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FILE- In this Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 file photo, fire and smoke billows from the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center after terrorists crashed two hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and brought down the twin 110-story towers. A bill passed by Congress allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government has reinforced to some in the Arab world a long-held view that the U.S. only demands justice for its own victims of terrorism, despite decades of controversial U.S. interventions around the world. (AP Photo/David Karp, File)

On September 11, 2001 four airliners were simultaneously hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists.  Two of the airliners were deliberately flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, a third was flown into the Pentagon, and the fourth crashed in a field in western Pennsylvania after passengers overpowered the hijackers.  It is believed that the target of the fourth plane was another government building in Washington, DC- either the US Capitol building or the White House.  The symbolic significance of the targets is obvious as they targeted the seats of American economic, military and political might.

After the initial shock, the government started asking the very question the public had regarding these attacks: How could this happen?  Upon his return to Washington, DC, President Bush assembled his law enforcement and intelligence people to give an initial report.  There would later be Congressional hearings and the creation of a Commission to look into the matter, determine why and how it happened, and most importantly, how it could be prevented in the future.

It is important to note that in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks the mood of the Nation and the government.  The population was in shock as film of the attacks on the World Trade Center played incessantly on television screens as the planes flew into the building, the resulting fireballs, and the collapse of the towers.  It should be also noted that the World Trade Center had been previously attacked in 1993.  The mastermind of that attack- Ramzi Yousef- had been arrested in 1995 by the Pakistani intelligence service and handed over to American authorities.  Upon his return flight to the United States, as the plane made its approach to New York City where he was to stand trial, US officials stated that the Twin Towers were still standing.  Yousef allegedly said, “For now…”

It is also important to dispense with the idea, much of it based on media conspiracy theories, that the Bush administration knew in advance of the attacks and did little or nothing to prevent them.  Some of this is based on the contents of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) presented to Bush early in his administration.  The presentation of an NIE is a standard procedure of the intelligence community and expresses what they believe to be possible or imminent threats against the United States or its interests abroad.  It has been suggested that specific threats- namely, the use of hijacked airliners to carry out attacks- was ignored by the Bush White House.

There were certain members of the law enforcement and intelligence community who were sounding alarms about al-Qaeda and Osama bin-Laden before the attacks.  From previous NIEs during the Clinton administration, it was determined that al-Qaeda was formed in 1988 at the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.  After the 1993 attack, a NIE “predicted” future al-Qaeda terrorist attacks abroad and in the United States.  If anything, these estimates were based on vague intelligence and non-specific analysis.  Reports had been assembled and distributed describing the al-Qaeda network and tactics, its financing, and its leadership, including lengthy psychological and medical profiles of bin-Laden.  One NIE presented to the White House in 1997 described al-Qaeda as a nuisance.  A number of analytical papers had been prepared by the intelligence community between 1998 and 2001.  A 1999 paper on bin-Laden outlined the command structure of the terrorist group, but lacked any detail about strategies, al-Qaeda’s involvement with governments, or their involvement in or connection to previous terrorist attacks.  One paper mentioned that they tend to strike every 18-24 months somewhere. Simply put, there was a lack of consensus in the Clinton administration and in the early days of the Bush administration regarding any specific threat al-Qaeda presented to the United States. 

Richard Clarke was a counterintelligence official in both the Clinton and Bush administrations.  On January 25, 2001, he sent a memo to National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice requesting a finding on al-Qaeda as to whether the government intended to treat them as a high-order threat.  Apparently frustrated with a lack of a response, his September 4, 2001 memo to Rice expressed his frustration with foot-dragging at the Pentagon and CIA.  However, that same memo- held out as proof that Bush “knew” of the threat- also stated that the group was, again, considered a nuisance, or “the point of the spear of radical Islam.”  Some have claimed that the administration had direct knowledge that al-Qaeda would use hijacked airliners as bombs.  That tactic was common knowledge in the intelligence and law enforcement communities based on the capture of Ramzi Yousef.  When he was captured by the Pakistanis, he had in his possession two airline tickets and bombs disguised as toy dolls.  Although hijacking was not specifically addressed, officials were well-aware that al-Qaeda targeted airliners.

So, yes- the administration knew that al-Qaeda was a vague threat, but no- they had no specifics about 9/11.  Whether they should have known is another debate altogether.

Next: Unleashing the intelligence community