Public Nuisance

Random commentary and senseless acts of blogging.

The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Thursday, May 23, 2002
Unqualified Offerings carries the following report from the International Herald Tribune:

Sometime in the summer of 2001 GID headquarters in Amman, Jordan, made a communications intercept deemed so important that King Abdullah's men relayed its contents to Washington, probably through the CIA station at the U.S. Embassy in Amman....

The text stated clearly that a major attack was planned inside the continental United States. It said aircraft would be used. But neither hijacking, nor, apparently, precise timing nor targets were named. The code name of the operation was mentioned: in Arabic, Al Ourush al Kabir, "The Big Wedding."

Now that code name, "The Big Wedding" is highly significant. For Islamic radicals, it would indicate a suicide operation, since they believe that terrorists are married to 72 virgins in heaven. The invaluable Memri site discusses this in this report:

The death announcements of martyrs in the Palestinian press often take the form of wedding, not funeral, announcements. "Blessings will be accepted immediately after the burial and until 10 p.m. …at the home of the martyr's uncle," read one suicide bomber's death notice.[12] "With great pride, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad marries the member of its military wing… the martyr and hero Yasser Al-Adhami, to 'the black-eyed,'" read another.

Al Risala, the Hamas mouthpiece, published the will of Sa'id Al-Hutari, who carried out the June 1, 2001 suicide bombing outside the disco near the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv that killed 23, mostly teenage girls. "I will turn my body into bombs that will hunt the sons of Zion, blast them, and burn their remains," Al-Hutari wrote. "Call out in joy, oh my mother; distribute sweets, oh my father and brothers; a wedding with 'the black-eyed' awaits your son in Paradise."

The same view is also evident in news reports in the Palestinian press. Thus, for example, the reporter Nufuz Al-Bakri reported the death of Wail 'Awad as follows: "The mother of Wail 'Awad, from Deir El-Balah, did not plan on holding a second wedding for her eldest son, after his marriage on August 10, 2001 to his fiancée in a simple ceremony attended only by the family. But yesterday was Wail's real wedding day, and the angels of the Merciful married him, together with the [other] martyrs, to 'the black-eyed,' as all around [them] rose the cries of joy that his mother dreamed of on the day of his wedding [to his fiancée]."

The phrase "The Big Wedding" would seem to indicate that a large operation with multiple suicide terrorists was planned.

The Tribune indicates that a Moroccan agent inside al Qaeda provided even more specific information, although they include a caveat that this report could not be fully confirmed:

The reports said that a Moroccan secret agent named Hassan Dabou succeeded in infiltrating Al Qaeda. Several weeks before Sept. 11, the story ran, he informed his chiefs in King Mohammed VI's royal intelligence service that Osama bin Laden's men were preparing "large-scale operations in New York in the summer or autumn of 2001." The warning was said to have been passed on to Washington.

Dabou was said to have told his bosses in Rabat that bin Laden was "very disappointed" by the failure of the first bombing of the World Trade Center in February 1993 to topple the towers.

It was also known in 2001 that Algerian terrorists had already been foiled in a plot to fly a hijacked plane into the Eiffel Tower, and terrorists associated with al Qaeda had planned to crash a plane into CIA headquarters.

A suspicious pattern had been observed of Arabs with suspected terror connections taking flight training. A recommendation that other flight schools be checked for similar individuals had been made, but already rejected.

One person with terrorist sympathies who had sought out training in piloting 747s had been arrested. It would seem that his arrest was due much less to FBI competence than an alert flight instructor who had to prod a reluctant FBI to act:

Privy to a briefing by the flight school, [Congressman James] Oberstar said Zacarias insisted on learning to fly a 747 -- even though he couldn't even fly a single-engine Cessna.

An alert instructor called the FBI but Oberstar said he faced a bureaucratic runaround. "At that point, the instructor said, 'do you realize that a 747 loaded with fuel can be a bomb?' It got the FBI agents' attention."

The instructor reportedly told the FBI on Aug. 15 Zacarias Moussaoui might be plotting a hijacking. The next day, he was arrested.

Now, certainly it is easier to piece these bits of data together now than it was in July of 2001. But consider the above facts and the recent statement of Condi Rice:

I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon, that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile. All of this reporting about hijacking was about traditional hijacking. You take a plane. People were worried they might blow one up, but they were mostly worried that they might try to take a plane and use it for release of the Blind Sheikh or some of their own people.

Clearly, nobody at senior levels in the government was thinking about the use of hijacked planes as missiles. But with the intelligence that was available, the failure to at least consider the risk suggests incompetence. The Jordanian report all alone contained the key element, multiple suicides using airplanes. The information from the Philippines shows that al Qaeda had considered this method. And the alleged Moroccan report gives the location and even the exact target.

If the facts weren't being connected, it seems likely that it was because nobody in the new administration was paying much attention. TAP showed evidence, long before the current controversy began, that counter-terrorism was a higher priority for Clinton than for Bush, and probably would have been a higher priority for Gore.

More recently, it has been shown that terrorism was a particularly low priority for Justice under Ashcroft:

In the late 90s the threat of a terrorist attack on US soil became a near obsession in the Clinton administration, particularly in the justice department under Janet Reno. But her successor had other ideas.

On September 10 last year, the last day of what is now seen as a bygone age of innocence, Mr Ashcroft sent a request for budget increases to the White House. It covered 68 programmes, none of them related to counter-terrorism.

He also sent a memorandum to his heads of departments, stating his seven priorities. Counter-terrorism was not on the list. He turned down an FBI request for hundreds more agents to be assigned to tracking terrorist threats.

Given the statement that "A Phoenix FBI agent’s request for a canvass of U.S. flight schools for al Qaeda terrorists was formally rejected within several weeks of his July 10 memo, after mid-level officials at FBI headquarters determined they did not have the manpower to carry out the task", the refusal to hire more agents for counter-terrorism looks particularly damning.

Even assuming that Ashcroft was unaware at the time of much of the above evidence, he certainly knew that Bin Laden had carried out past deadly strikes against US targets abroad and would obviously love to strike at the US itself. He took the threats to commercial airliners so seriously that he stopped using them. So by what logic did he decide that hiring agents for counter-terrorism investigations was a bad idea? What were those seven priorities that all took precedence over terrorism?

One more piece of the puzzle: John O'Neill, who led the FBI's anti-Bin Laden efforts, resigned in August 2001. It should be noted that O'Neill had felt frustrated under Clinton as well as Bush, especially by lack of co-operation in tracking leads in Saudi Arabia. And personal factors, including debts and his ability to gain a large pay increase in the private sector, also probably affected his decision. In spite of those factors, it speaks loudly that the one man in the US government who knew how important stopping Bin Laden was, and had the inside position to know what was being done, was so unimpressed by the Bush administration's pre 9/11 commitment that he just gave up and walked away.