FBI agent Harry Samit, who interrogated Moussaoui
weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, sent 70 warnings to his superiors
about suspicions that the al-Qaeda operative had been taking flight
training in Minnesota because he was planning to hijack a plane for a
But FBI officials in Washington showed “criminal
negligence” in blocking requests for a search warrant on Moussaoui’s
computer or taking other preventive action, Samit testified at
Moussaoui’s death penalty hearing on March 20.
Samit’s futile warnings matched the frustrations of
other federal agents in Minnesota and Arizona who had gotten wind of al-Qaeda’s
audacious scheme to train pilots for operations in the United States.
But the agents couldn’t get their warnings addressed by senior officials
at FBI headquarters.
Another big part of the problem was the lack of
urgency at the top. Bush, who had been President for half a year, was
taking a month-long vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and
shrugged off the growing alarm within the U.S. intelligence community.
Separate from the FBI field agents, the Central
Intelligence Agency was piecing the puzzle together from tips,
intercepts and other scraps of information. On Aug. 6, 2001, more than a
month before the attacks, the CIA had enough evidence to send Bush a
top-secret Presidential Daily Briefing paper, “Bin Laden Determined To
Strike in US.”
The CIA told Bush about “threat reporting” that
indicated bin-Laden wanted “to hijack a US aircraft.” The CIA also cited
a call that had been made to the U.S. Embassy in the United Arab
Emirates in May 2001 “saying that a group of Bin Laden supporters was in
the US planning attacks with explosives.”
“The system was blinking red” during the summer of
2001, CIA Director George Tenet later told the 9/11 Commission.
Bush’s Justice Department and FBI headquarters were
in the loop on the CIA reporting, but didn’t reach out to their agents
around the country, some of whom, it turned out, were frantically trying
to get the attention of their superiors in Washington.
Then-acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard told the
9/11 Commission that he discussed the intelligence threat reports with
FBI special agents from around the country in a conference call on July
19, 2001. But Pickard said the focus was on having “evidence response
teams” ready to respond quickly in the event of an attack.
Pickard “did not task field offices to try to
determine whether any plots were being considered within the United
States or to take any action to disrupt any such plots,” according to
the 9/11 Commission’s report.
Amid this bureaucratic inertia, Bush’s role was
crucial. As President, he was the best-positioned official to force the
various parts of the government to undertake a top-down review of what
was known, what evidence was being missed, what could be done.
Richard Clarke, who had been President Bill
Clinton’s counterterrorism chief and stayed in that job after Bush took
office, said the Clinton administration reacted to such threats with
urgent top-level meetings to “shake the trees” at the FBI, CIA, Customs
and other relevant agencies.
Clarke said senior managers would respond by going
back to their agencies to demand a search for any overlooked information
and to put rank-and-file personnel on high alert, as happened when an
al-Qaeda plot to bomb Millennium celebrations was thwarted in 1999.
“In December 1999, we received intelligence reports
that there were going to be major al-Qaeda attacks,” Clarke said on
CNN’s “Larry King Live” two years ago. “President Clinton asked his
national security adviser Sandy Berger to hold daily meetings with the
attorney general, the FBI director, the CIA director and stop the
“Every day they went back from the White House to
the FBI, to the Justice Department, to the CIA and they shook the trees
to find out if there was any information. You know, when you know the
United States is going to be attacked, the top people in the United
States government ought to be working hands-on to prevent it and working
”Now, contrast that with what happened in the summer of 2001, when we
even had more clear indications that there was going to be an attack.
Did the President ask for daily meetings of his team to try to stop the
attack? Did (national security adviser) Condi Rice hold meetings of her
counterparts to try to stop the attack? No.”
In a March 19, 2006, speech in Florida, former Vice
President Al Gore also noted this contrast between how the Clinton
administration reacted to terrorist threats and how the Bush
administration did in the weeks before Sept. 11.
“In eight years in the White House, President
Clinton and I, a few times, got a direct and really immediate statement
like that (Aug. 6, 2001 warning), in one of those daily briefings,” Gore
“Every time, as you would want and expect, we had a
fire drill, brought everybody in, (asked) what else do we know about
this, what have we done to prepare for this, what else could we do, are
we certain of the sources, get us more information on that, we want to
know everything about this, and we want to make sure our country is
“In August of 2001,” Gore added, “such a clear
warning was given and nothing – nothing – happened. When there is no
vision, the people perish.” [To see Gore’s speech on C-Span, click
After receiving the CIA’s Aug. 6, 2001, warning,
Bush is reported to have gone fishing and cleared brush at his ranch.
There is no evidence that he did anything to energize or coordinate the
government response to the expected attack.
“No CSG (Counterterrorism Security Group) or other
NSC (National Security Council) meeting was held to discuss the possible
threat of a strike in the United States as a result of this (Aug. 6)
report,” the 9/11 Commission wrote. “We have found no indication of any
further discussion before Sept. 11 among the President and his top
advisers of the possibility of a threat of an al-Qaeda attack in the
Talking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on April 4, 2004,
the commission’s chairman and vice chairman, New Jersey’s Republican
former Gov. Thomas Kean and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., said they
believed the Sept. 11 attacks were preventable.
“The whole story might have been different,” Kean
said, citing a string of law-enforcement blunders including the “lack of
coordination within the FBI” and the FBI’s failure to understand the
significance of suspected hijacker Moussaoui’s arrest in August 2001
while training to fly passenger jets.
However, from the recent testimony at Moussaoui’s
sentencing hearing, it’s now clear that FBI agents in Minnesota did
grasp the significance of the flight training and did send alarming
messages to Washington-based FBI officials responsible for
counterterrorism. But those officials at headquarters apparently missed
or ignored the warnings.
Moussaoui’s defense attorney, Edward B. McMahon
Jr., asked Michael E. Rolince, who was chief of the FBI’s International
Terrorism Operations Section, if he was aware that FBI agent Samit had
sent a memo to Rolince’s office on Aug. 18, 2001, warning that Moussaoui
was a potential terrorist.
“No,” Rolince answered. “What document are you
Samit’s report “sent to your office,” McMahon
replied. Rolince said he never saw the urgent memo. [Washington Post,
March 22, 2006]
When the 9/11 Commission interviewed Rolince for
its 2004 report, Rolince “recalled being told about Moussaoui in two
passing hallway conversations but only in the context that he [Rolince]
might be receiving telephone calls from Minneapolis complaining about
how headquarters was handling the matter,” though the calls never came,
the report said.
But Rolince was not the only senior FBI official
oblivious to the missed clues. The 9/11 report said acting FBI director
Pickard and assistant director for counterterrorism Dale Watson weren’t
briefed on Moussaoui prior to Sept. 11, either.
The significance of the new information from
Moussaoui’s hearing – which followed his guilty plea to charges that he
had conspired with al-Qaeda to commit acts of terrorism – is that
there’s no longer any doubt that key pieces of the puzzle were
tantalizing close to the FBI officials who could have done something.
FBI headquarters also blew off a prescient memo
from an FBI agent in the Phoenix field office. The July 2001 memo warned
of the “possibility of a coordinated effort by Usama Bin Laden” to send
student pilots to the United States. The agent noted “an inordinate
number of individuals of investigative interest” attending American
No action was taken on the Phoenix memo before
Yet, if President Bush had demanded action from on
high, the ripple effect through the FBI might well have jarred loose
enough of the pieces to make the overall picture suddenly clear,
especially in view of the information already compiled by the CIA.
Ironically, that is almost the same argument that
federal prosecutors are making in seeking Moussaoui’s execution. It’s
not that he was directly involved in the Sept. 11 plot, they say; it’s
that the government might have been able to stop the attacks if he had
immediately confessed what he was up to.
To some civil libertarians, the case raises
troubling Fifth Amendment issues by creating a precedent for putting
someone to death who didn’t promptly confess and thus didn’t provide
clues that might have prevented a separate murder that the defendant
didn’t specifically know about and wasn’t directly involved in.
In effect, the government is basing its demand for
Moussaoui’s death on the notion that the failure to do something that
might have prevented the tragedy of Sept. 11 should be punished to the
fullest extent of the law.
However, the Bush administration has taken almost
the opposite position on its own culpability. Despite a strong case for
criminal negligence – beginning with FBI officials and reaching up to
the Oval Office – Bush and other senior officials have insisted they
have nothing to apologize for.
Indeed, Bush has made his handling of the Sept. 11
terror attacks the centerpiece of his presidential legacy. Arguably, he
rode the whirlwind from the attacks right through the war in Afghanistan
to the invasion of Iraq to his second term as President.
Only recently – after a similar case of botched
leadership during the Hurricane Katrina disaster – has the air whooshed
out of the Bush balloon. Add in the disastrous decisions around the Iraq
War and many Americans see a pattern of arrogant, incompetent leadership
that fails to give adequate heed to evidence or attention to details.
For other Americans, the theory of Bush’s
incompetence doesn’t go nearly far enough to explain the breathtaking
lapses that let the Sept. 11 attacks happen.
Some 9/11 skeptics have come to believe that the
destruction of the Twin Towers and the damage to the Pentagon must have
been an “inside job” with some elements of the Bush administration
conspiring with the attackers to create a modern-day Reichstag Fire that
would justify invading Iraq and consolidating political power at home.
The new Moussaoui evidence, however, tends to
support the theory of incompetence, though of a kind so gross that it
would border on criminal negligence, at the FBI as well as the White
Perceptive field agents did their job in sending up
warning flares to Washington, but a vacationing President and an
inattentive FBI bureaucracy failed to take note or take the necessary
actions to head off the tragedy.
Then, with the Twin Towers and the Pentagon still
smoldering, Bush and his neoconservative advisers saw in the nation’s
anger and fear the emotions needed to implement an agenda of
authoritarian rule at home and preemptive wars abroad.