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Secrets of September 11

Stopping September 11, in Baer’s view, should have begun right there on Edgware Road in 1994, when any observant man with even a smattering of Arabic could have told the supergrades back in Langley that big trouble was brewing for the United States and the place to start checking it out was right there in London.

After September 11, of course, it was checked out, and what the investigators discovered, according to Jane Corbin, a reporter for the BBC, was a nexus of Islamic radicalism so dense that they began referring to it as “Londonistan.” Zacarias Moussaoui, it was learned, had spent time in Britain, had quarreled bitterly about jihad with the mullah of a Brixton mosque, and had several contacts—by phone, and face-to-face in a private home—with an aspiring British-born suicide bomber who had given himself the name of Abdul Ra’uff. In Corbin’s book Al-Qaeda: The Terror Network that Threatens the World, she describes the chain of evidence that identified Ra’uff, at first only a name on a computer hard drive acquired in Afghanistan, as a young British convert to Islam, Richard Reid, who tried and failed last December to ignite plastic explosives packed into the soles of his shoes during an American Airlines flight over the Atlantic.

Other investigations traced the al-Qaeda assassins of an Afghan warlord fighting the Taliban back to London, and determined that over a three-year period Osama bin Laden himself, using just one of possibly many satellite phones available to him, had placed 238 calls—of a total of 1,100, more than to any other country—to numbers in Britain. In late 1998 bin Laden discovered that the CIA had been picking up his calls on this phone, and he turned to other means.

Few things irritate intelligence professionals more than loose charges that they were snoozing at their desks on September 11. If one of them were to sit down to explain to skeptical journalists “on background” just what the CIA was doing to track the terrorist problem, the evidence cited would include hundreds of intelligence officers with support from numerous contract personnel using sophisticated equipment costing zillions of dollars and aided by friendly intelligence services throughout the globe and much else. Gathering information on a big scale is what the CIA has learned to do over the last half-century. The effort to keep track of the Russians began in the 1940s with a handful of agents of doubtful allegiance trying to count tanks on flatbed railcars, but by the end of the cold war the overhead reconnaissance program alone employed battalions of photo interpreters (PIs), each responsible for a small piece of the land grid of the Soviet Union.

All day five days a week and on weekends at the least blip of something interesting these PIs checked a never-ending river of images with a resolution in yards, then feet, and finally inches for signs of a new bump on tank turrets, different antennae on the roof of the local KGB office, too many fresh graves in a gulag cemetery, a new highway turnoff, or, God forbid, the characteristic outbuildings, concrete pourings, and cone-shaped hole of an intercontinental ballistic missile silo with antennae pointing to an azimuth on a beeline for the American missile fields in North Dakota. No expense and no human effort was spared in this effort and the result was very good coverage of the military capacities of the Soviet Union. Terrorism gets the same sort of budget and manpower now.

But sometimes more is not better, and sometimes information is not intelligence. What’s missing from the story of September 11 so far is a sense of why the United States got sucked into the vortex of violence in the Middle East, and how we ought to proceed now that al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have decided we are Enemy Number One. Neither of these questions was addressed in the only official inquiry yet released, a study made public on July 17 by the Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security of the House Intelligence Committee. After several days of testimony by officials of the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Agency (NSA), the committee issued a brief list of practical recommendations for tightening up. At the top of the to-do list were recruiting spies, especially those with access to terrorist groups, and hiring people, now in short supply, who can speak and translate the relevant languages. To speed up the spy effort, the committee urged the CIA to abandon forthwith rules adopted in 1995 that increased the number of hoops that officers in the field had to jump through in order to recruit spies with a history of torture or murder. (The CIA’s director, George Tenet, complied within the week.)

The FBI, the committee said, should strive above all to prevent terrorist acts, and place second the effort to gather evidence to make prosecutable cases. The NSA should “change from a passive gatherer to a proactive hunter” of ways to eavesdrop on terrorists talking to each other. Most of the issues addressed by the committee had already been raised by journalists and frustrated intelligence officers like Robert Baer, but some were new. For example, the committee cited a report circulated by the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center only a month or two before September 11 under the title “Threat of Impending al-Qaida Attack to Continue Indefinitely.” The agency’s “no threshold” policy of reporting every threat, no matter how trivial or vague, was more hindrance than help, the committee suggested.

But only half-disguised in the report’s sober language was the committee’s frustration with the agency’s “excessive caution” in the field where intelligence wars can be won or lost. Needed now, the committee said, was a commitment to “going on the offensive against terrorism.” Marching orders for the CIA have changed radically over the years: agency coup- plotters were praised in the 1950s for ridding President Eisenhower of inconvenient regimes in Guatemala and Iran, then pilloried in 1961 for trying the same in Cuba. Under President Reagan the CIA allegedly trained Nicaraguan guerrillas in how to assassinate Sandinista government officials; under President Clinton in 1995, embarrassed by a revelation that it had been routinely paying a Guatemalan colonel who had killed and tortured Americans, the agency embarked on an “asset scrub” to get criminals off the payroll. CIA officials insist that in the years since no potential spies have been rejected because they were beyond the pale, but the House committee vigorously demanded rescinding the 1995 rules anyway. But more significant than any single white-gloves-only rule has been the slow growth of a careerist caution in the agency and the FBI alike which some intelligence officers—by no means all—describe as a “risk-averse culture.” What this means in practice is summed up by a sign which long hung over the desk of a CIA officer stationed in Rome:

Big ops, big problems.
Small ops, small problems.
No ops, no problems.


The no ops–no problems mindset before September 11 is well described in The Cell, a useful narrative by three journalists, part personal account and part old-fashioned street reporting, which gives flesh to the dry and condensed recommendations of the House intelligence report. At the heart of the book is the story of FBI agent John O’Neill, at first a source and later the friend of ABC television reporter John Miller, chief among the three authors of The Cell. As a bureau specialist in terror-ism, O’Neill investigated the first World Trade Center bombing and later worked the ground in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, where his protests against the stonewalling of local police during the investigation of the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 led the American ambassador, Barbara Bodine, to urge the Yemeni government to bar him from the country. This among other frustrations persuaded O’Neill to resign from the bureau in disgust at the age of fifty-one. He was promptly hired by the New York Port Authority as director of security for the World Trade Center and he died there, not a week into the job, on September 11.

The Cell is one of the first of what are sure to be many books about September 11 but it is distinguished by Miller’s involvement in the story before the attacks occurred, and especially by his account of a trip to Afghanistan in May 1998 when he “interviewed” Osama bin Laden in northern Afghanistan. After hard traveling and much waiting by Miller and his crew, bin Laden arrived amid a crescendo of welcoming gunfire, surrounded by seven bodyguards, and with al-Zawahiri and Mohammed Atef at his side—the latter killed in Kabul last November by American bombs. At six feet three inches bin Laden was the tallest in the group; he wore a green army field jacket; he greeted Miller with a firm handshake; his voice was “soft and slightly high, with a raspy quality that gave it the texture and sound of an old uncle giving good advice.” The “interview” was limited to bin Laden’s answers to questions Miller had earlier submitted in writing while Miller nodded helpfully on camera. Nothing was translated at the time and there were no follow-up questions. Only later did Miller learn what he had been told.

It was simultaneously little and much—little in the sense that it rambled, added few details to what was known of bin Laden or al-Qaeda, offered no door to dialogue; and much because bin Laden answered a question rarely addressed or even raised since September 11: Why was he angry at America?

The American imposes himself on everyone. Americans accuse our children in Palestine of being terrorists—those children, who have no weapons and have not even reached maturity. At the same time, Americans defend a country, the state of the Jews, that has a policy to destroy the future of these children….

Your situation with Muslims in Palestine is shameful—if there is any shame left in America. Houses were demolished over the heads of children. Also, by the testimony of relief workers in Iraq, the American-led sanctions resulted in the death of more than one million Iraqi children. All of this is done in the name of American interests. We believe that the biggest thieves in the world and the terrorists are the Americans. The only way for us to fend off these assaults is to use similar means. We do not worry about American opinion or the fact that they place prices on our heads. We as Muslims believe our fate is set.

Nothing that bin Laden told Miller in his soft voice, or that he has said or written elsewhere, suggests that al-Qaeda’s war on America can be settled at the negotiating table. But that, according to Rohan Gunaratna, an academic expert on terrorism who teaches at the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland, should not prevent Americans from seeing that the war has a political context, and will be won or lost at least in part by political means. Gunaratna is one of those academics, common in America and Britain, who speaks as often to assembled generals and colonels as he does to college students. He has traveled frequently to Afghanistan and other battlegrounds, has interviewed many terrorists and intelligence officials, and has read widely in the literature of Islamic fundamentalism. His book is a careful and methodical account of bin Laden’s emergence as a leader, and of al-Qaeda cells active around the world. As a handbook, Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror does the work of many tomes, but its chief strength is to be found in Gunaratna’s final chapter, where he argues that the political war will be ignored at America’s peril.

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