"The System Was Blinking Red"
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As Tenet told us, "the system was blinking red" during the summer of 2001. Officials were alerted across the world. Many were doing everything they possibly could to respond to the threats.
Yet no one working on these late leads in the summer of 2001 connected the case in his or her in-box to the threat reports agitating senior officials and being briefed to the President. Thus, these individual cases did not become national priorities. As the CIA supervisor "John" told us, no one looked at the bigger picture; no analytic work foresaw the lightning that could connect the thundercloud to the ground. (9/11 Commission Report, p. 277)
Thus the 9/11 Commission Report sums up the situation in late summer 2001. Later the report amplifies on this statement by saying:
Earlier in this report we detailed various missed opportunities to thwart the 9/11 plot. Information was not shared, sometimes inadvertently or because of legal misunderstandings. Analysis was not pooled. Effective operations were not launched. Often the handoffs of information were lost across the divide separating the foreign and domestic agencies of the government. (p. 353)
A truly monumental claim. The 9/11 Commission avers that it identified missed opportunities to thwart the September 11 attacks and more incredibly that this information was contemporaneously available to various agencies of the US government who, if they had not been guilty of sloth, a paucity of imagination, or other high crimes could have prevented the attack of September 11, 2001. But is that the case? What were the specific and credible warnings the 9/11 Commission was able to divine in hindsight that should have been apparent to others in foresight?
To examine their claim we are forced to overcome eye crossing boredom and a nosebleed and read nearly the entire report written in the annoying "tick-tock" style so beloved of Washington Post reporters. While we are thoughtfully provided with critical aids, like photos of the 19 hijackers and the post capture photo of a bedraggled Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), no one thought to include a table of events or timeline leading up to the attack. All the more curious since such a timeline is available for September 11, itself. After reading the report one is left with the nagging suspicion that this omission was not an oversight.
The evidence is the Commission relies on is primarily found in the thin gruel of Chapter 8, ominously titled "The System Was Blinking Red".
The blinking lights
- March 23, Richard Clarke warns Condoleezza Rice that domestic or foreign terrorists might use a truck bomb--their "weapon of choice"--on Pennsylvania Avenue. That would result, he said, in the destruction of the West Wing and parts of the residence. (p. 255)
- In May 2001, the drumbeat of reporting grew louder with reports to top officials that "Bin Ladin public profile may presage attack" and "Bin Ladin network's plans advancing." (p. 255) )
- [May also] brought a report that a phone call to a U.S. embassy had warned that Bin Ladin supporters were planning an attack in the United States using "high explosives." (p. 256) )
- Late May brought reports of a possible hostage plot against Americans abroad to force the release of prisoners, including Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the "Blind Sheikh." (p. 256) )
- On May 24 counterterrorism officials grappled with reports alleging plots in Yemen and Italy, as well as a report about a cell in Canada that an anonymous caller had claimed might be planning an attack against the United States. (p. 256) )
- Threat reports surged in June and July, reaching an even higher peak of urgency. The summer threats seemed to be focused on Saudi Arabia, Israel, Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen, and possibly Rome, but the danger could be anywhere--including a possible attack on the G-8 summit in Genoa. (p. 256)
- On June 22, the CIA notified all its station chiefs about intelligence suggesting a possible al Qaeda suicide attack on a U.S. target over the next few days. (p. 257)
- On June 25, Clarke warned Rice and Hadley that six separate intelligence reports showed al Qaeda personnel warning of a pending attack. (p. 257)
- On July 18, 2001, the State Department provided a warning to the public regarding possible terrorist attacks in the Arabian Peninsula. (p. 259)
- On July 27, Clarke informed Rice and Hadley that the spike in intelligence about a near-term al Qaeda attack had stopped. He urged keeping readiness high during the August vacation period, warning that another report suggested an attack had just been postponed for a few months "but will still happen." (p. 260)
- On August 3, the intelligence community issued an advisory concluding that the threat of impending al Qaeda attacks would likely continue indefinitely. Citing threats in the Arabian Peninsula, Jordan, Israel, and Europe, the advisory suggested that al Qaeda was lying in wait and searching for gaps in security before moving forward with the planned attacks. (p. 260)
Clearly a lot of warnings were received during the spring and summer of 2001. What we don't know is how this series of warnings differed from the Millennium plot (according to one official the summer of 2001 was a 7 on a 10 point scale while the Millennium plot was an 8) or any other 6-month period. It would have been all the more interesting because the US government also failed to detect or respond to that plot until it was exposed through a serendipitous series of events on the Port Angeles ferry. To better evaluate what was real and what was not we move to the activities of the 9/11 hijackers.
- Mid-1996 Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) broaches idea of using aircraft as weapons to Osama bin Ladin. (p. 149)
- Bin Ladin... finally decided to give KSM the green light for the 9/11 operation sometime in late 1998 or early 1999. (p. 149)
- At this point, late 1998 to early 1999, planning for the 9/11 operation began in earnest... [H]e continued to consider other possibilities for terrorist attacks. (p. 150)
- As mentioned earlier, Bin Ladin was receiving numerous ideas for potential operations-- KSM's proposal to attack U.S. targets with commercial airplanes was only one of many. (p. 154)
- Bin Ladin summoned KSM to Kandahar in March or April 1999 to tell him that al Qaeda would support his proposal. The plot was now referred to within al Qaeda as the "planes operation." (p. 154)
- As for Hazmi and Mihdhar (two of the hijackers) ...they arrived in Los Angeles on January 15, 2000. (p. 160)
- In March 2000, Atta emailed 31 different U.S. flight schools on behalf of a small group of men from various Arab countries studying in Germany who, while lacking prior training, were interested in learning to fly in the United States. (p. 168)
- By the end of May 2000, Hazmi and Mihdhar had given up on learning how to fly (p. 222)
- The muscle hijackers began arriving in the United States in late April 2001... By the end of June, 14 of the 15 muscle hijackers had crossed the Atlantic. (p. 237)
- The three Hamburg pilots--Atta, Shehhi, and Jarrah--took the first of their cross-country surveillance flights early in the summer. (p. 242)
Pretty mundane stuff so far. By June 30 18 of 19 hijackers are present in the US. Only four of them, however, know the scope of the operations. Moussaoui is enrolled in flight school. No warnings yet issued by a Phoenix FBI agent. In fact, all the pilots have completed some flight training.
- In early June, [Ramzi] Binalshibh traveled by taxi from Kandahar to Quetta, Pakistan, where al Qaeda courier Abu Rahmah took him to KSM. According to Binalshibh, KSM provided a plane ticket to Malaysia and a fraudulent Saudi passport to use for the trip. KSM told him to ask Atta to select a date for the attacks. (p. 243)
- On July 9 Atta and Binalshibh arrive in Spain for a meeting. (p. 244)
- Atta said he required about five to six weeks before he could provide an attack date. Binalshibh advised Atta that Bin Ladin had directed that the other operatives not be informed of the date until the last minute. Atta was to provide Binalshibh with advance notice of at least a week or two so that Binalshibh could travel to Afghanistan and report the date personally to Bin Ladin. (p. 244)
- On July 16, Binalshibh returned to Hamburg, using a ticket Atta had purchased for him earlier that day. (p. 244)
- It therefore appears that the attack date was selected by the third week of August. This timing is confirmed by Binalshibh, who claims Atta called him with the date in mid-August. (p. 249)
- Perhaps most significant, however, was the purchase of plane tickets for September 11. On August 23, Atta again flew to Newark, probably to meet with Hazmi and select flights. All 19 tickets were booked and purchased between August 25 and September 5. (p. 249)
During the entire period where the "system was blinking red" nothing was happening. No date had been set for the attack. This didn't happen until after Moussaoui had been arrested. The "muscle" didn't know what the mission was and didn't know, according to the Osama bin Ladin video, until they were on the aircraft.
Admittedly two al Qaeda suspects, Hamzi and Mihdhar, were not placed on terror watch lists and legally acquired visas and entered the nation. No one claims that any effort was planned to detain or question the men, only that they should have been prevented entry into the US or expelled for immigration violations.
This, of course, presumes they would have been deterred and not have subsequently entered the US either through Canada or Mexico or with a false identity that could, under the laughable "Visa Express" program, pass the scrutiny of the average Saudi travel agent. Or that there were not substitutes available. Arrest and intense interrogation might have yielded results, but the idea that exclusion would have had any effect is just risible. Ramzi Binalshibh, one of the lead plotters, was also denied a visa and a lot of good that did.
The famous "Phoenix memo" concerning the number of Middle Eastern men who were enrolled in Arizona flight schools was not, according to its author, a prescient warning of 9/11. His recommendations were limited to compiling a list of flight schools, establishing a liaison with those schools, and compiling a list of foreign students enrolled. Hardly James Bondian in scope and had it been vigorously acted upon it would have done nothing to affect the 9/11 attack. The pilots for the plot had already completed training.
Realistically, the first possible warning presented in the 9/11 Commission report is the arrest of Moussaoui on August 15, 2001. Even this is of dubious value because to date no evidence has been developed that links him to the other hijackers. While the failure to obtain a FISA warrant for his computer indicates a lackadaisical attitude, we have searched that computer now and there is nothing there. Nothing. Zero. Zip. Nada. From there, with a great deal of luck, a line could be drawn to the FBI Phoenix memo, to class rosters at flight schools, to the CIA watch list and a guess could be made something was up. This, too, is far fetched because Hamzi and Mihdhar, the two 9/11 hijackers on the terror watch list, had dropped out of flight school in May 2000. Even with this string of luck the plot would have had to have been figured out, the principals located, and action taken within a window of about three weeks. Not a very likely occurrence.
The overwhelming body of evidence indicates that far from warnings being ignored all warnings were being acted on and a case of "terrorism fatigue" had set in on the FBI, INS, CIA and everyone else. The little boy can only cry Wolf! a certain number of times before the villagers blow him off. Clearly the villagers were really tired by August 2001.
It is equally certain that most of the warnings emanating from the NSC were nothing less than pathetic bureaucratic butt covering. Not a single one of the warnings issued by the omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent Richard Clarke panned out. He predicted truck bombs (good guess considering the first WTC attack, Oklahoma City, and the African embassy attacks, and the Millennium plot but obviously just a guess) over the Fourth of July weekend (another half-baked guess that resulted in yet another cry of Wolf!). His actions in the report bear out the description of him in GEN Tommy Franks' book: a self-promoter who "never produced a single page of actionable intelligence" and who had a propensity for wishful thinking.
Could activities by the government have interrupted the attacks? The answer is unknowable. One fact, however, is abundantly clear: absolutely none of the warnings enumerated by the 9/11 Commission report during the critical summer of 2001 referred to the 9/11 attacks. And the various dots, had they been connected, would have changed nothing.
In a best case scenario they were indicators of plots that were either aborted by al Qaeda or foiled by the law enforcement or military operations of the US and its allies. In a worst case scenario they were disinformation, meaning al Qaeda was aware or our intelligence collection sources and methods and spoofed them... or they were the products of the fevered imaginations of totally incompetent analysts and bureaucratic placeholders creating a paper trail to cover themselvese in the inevitable event of a future attack against some target somewhere. Most probably it was a mixture of all.
There is also a disturbing assumption in the report that borders on racism. The underlying subtext is that "these" people, these Arabs, could not have accomplished their mission if we had not failed. They fail to give the hijackers credit for an unfailing adherence to the principles of war and their strict observation of operations security. A failure to analyze and appreciate their operational methods while giving a vigorous proctologic exam to our own is a guarantee of future successful attacks.
The failure to address the issue of whether or not we did get all of the hijackers is an unconscionable shortcoming of the report. The Commission studiously avoids any examination of the rumored second wave of attacks. KSM's declaration that Moussaoui was part of a second wave is given the bum's rush by the simple expedient of taking KSM's later denial there was a second wave at face value. He was lying in one case or another; it seems we should show a modicum of interest in finding out the truth.
There is no doubt that the "system was blinking red" during the spring and summer of 2001. When the "system is blinking red" it may mean there is danger. It could just as easily mean your warning system is broken.