Background: What Went Wrong
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KWAME HOLMAN: A year ago, Kristin Breitweiser was mourning the death of her husband, Ron, who, on September 11, was at work in his office at the World Trade Center. Today she sat before members of a joint House and Senate Committee on Intelligence, her sorrow bordering on anger as she raised questions on behalf of the 3,000 families who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks.
KRISTIN BREITWEISER: My husband and the approximately 3,000 others like him went to work that morning and never came home. But were any of our governmental agencies doing their job on that fateful morning? Perhaps the carnage and devastation of September 11 speaks for itself in answering this question. Our intelligence agencies suffered an utter collapse in their duties and responsibilities leading up to and on September 11. Our intelligence agencies were acutely aware of an impending domestic risk posed by al-Qaida. A question that remains unclear is how many lives could have been saved had this information been made more public.
KWAME HOLMAN: One reason this joint committee was created was to determine what the intelligence community knew or should have known prior to the September 11 attacks. The committee hired an independent staff, and today it released a 30-page censored report detailing its preliminary findings. Staff director Eleanor Hill listed dozens of instances over the last several years that indicated al-Qaida had interest in using aircraft to attack U.S. domestic targets.
ELEANOR HILL: From 1994 through as late as August 2001, the intelligence community had received information indicating that international terrorists had seriously considered the use of airplanes as a means of carrying out terrorist attacks. While this method of attack had clearly been discussed in terrorist circles, there was apparently little, if any effort, by intelligence community analysts to produce any strategic assessments of terrorists using aircraft as weapons.
KWAME HOLMAN: Hill said in March of 2000, the intelligence community obtained a list a possible targets.
ELEANOR HILL: The Statue of Liberty was specifically mentioned, as were skyscrapers, ports, airports, and nuclear power plants. And in April 2001, the intelligence community obtained information from a source with terrorist connections who speculated that bin Laden would be interested in commercial pilots as potential terrorists. The source warned that the United States should not focus only on embassy bombings, that terrorists sought “spectacular and traumatic” attacks, and that the first World Trade Center bombing would be the type of attack that would be appealing.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Hill said while some within the intelligence community were well aware CIA Director George tenet had declared war on al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, others were not.
ELEANOR HILL: While the FBI’S New York office was the lead office in the vast majority of counterterrorism investigations concerning bin Laden, many other FBI offices around the country were unaware of the magnitude of the threat.
KWAME HOLMAN: Once Hill finished her statement, New York Republican Sherwood Boehlert focused in on tenet’s “declaration of war” against bin Laden.
REP. SHERWOOD BOEHLERT: Was it a unilateral declaration of war? Was that memorandum shared with anyone but the in-house people at CIA? Did it go to the FBI? Did it go to all the other agencies in the intelligence community?
ELEANOR HILL: It was circulated to some people, but certainly not broadly within the community. And what I find disturbing about it is that it was at senior levels, but sometimes the operative level, the level in the field is where it actually is critical that they know what the priorities should be and have to be, particularly when it’s something like combating something like al-Qaida. The field offices of the FBI, in terms of domestic activity, are crucial, because they are the ones who are going to be in the front lines in the united states, dealing with those kinds of groups.
KWAME HOLMAN: As to what intelligence information had been passed on to President Bush and President Clinton before him, Hill said the Bush administration had blocked the public release of that information. Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin said he would seek legislation if necessary to declassify that information.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: We have chairman and vice chairman of our committee who have agreed on some matters. It seems to me that is enough for committees to automatically authorize them to seek legislation should the executive branch refuse.
KWAME HOLMAN: Several members from both Houses and both parties also urged the Bush administration to declassify the material.