What they really knew before 9/11

Did the FBI get specific evidence about al-Qaida's plans for the United States months before the planes hit the buildings?

Published April 29, 2005 12:39PM (EDT)

The Bush government has gone to a lot of effort to downplay or deny crucial intelligence information that it appears to have had prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Its self-proclaimed record of diligence was underscored most dramatically when President Bush vowed that he "would have moved mountains" to protect the nation if he'd had any inkling of the plot.

But as thoughts of a smoldering Ground Zero dissipate with time, more information keeps coming to light about intelligence warnings ahead of that fateful day. The latest evidence seems to reflect worse on the leadership of the FBI than the White House itself -- but let's not forget who tops the chain of command when it comes to national security matters. In seeking to minimize the now-famous Presidential Daily Brief of Aug. 6, 2001, titled "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.," Bush officials leaned repeatedly on the notion that intelligence leaders had remained focused, based on the information that they had, on averting terrorist attacks against U.S. targets abroad.

But according to newly available court documents from the trial of convicted terrorist Ahmed Ressam, at least some U.S. intelligence officials had heard in detail about attacks being planned against the homeland -- certainly in greater detail than the American public has previously been led to believe.

"In the spring of 2001, one of the U.S. government's most valuable terror informants gave the FBI a far more alarming account of al-Qaida plans to attack inside the United States than has ever been publicly disclosed," reports Newsweek this week. "Algerian expatriate Ahmed Ressam, whose sentencing for a Millennium-eve plot to blow up the Los Angeles airport was unexpectedly postponed [Wednesday], told bureau interrogators nearly four years ago that al-Qaida commander Abu Zubaydah had been discussing plans to smuggle terrorist operatives and explosives into the country for the purpose of launching a strike on U.S. soil, the documents show."

For reasons that remain unclear, the Aug. 6 PDB was apparently a watered-down version of what Ressam had been telling the FBI by May 2001: details of his experience at al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan and of his dealings with Zubaydah, a top deputy of Osama bin Laden's. According to the declassified, highly detailed summary of Ressam's 72 debriefings by government agents, there is no indication that Ressam had specific knowledge of the 9/11 attacks themselves. But on Sept. 12, 2001, though Ressam claimed he'd known nothing of the plan that had been carried out, he told government officials that it was "not surprising" to him.

Ressam went on to say, according to the declassified account, that "Zubaydah talked generally of big operations in the U.S. with big impact, needing great preparation, great perseverance, and a willingness to die." There were plans, he'd said, to get people hired at airports, blow up airports, and blow up airplanes inside the United States.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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