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Tinfoil Nation: Why 9/11 Conspiracy Theories Linger

A majority of Americans say it is "likely" that their government knew about the September 11 attacks in advance and ignored the warning, a recent poll revealed: more evidence that what were once considered loony fringe theories have penetrated the U.S. mainstream. Richard Miniter examines the roots of the claims and debunks them.

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Richard Miniter

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November 27, 2007 - 12:00 am

Sixty-two percent of Americans believe it is “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that federal officials knew about the 9-11 attacks in advance and ignored this lifesaving information, according to this recent New York Post report.

The Post, in its typically calm manner, opines “Idiots in the majority.”

This characterization was too much for the blog ThinkProgress.com.

While eschewing conspiracy theories, the ThinkProgress blogger cited three pieces of “evidence” that “prove” that President Bush knew about the 9-11 attacks in advance: the August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Brief; a July 10, 2001 briefing by CIA director George Tenet; and the FBI’s legendary Phoenix memo.

The “smoking gun” is supposed to be the August 6, 2001, President’s Daily Brief, a summary of vital intelligence prepared by the CIA. Its re: line seems to say it all: “Bin Ladin [sic] Determined to Strike in US.”

It seems like a rock solid case, but on closer inspection it is as flimsy as TV backdrop.

Exhibit A is the full text of the PDB, as it is known internally. Recently declassified, the document is clearly not a warning at all, but a rehash of old news reports and outdated intelligence cables.

Here is the briefing paper, in its entirety, except for two minor security redactions:

Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US

Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate Bin Ladin since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US. Bin Ladin implied in US television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and “bring the fighting to America.”
After US missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, Bin Ladin told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington, according to a …[redacted] … service.
An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative told an … [redacted] … service at the same time that Bin Ladin was planning to exploit the operative’s access to the US to mount a terrorist strike.

The millennium plotting in Canada in 1999 may have been part of Bin Ladin’s first serious attempt to implement a terrorist strike in the US. Convicted plotter Ahmed Ressam has told the FBI that he conceived the idea to attack Los Angeles International Airport himself, but that Bin Ladin lieutenant Abu Zubaydah encouraged him and helped facilitate the operation. Ressam also said that in 1998 Abu Zubaydah was planning his own US attack.

Ressam says Bin Ladin was aware of the Los Angeles operation.

Although Bin Ladin has not succeeded, his attacks against the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 demonstrate that he prepares operations years in advance and is not deterred by setbacks. Bin Ladin associates surveilled our Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as early as 1993, and some members of the Nairobi cell planning the bombings were arrested and deported in 1997.
Al-Qa’ida members — including some who are US citizens — have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks. Two al-Qa’ida members found guilty in the conspiracy to bomb our Embassies in East Africa were US citizens, and a senior EIJ member lived in California in the mid-1990s.

A clandestine source said in 1998 that a Bin Ladin cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks.

We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a … [redacted] … service in 1998 saying that Bin Ladin wanted to hijack a US aircraft to gain the release of “Blind Shaykh” ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahman and other US-held extremists.
Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.

The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers Bin Ladin-related. CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our Embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group of Bin Ladin supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives.

The bulk of the memo is a souped-up history lesson. The mention of “hijackings” comes from foreign intelligence service reports from 1998. Significantly, it does not mention flying hijacked planes into buildings-and it is uncorroborated. In other words, what spooks call “chatter.”

Next it mentions “FBI information” about “suspicious activity”-but does not mention the FBI reports from field offices in Minnesota and Arizona. Finally, the “surveillance” of “federal buildings in New York” is nearly worthless. It is not connected to intelligence about hijackings and, of course, the World Trade Center is not a Federal Building. Finally, the CIA notes that FBI is investigating a possible plot involving “explosives.”

Where is the warning here? A warning is a prediction about a future calamity. Yet, not a single sentence speaks of the future. Instead, every sentence is about the past or the present. A warning implies a degree of alarm. Yet every sentence is as passive as an encyclopedia entry. If the CIA had done its job properly and marshaled the pre-9-11 information that was later uncovered by the 9-11 commission, then, possibly, this document could have turned into a warning. But as it stands, it is not warning. It is a status report. And not a very good one.

Next, let us consider how this “warning” came to be written.

In July, the CIA learned that Italian police had intercepted a cell phone call in Milan. Al Qaeda had long been active in Italy. Italian police and intelligence had foiled plots to attack the U.S. Embassy in Rome and uncovered terror cells in Turin, Milan, and elsewhere. Some were arrested, but many more were the targets of roving wire taps. What the Italians overheard surprised them. Al Qaeda seemed to be planning to assassinate President George W. Bush during a state visit to Genoa, Italy in July 2001.

Security was stepped up. The Italian military supplied a battery of surface-to-air missiles to repel an air attack. The press treated it as simply overkill by the America’s Secret Service and did not probe any deeper.

President Bush was told about the al Qaeda assassination plot in his morning intelligence briefing. He wasn’t happy.

The president said that earlier attempts by President Clinton to capture or kill bin Laden were simply “swatting at flies.” He wanted to “bring this guy down.” He wanted a realistic action plan for killing or capturing Osama bin Laden. When he was informed that the National Security Council was already leading an inter-agency effort to hit bin Laden in Afghanistan, Bush reportedly told Rice that he wanted something more imaginative than a cruise missile strike, which would cost millions “to hit a camel in the butt.”

Bush also demanded a thorough review of all intelligence about terrorist threats from al Qaeda, including the possibility of attacks inside the United States. That is why the PDB, which was delivered on August 6, 2001, was prepared.

At Bush’s small ranch house amid the scrub pine near Crawford, Texas, the CIA presented its findings. Condoleeza Rice tuned in via a secure teleconferencing link from her White House office.

Neither Bush nor Rice was happy with the briefing. Rice later described the briefing as “vague,” a rehash of existing intelligence with no new analysis; it merely recited that bin Laden was dangerous, had plans to attack America, and that we should be careful. Not exactly a call to arms.

Little wonder that then-National Security Advisor Rice told the 9-11 Commission that “the country had taken the steps that it could given there was no threat reporting what might happen inside the United States.”

Certainly, the intelligence community was abuzz with “threat reports” with no specifics about where, when, and how al Qaeda would strike. Months before the September 11 attacks, the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center-known as the “CTC”-distributed a classified memo headlined “Threat of Impending al Qaeda Attack to Continue Indefinitely.” CIA Director George Tenet dismissed it as “maddeningly short on actionable details.” And that report was not distributed outside of the CIA.

Richard Clarke, the hard-driving “counter-terrorism czar,” testified before the 9-11 commission about pre-September 11 intelligence. He said that the number of “al Qaeda threats and other terrorist threats was in the tens of thousands-probably hundreds of thousands.” But none of it contained specific information that could be used to stop the 9-11 plot. Clarke is even more emphatic in his book, Against All Enemies: “Had we had any chance of stopping it, had we the knowledge we needed to prevent that day, those of us sitting as members of CSG [Counterterrorism Security Group] would literally have given our lives to do so; many of those around the CSG table had already put their lives at risk for their country.”

What was lacking was “actionable intelligence.” To prevent the 9-11 attacks (or any terrorist attack), intelligence officials need to know the target, timing, and type of attack, what counterterrorism researcher Kevin Michael Derksen calls “the three T’s of tactical intelligence.” Without knowing all three elements–when, where, and how-an attack cannot be stopped. If you knew that al Qaeda was going to attack the World Trade Center on September 11, but assumed a truck bomb attack, you would be inspecting cars while the planes crashed overhead.
A State Department intelligence officer once described the analytic side of the spy business this way:

“Imagine your boss… placing a lunch-size brown bag twisted at the top on your desk and asking you to tell him what the contents mean? Dutifully, you untwist the bag and spill the contents on your desk. The contents are some sixty pieces of a puzzle. As you look over the puzzle pieces you immediately notice that about one-third of [them] are blank, and another third appear to have edges that have been cut off. As you look at the pieces that have some part of a picture on them, you sense that this is really a mixture of about four different puzzles. Now keep in mind that you have no boxtop to tell you what the puzzle should look like and you do not know how many pieces are in the puzzle…welcome to the art of terrorism analysis. We rarely see a majority of the pieces of a terrorist threat puzzle. When we do, action is taken.

Did the president-or any member of the intelligence community-have enough puzzle pieces to prevent the September 11 attacks?

Both the 9-11 commission and the U.S. Congress’ “Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001,” exhaustively investigated this question. Both used professional investigators to comb through the public record, took sworn testimony from officials, and enjoyed access to reams of classified material.

Both identified dozens of intelligence failures, mostly relating to information sharing, bureaucratic infighting, computer problems, and boneheaded decisions. Still, both bodies came to the same conclusion: that the intelligence community did not know the timing, the target, or the type of attack. So the president had no actionable intelligence.

For those who are tempted to dismiss the reports of both the 9-11 commission and Congress’ Joint Inquiry as a “whitewash,” remember that the hijackers themselves did not know the three Ts. A December 2001 raid on an al Qaeda safe house in Afghanistan turned up a video tape, which featured a lengthy speech by Osama bin Laden.

“The brothers, who conducted the operation, all they knew was that they have a martyrdom operation and that we asked each of them to go to America, but they didn’t know anything about the operation, not even one letter. But they were trained and we did not reveal the operation to them until they are there [in the United States] and just before they boarded the planes.

Those who were trained to fly didn’t know the others. One group of people did not know the other group.”

The majority of the hijackers, until the morning of September 11, did not know the target or the type of attack. And the timing was not disclosed to them until a few days before the attack, according to the 9-11 Commission report. (Indeed, it was originally slated for May, then for July, before bin Laden chose September 11-the seven-year anniversary of the 1996 conviction of Ramzi Youssef, who planned the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.) If the hijackers were apprehended before September 11, there is very little they could say-even if they wanted to cooperate.

So how would it be possible for the president to know something that the terror cell members did not?

Those on the right and left-everyone from the Washington Times’ Bill Gertz to filmmaker Michael Moore-who cling to idea that U.S. government had enough foreknowledge of the attacks to stop them usually cite a handful of reports. Let’s examine each of them.

Gertz, in his book Breakdown: How America’s Intelligence Failures Led to September 11, notes an interview with Kie Fallis, a onetime Defense Intelligence Agency analyst. Fallis told him: “I obtained information in January of 2000 that indicated terrorists were planning two or three major attacks against the United States. The only gaps were where and when.” That is akin to saying that you will win the lottery, the only gaps are the winning numbers and the day on which to play them.

It turns out that Fallis did not even know that al Qaeda planned to hijack planes and ram them into buildings. All Fallis knew is that four al Qaeda operatives, some of whom were tied to the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, had met in Malaysia in January 2000-and that they were up to no good. What exactly is the president supposed to do with this information?

Others point to two September 10 phone intercepts of the National Security Agency. The NSA overheard two Arabic speakers say “The match begins tomorrow” and “tomorrow is zero hour.” These seem to be coded conversations about an upcoming attack.

The intelligence community was not told about these intercepts until after the September 11 attacks.

This looks like a dramatic example of foreknowledge, but it isn’t.

NSA Director Michael Hayden was called on to the carpet in June 2002 by the Congress’ Joint Inquiry. He pointed out that the agency gathers some two million intercepts per hour. Analysts must make snap decisions about which ones to translate and pass on. The two intercepts were put aside as “unactionable” because they did not contain information about a target or a type of attack. All the NSA knew is that tomorrow, somewhere in the world, al Qaeda was hoping to strike somehow. Again, nothing to go on. Messages like this are intercepted routinely and analysts know that many such intercepts are disinformation, when there is no attack in the works.

Still others point to the arrest of Zacarias Moussaui, the so-called “20th hijacker.” Even now, terrorism analysts cannot agree if Moussaoui was supposed to be part of what al Qaeda high command called “the planes operation” or part of a planned second wave of attacks.

Here are the facts that are not in contention: A Pan Am International Flight Academy instructor became suspicious of Moussaoui because he wanted to learn how to fly a 747, but not how to take-off or land. The concerned instructor had to phone the Minnesota FBI four times and, even then, only got the attention of a Special Agent by blurting out “a 747 loaded with fuel can be used as a bomb.”
Moussaoui, who the FBI linked to an al Qaeda affiliate in Chechnya on August 26, 2001, refused to cooperate. When he did talk, months after the attacks, it became clear that he had no knowledge of the target or timing of the attack. It is unclear whether Moussaoui thought he would be part of a conventional hijacking.

Again, no actionable intelligence.

What about the famous “Phoenix memo”?

Kenneth Williams, a veteran policeman turned FBI Special Agent, interviewed some Arab men who were taking flight lessons in Arizona, men who had aroused his suspicions. One had a picture of bin Laden in his living room. Others were tied to an al Qaeda group in London. On July 10, 2001, he e-mailed the FBI’s Osama bin Laden unit and the FBI’s New York Field Office, which often takes the lead in counter-terrorism investigations. The so-called Phoenix memo was quietly shelved-until after 9-11.

Did it contain information that could have tipped off the federal government to the killers living among us?

The 9-11 commission did not think so.

“If the memo had been distributed in a timely fashion and its recommendations were acted on promptly, we do not believe it would have uncovered the plot.”
Kevin Michael Derksen of the University of Winnipeg investigated pre-911 intelligence for the specialist journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. He concludes that “security agencies should not be held responsible for failing to forestall what was an impenetrable terrorist plot. An examination of the evidence has shown that security agencies did not have the actionable intelligence they needed to prevent the attack or the means to obtain it.”

Even so, the intelligence services performed poorly. Here is a partial list of some of the intelligence failures uncovered by investigators.

* The very high barrier placed by the Foreign Intelligence Security Act prevented FBI and CIA counter-intelligence operatives from working together or sharing information.
* The FBI’s computer system was horribly antiquated. When the Phoenix office of the FBI issued a warning about the possibility of fundamentalists entering the United States to train on airplane simulators, Phoenix agents had no way of searching the FBI’s internal database to see if there were any other reports about fundamentalists taking flight training in the U.S. Some FBI offices could not even send e-mails to other offices.
* For more than two years, the National Security Agency had tapped the phones of an al Qaeda safe house in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. The NSA analysts had the ability to trace some (but not all) of the calls made from the safe house. In particular, they were suspicious about an al Qaeda operative named “Khalid.” But they couldn’t determine Khalid’s last name or where he was headed. As U.S. News & World Report reported in 2004, only after 9-11 did the NSA discover that the Khalid in question was Khalid al-Mihdar, who hijacked the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. The safe house belonged to al-Mihdar’s father-in-law.
* British restaurant worker Niaz Khan told the FBI in 2000 that al Qaeda was planning to attack the U.S. The FBI let him go, took no action (except to put Khan on the list of people banned from flying into the U.S). After Khan returned to Britain, he tried to contact British intelligence, but they didn’t want to hear from him. Only after he contacted Crimestoppers, a British television series, did anyone pay any attention to him.
* The FBI had several tips about a mosque in San Diego where some of the 9-11 hijackers had worshipped. Yet the bureau had no idea that the plot was underway, even though they had extensive wiretaps on some of the activities there.

Even if intelligence officers could have followed up on these leads, it is doubtful they would have uncovered “actionable intelligence” about the target, timing, and type of attack. Remember, the hijackers themselves did not know all of these details until the morning of September 11.

The only way that the president could have been warned prior to 9-11 would be if American intelligence had an “asset” among bin Laden’s inner circle in Afghanistan-and it did not.

Stubbornly, some believe that the CIA must have warned the president; essentially they assume that the CIA is omniscient. But as historian David McCullough, speaking in another context, told the Christian Science Monitor, “You can’t ever judge why people did things the way they did in the past unless you take into consideration what they didn’t know. Looking back, we say: They should have known, or listened to him or to her. It’s never that simple.’”

Why does this conspiracy theory linger? Historian Joseph E. Persico argues that it is simply human nature. Persico is an acknowledged expert on the last surprise attack on the American homeland, the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor. He notes that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had some inkling of Japan’s dark designs before the December 7, 1941 attack. Relations between Washington and Tokyo had been souring for years and the U.S. was opposed to Japan’s bloody invasion and occupation of eastern China. So FDR knew that Japan might attack at some point. But there was no intelligence suggesting that Japan would attack at Pearl Harbor or when it would attack or how. Still FDR’s critics and many others continue to suspect that he knew all along and that he allowed Pearl Harbor to happen as a “backdoor to war.”

“Why do conspiracy theories keep sprouting?” Persico asks. “Neat, suspenseful plots create high drama, while the truth is often messy, contradictory, even dull.”

Unfortunately, the same is true today. Bush’s critics are as misguided as FDR’s.

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