Your report lays out a series of what look to be egregious U.S. intelligence
failures. But can we really expect our intelligence and law enforcement
agencies to have stopped a sophisticated and determined plot like this?
Well, I think the answer is yes. I think we can. And one reason for saying this
is they have stopped others.
But of this magnitude? A plot this extensive?
No, but they did essentially foil what they expected would be very serious
bombings at the time of the millennium in a variety of places. They caught
Ahmed Ressam. And it wasn't just Ressam. There were plans for
significant attacks on American and Western installations in Europe and in
Jordan -- multiple attacks coordinated in multiple countries. So, they have done
But I think you have to give the hijackers credit for having been very smart
about exploiting the weaknesses of our system: for example, immigration, the
pilot training, visas. They knew we were inattentive and they exploited it to
the Nth degree.
I think that if you look at the individual episodes -- the failure of the INS to
stop Mohamed Atta when he's got an expired visa and he's using his visa
improperly -- there's really no excuse for that.
You have this ridiculous episode at the Miami airport where they abandon a
plane on the runway and it appears as though the FAA does nothing more than an
absolutely cursory kind of report.
You have this arrest of Moussaoui, with alert flight instructors saying to the
FBI, "Hey, this guy wants to do something that's really weird," and literally
they were saying to the FBI, "Are you guys aware that a fully fueled 747 can be
used by a pilot as a bomb?" They are actually prefiguring what happened. And
the FBI responds locally, but they don't get the message.
If you go through each one of those episodes, you can say both that they should
have spotted it and that might have thrown a monkey wrench into things. And you also can say, even if they had spotted it and did something about it, it
might have disrupted things, but it wouldn't have stopped the plot. Which
leads you to the greatest failure of all.
The greatest failure of all, I think, is an intangible. It's a failure of the
imagination, a failure to imagine that Al Qaeda could pull off this kind of an
operation in the United States with multiple planes at multiple targets using
this kind of sophisticated hijacking and then a suicide mission.
When I first started out reporting on this and talking to intelligence people
right after Sept. 11, what they said at the beginning was, "We had no idea
that you could motivate and maintain the motivation over a long period of time
and over a long distance." What they assumed was, for example, that the
USS Cole was attacked by people who were based in Yemen. So you could have
your preachers, you could have your motivators, you could have your organizers
there, and they could be keeping people pumped up, and then the day they went
out on the suicide mission they'd go out and that was it. Same as in
Palestine, or when the embassies were attacked in East Africa. The cell was
operating out of Somalia and then in Kenya. So the picture that the
intelligence people had was of a fairly close proximity to the cell and the
terrorist. And this notion that you can operate long distance, over a long
period of time, and keep people dedicated, motivated -- they simply didn't
understand that there was that kind of capability.
I talked to guys inside and outside the FBI, and to others from the CIA.
Essentially they said, "We could not get the FBI's attention to focus on us.
And, except for a very small handful of experts, people simply couldn't
comprehend that this was a danger that we had to worry about." Now, what that
means then is that when the individual tickler comes in from Minnesota, with
the arrest of Moussaoui, people who are in decision-making positions are not
mentally preconditioned to think in terms of what happened.
So that's what I mean by a failure of imagination. The evidence comes in, but
your mental reactions are not geared to thinking in these kind of terms. When
the guy calls from the flight school and says they could take a 747 with fuel
and plow it into a building and that's a bomb, you hear it but you say, "Ah,
that's a wacko idea." You don't say, "Holy Jesus, that's what we've got to worry
You're actually talking about something much bigger than a kind of tactical
failure, you're talking about a real cultural failure. ...
That's right, I'm talking about a cultural gap, a cultural failure, and that's
why I call it a failure of imagination. It's a failure to imagine what the
danger is. It's a failure of understanding the world we live in and the nature
of the enemy.
After all, there had been a truck bombing at the World Trade Center [in 1993] -- so attacking the World Trade Center, nobody can say they couldn't imagine that.
There had been attacks on American embassies and there had been plane
hijackings. There was a guy who had been arrested in the Philippines who
actually talked in 1995 -- and I know the FBI was informed about it -- and he said
that he had a plan to dive a plane into CIA headquarters.
So the specific idea of using a plane against a prime U.S. government target,
that was in the bloodstream. But there was a loss of institutional memory. The
guys who were around and in important positions in 1995 when that [information]
came in, they had left the government. I talked to the guys who were in charge
under Clinton in 2000 and basically they hadn't heard it; it hadn't been passed
Was there one moment that you remember in reporting this story where the
light bulb went on and it became clear to you that this plot should have been
There was a moment when I was talking to Bob Blitzer -- he was the FBI's
chief of counterterrorism from 1996-1998. I asked him what his reaction was
when he saw the World Trade buildings attacked, and this is his quote:
"When I saw those planes hit the World Trade tower, I was not surprised. The
first thought on my mind was, 'My god, they finished the job.' I knew it was
these guys because they are so committed, they have so much hatred of the West.
Incredible determination. Incredible people."
What Blitzer got was the continuity. This didn't come out of the blue. Our
failure was to think forward. What I understood from his comment was that we
as a nation, and the FBI and the CIA, simply didn't understand that. And
that's why we got hit.
They [the terrorists] made mistakes, and what was really stunning about their
mistakes is how quick they were to correct them and how clever they are at
bulling right through them and faking us out. That's really astonishing. Atta
... gets caught without a driver's license, and within 15 days every one
of the hijackers in Florida has gotten a driver's license.
They are very smart. That's what makes them so formidable. They are bright,
they think, they learn. And I think killing off the leadership is clearly
important, but if we don't do something about our policies and if we don't do
something about how we deal with that part of the world we're going to have the
same problem in 10 years.
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