Media

How 9/11 Could Have Been Prevented

A new book explores the 'stupidity, hubris and dereliction of duty' behind the pre-9/11 intelligence failure.
"Wherever you are, death will find you/even in the looming tower."
--The Holy Q'ran


Was 9/11 preventable? Add New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright, author of "The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11," to the growing ranks of those answering a resounding "Yes!" to that simple but highly-charged question.

The failures of the CIA, FBI, the National Security Agency and many other branches of government to share information -- and the concomitant failure to stop the 9/11 hijackers -- have already been well-documented by others, but few have offered Wright's coherent focus on what the New York Times accurately describes as "the stupidity, hubris and dereliction of duty that occurred within the United States government." In particular, Wright's relentlessly detailed account of the flawed investigation of the October 2000 bombing of the American destroyer USS Cole -- a seminal and largely misunderstood event in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks -- amply demonstrates how "jealousy and turf wars" were used by U.S. intelligence operatives as "an excuse to hide information that should have been shared."

"9/11 could have been stopped with a functional intelligence community," Wright states forthrightly. "But instead, things were hidden for no reason from people with a vital need to know them."

When the Cole pulled into the port of Aden, Yemen, for refueling on Oct. 12, 2000, "The Al Qaeda presence there was very well-known," says Wright. His claim is buttressed by on-the-record testimony from, among others, military intelligence analysts associated with the secret Able Danger program. The Able Danger team had already identified five different Al Qaeda cells by then, including one active in Aden.

They had also brought this information to Gen. Peter Schoomaker, then-head of the Special Operations Command (SOCOM), now chief of staff, U.S. Army, as well as to high intelligence officials at the Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees the Fifth Fleet to which the Cole had been tasked. It remains unknown what -- if anything -- the high Pentagon officials did with this information, but clearly none of it was ever conveyed to the Cole's commander, Kirk Lippold.

As a result, a fiberglass boat filled with plastic explosives pulled alongside the destroyer and blew a forty-by-forty-foot hole in its side, killing 17 crew members and injuring 39 others.

"You had 17 dead sailors," says Wright. "And they had pertinent information that might have stopped 9/11." Such actions "look like obstruction of justice," he adds, "It's an outrage that no one has been held to account."

In his book, as well as a recent New Yorker article, Wright explains how the CIA withheld vital information from FBI agents who were in Yemen investigating after the attack on the Cole. In particular, the spy agency lied about its knowledge of a terrorist planning meeting in Malaysia that took place before the Cole bombing, which had been attended by two Al Qaeda operatives named Khaled Al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hamzi. It also failed to reveal that the men -- both of whom ended up on planes involved in the 9/11 attacks -- were living in Los Angeles, information that the CIA was legally bound to share with the bureau.

"Given all the alarm bells, I just can't understand why they would tolerate the presence of two known Al Qaeda members in California," says Wright. "Everyone in the CIA knew they were Al Qaeda, but they did nothing! Had this information been given to the FBI, they could have uncovered the 9/11 plot at that time."

How to explain this astonishing failure? One theory has it that the CIA may have been trying to turn the two Al Qaeda members into double agents as a means of infiltrating the terror group. "Half the guys in the bureau think CIA was trying to turn them to get inside Al Qaeda," Wright told me. "It's never been proven, but it's extremely suggestive that this was a failed CIA operation to recruit them." If so, that would at least explain why, when FBI Cole investigator Ali Soufran repeatedly queried the CIA about the meeting in Malaysia -- attended not only by the Cole bombers but also by the two 9/11 hijackers -- the information about al-Mihdhar and al-Hamzi was withheld.

And what of the other, egregious and repeated intelligence failures that resulted in the worst terror attacks ever on U.S. soil? Were they also due to bureaucratic bungling and turf wars, as some have suggested? Were they instead the result of a bipartisan attempt to cover up ongoing intelligence failures dating back several administrations? Or, as some have suggested, was the intelligence community simply drowning in the tsunami of pre-attack "threat assessments" and warnings that were flooding in during the months leading up to 9/11?

"What is the explanation?" Wright asks rhetorically. "Turf wars? A bipartisan cover-up? Drowning in threats? Can I choose 'All of the above'?"

Wright cites a post-attack report on the CIA failures by the Department of Justice's inspector general. "There are lots of reasons to release the report and lots of culpability there," he says. "The CIA failed in its moral and legal obligations. Yet the report is still secret."

Nor is the National Security Agency blameless, says Wright. "NSA also has lots of complicity," he says. "The agency had crucial information that it did not share with the FBI either." The NSA, for example, had been monitoring Al Qaeda telephone calls after the U.S. embassy bombings to a number in Yemen. "That number was called by Osama bin Ladin both before and after the embassy bombings. Khaled al-Mihdhar was the son-in-law of the guy who owned the phone. He called there from California eight times! Had the NSA shared its information, the FBI could have mapped the entire global Al Qaeda network."

In conclusion, Wright says he believes that "all the clues were there, but the pieces were in different people's hands and were never put together." More disturbingly, he believes that we are no safer today than we were five years ago.

"So many in the U.S. intelligence community are demoralized and drifting away," he reports. "Moreover, the reorganization of our intelligence hierarchy has done nothing to make the situation better. Instead, it's only muddied things further. The lines of responsibility are not at all clear. Who's responsible? Who's in charge? It's only gotten worse since 9/11

"They say that each bureaucracy creates its own culture, and that it eats its young," he muses. "But our intelligence community is a sick culture. It does not reward creative, courageous and aggressive people. The people within it who really know things have been stigmatized and excluded -- and I don't know how to fix it."

Al Qaeda, on the other hand, is "not a fractured structure like our intelligence community," says Wright. "Our own confused response pales in comparison to their discipline."

If "The Looming Tower" has any message, says Wright, it's this: "9/11 was not just an intelligence failure, but failure of understanding. We didn't know or even care who these people were! We had NO appreciation for the entire situation and just didn't take it seriously. I can only hope that the book will increase our level of understanding and we can then act appropriately."
Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the Media Is A Plural blog.
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