The Burial of the 9/11 Story that Got Away

Last week, William Scott Malone and I broke the story of how a still anonymous, senior White House official leaked top-secret NSA intelligence in 2001 to then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller. The intelligence indicated that Al Qaeda was planning a major attack on the United States. But the "The 9/11 Story That Got Away" never made it into the paper.

It never made it to the attention of top Times executive Bill Keller either. Keller, now executive editor of the paper, was managing editor in July 2001. But he was kept in the dark when Miller's "impeccable" source first revealed details of highly classified signals intelligence (SIGINT) concerning an impending Al Qaeda attack, perhaps to be visited on the continental United States. The NSA had been listening in on a conversation between two members of Osama bin Laden's terror network. One was overheard saying to the other, "Don't worry, we're planning something so big now that the U.S. will have to respond."

Asked to comment on our revelation, Times man Keller emailed a statement that said in part, "I heard nothing about this from Judy or Steve (Stephen Engelberg, Miller's editor) at the time."

Keller went on to note, "Obviously it would have been satisfying to have 'predicted' the 9/11 attacks -- just as it was satisfying that we identified Al Qaeda as an important threat before 9/11, in the Pulitzer-winning series Judy heavily reported and Steve edited."

As Miller explained in our exclusive interview, she was initially "floored" by the information from her source, and thought the story had "major Page One potential." But after meeting with Engelberg, she agreed with his assessment that the story lacked sufficient detail. "I realized that I didn't have the whole story," she told us. "As Steve put it to me, 'You have a great first and second paragraph. What's your third?"'

Bill Keller made the same point in his statement: "What Steve had in hand that day in July was a promising lead from an excited reporter -- not, or not yet, a story." Keller concluded by seeming to damn Miller - a controversial figure who remains at the center of the ongoing perjury and obstruction of justice case involving former top White House official I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby - with faint praise: "What Steve had in hand that day in July was a promising lead from an excited reporter," Keller noted, "Not, or not yet, a story. It was the kind of tip that good investigative reporters build on, not something you throw into the paper in all its vagueness."

Did Keller mean to imply that Miller is not a "good investigative reporter?" After all, as Keller noted, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on Al Qaeda. But Miller and Keller certainly clashed in the weeks following Miller's release after spending 85 days in jail before finally disclosing that Scooter Libby was her anonymous source in the Valerie Plame affair -- another story Miller never wrote for the Times. In the aftermath of the Libby revelation, Miller was pilloried, Pulitzer and all, in the pages of the Times, and finally forced to leave.

Whatever Keller may have meant to suggest in all his vagueness, by her own admission Miller didn't do much to build on the tip she received about the impending Al Qaeda attack. "I realized that this information was enormously sensitive, and that it was going to be difficult to get more," she told us. "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…try."
But whoever knew about the 'who' and the 'where' was not willing to tell Miller more at that time -- although she says she later "was told that, 'The bad guys were in Yemen on this conversation.'"

That bit of information never made it to Times higher-ups such as Keller either, and Miller soon moved on. "Washington being Washington, and the CT [counter-terrorism] world being the CT world, I was soon off pursuing other things."

Miller says she did argue at that time "that it was worth going with just we had, even if it was vague, that the fact that the Al Qaeda 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 the argument began and apparently ended with Steve Engelberg. "I think Steve decided, and I ultimately agreed, that we needed more details," she recalled. "And I simply couldn't pry them loose."

There were other complications as well. At the time Miller and Engelberg also had had a book coming out. "So we were working flat out on that book trying to meet our deadline," she told us. "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."

And so, faced with bureaucratic resistance, and for want of sufficient detail - perhaps unattainable, perhaps not--the "Page One potential' story remained just that: a potential story that neither Times editors or readers became aware of until long after the worst terror attacks on US soil ever.

But two months after the initial tip -- on the day of those attacks - both Miller and her Times editor Engelberg regretted the story they "didn't do." Could Miller's tale have turned out differently? Should it have?

I would have liked to ask Bill Keller those questions. I would also like to press for his opinion on the subject of reporters who work on books while also working fulltime for newspapers. Does their book reporting ever get in the way of their newspaper reporting? Does private enterprise (Bob Woodward and the Washington Post come to mind) ever conflict with the public's right to know? Does the issue sometimes cut both ways, at times leading to greater public knowledge when papers decide to publish stories they have held back (James Risen and the New York Times come to mind), lest they be scooped by their own reporters' books?

Then there's the issue of leaks, when 'papers of record' like the Times are used as ammunition in Washington's endless bureaucratic "turf wars" that seem endemic to its peculiar nexus of media, politics and power. Miller's interview reveals much about how the game is played at the highest levels: "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," she explained. "Sometimes, you wonder about why people tell you things and why people … we always wonder why people leak things, but that's a very common motivation in Washington."

What are Keller's thoughts about the Times being used by the nation's top counter-terrorism officials in a vain attempt at getting the White House to pay sufficient attention to the Al Qaeda threat? This seems particularly relevant at a time when the Libby defense team is threatening to put Miller, the Times, and other reporters and news organizations "on trial," and the Attorney General is again threatening to prosecute reporters who receive classified information such as Miller did, both in the Valerie Plame affair and in this instance - from yet another, still anonymous White House source.

Steve Engelberg, now managing editor of the Oregonian in Portland, expressed regret in hindsight at not publishing the story in the summer of 2001. "More than once I've wondered what would have happened if we'd run the piece?" he said. "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…. So yes, I do still have regrets."

So does Miller, who told us, "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."

Ultimately one can't help but wonder - if only… If only the Times had put something, anything, in the paper about the threat of an impending Al Qaeda attack "so big now that the U.S. will have to respond," perhaps the attack might have been averted. Or perhaps the people in the second World Trade Center tower would have known that the first plane to hit was a terrorist attack, and evacuated the building, saving hundreds of lives. Passengers on the hijacked planes that hit the WTC and the Pentagon might have reacted like those on United Flight 93.

Regrets. Perhaps. If only. "Sometimes in journalism you regret the stories you do, but most of the time you regret the ones that you didn't do," Judy Miller sadly concluded. But New York Times executive editor Bill Keller seems to have few regrets, other than the obvious one that "it would have been satisfying to have 'predicted' the 9/11 attacks." He doesn't even seem to regret not telling the world of the story the Times "didn't do" in the days and weeks and years following 911. Apparently Keller didn't feel that the story of "the 911 story that got away" was fit to print either - then or now. That's why you read it here first.

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