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During the Watergate investigation into Nixon administration corruption, a familiar question to witnesses was: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”
A good variation on that question more than a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack is: “What did the government know and when did it know it?”
There’s a growing body of evidence that those entrusted and paid by the people to know about threats indeed had some warning, but failed to pass it on to the public.
For instance, according to a report in the London Telegraph, Israeli intelligence agents traveled to Washington in August to warn the FBI and Central Intelligence Agency that large-scale terrorist attacks on highly visible targets on the American mainland were imminent. The Israelis warned that as many as 200 terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden and Iraq were preparing a big operation.
Now that may not seem like enough information to have prevented the attacks. But that’s not all the information that was available to our intelligence agencies – not by a long shot.
The FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies also knew that two of the hijackers were in the country, according to the Los Angeles Times. They were on a terrorist watch list. But the airlines were not notified.
In addition, the FBI and CIA were well aware of bin Laden’s plans to hijack U.S. airliners. The plot was uncovered six years earlier in the Philippines when police found detailed information on a laptop computer belonging to a bin Laden operative, Ramsi Youssef. The plan called for hijacking U.S. airliners and crashing them into U.S. buildings including the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
In case the FBI and CIA had just forgotten about Project Bojinka, which I sincerely doubt, they should have received a reminder with the 1999 publication of Yossef Bodansky’s book, “Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America,” in which he spells it out. The original plan called for the hijacking of 11 airliners at once.
In other words, had the FBI and CIA simply added two plus two, the threat of hijackings would have been obvious.
But there was even more.
The FBI had several terrorists under surveillance, according to the Oct. 1 issue of Newsweek. They intercepted communications just prior to Sept. 11 that suggested something very big was about to happen.
Still, there were more clues.
Zacarias Moussaoui was arrested after flight trainers tipped off the feds that he wanted to learn how to fly a 747 but wasn’t interested in takeoffs or landings. Zacarias was traveling on a French passport. When contacted, the French government reported that he was a suspected terrorist.
There were even more reasons to be on high alert – and specifically to be thinking about the threat of dramatic hijackings.
The question then is: Were they ignored? And, if so, why?
But there is evidence that the threat wasn’t ignored – at least not entirely.
A day after the attack, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Mayor Willie Brown was called eight hours before the hijackings and warned by his security staff not to travel.
On Sept. 27, the London Times reported that Salman Rushdie got a similar warning about avoiding U.S. and Canadian airliners. That warning, said Rushdie, came from no less authority than the Federal Aviation Administration.
Now, you’re probably wondering why Willie Brown and Salman Rushdie are more important to the U.S. government than you and me and Barbara Olson. I’m wondering the same thing.
These selective warnings – and I have no doubt there were many more we have not yet heard about – suggest strongly that the FBI, CIA and other federal agencies had the information, knew something big was up, something that involved terrorist attacks on airliners, but failed to disclose the information to the airlines and the flying public in general.
I think heads should roll at the FBI and CIA. I think there ought to be an investigation into what the FAA knew and when it knew it. I think, once again, the federal government has neglected its main responsibility under the Constitution – protecting the American people from attack.