(Copyright 2002 Al Aronowitz)



Could 9/11 Have Been Prevented
(Continued from PAGE TWO of SECTION NINE)

Clarke wasn't the only person having a bad year. In New York City, John O'Neill led the FBI's National Security Division, commanding more than 100 experienced agents. By spring they were all overloaded. O'Neill's boss, Assistant FBI Director Barry Mawn, spent part of his time pleading with Washington for more agents, more linguists, more clerical help. He got nowhere. O'Neill was a legend both in New York, where he hung out at famous watering holes like Elaine's, and in the counterterrorism world. Since 1995, when he helped coordinate the arrest in Pakistan of Ramzi Yousef, the man responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, O'Neill had been one of the FBI's leading figures in the fight against terrorism. Brash, slick and ambitious, he had spent the late 1990s working closely with Clarke and the handful of other top officials for whom bin Laden had become an obsession.  

Now O'Neill was having a lousy few months. The New York City field office had primary responsibility for the investigation of the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. But the case had gone badly from the start. The Yemeni authorities had been lethargic and uncooperative, and O'Neill, who led the team in Aden, had run afoul of Barbara Bodine, then the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, who believed the FBI's large presence was causing political problems for the Yemeni regime. When O'Neill left Yemen on a trip home for Thanksgiving, Bodine barred his return. Seething, O'Neill tried to supervise the investigation from afar. At the same time, his team in New York City was working double time preparing for the trial in January 2001 of four co-conspirators in the case of the 1998 African embassy bombings. That involved agents shuttling between Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and New York, escorting witnesses, ferrying documents and guarding al-Qaeda turncoats who would give evidence for the prosecution.

Yet the FBI as a whole was ill equipped to deal with the terrorist threat. It had neither the language skills nor the analytical savvy to understand al-Qaeda. The bureau's information-technology capability dated to pre-Internet days. Chambliss says the counterterrorism investigations were decentralized at the bureau's 56 field offices, which were actually discouraged from sharing information with one another or with headquarters.  

That was if the cases ever got started. An investigation by Chambliss's subcommittee found that the FBI paid "insufficient attention" to tracking terrorists' finances. Most agents in the field were assigned to criminal units; few field squads were dedicated to gathering intelligence on radical fundamentalists. During the Clinton Administration, says a former senior aide, Clarke became so frustrated with the bureau that he began touring its field offices, giving agents "al- Qaeda 101" classes. The bureau was, in fact, wiretapping some suspected Islamic radicals and debriefing a few al-Qaeda hands who had flipped. But at the end of the Clinton years, the aide says, the FBI told the White House that "there's not a substantial al-Qaeda presence in the U.S., and to the extent there was a presence, they had it covered." The FBI didn't, and O'Neill must have known that it didn't. So, as it happens, did some of his key allies, who were not in the U.S. at all but overseas. In Europe and especially in France the threat of Islamic terrorism had been particularly sharp ever since the Algerian Armed Islamic Group launched a bombing campaign in Paris in 1995. By 2000, counterterrorism experts in Europe knew the Islamic diaspora communities in Europe were seeded with cells of terrorists. And after the arrest of Ressam, European officials were convinced that terrorists would soon attack targets in the U.S. Jean-Louis Bruguire, a French magistrate who has led many of the most prominent terrorist cases, says Ressam's arrest signaled that the U.S. "had to join the rest of the world in considering itself at acute risk of attack."

Throughout the winter and spring of 2001, European law-enforcement agencies scored a series of dramatic hits against al-Qaeda and associated radical Islamic cells, with some help from the CIA. The day after Christmas 2000, German authorities in Frankfurt arrested four Algerians on suspicion of plotting to bomb targets in Strasbourg. Two months later, the British arrested six Algerians on terrorism charges. In April, Italian police busted a cell whose members were suspected of plotting to bomb the American embassy in Rome. Two months later, the Spanish arrested Mohammed Bensakhria, an Algerian who had been in Afghanistan and had links to top al-Qaeda officials, including bin Laden. Bensakhria, the French alleged, had directed the Frankfurt cell involved in the Strasbourg plot. And in the most stunning coup of all, on July 28, Djamel Beghal, a Frenchman of Algerian descent who had been on France's terrorist watch list since 1997, was arrested in Dubai on his way back from Afghanistan. After being persuaded of terrorism's evil by Islamic scholars, Beghal told of a plot to attack the American embassy in Paris and gave investigators new details on al-Qaeda's top leadership, including the international-operations role of Abu Zubaydah. (Now back in France, he has tried to recant his confession.) French sources tell Time they believe U.S. authorities knew about Beghal's testimony.

This action by cops in Europe was meat and drink to O'Neill. The problem was that it convinced some U.S. antiterrorism officials that if there was going to be an attack on American interests that summer, it would take place outside the U.S. In early June, for example, the FBI was so concerned about threats to investigators left in Yemen that it moved the agents from Aden to the  American embassy in Sana'a. Then came a second, very specific warning about the team's safety, and Washington decided to pull out of Yemen entirely. "John (O'Neill) would say, 'There's a lot of traffic,'" recalls Mawn. "Everybody was saying, 'The drumbeats are going; something's going to happen.' I said, 'Where and what?' And they'd say, 'We don't know, but it seems to be overseas, probably.'"

Some didn't lose sight of the threat at home. On Aug. 6, while on vacation in Crawford, Texas, Bush was given a PDB, this one on the possibility of al-Qaeda attacks in the U.S. And not one but two FBI field offices had inklings of al-Qaeda activity in the U.S. that, had they been aggressively pursued, might have fleshed out the intelligence chatter about an upcoming attack. But the systemic weaknesses in the FBI's bureaucracy prevented anything from being done.

The first warning came from Phoenix, Ariz. On July 10, agent Kenneth Williams wrote a paper detailing his suspicions about some suspected Islamic radicals who had been taking flying lessons in Arizona. Williams proposed an investigation to see if al-Qaeda was using flight schools nationwide. He spoke with the voice of experience; he had been working on international terrorism cases for years. The Phoenix office, according to former FBI agent James Hauswirth, had been investigating men with possible Islamic terrorist links since 1994, though without much support from the FBI's local bosses. Williams had started work on his probe of flight schools in early 2001 but had spent much of the next months on nonterrorist cases. Once he was back on terrorism, it took only a few weeks for alarm bells to ring. He submitted his memo to headquarters and to two FBI field offices, including New York City. In all three places it died.

Five weeks after Williams wrote his memo, a second warning came in from another FBI field office, and once again, headquarters bungled the case. On Aug. 13, Zacarias Moussaoui, a 33-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan ancestry, arrived at Pan Am International Flight Academy in Minnesota for simulator training on a Boeing 747. Moussaoui, who had been in the U.S. since February and had already taken flying lessons at a school in Norman, Okla., was in a hurry. John Rosengren, who was director of operations at Pan Am until February this year, says Moussaoui wanted to learn how to fly the 747 in "four or five days." After just two days of training, Moussaoui's flight instructor expressed concern that his student didn't want it known that he was a Muslim. One of Pan Am's managers had a contact in the FBI; should the manager call him? "I said, 'No problem,'" says Rosengren. "The next day I got a call from a Minneapolis agent telling me Moussaoui had been detained at the Residence Inn in Eagan."

Though Moussaoui is the only person to be indicted in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, his role in them is as clear as mud. (He is detained in Alexandria, Va., awaiting trial in federal district court.) German authorities have confirmed to Time that---as alleged in the indictment---Ramzi Binalshibh, a Hamburg friend of Atta and Al-Shehhi, wired two money transfers to Moussaoui in August Binalshibh, who was denied a visa to visit the U.S. four times in 2000, is thought to have been one of the conduits for funds to the hijackers, relaying cash that originated in the Persian Gulf. But no known telephone calls or other evidence links the hijackers directly to Moussaoui.

Whatever Moussaoui's true tale may be, the Minnesota field office was convinced he was worth checking out. Agents spent much of the next two weeks in an increasingly frantic---and ultimately fruitless---effort to persuade FBI headquarters to authorize a national-security warrant to search Moussaoui's computer. From Washington, requests were sent to authorities in Paris for background details on the suspect. Like most things having to do with Moussaoui, the contents of the dossier sent over from Paris are in dispute. One senior French law-enforcement source told Time the Americans were given "everything they needed" to understand that Moussaoui was associated with Islamic terrorist groups. "Even a neophyte," says this source, "working in some remote corner of Florida, would have understood the threat based on what was sent." But several officials in FBI headquarters say that before Sept. 11 the French sent only a three-page document, which portrayed Moussaoui as a radical but was too sketchy to justify a search warrant for his computer. The precise wording of the French letter isn't the issue. The extraordinary thing about Moussaoui's case---like the Phoenix memo---is that it was never brought to the attention of top officials in Washington who were, almost literally, sleepless with worry about an imminent terrorist attack. Nobody in the FBI or CIA ever informed anybody in the White House of Moussaoui's detention. That was unforgivable. "Do you think," says a White House antiterrorism official, "that if Dick Clarke had known the FBI had in custody a foreigner who was learning to fly a plane in midair, he wouldn't have done something?"

In blissless ignorance, Clarke and Tenet waited for the meeting of the Principals. But the odd little ways of Washington had one more trick to play. Heeding the pleas from the FBI's New York City office, where Mawn and O'Neill were desperate for new linguists and analysts, acting FBI director Pickard asked the Justice Department for some $50 million for the bureau's counterterrorism program. He was turned down. In August, a bureau source says, he appealed to Attorney General Ashcroft. The reply was a flat no.

Pickard got Ashcroft's letter on Sept. 10. A few days before, O'Neill had started a new job. He was burned out, and he knew it. Over the summer, he had come to realize that he had made too many enemies ever to succeed Mawn. O'Neill handed in his papers, left the FBI and began a new life as head of security at the World Trade Center.

gets two
Arab visitors

As the first cool nights of fall settled on northeast Afghanistan, Ahmed Shah Massoud was barely hanging on. His summer offensive had been a bust. An attempt to capture the city of Taloqan, which he had lost to the Taliban in 2000, ended in failure. But old allies, like the brutal Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, had returned to the field, and Massoud still thought the unpopularity of the Taliban might yet make them vulnerable. "He was telling us not to worry, that we'd soon capture Kabul," says Shah Pacha, an infantry commander in the Northern Alliance.

Around Sept. 1, Massoud summoned his top men to his command post in Khoja Bahauddin. The intention was to plan an attack, but Zahir Akbar, one of Massoud's generals, remembers a phone call after which Massoud changed his plans. "He'd been told al-Qaeda and the Pakistanis were deploying five combat units to the front line," says Akbar. Northern Alliance soldiers reported a buildup of Taliban and al-Qaeda forces; there was no big push from the south, although there were a number of skirmishes in the first week in September. "We were puzzled and confused when they didn't attack," says a senior Afghan intelligence source. "And Taliban communications showed the units had been ordered to wait."

What were they waiting for? Some of Massoud's closest aides think they know. For about three weeks, two Arab journalists had been waiting in Khoja Bahauddin to interview Massoud. The men said they represented the Islamic Observation Center in London and had a letter of introduction from its head, Yasser al-Siri. The men, who had been given safe passage through the Taliban front lines, "said they'd like to document Islam in Afghanistan," recalls Faheem Dashty, who made films with the Northern Alliance and is editor in chief of the Kabul Weekly newspaper. By the night of Sept. 8, the visitors were getting antsy, pestering Massoud's officials to firm up the meeting with him and threatening to return to Kabul if they could not see Massoud in the next 24 hours. "They were so worried and excitable they were begging us," says Jamsheed, Massoud's secretary.

The interview was finally granted just before lunch on Sunday, Sept. 9. Dashty was asked to record it on his camera. Massoud sat next to his friend Masood Khalili, now Afghanistan's ambassador to India. "The commander said he wanted to sit with me and translate," says Khalili. "Then he and I would go and have lunch together by the Oxus River." The Arabs entered and set up a TV camera in front of Massoud; the guests, says Khalili, were "very calm, very quiet." Khalili asked them which newspaper they represented. When they replied that they were acting for "Islamic Centers," says Khalili, he became reluctant to continue, but Massoud said they should all go ahead.  

Khalili says Massoud asked to know the Arabs' questions before they started recording. "I remember that out of 15 questions, eight were about bin Laden," says Khalili. "I looked over at Massoud. He looked uncomfortable; there were five worry lines on his forehead instead of the one he usually had. But he said, 'O.K. Let's film.'" Khalili started translating the first question into Dari; Dashty was fiddling with the lighting on his camera. "Then," says Dashty, "I felt the explosion." The bomb was in the camera, and it killed one of the Arabs; the second was shot dead by Massoud's guards while trying to escape. Khalili believes he was saved by his passport, which was in his left breast pocket-eight pieces of shrapnel were found embedded in it. Dashty remembers being rushed to a helicopter with Massoud, who had terrible wounds. The chopper flew them both to a hospital in Tajikistan. By the time they arrived, Massoud was dead. The killers had come from Europe, and they were members of a group allied with al-Qaeda. Massoud's enemies had been waiting for the news. Within hours, Taliban radio began to crackle: "Your father is dead. Now you can't resist us." "They were clever," says a member of Massoud's staff. "Their offensive was primed to begin after the assassination." That night the Taliban attacked Massoud's front lines. One last time, his forces held out on their own.  

As the battle raged, Clarke's plan awaited Bush's signature. Soon enough, the Northern Alliance would get all the aid it had been seeking---U.S. special forces, money, B-52 bombers, and, of course, as many Predators as the CIA and Pentagon could get into the sky. The decision that had been put off for so long had suddenly become easy because a little more than 50 hours after Massoud's death, Atta, sitting on American Airlines Flight 11 on the runway at Boston's Logan Airport, had used his mobile phone to speak for the last time to his friend Al-Shehhi, on United Flight 175. Their plot was a go.

That morning, O'Neill, Clarke's former partner in the fight against international terrorism, arrived at his new place of work. He had been on the job just two weeks. After Atta and Al-Shehhi crashed their planes into the World Trade Center, O'Neill called his son and a girlfriend from outside the Towers to say he was safe. Then he rushed back in. His body was identified 10 days later.

 " Reported by Massimo Calabresi, John F. Dickerson, Elaine Shannon, Mark Thompson, Douglas Waller and Michael Weisskopf in Washington; Hannah Bloch and Tim McGirk in Islamabad; Cathy Booth Thomas in Dallas; Wendy Cole and Marguerite Michaels in Chicago; Bruce Crumley in Paris; James Graff in Brussels; David Schwartz in Phoenix; and Michael Ware in Kabul  ##



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