Missed clues, but old battle
Amid predictions of new attack, officials again try to fit pieces of intelligence puzzle.
WASHINGTON — Disclosures about how the White House handled pre-Sept. 11 warnings of possible terror attacks make at least one thing clear: The US war against Al Qaeda began long before September 2001.
From their first months in office, Bush officials considered Osama bin Laden a mortal danger to Americans. Weeks before hijacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush himself was pressing for a strategy on destroying the Al Qaeda organization, according to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
The Clinton administration, too, was involved in a struggle against Al Qaeda of which the US public was only dimly aware. Efforts included training Pakistani commandos whose mission was to capture or kill Mr. bin Laden.
Today, with reports circulating that Al Qaeda is planning a major new attack on the US, the pressing question is still one that predates Sept. 11: America's leaders know the terrorist threat is real, but do US intelligence agencies have the resources and coordination to keep America safe?
Clearly, the intelligence community is operating at higher alert now than before Sept. 11, when the FBI and other agencies apparently failed to fit crucial warning signs into a pattern. But the danger is one of which they have long been aware.
Beginning in the Clinton years "I think there was a growing recognition that ... clearly one of the great threats that we did have to confront was terrorism," says former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta. "It wasn't communism any more. It was terrorism."
In recent days, Bush officials have continued to aggressively defend the White House against Democratic suggestions that the President ignored warning signs of the Sept. 11 attacks.
An intelligence briefing Bush received last August contained only a vague reference to a possible desire by followers of Osama bin Laden to hijack airliners, according to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. At the time, intelligence officials thought the purpose of any such hijacking would be to seize passengers as hostages. Al Qaeda operatives were thought to be focused on operations in Europe and the Mideast, not the US itself.
Democrats are just playing politics in pursuing this line of inquiry, the White House says.
"Washington is unfortunately the kind of place where second-guessing has become second nature," said Bush at a Rose Garden ceremony honoring the Air Force football team on Friday.
For their part, Democratic leaders insisted that they were not second-guessing, but trying to ensure that Sept. 11 never happens again. Among their specific questions: Why didn't anyone in the government connect the dots of the hijack alerts and an FBI memo warning of possible terrorists training at US flight schools?
"If the president of the United States doesn't have access to this kind of information, there's something wrong with the system," said Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D).
Meanwhile, US intelligence agencies continue to gather pieces of information pointing toward possible further attacks. In recent days what officials call "the chatter in the system" of terrorist communications has increased to the point where some US officials are reportedly convinced that an attack of a scale similar to September 11 may be coming.
Whatever their conclusions about possible attack methods, US officials were by their own descriptions quite worried about Osama bin Laden's intentions in the first months of the Bush administration. As early as December 2000, the US intelligence community was reporting an upsurge in information concerning terrorist activity, Ms. Rice said at a briefing for reporters. "There was a clear concern that something was up, that something was coming, but it was principally focused overseas," she said.
Threats spiked upwards even more in June. On June 22 the Federal Aviation Administration issued an information circular to airlines warning of possible hijackings. Three similar FAA alerts followed later in the summer, according to Rice.
Meanwhile, Bush and his security advisers were having continuing discussions about Al Qaeda. The president's concern: not how they might come after the US, but how the US might go after them.
The result was an options paper, dated Sept. 10, that discussed a CIA program to work with opposition forces in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies, among other things. Officials did not publicly disclose whether the paper also suggested use of US airstrikes or ground troops.
The plan was sitting on Condoleezza Rice's desk, waiting Bush's review, on Sept. 11.
It would not have been a surprise if bin Laden had been the focus of such a US effort even absent last summer's increased intelligence buzz. During the Clinton era, Al Qaeda was linked to the bombing of US embassies in East Africa and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. In 1998 the Clinton administration loosed a salvo of cruise missiles at terrorist training grounds in Afghanistan that may have narrowly missed hitting bin Laden and other terrorist leaders.
The Clinton team carried out less-publicized efforts to disrupt Al Qaeda, as well. Following the cruise missile strikes, Special Force units were kept on alert in the region, ready to swoop in if bin Laden was definitely spotted. Officials considered their deal to use Pakistani troops in the same effort promising until the coup that brought current Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf to power disrupted the arrangement.
It took Sept. 11 to make such a concerted use of force possible.
Francine Kiefer and Abraham McLaughlin contributed.