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Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Addressing Threats

My family flew on the 4th of July weekend in 2001 and I specifically recall heightened security concerns -- fears of terror attacks and talk of hijacking. It was public knowledge. Indeed, sitting around a pool, I recall casual talk of these warnings.

Of course, this didn't mean the US was on war footing. What should the US have been doing in summer 2001?

Last night, the Fox News reporter asked the President this important set of questions:
Q You have been accused of letting the 9/11 threat mature too far, but not letting the Iraq threat mature far enough. First, could you respond to that general criticism? And, secondly, in the wake of these two conflicts, what is the appropriate threat level to justify action in perhaps other situations going forward?
This came right after the President refused to say why the President and Vice President are meeting with the 9/11 Commission together "rather than separately, which was their request."

I'm not going to discuss Iraq in this entry. There's plenty on that here.

What did we know about the pre-9/11 threat? What did the President know?

Well, on April 18, 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration put the airlines on "high" alert for hijackings.
"The FAA does not have any credible information regarding specific plans by terrorist groups to attack U.S. civil aviation interests ... Nonetheless some of the current active groups are known to plan and train for hijackings ... The FAA encourages U.S. carriers to demonstrate a high degree of alertness."
They repeated this warning on July 31, 2001. Indeed, the FAA issued 15 warnings in the months leading up to September 11.

The State and Defense Departments, as well as the FBI, also put out a number of warnings through the year 2001:
Four Defense Department alerts between June 22 and July 20 alerting U.S. military personnel that ''bin Laden's network was planning a near-term, anti-U.S. terrorist operation.''
OK, so the US and its military was on "high alert" in 2001 for hijackings and/or other threats.

What about the use of planes of weapons? Did policymakers know? According to a New York Times story from earlier this month, they did:
A Congressional inquiry into intelligence activities before Sept. 11 found 12 reports over a seven-year period suggesting that terrorists might use airplanes as weapons.
And as everyone knows, the FBI in Arizona was already worried about Arab men training in US flight schools.

Would the attack come in the US? The CIA warned that it would, as the now-declassifed August 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing warned. The BBC has a text version of that document:
For the President Only

Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US

Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate (Osama) Bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US. Bin Laden implied in US television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and "bring the fighting to America".
World Trade Center. America.

The NYT reported that stronger warnings came earlier in the year, as the congressional inquiry found:
In March, the C.I.A. said that "a group of bin Laden operatives was planning to conduct an unspecified attack in the United States in April 2001. One operative allegedly resided in the United States," according to the Congressional report.

The C.I.A. warnings created what the Congressional report called "a stressful summer." Between May and July, the National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on communications around the world, reported 33 communications suggesting "a possibly imminent terrorist attack," according to the Congressional report.
"Imminent." What an interesting word.

As the year passed, greater attention was directed at US targets abroad -- there was a lot of worry, for example, concerning President Bush's visit to Genoa, Italy during ther summer. The LA Times had a story on September 27, 2001, that indicated the nature of this threat:
U.S. and Italian officials were warned in July that Islamic terrorists might attempt to kill President Bush and other leaders by crashing an airliner into the Genoa summit of industrialized nations, officials said Wednesday.

Italian officials took the reports seriously enough to prompt extraordinary precautions during the July summit of the Group of 8 nations, including closing the airspace over Genoa and stationing antiaircraft guns at the city's airport....

The Genoa warning was disclosed last week by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini. In remarks on a television talk show reported by the Italian news agency ANSA, Fini said: "Many people were ironic about the Italian secret services. But in fact they got the information that there was the possibility of an attack against the U.S. president using an airliner. That's why we closed the airspace and installed the missiles. Those who made cracks should now think a little."

In an interview published Sept. 21 in the French newspaper Le Figaro, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said his government provided information to the United States about possible attacks on the Genoa summit by Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden. "There was a question of an airplane stuffed with explosives. As a result, precautions were taken."
Bin Laden crashing planes into a buildings?

Did the White House know about all this? Condi Rice told reporters on March 24 that Geoge Tenet briefed Bush at least 40 times about the al Qaeda threat.

The day after receiving the PDB on August 6, 2001, President Bush left for a one month vacation in Crawford, Texas. Even at the time, the length of this vacation was newsworthy.

In fact, since his presidency began, George Bush has taken a lot of vacation time. And people have noticed -- it was the #1 question on yahoo last year.

I'm in favor of giving him a really long one, starting January 2005.

Update: Back in September, Open Source Politics had a much more detailed threat timeline for 2001 than I've provided. Note that their entry for August 6 includes the title of the PDB that everyone seemed surprised to hear.

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