At the very beginning of her Thursday interview, 9-11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean asked National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice the most important question of the day.
I’ve got a question now I’d like to ask you. It was given to me by a number of members of the families. Did you ever see or hear from the FBI, from the CIA, from any other intelligence agency, any memos or discussions or anything else between the time you got into office and 9-11 that talked about using planes as bombs?
“To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Chairman,” Rice replied, “this kind of analysis about the use of airplanes as weapons actually was never briefed to us.” Rice was almost assuredly telling the truth. Republican Kean would have not asked this question – the second of the whole session – to catch her in a lie. What is more, no Democrat member of the panel challenged her.
In fact, Richard Clarke had acknowledged as much during his earlier testimony before the panel. In response to a question by Democrat Richard Ben-Veniste, Clarke admitted that the “knowledge about al-Qaida having thought of using aircraft as weapons” was relatively old, “five-years, six-years old.” He asked that intelligence analysts “be forgiven for not thinking about it given the fact that they hadn’t seen a lot in the five or six years intervening about it.”
That intelligence did, in fact, reach Washington about six years prior to Sept. 11. The Philippine police had uncovered plans for aerial assaults as early as December 1994 and shared those plans with the FBI in January 1995. The man responsible for those plans was Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing.
In the summer of 1996, Yousef was standing trial in New York for his role in a plot known as “Bojinka,” the Serbian word for explosive. Yousef had been planning to blow up 11 American airliners over the Pacific more or less simultaneously. The scary thing is that he was capable of doing it.
One element of Bojinka planning mirrored Yousef’s most successful crime, the truck bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. If one could stuff a thousand pounds of explosives into a van, reasoned Yousef on the laptop seized from the Manila apartment he shared with Abdul Hakim Murad, a Pakistani pilot, why not stuff a comparable amount in a small plane and strike real terror into the belly of the beast?
The one speculative target cited was the CIA building. But more important was the methodology. The following excerpt from a classified Republic of the Phillippines intelligence report shows that al-Qaida had plans to use small planes as flying bombs as early as 1994.
The document [from Yousef's computer] specifically cited the charter service of a commercial-type aircraft loaded with powerful bombs to be dive-crashed by SAEED AKMAN. This is apparently intended to demonstrate to the whole world that a Muslim martyr is ready and determined to die for the glorification of Islam.
U.S. Air Force Col. Buzz Patterson carried the “nuclear football” for the president during that fateful summer of 1996 and, as such, had almost total access. One morning that Patterson identifies only as “late-summer” 1996, he was returning a daily intelligence update to the National Security Council when he noticed the heading “Operation Bojinka.” As Patterson relates in his book, “Dereliction of Duty,” “I keyed on a reference to a plot to use commercial airliners as weapons.” As a pilot he had a keen interest in the same.
This was the same summer that Clarke, in his book, describes as “The Almost War, 1996.” On July 17 of that same summer – Saddam’s National Liberation Day and two days before the start of the Atlanta Olympics – TWA Flight 800 was blown from the sky just 12 minutes outside of New York City off the south coast of Long Island.
In our book, “First Strike,” James Sanders and I theorize that a small terrorist jet filled with explosives was involved in the destruction of TWA Flight 800 – what George Stephanopolous called, in an unguarded moment, “a bombing,” and what John Kerry has twice referred to as a “terrorist” act.
We have also accepted Richard Clarke at his word that he played the key role in devising the “exit strategy” from the “Almost War.” In his book, “Against All Enemies,” Clarke claims to have discovered the TWA 800 “exploding fuel tank” theory even before the National Transportation Safety Board did and while the FBI was still insisting on terrorism.
Even, however, if one believes that an exploding fuel tank did destroy TWA Flight 800, one is hard pressed to understand why Clarke did not share the Bojinka “airplane as bomb” scenario with Rice. It was not, after all, until August 2000 that the NTSB accepted the exploding-fuel-tank theory. Withholding this information only makes sense if Clarke had something to hide.
Please, Chairman Keane, bring Richard Clarke back.