Unique Attack Surprises U.S. Intelligence Officials
* Security: Assault called 'a failure of great dimension.' Experts say it proves the difficulty of countering terrorism.
By BOB DROGIN, Times Staff Writer
September 12, 2001
WASHINGTON -- The collective failure to anticipate and prevent Tuesday's brutal and coordinated attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was, by definition, a massive breakdown in the nation's system of defense against the amorphous threat of terrorism.
And as the attacks echoed throughout the U.S. intelligence, law enforcement and immigration communities, they prompted inevitable recriminations in Congress and elsewhere.
"This obviously was a failure of great dimension. We had no specific warning," Sen. Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican who is vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Capitol Hill after discussing the attacks with CIA Director George J. Tenet.
But those were easy judgments to make, and numerous officials and terrorism experts said it was premature to pinpoint blame and that the carnage underscored the profound difficulty of countering terrorism.
"It's inevitable that this will be called an intelligence failure," said Daniel Benjamin, a counter-terrorism official in the Clinton White House. "But that's premature until we know how they operated. If they held every meeting face to face, without electronic communications, what can we do?"
A U.S. official who asked not to be identified said it was "inappropriate" to start assigning blame. "Our people work tirelessly to fight terrorism, but we've never pretended to be able to stop all threats, particularly from those willing to sacrifice their lives to achieve their goals."
Most officials and terrorism experts were at a loss to explain how such a sophisticated conspiracy, involving elaborate training and intricate timing, could have slipped past the eyes and ears of America's $30-billion-a-year intelligence networks. U.S. intelligence and law enforcement had no warnings as "to time, place and date" of any attack on American soil, a U.S. official said. "There's always generic threats out there."
At this point, he added, "we are pulsing all of our circuits, trying [as] best we can to determine what happened. We're reaching out in every way possible. We're tweaking all of our capabilities to find information that will be useful to the president."
A senior intelligence official concurred. "People are going back to sources, looking at files to find any hint of anything that could possibly have foreshadowed the circumstances of today. You might have a very ambiguous reference to Boston airport or the World Trade Center," he said hypothetically, "but it's so ambiguous and buried in 50 other things, so it meant nothing at the time. They'll go back to that, then go back to their sources."
While initial evidence pointed to possible involvement of Osama bin Laden, the fugitive Saudi extremist believed to be hiding in Afghanistan, U.S. authorities said they would spread their net as wide as possible in case others were responsible.
In 1995, for example, five Islamic terrorists unconnected to Bin Laden plotted to blow up 11 U.S. passenger jets over the Far East in a single day of synchronized terror. The plot was uncovered after an apartment fire in Manila.
The current investigation had a rocky start, however, when all nonessential CIA personnel were evacuated at midmorning from agency headquarters in Langley, Va., because of fears of another airborne attack. The CIA's 24-hour operation center and other emergency facilities were moved to other buildings in the complex.
The main building reopened for essential personnel at about 1 p.m. It was the first evacuation because of possible attack in the agency's history.
The criticisms of the nation's intelligence apparatus were sharp and wide-ranging.
"There has been total disorder in any planning for protection against terrorists," said former Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), who serves on the president's foreign intelligence advisory board and has co-authored several critical reports on government preparations for terrorist attacks.
Rudman said Tuesday's terrorist attacks were "much worse than Pearl Harbor."
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), condemning the failure to detect the attack, also used the Pearl Harbor analogy by paraphrasing Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech on Dec. 7, 1941: "This is not just a day of infamy, it's a day of disgrace."
He termed the attacks "a catastrophic failure of American intelligence. . . . For the national security apparatus to have missed this is the biggest intelligence blunder in our lifetime. The people we pay billions of dollars to have left us at the mercy" of international terrorists.
Jerrold Post, a former CIA terrorism expert now at George Washington University, said terrorism is a difficult target for intelligence agencies, especially if the perpetrators are radical Islamic groups working in small cells.
"That requires human intelligence, penetration of those groups, and that's usually difficult to impossible," he said.
As the world's only superpower, he added, "we have an active war, an undeclared war, against an enemy that is unknown, unseen and mobile."
Jack Downing, former CIA operations director, said authorities have successfully prevented planned terrorist attacks in New York, Los Angeles and aboard U.S. airliners in the Far East.
John Parachini, executive director of the Washington office of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, said the attackers had found and exploited an unexpected gap in America's defenses.
"It shows that our emphasis on nuclear, chemical, biological and radiological weapons of mass destruction caused us to overlook a more readily available alternative, airplanes," Parachini said. "They had no bombs, and they proved to be incredible weapons."
Parachini, who was on nearby Memorial Bridge on Tuesday when the hijacked aircraft hit the Pentagon, said terrorists have become expert at confusing America's intelligence agencies with decoy attacks.
U.S. officials earlier this month issued warnings concerning possible terrorist attacks against American facilities or personnel in Japan, while a Greek newspaper reported a possible attack in Cyprus. Other threats were reported in Jordan and in the Persian Gulf.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist at the Rand Corp., said the attackers were a new breed of terrorist: highly skilled, carefully trained and utterly devoted.
"When they hit two embassies in Africa at the same time a few years ago, that really drew our attention," he said. "To hijack four commercial aircraft at the same time, you're really talking about tremendous professionalism and diligence. You're not recruiting someone who's going to panic. Short of having an agent in all four cells, how do you prevent that?"He and other officials warned that the U.S. government should not overreact by closing America's open society. "They want to undermine confidence in our government," he said. "They want us to panic. They want to influence our foreign and domestic policy. If they do that, they've won."
One unanswered question is whether the attackers read trial transcripts and studies of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. "One of the things we learned was the engineers who built it designed it to withstand the crash from a Boeing 707," Parachini said. "The crash today was a 737, which is a bigger plane."
Ever since a terrorist bomb exploded under the World Trade Center, killing six people, U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies have quietly planned for the possibility of far deadlier attacks on the twin towers.
"I know of at least two war games where the trade towers came crashing down," said Michael Swetnam, a former intelligence official now at a Washington think tank. "But none of the scenarios envisioned using hijacked U.S. airliners full of U.S. citizens as flying bombs. This is unique and hideous."