Michael Morell on 9/11, the CIA and Afghanistan, Part 1 – “Intelligence Matters”

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In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell offers personal reflections in Part One of a two-part essay on the CIA’s strategic warnings before 9/11, the terror plots it helped foil in its aftermath, and developments in Afghanistan today. Morell explains why he believes the CIA provided “the loudest and most persistent warning in the history of the agency on any issue” about al Qaeda to both the Clinton and Bush administrations, and outlines the missteps that may have led to the attacks. He also reveals new details about the level of frustration among CIA leadership with inaction by the White House. 

Highlights

  • Warnings before 9/11: “The theme of this period – which runs from the early-1990s into 2001 – is that the CIA provided strategic warning of the al Qaeda threat.  In my view, this was arguably the loudest and most persistent warning in the history of the agency on any issue. Ever. “
  • Foiled attacks: “With the help of intelligence and security services around the world, CIA launched operations against 38 targets in 55 countries. The pace was frenetic, with significant coordination between CIA, NSC, DOJ and the FBI.  Dozens of arrests were made around the world. The disruption operation worked.  There were no successful attacks during the millennium.  The disruption effort, by tightening security at US border crossings, even helped thwart an attack on the homeland — an attack on Los Angeles international airport.”
  • Frustration at CIA: “I strongly sensed during the spring and summer of 2001 that Tenet was deeply frustrated with the White House.  I sensed that Tenet felt that the White House just did not get it.  I think this is why he went to such great lengths – taking over the briefing from me, taking his CT team to see Rice twice.  I think he was trying anything he could to get their attention.”

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – Michael Morell on the CIA, 9/11 and Afghanistan

PRODUCER: Olivia Gazis

MICHAEL MORELL: Thanks for joining us today. There has been much talk over the last few weeks about 9/11, to include what happened in the run-up to that tragic day and what happened in its immediate aftermath. Much of this has focused on questions of what the CIA did and what it didn’t do in both of these periods.

Many interviews have been conducted, many articles written, many documentaries made.

What I want to do in this, and in the next episode, is to share my personal thoughts on all this.

Why do I want to do this? Because many of you, our listeners, have reached out and asked me to do so and because I believe there is much misunderstanding that has swirled around CIA’s role, some of it for years.

Let’s start with the run-up to 9/11. This will be chapter one in our story. Chapter Two – the aftermath – will be next week.

The theme of this period – which runs from the early-1990s into 2001 – is that the CIA provided strategic warning of the al Qaeda threat. In my view, this was arguably the loudest and most persistent warning in the history of the agency on any issue. Ever.

The sub-theme is that the then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet saw the threat as clearly as anyone; he drove the intelligence community to focus on it, even in an environment of extremely limited resources; and he repeatedly took his concerns to the highest levels of the U.S. government.

How do I know all this? Because prior to 9/11,I served for six years as the head of the staff that produces the President’s Daily Brief, as Tenet’s executive assistant, as a deputy in CIA’s counterterrorist center, and as President Bush’s first intelligence briefer, a job I held from January 4, 2001 to January 4, 2002.

Let me walk through this period.

CIA first identified Osama bin Laden as a threat in 1993, eight years before 9/11. At that time, we saw him as a financier of terrorism. This put him on our radar.

In 1995, we linked Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, to bin Laden’s money and to a bin Laden-run safehouse in Peshawar, Pakistan. This raised our interest in bin Laden even more.

That same year, the intelligence community published a National Intelligence Estimate, what we call an “NIE.” An NIE is an analytic product representing the considered view of the entire intelligence community.

This particular NIE warned that civil aviation in the United States was a target of terrorists. This is six years before 9/11. It said, and I quote, “If terrorists operating in this country are methodical, they will identify serious vulnerabilities in the security of domestic flights.” Unquote.

This paper was provided to not only to the typical national security officials in the executive branch but it was also provided to the FAA and to the airline industry. And like all NIEs, it was provided to Congress.

Also in 1995, the Philippine police disrupted a plot hatched in the Philippines by Ramzi Yousef and his uncle, a man named Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. The uncle, who we call KSM, would go on to become the mastermind of 9/11.

This Philippine plot was a multi-faceted attack plan that included hijacking multiple airliners, flying them to the United States, blowing up most of them in flight, and crashing one into CIA headquarters in Virginia.

This was an important reference to terrorists using airplanes as weapons – and it was not the first such reference we had seen and reported on. At least one other had come before. Those who say that CIA never imagined terrorists using planes as weapons are just wrong.

Because of all of this, CIA, in early 1996, created a stand-alone unit, called Alec station, to track bin Laden and his activities. The goal was to figure out exactly what he was doing.

Just months later – that same year and five years before 9/11 – CIA concluded that bin Laden was much more than a terrorist financier. He was a terrorist himself.

Indeed, we concluded that bin Laden was a leader of a terrorist group, that he was determined to drive the United States out of the Middle East, overthrow Sunni Arab regimes and establish an Islamic caliphate in those countries — and that he planned to accomplish this by striking the United States wherever he could, most importantly on our own soil, here in the homeland.

We even said in late 1996 that bin Laden was interested in acquiring weapons of mass destruction to accomplish his goals.

As a result of this judgment, the CIA, led by Director Tenet, provided hundreds of classified and unclassified warnings of the threat posed by bin Laden.

These warnings appeared in CIA analytic products, National Intelligence Estimates, and testimonies before congress, both open and closed, over multiple years.

One of the National Intelligence Estimates, published in 1997, said and I quote, “Civil aviation remains a particularly attractive target for terrorist attacks in light of the fear and publicity that downing of an airliner would evoke.” Unquote.

Tenet even wrote personal memos to President Clinton and to his National Security Council counterparts about the threat. The writing of such personal memos by a director was unprecedented. I never saw a director do that before, and i have never seen one do it since.

Then the first evidence that CIA’s warnings were on the mark appeared with crystal clarity. On the morning of August 7th, 1998, two of our embassies in East Africa, one in Kenya and one in Tanzania, within seconds of each other, were hit by massive suicide truck bombs – killing 12 Americans and over 200 Africans.

Within two days, CIA concluded that al Qaeda was behind the bombings. President Clinton responded with cruise missile strikes, but they did little to no damage to al Qaeda.

These attacks drove Tenet to push the intelligence community even harder. He asked for a detailed plan to improve CIA’s collection against al Qaeda. He wrote what came to be called the “we are at war” memo to drive the rest of the intelligence community to do the same.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, both the CIA and the broader community responded. Resources were moved from other critical issues to terrorism. The focus on al Qaeda across the community was raised. Relationships with other intelligence services were expanded. Our collection improved.

Part of these efforts included developing drones to collect intelligence, including to find bin Laden. They also included seeking increasingly aggressive covert action authorities to go after bin Laden. And they included the US military working to weaponize a drone to give a president the option to take direct action against the terrorist leader. The military’s work on being able to hit a target who was outdoors was completed before 9/11. Only policy approvals remained.

The increased effort to collect intelligence paid off. CIA and the rest of the intelligence community identified in 1999 multiple al Qaeda plots timed to the millennium. Tenet told President Clinton to expect 5 to 15 attacks against the US, our allies, and our interests.

In response, President Clinton ordered a worldwide operation to disrupt al Qaeda wherever we could.

With the help of intelligence and security services around the world, CIA launched operations against 38 targets in 55 countries. The pace was frenetic, with significant coordination between CIA, NSC, DOJ and the FBI. Dozens of arrests were made around the world.

The disruption operation worked. There were no successful attacks during the millennium. The disruption effort, by tightening security at US border crossings, even helped thwart an attack on the homeland — an attack on Los Angeles international airport.

Indeed, the arrest of the LAX plotter, Ahmad Ressam, trying to cross the border from Canada into the United States with explosives and detonators not only stopped that particular attack. It also was a manifestation of bin Laden’s desire to bring the fight to the homeland.

Then suddenly another wake-up call. In mid October 2000, just weeks before the presidential election, the USS Cole, a guided missile destroyer, anchored off the coast of Yemen, was hit by a suicide boat, killing 17 U.S. sailors, and injuring 37.

At this point, the Clinton administration had been through the first world trade center bombing, the African embassy bombings, the millennium threats, and now the attack on the Cole. The president and his national security advisor, Sandy Berger, had themselves become seized with al Qaeda.

As a result, Berger asked Tenet: If there were no constraints on covert action authorities and no constraints on resources, how would you go after al Qaeda in order to degrade its ability to attack us?

The result was a CIA memo that was called the “Blue Sky Memo.” It was delivered to Berger, but the Clinton administration came to an end before the plan could be discussed within the interagency and before it – in some form – could become policy.

So, how to assess the Clinton administration’s performance on al Qaeda? Hindsight is 20/20, and it is therefore, I think, fundamentally unfair to ask such a question, but, with that caveat, I believe the Clinton administration should have come earlier to the realization that we needed to get much more aggressive with al Qaeda. Sandy Berger should have asked his question and run a policy process on the answer after either the East Africa bombings or at minimum after the millennium threat.

Why didn’t this happen? I don’t know. I don’t think the work has ever been done to answer this question. To be sure, the Clinton administration had other things on its plate – the war in the Balkans, the emergence of the Pakistani nuclear program, and others. And, of course, the administration was dealing with the political fallout from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Still, I think a detailed answer to this question remains to be produced.

In December of 2000, George W. Bush is declared the winner of the presidential election and the transition to a new administration begins. The warnings that the CIA had been providing the Clinton administration are now made loud and clear to the Bush administration.

Terrorism in general and al Qaeda in particular was a priority topic in Bush’s first intelligence briefing — when he became the Republican nominee for president. The deputy director of Central Intelligence at the time, John McLaughlin, Tenet’s second in command, presided over this briefing. Because the al Qaeda issue was such an important part of the briefing, McLaughlin brought with him a senior official from CIA’s counterterrorism center to walk bush through the threat.

In this session, McLaughlin told candidate Bush that, if he became president, Americans were likely to die from terrorism on his watch.

In their first meeting after Bush was declared the winner of the election, Clinton told Bush that al Qaeda would be the most significant national security issue he would face as president. Sandy Berger said the same to his successor as national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice.

The al Qaeda threat was a main topic of conversation when Tenet and his head of operations, Jim Pavitt, briefed both Bush and VP-elect Cheney on CIA covert actions at Blair house a week before the inauguration.

Only five days after the inauguration, Dick Clarke, the man responsible for counterterrorism policy at the White House and a holdover from the Clinton administration, repackaged the Blue Sky Memo, which had been sitting in his safe since the departure of Berger. Clarke sent it to Rice, and he said that there was an urgent need for an early NSC Principals meeting on al Qaeda. Like Tenet and Berger, Clarke wanted to take the gloves off.

On the very same day, CIA wrote a PDB item for the new president pinning responsibility for the Cole attack on bin Laden. No action was taken against al Qaeda.

Just a little over a month after the inauguration, Tenet gave a package of draft covert action authorities to Rice’s deputy, Steve Hadley. The package included the authorities that would be required to carry out the activities in the Blue Sky Memo. The White House, for reasons that I don’t know, asked that the package be withdrawn.

Then the lights started to blinking red: threat reporting spiked in the spring and early summer of 2001. The PDB for two months was filled with such reporting. The titles of these pieces included “bin Laden planning multiple operations,” “bin Laden attacks may be imminent,” “bin Laden planning high profile attacks,” and “UBL threats are real.” Words such as “catastrophic” and “multiple simultaneous attacks” were used in the pieces.

On April 18, Tenet, after having been briefed the night before on new threat reporting took over the PDB briefing, switching seats with me, expressing in words, his tone, and his body language that he believed we were going to get hit and hit hard.

On May 30, Tenet took McLaughlin, his head of counterterrorism Cofer Black, and the head of Alec station to his weekly meeting with Rice because he was so concerned about the threat reporting. “How bad do you think it is?” Rice asked Black. Black told her that during the millennium the threat level was at an 8, on a ten scale. “Right now,” Black said, “we are at 7.”

On July 10, Tenet again took his CT team to see Rice. The head of Alec Station told her, and I quote, “There will be a significant terrorist attack in the coming weeks or months,” end quote. Tenet and his deputies said the United States must go on the offense against al Qaeda. In response, three days later, the White House held a deputies meeting on al Qaeda, but no action was taken.

I should add, and this is the first time I’ve ever said this publicly, is that I strongly sensed during the spring and summer of 2001 that Tenet was deeply frustrated with the White House. I sensed that Tenet felt that the White House just did not get it. I think this is why he went to such great lengths – taking over the briefing from me, taking his CT team to see Rice twice. I think he was trying anything he could to get their attention.

Then the threat reporting dried up. Gone. It turned out that al Qaeda, expecting another round of cruise missile strikes after the 9/11 attacks, went to ground. They went to the hills, literally. Our sources lost access.

Despite the lack of new reporting, Tenet remained deeply concerned. He asked for a review of all the previous threat reporting, of everything we then knew, to make sure we had not miss anything.

In this process, CIA’s leadership learned that officers in the counter terrorist center had learned in early 2000 that two al Qaeda terrorists had Visas to enter the united states but that they had failed to alert their chain of command or to formally watchlist them. Now both were in the United States. So, Tenet ordered an immediate fix to the mistake, and the two were watch-listed in mid-August. Their names were Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi. They turned out to part of the 9/11 plot.

The next data point in this story line is 9/11 itself, with 3,000 people killed. It was the largest attack on the American homeland in the history of the country.

So, how to assess CIA’s performance in the run-up to 9/11?

On one level, perhaps the most important level, CIA never got an issue more right than it got al Qaeda before 9/11. Never did CIA warn as much and as loudly about something as it did about bin Laden and al Qaeda. CIA was created to warn of strategic surprise, and it did that in spades with bin Laden.

On another level, there was a shortcoming. CIA – and our partners at NSA – did not, pre-9/11, penetrate bin Laden’s inner circle to the point where we would have learned enough information to stop the plot, to stop the attack. We did this after 9/11 routinely, which we will talk about in the next episode, but we did not do it beforehand.

I think there were two reasons for this. First, al Qaeda had safe haven, given to them by the Taliban, which made them very difficult to get at from an intelligence perspective. And, perhaps most important, CIA, when Tenet took over, was nearly broken by a decade of budget cuts – the so-called Cold War peace dividend.

CIA was under great pressure on resources. We needed much more than we had. Tenet made repeated requests to the Office of Management and Budget for more resources.

Tenet even wrote a personal letter to President Clinton asking for more resources to fund a bigger effort against bin Laden and al Qaeda. This too was unprecedented for a director.

The administration did not respond to these requests. It was only in 1999, when then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich saw the need, that the intelligence community received additional resources, and this was done over the objections of the administration. But even this resource infusion was for only one year, so it was of little help in sustaining our operations over the next two years – the two years immediately before 9/11.

CIA also made a mistake. It was the watch-listing error I just spoke about. It was an honest mistake – born of a massive workload in Alec station. That’s not an excuse; it’s just an explanation. But, at the end of the day, it was still a mistake.

It is worth asking what would have happened if the CIA had watch-listed the two when it first learned about them in the early 2000. We don’t know, of course, but most likely, they would have been denied entry to the United States. And, in this case, we would not have discovered the 9/11 plot. Indeed, the individual who was supposed to have been the 20th hijacker was not allowed entry to the United States because an alert immigration agent concluded that he was attempting to illegally enter the United States and sent him back to point of origin, which was Dubai, but with no knowledge gained on what he was really up to.

I should note that CIA was not the only organization to misstep prior to 9/11. The FBI officers working in Alec station at the time, of which there were several, all with computer access, also missed the Mihdhar and Hamzi information.

Several were aware of the information but did not act on it. And when we did watch-list them in mid-August the FBI assigned the case to an agent who had just finished his rookie year and the bureau labeled the case “routine,” the lowest possible priority level. But, again, if they had been found, they probably would simply have been deported.

There was also a memo from the FBI’s Phoenix field office of multiple Arabs taking flight training and not being interested in takeoffs and landings. This reporting was not acted on by FBI headquarters nor was it shared with the interagency, including CIA.

And then there was Zacarias Moussaoui. The FBI arrested him on August 16th, 2001 on immigration charges. Moussaoui, too, was training to fly airplanes, and suspicious flight instructors had called the FBI. Moussaoui was in the country illegally, and he was arrested. But, the FBI, for legal reasons, did not search Moussaoui’s luggage, the contents of which tied him to al Qaeda. It turned out that Moussaoui knew about the 9/11 plot, and he was in our custody. KSM would later say that had he known about Moussaoui’s arrest that he would have postponed the attacks, believing them compromised.

What about policy in the Bush administration? How to think about that? I think this question has confused many people as there are two distinct issues that need to be addressed – the first is the strategic warning about al Qaeda that the Bush team received even before they took office and the second is the threat reporting that came across their desks in the spring and summer. You have to look at these separately to assess the administration’s performance on policy.

On the first issue: I think it is fair to say that despite the strategic warnings from the intelligence community and from the outgoing Clinton team, and despite strong recommendations coming from Dick Clarke inside the White House, the Bush team did not do a policy review on al Qaeda as early as it should have, given the compelling nature of the strategic threat. I believe that that policy review should have occurred immediately after the inauguration. Had it, perhaps it would have resulted in a much more aggressive policy, perhaps it would have resulted in the Blue Sky recommendations being approved. But also, perhaps not.

With regard to the second issue: senior Bush administration officials have always said that the threat reporting from the spring and summer was never specific as to time, place, and method. That is a fair and an accurate statement. But the threat reporting for the millennium was also not particularly specific, but President Clinton nonetheless ordered a comprehensive disruption effort that ended up paying huge dividends. I believe this should have been done by the Bush administration as well.

To be fair to the Bush administration, the al Qaeda posed was a new kind of threat. It was a threat from a non-state actor. Non-state actors were not an issue the last time republicans had in power. The Bush national security team initially focused on nation states and the threat they could pose to the United States. It took them time to learn that a rag-tag group of extremists, operating in dirt training camps in the middle of Afghanistan, could pose an immense threat to America.

Congress should not be left out of this assessment either. The Gore commission on airline safety recommended in early 1997 a number of improvements to airline security, including many of the changes that would eventually be implemented after 9/11. But, Congress, before 9/11, did not pass into law a single one of these recommendations, largely under pressure from an airline industry that feared the security enhancements would inconvenience passengers.

Would any of the intel, law enforcement, policy, or legislative missteps have made a difference? Would any of them have prevented the 9/11 attacks? That is very hard to say. It is easy to make arguments for why they could have made a difference, but it is hard to make an argument that they would have made a difference. Unfortunately, we will never know.

But all of these, particularly when put together, are why I have always called 9/11 a ‘national failure.’

One more thought: in the context of what I just outlined, one way of looking at bin Laden’s success on 9/11 is that he got lucky with timing. Time ran out on the Clinton administration when it wanted to take the gloves off and time ran out for the Bush team to fully understand the threat. Bin Laden threaded the needle.

That concludes chapter one of this story. Join us next week for the second chapter – the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

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