News - Did the White House fail to heed pre-9-11 terror warnings?

The president must ensure that the bureaucracies charged with protecting national security do their work — and work together.

The White House was ass-deep in quality intelligence that al-Qaeda intended to hijack airliners and attack high-profile American targets like the World Trade Center.

Consider what the government knew Aug. 17, just three weeks before Sept. 11. That was the day Zacarias Moussaoui was arrested on immigration charges after arousing suspicion at a flight school for wanting to learn how to fly jets but not in how to take off or land them. French intelligence had alerted the FBI that Moussaoui, a French national born in Algeria, had been trained as a terrorist in Afghanistan.

Counter-terrorism experts have understood that Islamic terrorist groups might use hijacked airliners as missiles since the mid-1990s. The French government stopped a plot by the Algerian Armed Islamic Group in 1994 to crash a hijacked airliner into the Eiffel Tower, and the Philippine government thwarted a similar plot by al-Qaeda in 1995 to crash several airliners hijacked over the Pacific into American targets, including CIA Headquarters in Langley, Va.

During the weeks before Moussaoui's arrest, Algerian terrorist Ahmed Ressam, who was serving time for attempting to bomb LAX in 1999, had begun spilling his guts about the direction of al-Qaeda terrorist operations. Ressam, it seems, was trained at the same terrorist camp in Afghanistan as Mohamed al-'Owhali, who was convicted of the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.

Consider what the government might have learned — and what may have been prevented — if it had followed up on the July 10 memo from the FBI field office in Phoenix requesting that flight schools be monitored to spot al-Qaeda terrorists. That proposal died because Attorney General John Ashcroft had downgraded counter-terrorism as a priority for the FBI when he took office. (Counter-terrorism had been an FBI priority for the Clinton administration.) No one at the FBI bothered to share the Phoenix memo with the CIA — or even the team investigating Moussaoui.

A crucial part of any U.S. president's job is ensuring that the military and civilian bureaucracies charged with protecting national security do their work — and work together. That is where the White House failed.

Perhaps the extreme posturing by the post-9-11 White House has been in preparation for the day when its pre-9-11 incompetence would be revealed.

__John Hickman is an associate professor of comparative politics at Berry College. ??


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