Two and a half years after 9/11, the American public learned today that President Bush received explicit warnings that Osama bin Laden was planning to attack the United States – including activities "consistent with preparations for hijacking." Yet, there was no domestic follow-up by the Bush administration. No high level meetings. No sense of urgency. No warnings to FBI agents across the country.
We now know why the Bush administration has been hiding the Aug. 6, 2001, intelligence briefing for the president, called "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States." All of the 9/11 Commission members – Republicans and Democrats – have asked the Bush administration to declassify this document.
The August 6th memo has been referenced in many places as a possible warning of the 9/11 attacks, but is this really true? Fortunately it’s been declassified now, so we can check this for ourselves.
Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US
Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate Bin Ladin since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the U.S. Bin Ladin implied in US television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and "bring the fighting to America."
After US missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, Bin Ladin told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington, according to xxxxxxxxxxx service.
An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative told an xxxxxxxxxx service at the same time that Bin Ladin was planning to exploit the operative's access to the US to mount a terrorist strike.
We’re starting with a history lesson: bin Ladin is determined to strike in the US, but has been so since 1997 with no success as of yet.
The millennium plotting in Canada in 1999 may have been part of Bin Ladin's first serious attempt to implement a terrorist strike in the US. Convicted plotter Ahmed Ressam has told the FBI that he conceived the idea to attack Los Angeles International Airport himself, but that Bin Ladin lieutenant Abu Zubaydah encouraged him and helped facilitate the operation. Ressam also said that in 1998 Abu Zubaydah was planning his own US attack.
Ressam says Bin Ladin was aware of the Los Angeles operation.
Although Bin Ladin has not succeeded, his attacks against the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 demonstrate that he prepares operations years in advance and is not deterred by setbacks. Bin Ladin associates surveilled our Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as early as 1993, and some members of the Nairobi cell planning the bombings were arrested and deported in 1997.
Now a little more caution is added. Although they’re pointing out that “bin Ladin has not succeeded”, he’s playing a long game, and there’s no guarantee some operation may not be active right now. (Although note that given the 5 year lead time they mention on the Embassy attacks, that’s not a suggestion that something is imminent.)
Al-Qa'ida members — including some who are US citizens — have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks. Two al-Qa'ida members found guilty in the conspiracy to bomb our Embassies in East Africa were US citizens, and a senior EIJ member lived in California in the mid-1990s.
A clandestine source said in 1998 that a Bin Ladin cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks.
They back up the previous point by pointing out that there are al Qaeda members within the US. Note the vagueness of “the group apparently maintains a support structure”, though -- this does not suggest in-depth knowledge of their activities.
The pointer to recruitment of Muslim-American youth is also interesting, but not of direct relevance to 9/11.
We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a xxxxxxxxxx service in 1998 saying that Bin Ladin wanted to hijack a US aircraft to gain the release of "Blind Shaykh" 'Umar 'Abd al-Rahman and other US-held extremists.
Ah, that’s the first mention of hijacking, but look at the context. It comes from another intelligence service (we believe the UK); it’s around three years old; the context suggests it relates to hostage-taking, not using a plane as a missile; and the FBI call the claim “sensational” and say they cannot corroborate it.
Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.
Then once again the memo writer adds a note of caution, although pay attention to the caveats...
“Since that time” means they’ve observed “patterns of suspicious activity” since 1998, which suggests to us they’re nothing detailed or of great urgency.
The second one is most important, as we see the true context of “consistent with preparations for hijackings” in the original claim, and in reality it’s “consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks”. That’s about as useless a warning you can get, as plainly it covers everything (and hijacking may only have been mentioned as a reference to the previous paragraph).
“Recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York” suggests the identification of New York as a possible target. Although, of course, as the WTC towers were not federal buildings it’s hard to see how this would help very much.
The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers Bin Ladin-related. CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our Embassy in UAE in May saying that a group of Bin Ladin supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives.
So the original comment that there were “No warnings to FBI agents across the country” seems a little out of place; the FBI are saying here they’re already conducting 70 bin Ladin-related “full field investigations”.
This includes the final one, suggesting a plan for an “attack with explosives”, but how is foretelling 9/11? If anything, with the preceding paragraph, they may relate it to an attempt to bomb “federal buildings” in New York.
Overall, then, there is no reference to the use of planes as missiles. There are two references to hijackings, one virtually dismissed, the second only mentioned as one possible type of terrorist attack. There is no sense of urgency, a suggestion that attacks may only be weeks away, quite the opposite: “we’re on top of it”, they seem to be saying.
Now there’s plenty you can say about this, how the intelligence services should have known more, perhaps were complacent, but what you can’t say is that the August 6th memo constitutes a particularly useful warning of 9/11: that simply isn’t true.
A reader points out that a footnote in the 9/11 Commission Report suggested the 70 “full-field investigations” number was misleading...
The 70 full-field investigations number was a generous calculation that included fund-raising investigations. It also counted each individual connected to an investigation as a separate full-field investigation. Many of these investigations should not have been included, such as the one that related to a dead person, four that concerned people who had been in long-term custody, and eight that had been closed well before August 6, 2001. Joint Inquiry interview of Elizabeth and Laura, Nov. 20, 2002; FBI report,"70 UBL Cases," undated (produced to the Joint Inquiry on Aug. 12, 2002).
This may suggest a basis for another take on the memo (the President was being deliberately misled), but doesn’t add any support for the idea that Bush should have reacted differently to it. How was he to know the number didn’t mean what it said? How was he to know what an appropriate number of “full-field investigations” should be, anyway?
The fact remains that the memo is not a convincing warning of 9/11, it does not suggest attacks might be imminent in weeks, and it suggests the FBI are already involved in detailed investigations of the situation. On the specific point of Bush’s reaction to the document (which is what we’re discussing here), there’s no evidence to show he should have done anything differently.