Who knew what, and when? Could the FBI have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks?
The New York Times fueled this fiery debate Tuesday by revealing that high-level FBI officials received — but never acted on — a July 2001 intelligence memo from the bureau’s Phoenix field office, in which agents expressed concern about possible al-Qaida contacts who were studying at American aviation schools. Then, “a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks,” the Times revealed, FBI director Robert Mueller III and Attorney General John Ashcroft learned of the memo but never briefed the White House.
But a pair of French authors says that the FBI bungled more than the Phoenix memo. In “Bin Laden: The Forbidden Truth,” Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie alleged that the Clinton and Bush administrations went easy on al-Qaida before Sept. 11 to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia and to continue to bargain with the Taliban over a Central Asian oil pipeline. They also assert that the negotiations broke off after the U.S. threatened to attack the Taliban unless it agreed to U.S. demands, perhaps precipitating the 9/11 attacks.
The book was a bestseller in France, but got little play here. Now the U.S. edition is coming out in July, with an explosive new chapter written by Brisard, who is the former deputy director of business intelligence for the French conglomerate Vivendi Universal and the author of the first intelligence report on al-Qaida’s financial networks. In it, Brisard asserts that French intelligence officials warned their U.S. counterparts in considerable detail about al-Qaida’s ties to Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker, but the U.S. failed to act on the information.
The U.S. arrested Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, on a visa violation in August, after he raised suspicions at a flight school where he was training. But officials say they were unable to link him to the Sept. 11 plot beforehand, or even confirm that he was tied to al-Qaida. Although some intelligence agents suspected a link with al-Qaida, officials have insisted an aggressive investigation was hampered by guidelines that limit what the agencies can do without clear evidence a suspect is dangerous. But Brisard says top French intelligence sources told him that they provided the U.S. with specific information about Moussaoui’s al-Qaida links, including the fact that he had trained in Afghanistan camps and had ties to the terror network’s members. Despite this, U.S. intelligence did not connect Moussaoui to al-Qaida until after Sept. 11.
The FBI refused to comment on Brisard’s allegations. “We can’t corroborate or verify anything,” says a bureau spokesperson.
In an e-mail interview with Salon, Brisard discussed the French information about Moussaoui and how the FBI missed so many clues about al-Qaida’s plans in the weeks before Sept. 11.
You’ve hinted that politics and oil interests trumped law enforcement when it came to al-Qaida before Sept. 11. There’s also some evidence the U.S. missed intelligence signals. But your Moussaoui revelations are more explosive than what came before. What did you learn?
The case of Zacarias Moussaoui was a typical missed signal. But it also reveals a cultural difference between the way the U.S. and other countries use intelligence. The French citizen was arrested in the United States on Aug. 17, 2001 — less than a month before the attacks — for visa violations, and he turned out to have been enrolled since February 2001 in a flight school in Oklahoma, training to be the 20th hijacker. Officially, however, neither the FBI nor the CIA had sufficient evidence to allow them to interrogate Moussaoui before the attacks, they say. The European intelligence services, notably the French, had already alerted the FBI to the Moussaoui case, at least once in August 2001 — but the information sent, according to the Americans, was insufficient to put him under surveillance.
In a new chapter for the U.S. version of the book, however, I reveal that in late August, French antiterrorism services alerted the Americans to Moussaoui and passed on unambiguous intelligence, leaving, at least in the minds of the French, few doubts as to the suspect’s terrorist links. It was shown to the Americans that Moussaoui had traveled to Afghanistan, that he was trained in 1998 in a camp controlled by al-Qaida and that a strong possibility existed that he had been in contact with members of its network in Europe. Another 20-page document that includes an interrogation of his brother, which confirms this information, was later sent to the American services. So, nearly one month before the Sept. 11 attacks, or at least since the arrest of Moussaoui on Aug. 17, the U.S. authorities had two fundamental pieces of evidence before them: They knew that the suspect apprehended on American soil was linked to the al-Qaida network, which in itself should have been cause enough for prompt serious investigations; and they knew that he had taken part in flying lessons for civil aircraft.
In other words, they’d been informed that a terrorist from al-Qaida was training to fly civil aircraft in the United States. Was the response of the FBI before Sept. 11 appropriate? Could they have acted differently? The fact is Moussaoui was held at an Immigration and Naturalization Service location in Minneapolis and wasn’t transferred to FBI custody until after Sept. 11.
What is at issue is the method of data processing. Intelligence is a business of gathering facts. Some might come to the conclusion that the information provided by the Europeans was “insufficient” to signal an immediate threat, while others would have taken the necessary measures to erase the slightest doubt or at least would have taken the time to analyze and confirm all suspicions. For their part, the French believe that placed in the same situation as their counterparts, they would have registered and investigated this information, however fragmentary. And the fact that the FBI tried to obtain a special surveillance warrant [to examine the hard drive of Moussaoui's computer] as part of an antiterrorist procedure proves that some of their agents were taking seriously the intelligence collected on Moussaoui. To miss a low signal is admissible; to fail to integrate in the law-enforcement system as loud a signal as the Moussaoui one is a major failure.
How much do you know about why the FBI wasn’t allowed to investigate him more? Supposedly FBI agents tried to start an investigation but someone — possibly Ashcroft — denied approval for wiretap. Do you know anything about this?
They wanted to search his laptop. Minneapolis agents tried to do a FISA search [one authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires a court order] of his laptop, but the FBI’s attorney rejected the request, saying there was “insufficient probable cause” to proceed (quote from FBI director Mueller’s press conference on Dec 11). Yet the French had made it clear that he had close relations with al-Qaida, that he was trained in Afghanistan and that he was considered dangerous. Again, that was confirmed by witnesses and by his brother. There was, in my opinion, a real mistake in the evaluation process of the intelligence passed by the French.
You argue in your book that it was U.S. ties to the Saudis, plus its efforts to maintain links with the Taliban, that prevented the U.S. from getting tougher on al-Qaida before Sept. 11.
The Bush administration decided to engage in commercial negotiations with the Taliban regime as soon as it took office, to ensure a stable political environment in Afghanistan that would fit the oil industry projects. The negotiations, as we reveal in our book, broke off in early August 2001, five weeks before Sept. 11 and about the time of the warning memo received by the White House. And the reason was the U.S. representative to those negotiations, Tom Simmons, threatened the Taliban regime with a military operation if it refused to make concessions to the U.S. The message was, either you accept the carpet of gold, or you’ll have a carpet of bombs.
We know now the Taliban regime was under the influence or the control of Osama bin Laden. It means at the beginning of August the Taliban regime and its terrorist sponsors knew their days were numbered. Was that statement understood as a real signal by them, and did they decide to launch a preemptive strike? We have no clear answer to that, but at least it must be independently investigated, the same way that the investigation needs to focus on to what extent the Bush administration knew and to determine if the Bush administration took the right steps to avoid this tragedy.
But in my opinion, the Bush administration bears major responsibility for making its military threat. History tells us that negotiating with terrorists or their sponsors always fail. As we mention in our book, a pipeline project was underway in Afghanistan years before, and it was one of the main reasons why the Bush administration decided to accelerate negotiations with the Taliban regime. The negotiations failed, but the project just revived some days ago when an Afghan minister stated that the pipeline negotiations would start as soon as possible with several U.S. companies, among them Unocal, which initiated the project in the mid ’90s. The project was also backed at the time by Enron, which was developing gas reserves in the Caspian Sea region, and eyed the Afghan pipeline as a way to reach Pakistan and the Persian Gulf. Both companies viewed the fall of the Afghan capital, Kabul, to the Taliban movement in 1996 as a “positive step.”
You’ve also argued in your book that neither Bush nor Clinton pushed hard for investigations of bin Laden because they wanted to maintain strong ties with Saudi Arabia. Do you think that Bush could have ignored these warnings for the same reason?
I’m referring to past investigations, when it was clear that the U.S. administration wanted to avoid any clash with countries like Saudi Arabia for economic reasons. Basically, you had two strategies underway: a law-enforcement line which was pushing to investigate as far and fast as it was needed to undermine those networks, and on the other hand, a diplomatic and economic point of view that led to accommodating some of the states supporting or hosting those networks.
When it became obvious that the FBI, for instance, was pointing out the role of such states, the two strategies became divergent, and the choice was made to make diplomatic and economic interests prevail. That is the context. Now, after Sept. 11 you might assume that the war against terrorism is now the major priority, and no other interests will prevail. But I’m sorry to say that’s not the exact reality. Several investigations of charities, companies and banks around the world since the attacks have clearly revealed that Saudi businessmen are providing financial support to al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations, but to date these backers are still untouched. We could cite tens of examples. For instance, the U.S. government froze the assets of the Al Aqsa Islamic Bank, charging it with being the financial arm of Hamas. But no measures have been taken against its main shareholder, a wealthy Saudi banker. More recently, offices of several charities were raided in Virginia. These organizations were created by several Saudi families, some of whom have been involved in terrorist networks for years.
Many have said that the warnings were ignored because such things are common in the world of intelligence. False alarms are part of the game. But is this accurate? How much “chatter” was there in the months before Sept. 11? More than usual? How do agents separate reliable from unreliable intelligence, and should the FBI or CIA — or even the White House — have known that something was up, in your opinion?
Intelligence is essentially a human activity, not an exact science. It’s fallible. We know the weeks before Sept. 11 were very “noisy” in terms of alerts and warnings related to al-Qaida activities. Some will say there were missed signals. The exact nature and timing of the attack was certainly hard to determine without any inside knowledge, but we can say that the signals they had were taken into account in some way, simply because U.S. intelligence services and U.S. airline companies were alerted to those threats. Various investigations were under way to check individuals who happened to be involved in that tragedy. That means intelligence services had done their job, at least in identifying the potential risk. We know some of those efforts were blocked by legal obstacles. Others, such as investigations into the Saudi backing of al-Qaida, had been previously blocked by political obstacles. I refer here to former FBI deputy director John O’Neill’s testimony in our book. [O'Neill told the authors he was prevented from aggressively investigating al-Qaida and bin Laden because of sensitivity about Saudi ties to them.]
The FBI’s Phoenix report had no impact because it never made it up the chain of command. Why do you think this is the case? Is it a case of bureaucratic problems or something more political?
Bureaucracy is a major problem within the U.S. intelligence community. But aside from bureaucratic obstacles, political or analytical blindness, the principal factor that explains America’s poor response to the fundamentalist phenomenon is cultural. This was in evidence during a hearing before Congress two months ago, when the CIA director declared that “it would be a mistake to dismiss the possibility of state sponsorship, whether Iranian or Iraqi,” concerning the attacks of Sept. 11. So, the myth of state terrorism, of which al-Qaida is precisely the counterexample, continues to enjoy favor in American government circles. Operationally we know it is on its way out, yet it continues to hold sway as a political argument — as if nothing had changed since the Cold War, as if bin Laden had never breached the narrow frontiers of national states.
It’s as if the United States was incapable of taking into account the considerable mutation of terrorism in the past 20 years, or rather, as if certain people were looking for useful political scapegoats to justify a planetary war against “the axis of evil.” [Unlike] their European counterparts, in particular the French, the U.S. security services only appreciated the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism when it was too late.
To the initial inadequacy of investigative methods add the administrative constraints to which the relevant organizations were subjected. While the French antiterrorist struggle had been born out of a crisis situation, the U.S. effort, by contrast, was merely integrated as another line of inquiry among existing fields of operation. The considerable strides made by the French security services in penetrating these terror networks was dictated by the necessity to act quickly and decisively to combat the threat. Also, the antiterrorist fight was confined to a handful of specialists who, through their experience in the field, had rapidly acquired a unique understanding of the phenomenon. These were men and women who, confronted by an immediate threat, put the antiterrorist fight before all other political, diplomatic or economic interests. And because of their independence, they always enjoyed the attentive ear of government. If you’re in a bureaucratic system, you follow the path of bureaucracy. And as we know, the bureaucratic clock is not the same as the terrorist clock.
Are you still convinced that the 9/11 attacks couldn’t have been avoided?
I maintain that no one can pretend that the attacks of Sept. 11 were foreseeable in a way that it would have been possible to avoid them. That’s because, as far as we know, the intelligence gathered was insufficient to lead to actions that would have prevented the attacks. In some instances, that intelligence was simply not used properly. That’s the case for Moussaoui, where the information existed. And in that regard, a full investigation will have to determine the level of knowledge, the way that knowledge was used and the responsibilities for not using it the proper way.
But at least we can now talk about the bureaucratic and legal obstacles that hampered any forewarning of these plans. It’s not a question of blaming one service or another, or one person or the other, but of doing away with regulatory, legislative or legal red tape and recognizing that, again, intelligence gathering is not an exact science and remains an essentially human activity, which is fallible. The faint signals hinting at the Sept. 11 attacks can never be considered as significant as the events themselves.
What needs to be done? And can any intelligence reform actually work, when those at the top have repeatedly put politics before diligence?
The main reform again is a cultural reform. For years, the United States has been spared a major terrorist attack on its soil, probably because of its intelligence efficiency. But the U.S.’s failure lies in the way al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden were perceived for years. To some extent we may assume that the U.S. persuaded itself that bin Laden was a lesser evil, “under control” in a country that was offering him temporary refuge. His scope of action, it was thought, was politically and geographically limited. Certain countries insisted on this line, countries that had no interest in seeing a vast international investigation launched that could shed light on their own complicity. Even recently, the Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayef, declared that bin Laden was nothing but a “tool” and doubtless not the commander of the attacks on Sept. 11. The United States turned to their allies in the European intelligence community and spun a similar story: that bin Laden was a renegade from the Saudi kingdom, that he was isolated, that he had no relations with his family or that he had little support from them, especially in the heart of the Arab world. The idea that the Arab world would be indifferent to bin Laden’s message was a dangerous one and, as we now know, ultimately fatal.