The 9/11 Story That Got Away
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On Oct. 12, 2000, the guided missile destroyer USS Cole pulled into harbor for refueling in Aden, Yemen. Less than two hours later, suicide bombers Ibrahim al-Thawr and Abdullah al-Misawa approached the ship's port side in a small inflatable craft laden with explosives and blew a 40-by-40-foot gash in it, killing 17 sailors and injuring 39 others. The attack on the Cole, organized and carried out by Osama bin Laden's Al Qaida terrorist group, was a seminal but still murky and largely misunderstood event in America's ongoing "Long War."
Two weeks prior, military analysts associated with an experimental intelligence program known as ABLE DANGER had warned top officials of the existence of an active Al Qaida cell in Aden, Yemen. And two days before the attack, they had conveyed "actionable intelligence" of possible terrorist activity in and around the port of Aden to Gen. Pete Schoomaker, then commander in chief of the U.S. Special Operation Command (SOCOM).
The same information was also conveyed to a top intelligence officer at the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), headed by the newly appointed Gen. Tommy Franks. As CENTCOM commander, Franks oversaw all U.S. armed forces operations in a 25-country region that included Yemen, as well as the Fifth Fleet, to which the Cole was tasked. It remains unclear what action, if any, top officials at SOCOM and CENTCOM took in response to the ABLE DANGER warnings about planned Al Qaida activities in Aden harbor.
None of the officials involved has ever spoken about the pre-attack warnings, and a post-attack forensic analysis of the episode remains highly classified and off-limits within the bowels of the Pentagon. Subsequent investigations exonerated the Cole's commander, Kirk Lippold, but Lippold's career has been ruined nonetheless. He remains in legal and professional limbo, with a recommended promotion and new command held up for the past four years by political concerns and maneuvering.
Meanwhile, no disciplinary action was ever taken against any SOCOM or CENTCOM officials. Schoomaker was later promoted out of retirement to chief of staff, U.S. Army, and Franks went on to lead the combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Enter Judith Miller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning ex- New York Times reporter at the center of the ongoing perjury and obstruction of justice case involving former top White House official I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby. Miller spent 85 days in jail before finally disclosing that Libby was the anonymous source who confirmed to her that Valerie Plame was a CIA official, although Miller never wrote a story about Plame.
Now, in an exclusive interview, Miller reveals how the attack on the Cole spurred her reporting on Al Qaida and led her, in July 2001, to a still-anonymous top-level White House source, who shared top-secret NSA signals intelligence (SIGINT) concerning an even bigger impending Al Qaida attack, perhaps to be visited on the continental United States.
Ultimately, Miller never wrote that story either. But two months later -- on Sept. 11 -- Miller and her editor at the Times, Stephen Engelberg, both remembered and regretted the story they "didn't do."
Interview with Judith Miller:
"I was working on a special project in 2000-2001 -- trying to do a series on where Al Qaida was, who Al Qaida was, and what kind of a threat it posed to the United States. In the beginning I thought it was going to be pretty straightforward, but it turned out to be anything but. And it took me a long, long time, and a lot of trips to the Middle East, and a lot of dead ends, before I finally understood how I could tell the story to the American people. It was a long-term investigative piece, which meant that for the most part, I didn't write articles on specific individual attacks -- I was working the story â€¦
"I was fairly persuaded that the attack on the Cole was an Al Qaida operation, based on the sources that I was talking to, because I had no independent information, obviously. The people that I was covering ardently believed that Al Qaida was behind a lot of these attacks on American forces and Americans throughout the Middle East that we were beginning to see. At the time there was still a fair amount of debate and a fair amount of resistance to that thesis within the intelligence community, as it's so-called. But from the get go, I think the instinctive reaction of the people I was covering was that this was an Al Qaida operation. So I started looking at the attack on the Cole as an example of Al Qaida terrorism.
"I learned that the Al Qaida Cole attack was not exactly a hugely efficient operation, and I learned later on that there had been an earlier attempt to take out the Cole or another American ship that had floundered badly because of poor Al Qaida training. Because of incidents like that -- you know, overloading a dinghy that was supposed to go have gone out to the ship and blow it up, so that the dinghy would sink -- people tended to discount Al Qaida. They said, 'Oh, they are just a bunch of amateurs." But I'd never thought that. I never believed that. And the people I was covering didn't think that â€¦
"I had begun to hear rumors about intensified intercepts and tapping of telephones. But that was just vaguest kind of rumors in the street, indicators â€¦ I remember the weekend before July 4, 2001, in particular, because for some reason the people who were worried about Al Qaida believed that was the weekend that there was going to be an attack on the United States or on a major American target somewhere. It was going to be a large, well-coordinated attack. Because of the July 4 holiday, this was an ideal opportunistic target and date for Al Qaida.
My sources also told me at that time that there had been a lot of chatter overheard -- I didn't know specifically what that meant -- but a lot of talk about an impending attack at one time or another. And the intelligence community seemed to believe that at least a part of the attack was going to come on July 4. So I remember that, for a lot of my sources, this was going to be a 'lost' weekend. Everybody was going to be working; nobody was going to take time off. And that was bad news for me, because it meant I was also going to be on stand-by, and I would be working too.
"I was in New York, but I remember coming down to D.C. one day that weekend, just to be around in case something happened â€¦ Misery loves company, is how I would put it. If it were going to be a stress-filled weekend, it was better to do it together. It also meant I wouldn't have trouble tracking people down -- or as much trouble -- because as you know, some of these people can be very elusive.
"The people in the counter-terrorism (CT) office were very worried about attacks here in the United States, and that was, it struck me, another debate in the intelligence community. Because a lot of intelligence people did not believe that Al Qaida had the ability to strike within the United States. The CT people thought they were wrong. But I got the sense at that time that the counter-terrorism people in the White House were viewed as extremist on these views.
"Everyone in Washington was very spun-up in the CT world at that time. I think everybody knew that an attack was coming -- everyone who followed this. But you know you can only 'cry wolf' within a newspaper or, I imagine, within an intelligence agency, so many times before people start saying there he goes -- or there she goes -- again!
"Even that weekend, there was lot else going on. There was always a lot going on at the White House, so to a certain extent, there was that kind of 'cry wolf' problem. But I got the sense that part of the reason that I was being told of what was going on was that the people in counter-terrorism were trying to get the word to the president or the senior officials through the press, because they were not able to get listened to themselves.
"Sometimes, you wonder about why people tell you things and why people â€¦ we always wonder why people leak things, but that's a very common motivation in Washington. I remember once when I was a reporter in Egypt, and someone from the agency gave me very good material on terrorism and local Islamic groups.
"I said, 'Why are you doing this? Why are you giving this to me?' and he said, 'I just can't get my headquarters to pay attention to me, but I know that if it's from the New York Times , they're going to give it a good read and ask me questions about it.' And there's also this genuine concern about how, if only the president shared the sense of panic and concern that they did, more would be done to try and protect the country.
"This was a case wherein some serious preparations were made in terms of getting the message out and responding, because at the end of that week, there was a sigh of relief. As somebody metaphorically put it: 'They uncorked the White House champagne' that weekend because nothing had happened. We got through the weekend â€¦ nothing had happened.
"But I did manage to have a conversation with a source that weekend. The person told me that there was some concern about an intercept that had been picked up. The incident that had gotten everyone's attention was a conversation between two members of Al Qaida. And they had been talking to one another, supposedly expressing disappointment that the United States had not chosen to retaliate more seriously against what had happened to the Cole. And one Al Qaida operative was overheard saying to the other, 'Don't worry; we're planning something so big now that the U.S. will have to respond.'
"And I was obviously floored by that information. I thought it was a very good story: (1) the source was impeccable; (2) the information was specific, tying Al Qaida operatives to, at least, knowledge of the attack on the Cole; and (3) they were warning that something big was coming, to which the United States would have to respond. This struck me as a major page one-potential story.
"I remember going back to work in New York the next day and meeting with my editor Stephen Engelberg. I was rather excited, as I usually get about information of this kind, and I said, 'Steve, I think we have a great story. And the story is that two members of Al Qaida overheard on an intercept (and I assumed that it was the National Security Agency, because that's who does these things) were heard complaining about the lack of American response to the Cole, but also â€¦ contemplating what would happen the next time, when there was, as they said, the impending major attack that was being planned. They said this was such a big attack that the U.S. would have to respond.' Then I waited.
"And Stephen said, 'That's great! Who were the guys overheard?'
"I said, 'Well, I don't know. I just know that they were both Al Qaida operatives.'
"'Where were they overheard?' Steve asked.
"Well, I didn't know where the two individuals were. I didn't know what countries they were in; I didn't know whether they were having a local call or a long-distance call.
"'What was the attack they were planning?' he said. 'Was it domestic, was it international, was it another military target, was it a civilian target?'
I didn't know.
'Had they discussed it?'
"I didn't know, and it was at that point that I realized that I didn't have the whole story. As Steve put it to me, 'You have a great first and second paragraph. What's your third?"'
Anatomy of a scoop
Stephen Engelberg confirms Miller's tale in all respects. Engelberg first mentioned the incident in an article by Douglas McCollam in the October 2005 edition of Columbia Journalism Review , which noted:
"Miller was naturally excited about the scoop and wanted the Times to go with the story. Engelberg, himself a veteran intelligence reporter, wasn't so sure. There had been a lot of chatter about potential attacks; how did they know this was anything other than big talk? Who were these guys? What country were they in? How had we gotten the intercept? Miller didn't have any answers, and Engelberg didn't think they could publish without more context. Miller agreed to try and find out more, but in the end, the story never ran."
In a recent interview, Engelberg expanded on his comments. "I recall thinking it made perfect sense at the time," Engelberg told us. "The Cole attack was out of character -- unlike the Africa embassy attacks, the Millennium plot, the earlier World Trade Center bombing.
"That weekend, pre-4th of July, everybody was nervous," said Engelberg. "Judy went down to check with the White House and the NSC types at the Old Executive Office Building and CTC. And she came back in and had the story. And I knew the source.
"Judy had two guys talking, but no names or details," Engelberg recalled. "One guy says, 'The U.S. didn't retaliate for the Cole.' And the other guy says the coming attack 'will be so big they're gonna have to retaliate.' But no details â€¦ Judy had the what but not the who and the where.
"I said, 'Check with the CIA, NSA, DIA,'" Engelberg remembered. "But we couldn't get anything that week."
Interview with Judith Miller:
"I realized that this information was enormously sensitive, and that it was going to be difficult to get more information, but that my source undoubtedly knew more. So I promised to Steve that I would go back and try to get more. And I did â€¦ try.
"He knew who my source was. He knew that the source was impeccable. I had also confirmed from a second source that such a conversation had taken place -- that there was such an intercept -- though my second source did not seem to know as much about the content of the intercept as the first source did. But that was enough for me to know that there was a good story there.
"But whoever knew about the 'who' and the 'where' was not willing tell me at that time. After the fact I was told that, 'The bad guys were in Yemen on this conversation.' I didn't know that at that time. I remember knowing that the person who'd told me seemed to know who had been overheard, but he was not about to share that information with me â€¦
"And Washington being Washington, and the CT world being the CT world, I was soon off pursuing other things. I simply couldn't nail it down with more specificity. I argued at that time that it was worth going with just what we had, even if it was vague, that the fact that the Al Qaida was planning something that was so spectacular that we have to respond was worth getting into the paper in some way, shape or form. But I think Steve decided, and I ultimately agreed, that we needed more details. And I simply couldn't pry them loose.
"At the time I also had had a book coming out. Steve, Bill Broad and I were co-authors of a book about biological terrorism. So we were working flat out on that book trying to meet our deadline. I was desperately trying to get my arms around this series that we were trying to do on Al Qaida. I was having a lot of trouble because the information was very hard to come by. There was a lot going on. I was also doing biological weapons stories and homeland security stories. And in Washington, if you don't have a sense of immediacy about something, and if you sense that there is bureaucratic resistance to a story, you tend to focus on areas of less resistance.
"Our pub date was Sept. 10th. I remember I was very worried about whether or not the publisher was actually going to get copies of the books to the warehouses in time. Because of course, Steve, Bill and I had delivered the manuscript late -- everything was very late.
"The morning of Sept. 11, I was downtown about 12 blocks from the World Trade Center. I remember walking to a school around the corner with a very clear view of the World Trade Center, because it was just a few blocks away. And all I can remember thinking was, 'Are they going to get those books to the warehouses on time?' I was also trying to make up my mind who I was going to vote for in the New York Democratic Primary. And -- everybody says this -- it was one of most beautiful days in New York I ever remember!
"When I got to the Baxter School, there were people standing out in front of the school, pointing at the World Trade Center, which was on fire, and I looked up. I asked what had happened, and they said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. There was an awfully big gash in the building and I didn't see the plane, but there was an awful lot of smoke and I thought, 'Gosh! That was a pretty big space for a Cessna or something to have gotten into that building.'
"And here I had spent my whole summer, my whole past year thinking about an Al Qaida attack, and I yet wouldn't let myself believe that it was happening right then. I simply wouldn't believe. So I turned around without voting, without going into the building, and I started to call my CT sources in Washington, and I remember reaching the counter-terrorism office at the White House, and I was told that nobody was there, that all of the principals were out giving speeches or doing something else. And I said, 'OK, I'll try to call back in 15 minutes.'
"By that time I walked to my house a couple of blocks away, and I heard a boom, and I turned around and once again I didn't see the plane, but I saw the fire shoot out from the building from the plane.
"It was only then, after the second plane hit, that I allowed myself to believe that it really was a terrorist attack -- the attack that we had been so worried about for so long. And I think I was kind of amazed at myself, at the power of denial. When you don't want to believe something's happening, it does not, it's not happening! And I think that was what was going on in the intelligence community. The idea that Al Qaida would actually strike in the United States, not at the Cole or overseas, or in Jordan as part of a warning bombing plot, but here in the U.S., that was just kind of unthinkable! People were in the state of denial, as I was that morning.
"I remember calling back the White House that morning, and at that point, I talked to the secretary in the counter-terrorism office and she said: 'Nobody's here, Judy, and we're evacuating this building. I gotta go. Bye.' At that point, I hadn't even heard about the Pentagon attack, but I knew.
"It was very strange â€¦ it was a strange feeling to have written a series that virtually predicted this, and to have had not a single other reporter call, not a single other newspaper follow up on some of the information that we had broken in that series. At the time of the series, which was published in January 2001, we had information about chemical and biological experiments at Al Qaida camps.
We had gotten the location of the camps, we had gotten satellite overhead of the camps. I had interviewed, in Afghanistan, Al Qaida-trained people who said that they were going to get out of the 'prison' in Afghanistan and go back and continue their jihad. They had talked about suicide bombings. We had Jordanian intelligence say that attempts to blow up hotels, roads and tourist targets in Jordan over the millennium was part of the Al Qaida planned attack. And yet I guess people just didn't believe it. But I believed it. I believed it absolutely, because I've covered these militants for so long. There was nothing they wouldn't do if they could do it."
The one that got away
Like Miller, Steve Engelberg, now managing editor of the Oregonian in Portland, still thinks about that story that got away. "More than once I've wondered what would have happened if we'd run the piece?" he told the CJR. "A case can be made that it would have been alarmist, and I just couldn't justify it, but you can't help but think maybe I made the wrong call."
Engelberg told us the same thing. "On Sept. 11th, I was standing on the platform at the 125th Street station," he remembered ruefully more than four years later. "I was with a friend, and we both saw the World Trade Center burning and saw the second one hit. 'It's Al-Qaida!' I yelled. 'We had a heads-up!' So yes, I do still have regrets."
So does Judy Miller.
"I don't remember what I said to Steve on Sept. 11," she concluded in her interview with us. "I don't think we said anything at all to each other. He just knew what I was thinking, and I knew what he was thinking. We were so stunned by what was happening, and there was so much to do, and I think that was the day in which words just fail you.
"So I sometimes think back, and Steve and I have talked a few times about the fact that that story wasn't fit, and that neither one of us pursued it at that time with the kind of vigor and determination that we would have had we known what was going to happen. And I always wondered how the person who sent that [intercept] warning must have felt.
"You know, sometimes in journalism you regret the stories you do, but most of the time you regret the ones that you didn't do."