WASHINGTON — The dozen or so Islamic terrorists who
pulled off the plot to strike at America’s nerve
centers in New York and Washington spent at least five
years researching, planning and coordinating the
surprise attacks, U.S. security officials say. And
they did it completely in secret, using the world’s
most sophisticated telecommunications equipment, some
secured by advanced encryption technology that most
armies don’t have.
Where did they get such state-of-the-art, military-related gear?
First, you have to appreciate the high degree of communications activity their mission required at each stage.
In researching their targets, the terrorists picked
visible ones relatively easy to spot and hit at high
air speeds, yet ones that would produce big casualties
and provide symbolic blows to American morale. They
had to pick airports close by, with weak security.
They had to find jets with enough heft and wingspan – and fuel inside those wings – to cause major damage,
yet not so large that they required extra crew.
Also, the Boeing 757s (narrow body) and 767s (wide
body) they hijacked have similar cockpits and the same
Federal Aviation Administration type rating, obviating
additional cockpit training.
They also apparently studied passenger traffic patterns of airlines in order to pick flights with relatively few people aboard. All four flights had
light passenger loads. The Boeing jets have passenger capacities ranging between 165 seats and 207 seats,
yet American Flight 11 carried just 81 passengers; American Flight 77, only 58; United Flight 175, 56; and United Flight 93, a skeletal 38. Fewer passengers,
fewer heroes to worry about.
And they were careful to book early flights to avoid
tarmac delays, which would have scuttled their closely
synchronized missions. All the doomed flights were the
first out of the gates that morning, meaning there was
no chance for in-bound flights to hold up their
More key, the terrorists needed to select transcontinental flights with big fuel loads to turn the planes into giant petro-bombs. All four flights were bound for California. They also had to know flight patterns, and how to blind air-traffic controllers to the hijackings by turning off the planes’ transponders, which send such warning signals, among other aviation information.
In planning the attack, they had to fashion weapons that they could sneak past airport security. Transportation Department officials think that they may have hedged their bets and even planted security people on the inside at Logan and Dulles airports, so that guards would look the other way when they came through metal detectors at the terminals.
The kamikaze pilots also had to log many hours on computer flight simulators with high-level graphics capability, to practice hitting their targets at full throttle. A Continental Airlines captain, who’s flown both 757s and 767s, told WorldNetDaily he thinks they may have even added the World Trade Center and Pentagon to the simulator’s visual database.
“At the airspeed of those strikes, which hit their targets dead on, the hand-eye coordination demands would be too high for casual flying skill — with, or without, an autopilot engaged,” he said.
They had to practice, moreover, navigating the jets to abruptly change their course, by as much as 180 degrees in some cases, after take-off. Flying them at low altitudes was also something they had to work on.
Finally, in executing their murderous missions, the 12 or so terrorists had to coordinate their activities, flawlessly, within a roughly two-hour stretch. And, for the most part, they did. They all got to the airport on time, they all got through security, they all boarded their flights, they all hijacked their flights and, with the exception of one group, they all hit their targets.
Pulling off such a complex plot would have generated an inordinate volume of communications — whether by radio, cell phone, land line, fax or modem — among
the terrorists, among their Middle-Eastern sponsors and among commercial contacts here and abroad.
But somehow eavesdroppers at the super-secret National Security Agency — with their billion-dollar satellite “birds” and other surveillance technology — were deaf, dumb and blind to the wicked plot.
“The real issue in this tragedy is how the hell were these people able to plan and coordinate such a strike over a period of months without the NSA intercepting their signals?” demanded Peter M. Leitner, a senior strategic trade adviser at the Defense Department.
Leitner, who reviews commercial license applications for exports of some of the most sophisticated military-related technology, thinks he knows the answer.
“The technology that would allow these terrorists to mask their communications was given away, hand over fist, by the Clinton administration,” he said in an interview with WorldNetDaily.
Leitner says the previous administration rubber-stamped the shipment of top-end
military-related telecommunications equipment to Syria, which is on the FBI’s list of sensitive countries that pose a threat to U.S. security.
“Syria is a terrorist-supporting nation,” he said. “They provide infrastructure to bastards like [Osama] bin Laden. They provide backup and support and communications abilities to these terrorist cells.”
So what kind of gear has Syria — and likely bin Laden, by way of Syria — gotten from America?
“We’re giving them spread-spectrum radios, which are almost impossible to break into. We’re giving them fiber optics. We’re giving them a high level of encryption. We’re giving them computer networks that can’t be tapped,” Leitner said.
Spread-spectrum radios, originally designed for military use only, change their frequency constantly.
“Bin Laden’s cells aren’t having any trouble communicating anymore,” Leitner said.
Bin Laden, the world’s No. 1 terrorist and the Pentagon’s chief suspect in Tuesday’s attacks, is known to use portable satellite telephones, advanced encryption cell phones and other encrypted telephony equipment, as well as secure computer networks — all compliments of U.S. technology, Leitner says.
“If people are worried about how these people were able to coordinate and communicate something like this — which had to be pretty extensively coordinated — without it being intercepted, it’s because of the crap we’ve been selling these people,” he said.
“How can you penetrate their networks when you can’t even eavesdrop on their conversations?” he said.
“You can’t stop them when they’re coming right at your building,” he said. “But, damn it, you should be able to stop them months in advance by breaking up their networks.”
Leitner posits that the NSA wasn’t able to detect the Islamic terrorists’ plot because of the “high quality of the communications gear that they’ve been acquiring over the last couple of years, thanks to the Clinton administration’s decontrols on advanced telecommunications equipment.”
Terrorists’ secured telecom gear “makes it infinitely more difficult to get even early warning signs” about their activities, he said.
Tuesday’s attacks took the entire U.S. government, including the intelligence community, by surprise.
“We had no specific warning of the U.S. attacks,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., ranking minority member of the Intelligence Committee.
The Pentagon issued an alert of “Threat Con Alpha” the day before the attack, which meant that no threats were on the horizon. The same alert was issued the morning of the attack.
“We got no word of anything,” Leitner said.
“We weren’t warned of anything,” another Pentagon official told WorldNetDaily.
Asked Tuesday if he had any inkling of the plot, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dodged the question: “We don’t discuss intelligence matters.”
Three weeks ago, some overseas papers quoted bin Laden saying that a major strike against the U.S. was coming soon. But there were no specifics. And bin Laden
reportedly sent an e-mail to unknown government sources three days ago warning holy hell would break out. But again, he didn’t say how, when or where.
Still, it’s baffling that the U.S. intelligence community didn’t pick up, early on, any specifics of the complex and long-planned plot through electronic intercepts and signals intelligence.
But it’s actually not that baffling, Leitner asserts, against the backdrop of loose government controls on dual-use telecom exports.
“I’ve testified to Congress that it will take serious numbers of body bags before we wake up to the need to tighten dual-use export controls,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’ve got them now.”
“This is so tragic and yet so preventable,” he said. “Now we’re going to have to knock out their [terrorist] camps, just like we had to bomb the Iraqis several times now to try to take out the fiber-optics network that the Chinese are installing in Iraq’s air-defense systems.”
“Yet, it was the Clinton administration that gave the Chinese the technology to give to Iraq,” he noted.
The Bush administration apparently hasn’t woken up, either.
In June, Leitner was asked by the Commerce Department to OK a new round of exports of dual-use telecom equipment to Syria. He denied the request, and was asked to reconsider. He denied it again, arguing in a letter to Karen Vogel, the Commerce export licensing officer who requested the approval, that:
“Doing so vastly upgrades the C3 and C41 systems of the Syrian military and Intelligence Services. My concerns are also obviously compounded by the fact that Syria is one of the foremost state sponsors of terrorism.”
Leitner continued: “Since an ‘upgraded telecom infrastructure’ will also greatly facilitate Syrian planning, coordination, secrecy and execution of terrorist acts, as well as direct military communications, I see absolutely no basis for any position other than a denial.”
Vogel argued in an earlier letter that her request came on the heels of eight previous approvals of licenses for similar exports to Syria.
“There’s still a lot of things inside the government involving national security that have just got to be changed,” Leitner said.
Another senior Pentagon official who specializes in counterterrorism says his own faith in the U.S. intelligence community has been shattered.
“This full-court press by terrorists blows the hell out of the line that we’ve been hearing for years from the intelligence community that if they try anything big, we’ll know about it and warn you. Anything bigger than a couple of people, don’t worry, we’ll know about it,” he said. “Well, I guess they didn’t.”