|CIA Report Claims
Terrorist May Use Planes in Attack
May 21, 2002
A 1999 analysis commissioned by the CIA
warned that Osama bin Laden loyalists
might crash a plane into the Pentagon or
the White House, adding to the controversy
Friday over the Bush administration's
insistence that it had no way of
predicting the Sept. 11 hijackings.
The report's warnings, coupled with new
details about the FBI's failure to pass on
suspicions about flight schools from its
Phoenix office, further inflamed members
of Congress who believe authorities missed
key opportunities to head off the
The report to the CIA, prepared by
government researchers in September 1999,
included a picture of the World Trade
Center towers and warned the CIA that Bin
Laden "most likely will retaliate in
a spectacular way" for U.S. missile
strikes a year earlier on Al Qaeda-linked
compounds. "Suicide bomber(s)
belonging to Al Qaida's Martyrdom
Battalion could crash-land an aircraft
packed with high explosives ... into the
Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the White
House," the analysis concluded.
The detailed warning was not included in a
classified briefing that the CIA gave
President Bush in August about the
prospect of Al Qaeda hijackings--a
briefing that Bush administration
officials said was too vague to warrant
concrete action. And White House officials
did not see the report until Friday
morning, spokesman Ari Fleischer told
The Justice Department is seeking to
determine why the report was never relayed
to the White House or other national
security personnel who might have included
it in their pre-Sept. 11 analyses of how
the U.S. should respond to the terrorist
threat, according to a department official
who asked not to be identified.
"We're looking at any clues ... that
might have better informed our
understanding of what Al Qaeda was
planning," the official said.
Fleischer said Friday that, because the
document was primarily a psychological
profile of terrorists rather than a
traditional intelligence report, it
"did not raise alarms" and never
reached the White House.
Disclosure of the report's existence
capped a bruising week for the White House
in which Bush administration officials
were forced to fend off questions about
whether they gave short shrift to possible
warning signs before the Sept. 11 attacks.
On Thursday, National Security Advisor
Condoleezza Rice said the Bush
administration never had a specific
warning on which to act. "Had this
president known of something more
specific, or that a plane was going to be
used as a missile, he would have
acted," she said.
Speaking at the White House on Friday,
Bush bemoaned the widespread
"second-guessing" in Washington
and declared: "Had I known that the
enemy was going to use airplanes to kill
on that fateful morning, I would have done
everything in my power to protect the
John Gannon, who was director of the CIA's
intelligence branch at the time the
document was published, said the 1999
report challenges the notion that a Sept.
11-style attack was all but inconceivable
before it happened.
"Nobody I know at the time would have
ruled this out as an option," Gannon
said. "This document very much
thought this was an option."
The 1999 document was commissioned by
Gannon as material for a broader report on
the global trends and threats envisioned
through 2015. Unlike Bush's August
briefing by the CIA, which was based on
classified information, the more detailed,
138-page report in 1999 was culled from
publicly available sources by the Federal
Research Division, a branch of the Library
of Congress, and it was posted last
December on its www.loc.gov
The report's reference to a possible
hijacking plot was largely drawn from the
comments of Ramzi Yousef, who lighted the
fuse of the bomb that exploded beneath the
World Trade Center in 1993, said a U.S.
Contrary to Rice's assertions, the
possibility of terrorists using aircraft
to strike other targets "had been
thought of a lot," the official said.
But it was never considered as likely as
other methods of attack, he said.
At the time, the intelligence community
was far more concerned about Al Qaeda
obtaining biological or chemical weapons.
"If you were to rack and stack a list
of most likely threats, or the ones people
were most worried about, hijacking would
have been lower than car bombs and truck
bombs," the official said.
However, national security experts say the
threat of terrorists using a hijacked
plane as a weapon dates at least to 1973,
when the Israelis said they had received
reports that Arab terrorists were planning
to crash a civilian plane laden with
explosives into Tel Aviv or other cities
The political firestorm in Washington over
what the White House knew has intensified
in part because of the administration's
refusal to publicly release a memo written
by an FBI agent in Phoenix last summer
recommending that the bureau canvass
flight schools to look for suspicious
Middle Eastern students.
A number of lawmakers called again Friday
for the administration to turn over to the
Senate and House intelligence committees
the CIA's Aug. 6 briefing memo to Bush and
the Phoenix memo.
But the FBI is holding its ground on the
Phoenix memo. "It's classified. It
hasn't been released, and I don't think
there are any immediate plans to do
so," an FBI official said Friday.
The memo recommends that "the FBI
should accumulate a listing of civil
aviation universities/colleges around the
country" to investigate the agent's
suspicions that Middle Easterners might be
using flight schools as terrorist training
grounds, according to a government
The CIA, which had never seen the Phoenix
memo before Sept. 11, recently obtained a
copy for the first time and found its
contents "remarkable," a senior
U.S. intelligence official said.
"It certainly would have set off
additional inquiries and work" within
the agency had the CIA been aware of its
contents, the official said.
The official said that at the time the
memo was written none of the names
contained in it would have set off alarms
at the CIA.
"We didn't have those names connected
with Al Qaeda at that time," the
official said. But two of the names in the
memo have since been linked to Al Qaeda.
Law enforcement officials have become
increasingly frustrated by this week's
tempest because many believe that even
knowing what they did before Sept. 11
about the tremendous threat that Bin Laden
posed, they had little recourse in heading
off a possible attack.
"If the FBI sought to undertake what
the Phoenix memo suggested, it would have
opened up a powder keg of protests from
the Arab American community and civil
liberties groups," a federal law
enforcement official said Friday.
The 1999 report to the CIA, while
informative, "was just a hypothesis.
Similar hypotheses come into FBI field
offices every day. The only thing
different about this one is that it was
somewhat prophetic," the official
Former President Clinton said he also
discounted the report's analysis on Bin
Laden. "That has nothing to do with
intelligence," he said Friday night.
"It basically says he's a dangerous
guy that might do a lot of things."
But Robert David Steele, a national
security author who has pushed for years
for the U.S. intelligence agencies to make
better use of publicly available material,
said the episode points out the
shortcomings in the system.
"Whether from open sources or from
classified sources, the sorry reality is
that the existing U.S. intelligence
community process is unable to connect the
dots because the dots never come together
in any one place," Steele said.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) demanded
Friday that the CIA inspector general look
into how the 1999 report was handled.
Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of
the House Intelligence Committee, and the
other ranking members of the intelligence
panels are scheduled to meet with Atty.
Gen. John Ashcroft on Tuesday to discuss
concern among investigators that they are
being denied access to documents and
"Our goal is to maintain the
bipartisan, bicameral effort," Goss
said. "But it's hard because we're
getting pushed by colleagues.
"My colleagues are outraged that
somebody would attack the president. And
there is an uproar on the other side by
people saying [the White House] hasn't
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