Shaking the trees


Geraldine Sealey
April 13, 2004 3:04AM (UTC)

The Summer of 2001, for all its urgent chatter from the terrorist underground about an impending attack, has been called the Summer of Threat. President Bush hopes the American people accept the explanation that he would have moved "mountains" if only these threats had not been so vague. But forget about moving mountains, what if he had just shaken trees?

Richard Clarke and other counterterrorism officials who served under President Clinton have described how they shook trees, or flushed out terrorism-related information from within government ranks, during another period of high threat -- the weeks before the millennium. Integral to this process were principals meetings, or Cabinet-level meetings, held daily around New Year's Day 2000.

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Former Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger told the 9/11 panel last month how bringing in the Big Guns worked during this intense time: "When the principal spends an hour a day at the White House or more, he goes back or she goes back to his agency or her agency and he or she shakes that agency for whatever it has." And there was, in fact, success. Millennium attacks were thwarted. Dozens of suspects were detained or arrested in 50 countries. North American sleeper cells, including in Los Angeles, Toronto, Boston, and Brooklyn were uncovered.

Within days of Bush's inauguration, Richard Clarke asked new National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to convene a principals meeting on al-Qaida. Rice refused, saying only deputies should meet -- an arrangement that slowed down the process of dealing with al-Qaida, Clarke told the 9/11 commission. The deputies never met in January or February 2001, and when they did gather, al-Qaida was just one of a cluster of issues discussed. The principals met only on Sept. 4, 2001 -- one week before 9/11, and clearly too late.

The trees were not shaken during the summer of 2001, and important information was never coughed up through the government bureaucracy about two al-Qaida operatives and eventual 9/11 hijackers who had already snuck into the country, suspicious characters taking flight lessons or asking only how to fly a plane, not to take-off or land it.

Clearly, the FBI's internal maladies were at work here, and will be a main topic of this week's 9/11 commission hearings as Former FBI Director Louis Freeh and Attorney General John Ashcroft get grilled. But what if the FBI had been shaken by the White House? What if there was a greater top-down sense of urgency?

Last week before the 9/11 panel, Condoleezza Rice diminished the role the Clinton administration's efforts played in stopping attacks at the millennium. Catching Ahmed Ressam, a would-be millennium attacker who plotted to blow up Los Angeles International Airport, was just a "lucky break" caught when a Customs agent at the Canadian border "sniffed something about Ressam." The Customs agent was alert, but not because she had been placed on alert. This is true. (The Seattle Times today also reported that Clarke's book "Against All Enemies" overstated how the Clinton team "shook out" Ressam.)

But this argument misses the point. As James Steinberg, another Clinton counterterrorism official, explained in this Frontline special, the administration was already on a state of high alert and took the opportunity of Ressam's arrest to shake the trees as hard as it could -- and got results. Clarke made this point on ABCNEWS' Nightline hours after Rice's testimony: "The incident that she cites where Diana Dean, a great customs officer found one of the terrorists entering the United States, was a lucky break. Dr. Rice is absolutely right. But that was just the beginning of the process. We then were able to get the FBI to uncover cells in Brooklyn and in Boston, Los Angeles. Ties to cells in Jordan where the CIA got involved. Ties to cells in Pakistan. The process only began where Dr. Rice described it as ending," Clarke told Ted Koppel.

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Unfortunately for America, a similar process did not take place during the Summer of Threat. Who knows what might have happened.


Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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