What We Learned from the Report of the 911 Commission XXIX.

The tricky issue of Personality and Culture.

The foreign intelligence community did a pretty good job of centralizing information and analysis on threats to American interests abroad and of coordinating a response. However, there was no centralization of information and analysis on domestic threats, no co-ordination of response, and no adequate communication between foreign and domestic intelligence. No one seems to have realized that the domestic agencies had no formal plans or procedures for how to respond to terrorism; no one told the agencies to develop such plans and procedures. (pp. 378-379.) There was no central co-ordination of intelligence analysis or threat assessment. “The mosaic of threat intelligence came from the [CIA’s] Counterterrorist Center, which collected only abroad. Its reports were not supplemented by reports from the FBI.” (p. 294.)

“Beneath the acknowledgement that Bin Laden and al Qaeda presented serious dangers, there was uncertainty among senior officials about whether this was just a new and especially venomous version of the ordinary terrorist threat America had lived with for decades, or was radically new, posing a threat beyond any yet experienced.” (p. 491.) Richard Clarke failed in repeated efforts to get the Clinton administration to recognize al Qaeda as a first order threat, and he was still trying to get a decision on this from the new Bush administration in early September 2001. However, no one—even Richard Clarke—ever forced an open debate on the issue. (p. 491.)

NB: A point worth considering. The above analyses fairly frequently point out the deficiencies of the FBI, the CIA, and the State Department because all three of them privilege the local commanders (so to speak) over central authority. Local offices tend to have autonomy about what they do and how they do it within the broad outlines of general policy defined from the center. However, at the start of Chapter Five, “Al Qaeda Aims at the American Homeland,” there appears the following remark. “Bin Laden and his chief of operations,…, occupied undisputed leadership positions atop al Qaeda’s organizational structure. Within this structure, al Qaeda’s worldwide terrorist operations relied heavily upon the ideas and work of enterprising and strong-willed field commanders who enjoyed considerable autonomy.” (p. 210.) How could the same system work FOR al Qaeda and AGAINST the United States?

President Clinton apparently grew impatient with the inability of the United States government to make Bin Laden just go away. President Clinton once remarked to JCS Chairman (and Green Beret and former commander of all Special Forces) Hugh Shelton that “You know, it would scare the shit out of al-Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.” Shelton subsequently declared that he didn’t remember Clinton making the statement and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen said that he thought the President might have been making a hypothetical statement, however Clinton has repeatedly stated that he said this. (p. 272.) NB: It’s like listening to my 13 year-old—when he was younger.

“According to Clarke, [National Security Adviser Sandy] Berger upbraided DCI [George] Tenet so sharply after the Cole attack—repeatedly demanding to know why the United States had to put up with such attacks—that Tenet walked out of a meeting of the principals.” (p. 278.) In Summer 2001 Tenet engaged in a lot of hand wringing about ordering a lethal attack on Bin Laden. “Are America’s leaders comfortable with the CIA doing this, going outside of normal military command and control? Charlie Allen told us that when these questions were discussed at the CIA, he and the Agency’s executive director, A.B. “Buzzy” Krongard, had said that either one of them would be happy to pull the trigger, but Tenet was appalled, telling them that they had no authority to do it, nor did he.” (reported, p. 305.) NB: What would Dulles, or Helms, or Colby have said?

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What We Learned from the Report of the 911 Commission XXVIII.

So, there were flaws in how the government professionals responded to the danger posed by al Qaeda. How did elected officials do?

 

The Carter administration began the practice of having counter-terrorism co-ordinated by an NSC staff member in the White House. A civil servant, Richard Clarke, took over the function of co-ordinating policies on trans-national crime, narcotics, and terrorism (“drugs and thugs”) in the Reagan administration after Olly North’s “arms for hostages enterprise ran aground. The Clinton administration kept Clarke on. Beginning in 1995 the Clinton administration took a considerable interest in resisting terrorism: the anti-terrorism budget of the FBI was substantially increased and the budgets of the CIA ceased to decline; the US leaned on foreign countries to stop providing shelter to terrorists; and Richard Clarke was promoted to be “national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection, and counterterrorism.” (pp. 144-150.) In theory, Clarke was supposed to report through the Deputies Committee; in practice Clarke reported directly to a restricted sub-group of the Principals. (p. 288.)

However, Osama Bin Laden declared war on the United States in February 1998, but neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush went to Congress for a corresponding declaration of war against Osama Bin Laden. This limited the possibilities for action against Bin Laden. (NB: On the other hand, how do you declare war against one guy living in a cave in the most backward place on earth?)

 

In the wake of the Watergate scandals, Congress created House and Senate select committees to over-see the work of the intelligence agencies (and to keep them from making a mess on the carpet). However, the Armed Services committees have real authority over the intelligence agencies, so the intelligence budgets rise and fall with the over-all levels of defense spending.

The grab for a “peace dividend” in the 1990s by cutting defense budgets also drove down intelligence budgets; Congress wasn’t interested in terrorism as a problem; and Congress has become progressively less capable of exercising over-sight of the executive branch in recent decades. Instead of carefully reviewing the implementation of laws and programs, Congressional committees have shifted to “a focus on personal investigations, possible scandals, and issues designed to generate media attention.” (Quoted, p. 155.) They certainly did nothing to push the executive branch to reorganize itself to deal with the post-Cold War world. (pp. 150-157.) NB: The general coarsening of American public life showed up here as well.

 

What we learned from the Report of the 911 Commission XXVI.

Second, there were restrictions on the sharing of information.

The Watergate-era investigations of government abuses of power led to the adoption (1976, 1983) of highly-restrictive rules for domestic intelligence gathering.

In addition, in 1978 Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that controlled domestic intelligence gathering directed against a foreign power, usually by the FBI. The Justice Department’s Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR) took charge of presenting applications for a FISA warrant to the FISA court. The Justice Department’s initial interpretation of the law limited co-operation between criminal prosecutors and the FBI agents gathering FISA information, but in 1994-1995 the Clinton Administration’s Justice Department (acting head of OIPR Richard Scruggs, Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick) further tightened restrictions on contact between the FBI and prosecutors in national security cases. (p. 115.)

“These [1995] procedures were almost immediately misunderstood and misapplied.” (p. 115.) OIPR then bullied the FBI and Criminal Division prosecutors into compliance with this “misunderstanding” of what the procedures actually required. Reviews of these issues in 1999, 2000, and 2001 all concluded that the 1995 procedures were being misapplied to the detriment of national security, but no one did anything to correct the problem. (p. 116.) [NB: Neither Attorney General Janet Reno nor Gorelick tried to correct what the 9/11 Report later characterized as a “misunderstanding.”]

As a result, FBI agents working on intelligence matters communicated but little with both prosecutors and with FBI agents working on criminal matters, although they did pick up lots of useful information from their contacts with the NSA and the CIA. FBI counterintelligence became a sort of black hole in the Justice Department. (p. 116.)

Third, there was a sort of autism prevalent in the FBI. “The FBI simply did not produce the kind of intelligence reports that other agencies routinely wrote and disseminated. As law enforcement officers, Bureau agents tended to write up only witness interviews. Written cases analysis usually occurred only in memoranda to supervisors requesting authority to initiate or expand an investigation.” (p. 259.)

Fourth, Louis Freeh did not communicate with President Clinton. (p. 513.) [NB: I don’t know if this is a reflection of the on-going investigations of Clinton? Somebody needed to give up in the scandals for the good of the country.]

Other Law Enforcement Agencies. “Before 9/11, with the exception of one portion of the FBI [essentially the New York City field office], very little of the sprawling U.S. law enforcement community was engaged in countering terrorism.” (p. 120.) The Department of Justice has the U.S. Marshals Service and the Drug Enforcement Agency; the Treasury Department has the Secret Service, the Customs Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was swamped trying to deal with the flood of both legal aliens (requiring naturalization) and illegal aliens (flooding in over the southern border). The INS was woefully under-funded relative to its responsibilities. Although the INS attempted to respond to terrorism after the 1993 WTC bombing, “might have been” horror stories abound. (pp. 118-120.)

What we learned from the Report of the 911 Commission XVI.

The new administration of President George W. Bush recognized that al Qaeda posed a real terrorist threat to the United States. How much of a threat? So far, al Qaeda had truck-bombed two embassies and boat-bombed a warship, all on the margins of the Indian Ocean. So, ambitious, but with a short-reach. Moreover, al Qaeda operated from Afghanistan, a client regime of Pakistan. So, no simple solution.

In February 2001 President Bush warned President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan that al Qaeda posed “a direct threat to the United States and its interests that must be addressed.” (Quoted, p. 298.) On 7 March 2001 the Deputies Committee took up the al Qaeda issue for the first time. The Deputies seem to have concluded that policy on al Qaeda terrorism would have to depend upon the development of a policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan. They began this process and Rice deferred any reference of the issue to the Principals Committee until they had finished; this deeply frustrated Clarke. (p. 293.)

In March 2001 Rice asked the CIA to come up with new guidance documents for implementation in Afghanistan. (p. 303.) These were ready by the end of the month. On 28 March 2001 Tenet sent Hadley two new draft guidance documents. One authorized the CIA to provide covert aid to opponents of the Taliban. The other authorized the CIA to kill Bin Laden. (pp. 303-304.) In March and April 2001 the CIA began pressing for giving a lot of covert assistance to the opponents of the Taliban. Cofer Black particularly favored aiding the Northern Alliance (a move supported by Clarke). (p. 297.)

From late March through April 2001 the CIA issued warnings of looming terrorist attacks by “Sunni extremists” and/or by Abu Zubaydah. On 30 April 2001 the CIA briefed the Deputies, warning that al Qaeda was the “most dangerous group we face.” (p. 293.) The Deputies discussed reports of planned attacks by Bin Laden as part of this review of policy toward al Qaeda.

Reports predicting terrorist attacks continued to come in during May 2001 and formed part of a backdrop of concern. On 29 May 2001 the weekly meeting between Rice and Tenet was devoted to al Qaeda, with Tenet emphasizing the need to devote expanded resources to counterterrorism. Rice told Clarke to write up a new plan for action against al Qaeda.

The flood of reports about terrorist plans to act in the near future actually increased during June and July 2001. However, they always referred to action overseas, mostly in the Middle East, but also in Europe. (p. 369.) There were a number of key dates or places that might serve as the occasion for terrorist attacks: the Fourth of July, the G-8 summit in Genoa, Italy (which President Bush was to attend). (pp. 370-371.)

Only in June 2001 did American intelligence begin to receive reports hinting at the 9/11 attacks. On 12 June 2001 a CIA report stated that KSM was recruiting people on behalf of OBL to come to the US in order to carry out attacks in partnership with people already in the US. On 22 June 2001 a CIA report warned of a possible suicide attack on an American target in the near future.

On 30 June 2001 the CIA intelligence brief to top officials warned that “Bin Laden [is] Planning High-Profile Attacks.” Ultimately, dealing with Bin Laden would require overthrowing the Taliban. This seemed a very complicated undertaking. During June and July 2001 people in the Administration argued over whether the US should engage in regime change in Afghanistan. (p. 297.)

What we learned from the Report of the 911 Commission XV.

President George W. Bush’s National Security Advisor Condaleeza Rice insisted upon a return to the formal table of organization, in which Clarke’s group reported through the deputies and Clarke ceased to be a de facto “principal.” Clarke saw this as a demotion. (p. 288.)

On 25 January 2001, in response to a request from Rice for suggestions on policy reviews or initiative from her senior staff, Clarke submitted a memo pushing the policy he had advocated in the waning days of the Clinton administration. He also worked to bolster the case for action against al Qaeda in other ways, sending a memo outside the normal chain of communications directly to VP Cheney before a visit to CIA HQ urging the VP to press the CIA about the Cole investigation and sending intelligence about al Qaeda’s role in the Cole attack to Rice as a counter to the CIA’s refusal to claim a definite link between Bin Laden and the bombing. (pp. 290-291.)

On 19 April 2001 Clarke’s Counterterrorism Security Group discussed the reports of predicted attacks by Sunni extremists and by Abu Zubaydah.

On 29 May 2001 Clarke urged Stephen Hadley to press the CIA on what further steps it could take to forestall an attack against American interests. (p. 368.)

About 7 June 2001 Clarke submitted to Rice a memo–essentially his memos of December 2000 and January 2001–outlining a sustained multi-faceted effort. (pp. 295-296.)

On 25 June 2001 Clarke told Rice and Hadley that he had learned of six different intelligence reports that reported al Qaeda people predicting an attack in the near future. (p. 369.)

On 28 June 2001 Clarke warned Rice that the intelligence community had concluded “that a major terrorist attack or series of attacks is likely in July.” (p. 370.)

In late June or early July 2001 Clarke urged Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley to make anti-al Qaeda policy the whole focus of US-Pakistan relations. This went nowhere. (p. 299.)

By early September 2001 Clarke felt a furious urgency to get the government to act on al Qaeda. “After nine years on the NSC staff and more than three years as the president’s national coordinator, he had often failed to persuade these agencies [CIA, Pentagon] to adopt his views, or to persuade his superiors to set an agenda of the sort he wanted or that the whole government could support.” (p. 308.)

So, was Richard Clarke a prophet without honor in his own land or was he an ambitious bureaucrat who had found his leash being pulled-in by the business-like Bush administration?  Perhaps different people in the national security establishment saw him in different lights.

What we learned from the Report of the 911 Commission XIII

The “Planes Operation.”

The East African embassy bombings had persuaded Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (KSM) that OBL was serious about attacking the United States. He renewed his proposal for al Qaeda support for the “planes operation.” In March or April 1999, OBL agreed to support the plan. (pp. 216, 223.)

 

Planning.

KSM turned to the preparation phase of the attack. KSM, OBL, and Mohammed Attef worked up a target list. The early list of targets for the “planes operation” included the White House, the Capitol, the Pentagon, and the World Trade Center. KSM spent the first months (Spring-Summer 1999) collecting materials: “Western aviation magazines; telephone directories for American cities such as San Diego and Long Beach, California; brochures for school; and airlines timetables, and he conducted Internet searches on U.S. flight schools. He also purchased flight simulator software and a few movies depicting hijackings.” (p. 227.) NB: KSM found a San Diego phone book in a Karachi flea market. (p. 312.)

Initially, the target date of the attacks was set for May 2001, ideally 12 May 2001—seven months to the day after the attack on the USS Cole. (p. 360.)

OBL also provided KSM with four candidates as suicide bombers. In Fall 1999 these men were passed through an advanced commando and terrorism course at an al Qaeda camp. By December 1999 they were Karachi, Pakistan, for further training from KSM. Here they may have crossed paths with four young Muslims coming to Afghanistan from Germany.

In late 1999 OBL seems to have begun recruiting several dozen “muscle hijackers.” I conjecture this because the eventual “muscle hijackers” all began breaking contact with their families in late 1999 and early 2000. (p. 337.) Alternatively, these hijackers may have ended up in Afghanistan for training when they could not get to Chechnya, and been recruited there in Summer 2000. (pp. 337-338.) In any event, there were about 20 of them recruited. About ten of them fell by the way-side during the next year: failing to obtain visas to the United States, backing out of the plan, or failing some al Qaeda test. (pp. 340-341.)

 

Bumps.

The four men initially chosen as pilots were experienced mujahideen and devout Muslims, but they were clueless about America. When it became apparent that not all of the men would be able to gain entry into the United States, the planners added a second component of the plan. This would involve destroying airliners in flight leaving from places in Asia where access could be gained easily. In December 1999 three of them traveled on to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

A group of Muslim students living in Hamburg, Germany, became radicalized by some means that still is not clear. In late 1999, fired by a desire to join in “jihad,” four of the group left Germany for Afghanistan. Here they were recruited by al Qaeda. The intent was to use them for the “planes operation,” but they were not told exactly what their mission would be at this time. By late January 2000 they were back in Hamburg trying to get visas for the United States; in March 2000 Mohammed Atta, the alpha dog in the group, began contacting US flight schools. (pp. 231-245.)

In May 2001 the “planes operation” had to be postponed until July 2001 because the teams were not yet ready. (p. 360.)

In Spring 2000 UBL cancelled the Asian component of the “planes operation” on the grounds that it would be too difficult to coordinate with the American component. (pp. 221-231.)

In July 2001 the “planes operation” had to be postponed until September 2001 because of another glitch (probably the uncertainty over the commitment of one of the pilots, Jarrah). (p. 360.)

 

What we learned from the report of the 911 Commission XII

On 12 October 2000, an al Qaeda team staged a suicide bombing against the American warship, the USS Cole while it was at anchor in the Yemen port of Aden. The attack killed 17 American sailors.

Although the CIA “described initial Yemeni support after the Cole [bombing] as ‘slow and inadequate,’…the Yemenis provided strong evidence connecting the Cole attack to al Qaeda during the second half of November, identifying individual operatives whom the United States knew were part of al Qaeda. During December the United States was able to corroborate this evidence. But the United States did not have evidence about Bin Laden’s personal involvement in the attacks until Nashiri[1] and Khallad[2] were captured in 2002 and 2003.” (p. 278.)

The Yemenis arrested two of the surviving members of the Cole team; extracted from them the names and descriptions of Nashiri, their immediate commander, and Khallad, the liaison who came from Afghanistan; and suggested to the Americans (correctly) that Khallad was actually Tawfiq bin Attash. (p. 277.) Both Nashiri and Khallad were known to the Americans to have been involved in the 1998 embassy bombings, for which al Qaeda had claimed credit, and to be linked to al Qaeda. (p. 278.) An FBI special agent participating in the investigation recognized the name Khallad as someone described by an al Qaeda source as Bin Laden’s “run boy.” In mid-December 2000 the Americans’ al Qaeda source identified a photograph of Khallad obtained from the Yemenis as Bin Laden’s agent. (pp. 277-278.)

Moreover, the 12 October 2000 “attack on the USS Cole galvanized al Qaeda’s recruitment efforts.” [OBL ordered production of a propaganda video that highlighted the attack on the Cole.] “Al Qaeda’s image was very important to Bin Laden, and the video was widely disseminated… and caused many extremists to travel to Afghanistan for training and jihad. Al Qaeda members considered the video an effective tool in their struggle for pre-eminence among other Islamist and jihadist movements.” (p. 276.) [NB: Al Qaeda appeared to be claiming responsibility for the attack. How could the CIA still waver over identifying OBL as the originator of the attack on the Cole?]

In mid-November 2000 Sandy Berger asked Hugh Shelton to review plans for military action against Bin Laden. On 25 November 2000 Berger and Clarke wrote to President Clinton to inform him that the investigation would soon show that the Cole attack had been launched by a terrorist cell whose leaders belonged to al Qaeda and whose members had trained in al Qaeda facilities; the memo also sketched out a “final ultimatum” to the Taliban being pushed by Clarke. (pp. 280-281.)

 

 

 

[1] Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri (1965- ). Saudi Arabian. One of the “Arab Afghans” who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Eventually aligned with Osama bin Laden. Captured by the CIA in 2002. Reportedly “waterboarded” during interrogation. Currently being held at Guantanamo.

[2] Walid Muhammad Salih bin Roshayed bin Attash (1979- ).  Yemeni immigrant to Saudi Arabia.  Another “Arab Afghan.”  Became very close to Osam bin Laden.  Captured in 2003.