid the steady stream of warnings, and you begin to get a pretty clear picture that intelligence agencies and governments in various parts of the world were well aware that bin Laden was planning an attack in the U.S. involving commercial planes. Here are just a few of the warnings we’ve already culled from Paul Thompson’s 9-11 timeline (cooperativeresearch.org): In 1999, British intelligence reported to the U.S. embassy that Al Qaeda had plans to use “commercial aircraft” in “unconventional ways . . . possibly as flying bombs.” In June 2001, German intelligence warned the U.S., Britain, and Israel that Middle Eastern terrorists were planning to hijack commercial aircraft and use them as weapons. In late July 2001, Egyptian intelligence received a report from an undercover agent in Afghanistan that “20 Al Qaeda members had slipped into the U.S., and four of them had received flight training on Cessnas.” In late summer 2001, Jordanian intelligence intercepted a message stating that a major attack was being planned inside the U.S. and that aircraft would be used—the code name of the operation was said to be Big Wedding, which did in fact turn out to be the code name of the 9-11 plot. Russian president Vladimir Putin has said publicly that he ordered his intelligence agencies to alert the U.S. in summer 2001 that suicide pilots were training for attacks on U.S. targets. Five days before 9-11, a priest, considered a reliable source, heard from Muslims at a wedding of a planned attack in the U.S. using planes. This information may have come from a Milan-based Al Qaeda cell that forged documents for the organization’s operations. Wiretaps indicated that its members were aware of a plot very much like 9-11—a year before the attacks.
And these warnings don’t include a Muslim from Britain who said he was recruited by Al Qaeda to participate in the attack, but who changed his mind and went to the FBI—which turned him away. Or the FBI translator’s knowledge of an FBI source in Afghanistan who told agents in spring 2001 of a coming attack. Or the men in summer 2001 who, after taking pictures of downtown Manhattan federal buildings and police stations, were caught but then released by the feds, who didn’t find out until they were gone that their visas were fakes.
As for the normally loquacious Bill Clinton, who was president when the 1998 memo came to his desk at the White House, his remarks on 9-11 and the aftermath have been subdued and evidently aimed at protecting his own record. “There’s not a shred of evidence,” he said in an AOL online interview in late June, “that I denied either the military or the intelligence services of our country anything when they were after the terrorists in general and bin Laden in particular.” In his meeting with the 9-11 commissioners, Clinton reportedly said intelligence wasn’t strong enough to warrant an attack on Al Qaeda following the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in October 2000. And in his new book, My Life, he writes, in discussing a meeting on July 4, 1999, in D.C. with Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, “We had intelligence reports that Al Qaeda was planning attacks on U.S. officials and facilities in various places around the world and perhaps in the United States as well.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 13, 2004