The devastating terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11 exposed serious chinks in America’s armor. It had more in common with that other day of infamy, December 7, 1941, than just the surprise and devastation. In both cases, there was a failure to act on intelligence information that was available. Washington failed to notify the commanders at Pearl Harbor that decoded Japanese communications had indicated that war was imminent. Rather than being radioed or telephoned to Admiral Husband Kimmel, it was sent by Western Union and reached the admiral as the bombs were falling.
The White House had no comparable warning of the imminent attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, but there is evidence that the CIA and FBI were sitting on information that they should have used to alert the FAA, the airlines and the public to Osama bin Laden’s demonic plans. They should have been looking for the kamikaze pilots he was paying American flight schools to train. They should also have been advising that the strongest possible measures be taken to prevent them from hijacking any airplane. We spend $30 billion a year to gather intelligence. The expenditures are made in the hope that they will enable us to prevent disasters such as the one we have just experienced. They have averted some, but when it came to the big one, they failed dismally despite advance warnings.
Osama bin Laden is on the FBI’s most-wanted list. The reward offered for help in capturing him is $5 million, 10 times the next highest reward offered for a fugitive. One would think that the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency would spare no effort to find out what he is planning. In 1995, when one of his followers, Abdul Hakim Murad, was arrested in Manila, the Philippine authorities discovered a plot on his laptop computer that called for hijacking U.S. airliners and bombing them or crashing them into targets, including the CIA. It was called Project Bojinka, and U.S. officials were made aware of it at that time. Murad admitted that he was being trained for a suicide mission. He was extradited to the U.S. and convicted, together with Ramzi Yousef, of participating in the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
That should have focused the attention of the CIA, FBI and NSA on any indications that bin Laden had not abandoned Project Bojinka. Reports that bin Laden was training pilots should have set alarm bells ringing. Only a few months ago an American Airlines crew had their uniforms and ID badges stolen from their hotel room in Rome. At the end of August, the airline alerted its employees to be on the lookout for impostors, but apparently no one saw this as a possible link to Project Bojinka. Airport security remained as lax as ever. Next came bin Laden’s warning in mid-August that there would be “an unprecedented attack on U.S. interests.” With Bojinka in mind, the government should have taken the strongest possible measures to prevent hijackings.
Bin Laden showed his contempt for our intelligence agencies by training some of his hijackers at flight schools in this country, right under their noses. Had they forgotten about Project Bojinka in only six years? It should have been engraved in the collective memory of the CIA, the one target that Abdul Hakim Murad had mentioned by name. The FBI should have been asked to check out the flight schools, seeking information about any Middle Eastern students they had enrolled. The NSA should have been monitoring phone calls from the cities in which flight schools with Middle Eastern students were located. The CIA should have checked them for ties to bin Laden.
There has been some discussion in the media about the degradation of CIA’s human-intelligence capabilities as a result of a decision made by the former director, John Deutch. After the media stirred up a fuss about an informant accused of having a bad human rights record, he ordered that every informant had to have a squeaky-clean record, putting a crimp in the recruitment of informants.
But our media have not told us about the CIA and FBI forgetting about Project Bojinka. For that, you had to go to Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, which carried an Agence France-Presse story about it. Both Louis Freeh, the director of the FBI, and George Tenet, the director of Central Intelligence, dropped the ball. Freeh is gone. Tenet should go.
Reed Irvine is the chairman of Accuracy In Media, a media watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.