William Scott Malone

The 9/11 Story That Got Away

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 …

"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 …

"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 … 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 … 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 … 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 … 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 … 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:

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