Saturday, November 01, 2008

September 11th - Did the Bush administration even try to keep Americans safe?

The amazing thing is not that there haven’t been more September Eleventh’s , but that the 9/11 attacks succeeded partly because the Bush administration took no action to try to prevent them, despite many specific and detailed warnings from the FBI and it’s agents, the CIA, flight school instructors and foreign intelligence agencies. Whether through sheer incompetence or due to cynicism and dubious motives the Bush administration did nothing to try to prevent the worst terrorist attack in American history – and then tell people they’ve ‘kept Americans safe’ because they weren’t grossly negligent in allowing thousands of deaths a second time.

Either way the neo-conservative wing of the Republican party represented by people like Cheney and former CIA director James Woolsey (now an adviser to John McCain) failed to even attempt to prevent 9/11 and don’t deserve to be re-elected. The same goes for the hard-right Christian fundamentalist wing represented by Sarah Palin, John Ashcroft and George W. Bush.

Why were FBI agents also ordered by the Clinton and Bush administrations not to continue investigations into extreme Muslim groups operating in the US which were receiving money from the Saudi monarchy?

There are similar questions to be asked about why warnings from two informants working for the FBI inside a jihadist cell in the US in 1993 were ignored by the FBI under the Clinton administration, allowing the 1993 truck-bombing of the World Trade Center to succeed. .

Laura Bush at this year’s Republican National Convention was just one in a long line of politicians and journalists to repeat the claim that “President Bush has kept the American people safe” since 9-11 (1). Amazingly polls show the endless repetition of this line has convinced 65% of Americans that that’s the real issue. The real issue though isn’t why there hasn’t been another September 11th. The real issue is why there was a first September 11th – and why first the Clinton administration and then the Bush administration, despite many specific and detailed warnings from FBI agents, the CIA, flight school instructors and foreign intelligence agencies (detailed below with full sources) took no action whatsoever to improve airport security or security on domestic flights, no action to arrest September 11th plotters who flight school trainers told them were asking to learn how to fly but not how to land. The FBI under Clinton also failed to prevent the 1993 truck-bombing of the World Trade Center despite being given full information on the plot and offers to help them prevent it from two informants inside an Islamic extremist group. There are many other questions. Why was a US military intelligence unit which had identified an Al Qaeda cell in the US directed by its superiors in the Pentagon not to pass the information on to the FBI or the police? Why did Attorney General John Ashcroft not even list counter-terrorism in his memo list of departmental priorities to his employees? Why did the Bush administration ignore warnings from out-going counter-terrorism officials? Why did the Clinton administration and senior FBI officers similarly ignore detailed intelligence from a spy working for the FBI inside the jihadist cell which subsequently carried out the 1993 truck-bombing of the world trade center.

Four days after September 11th President Bush claimed “we're facing a new kind of enemy…No one could have conceivably imagined suicide bombers burrowing into our society and then emerging all in the same day to fly their aircraft - fly U.S. aircraft into buildings full of innocent people”(White House Press Release 15th Sep 2001 ‘Remarks by the President Upon Arrival - The South Lawn’,
American journalist James Bovard in his book ‘Terrorism and Tyranny’ quotes White House spokesman Ari Fleischer claiming that the 9-11 attacks were “ a new type of attack that had not been foreseen” (Bovard Chapter 3, p59).As Bovard and many others have shown all these claims are false. In 1994 the Algerian Armed Islamic Group hijacked a French civilian airliner and threatened to crash it into the Eiffel tower. In 1995 police in the Phillipines shared information with the FBI and CIA about a plot by another group to hijack planes and crash one into the CIA’s headquarters in the US.

It might be objected that these were all hijackings of planes in other countries, planning to fly them to the US. The 9-11 hijackers hi-jacked planes in the US. There were repeated, detailed and specific warnings of Al Qa’ida’s training operations in the US and plans for such an attack in the US too though, from 1996 on, and in greater detail from 1998 on, coming from FBI agents, the CIA, American flight school instructors and the intelligence agencies of governments allied to the US. (Washington Post 23 Sep 2001 ‘FBI Knew Terrorists Were Using Flight Schools’ ; Boston Globe 15 Sep 2001 OFFICIALS AWARE IN 1998 OF TRAINING

I’ll only cover a couple of them here – to read a time-line including many of the major warnings and precedents from 1992 on click here.

In 1999 a Library of Congress report to the US National Intelligence Council warned that “suicide bombers belonging to Al Qaeda…could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the [CIA] or the White House(Source : US Joint Intelligence Committee (Joint Inquiry into the events of September 11, 2002, being conducted by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence) ‘The FBI's Handling of the Phoenix Electronic Communication and Investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui Prior to September 11, 2001’ Statement by Eleanor Hill, Staff Director, Joint Inquiry Staff, September 24, 2002
,cited by Bovard* (2003), Ch3, p45-6 ,385

In August 2001 a flight school instructor contacted the FBI telling them “Do you realize how serious this is? This man wants training on a 747. A 747 fully loaded with fuel could be used as a weapon!”. FBI agents including Coleen Rowley and Kenneth Williams investigated and soon arrested the man in question – Zacarias Moussaoui. They then informed FBI Headquarters and told them that they had reason to believe Moussaoui was part of a larger plot to hijack planes and crash them into buildings, possibly the World Trade Center. They requested that HQ apply to the Department of Justice for a standard search warrant so they could search the suspect’s flat and computer. HQ refused. When it finally did apply for a different kind of warrant it didn’t include vital information provided by the agents, nor information from French intelligence confirming Moussaoui had repeatedly met members of known terrorist groups. Even after 9-11 HQ staff claimed the plot discovered by the Minessota agents was nothing to do with the September 11th attacks. The HQ staff were promoted. Rowley and Williams weren’t. (Minneapolis Star Tribune ‘Eagan Flight Trainer Wouldn't Let Unease About Moussaoui Rest’,; USA Today 28 May 2002 ‘Letter shifts heat to FBI’, ; Time Magazine 21 May 2002 ‘The Bombshell Memo : Coleen Rowley's Memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller - An edited version of the agent's 13-page letter’, )

There were at least two obvious measures the Clinton and Bush administrations could have taken to make a successful hijacking less likely. One would have been to bring in new laws to improve security searches and scans of all passengers and their baggage at airports. The Clinton administration did bring in stricter regulations, but, after lobbying by the airlines, they did not apply to domestic flights within the US, only international flights. The Bush administration did not bring in any new security measures at airports even after the number of warnings of planned hijackings rocketed from June 2001 on. FBI and CIA officers and flight school instructors had been warning since 1998 that the many Arabs training at flight schools in the US were likely to include Bin Laden’s people. So the lack of any increased security on domestic flights was amazing.

The other would have been to devote more FBI and CIA agents and resources to counter-terrorism – and listen to warnings from investigating agents. The Clinton administration did increase funding for counter-terrorism and assigned more agents to it. The Bush administration actually re-assigned many FBI agents from counter-terrorism to drugs, prostitution and vice. An internal FBI memo sent by Attorney General John Ashcroft on his department’s priorities didn’t include any mention of counter-terrorism.

The third thing they could have done would have been to carry out the same security checks on Saudis entering the US as any other nationality. was on Saudis travelling to and staying in the US. Before 9-11 there were not the same security checks on Saudis travelling to the US as there were on other travellers from the Middle East. This seems to have been because the Saudi monarchy are allies of the US government. Possibly the assumption was that the Saudi government would prevent most possible terrorists getting on planes heading for the US.

According to the Boston Globe “Flight instructors in Florida said it is common for students with Saudi affiliations to enter the United States with only cursory background checks. Foreign students, who make up 80-90 percent of students at Florida's 80 or so aeronautical schools, are subjected to far more scrutiny from US State Department officials if they come from Middle Eastern nations that are less friendly with Washington than is Saudi Arabia, instructors said.”
(Boston Globe 15 Sep 2001 ‘Hijackers may have taken Saudi identities’,

Under both the Clinton and Bush administrations the FBI were also directed to end investigations into organisations with Saudi links which were suspected of links to terrorist groups – such as the World Assembly of Muslim Youth.

Could this have had anything to do with the massive trade in arms and oil between Saudi and the US? Or the investments made before 9-11 by the Bin Laden family in the Carlyle Group, a firm which has employed former members of American Presidential administrations including former President George H W Bush?

Americans need to know that the Clinton and Bush administrations largely failed to institute basic regulations to keep them safe and ignored repeated and specific warnings that Bin Laden’s people were training in American flight schools and planning to hijack airliners and crash them into buildings. Whether the reason was incompetence or rivalry for funding and prestige between the FBI , the CIA and military intelligence, or something worse – or else a combination of the three - can’t be known for certain. What can be said is that senior FBI officers appeared to block investigations by agents before and after September 11th – and were subsequently promoted by the Bush administration. None of the investigating officers whose investigations were blocked have been promoted, despite their actions having been proven right. We also know that a report from the Project for a New American Century in 2000 – named ‘Rebuilding America’s Defenses’ said that getting the increased military spending the report called for faster would require “some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor” PNAC members included future Vice President Dick Cheney and future Bush administration members Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. The 2002 US National Security Strategy stated that “The events of September 11, 2001...opened vast, new opportunities.” (see page 28 of the NSS)

The best way to protect Americans from terrorism may not be to give far more people a motive to hate or wish revenge on them through wars, air strikes, occupations and torture. It may be to ensure that there’s a competent, trustworthy government in the US and intelligence and law enforcement agencies which are given motives to co-operate with one another rather than compete for recognition and funding.


(1) = CNN ELECTION CENTER ‘The Republican National Convention’
Aired September 2, 2008 - 21:00 ET,

Bovard, James (2003) ‘Terrorism and Tyranny : Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil’, Palgrave MacMillan, N.Y & Houndmills, U.K, 2003, paperback edition, Chapter 3

Project for a New American Century September 2000 , ‘Rebuilding America’s Defenses’, page 51 reads "Further, the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor. Domestic politics and industrial policy will shape the pace and content of transformation as much as the requirements of current missions.” , and

The National Security Strategy of the United States 2002, , page 28

Washington Post 14 Apr 2004 , 'Ashcroft drawn into row over September 11', (Ashcroft rejected FBI agents request for more funds and agents to be assigned to counter-terrorism and the 9-11 commission heard that 'One day after telling the Senate that combating terrorist attacks was his highest priority, Ashcroft issued a memo on May 10, 2001, outlining the Justice Department's strategic goals that contained no mention of counterterrorism.')

New York Times 22 Dec 2001, 'Flight School Warned F.B.I. Of Suspicions', , (An instructor at a Minnesota flight school warned the F.B.I. in August of his suspicion that a student who was later identified as a part of Osama bin Laden's terror network might be planning to use a commercial plane loaded with fuel as a weapon, a member of Congress and other officials said today.)

Guardian 21 May 2002 ‘Ashcroft drawn into row over September 11’,

(He [Ashcroft] has accused his critics of undermining the fight against terrorism. But it is becoming clear that before September 11 he had little interest in counter-terrorism, and diverted resources from measures to prevent terrorism towards those aimed at more traditional targets, such as drugs and child pornography ….

On September 10 last year, the last day of what is now seen as a bygone age of innocence, Mr Ashcroft sent a request for budget increases to the White House. It covered 68 programmes, none of them related to counter-terrorism.

He also sent a memorandum to his heads of departments, stating his seven priorities. Counter-terrorism was not on the list. He turned down an FBI request for hundreds more agents to be assigned to tracking terrorist threats. )

Guardian 15 June 2002 ‘Cracks show in Bush's White House’,

(Mr Ashcroft, who carries the banner for the Christian right, spent his first months in office seeking to divert justice department resources from counter-terrorism to crusades against drugs and pornography. Even after September 11, scores of FBI agents have been tied up by a prolonged surveillance of a New Orleans brothel, and a crackdown was ordered against medical marijuana.)

Guardian 22 May 2002 ‘The return of politics’,

CNN 15 May 2002 ‘Senator: U.S. didn't connect 'dots' before 9/11’,
(FBI Phoenix memo drafted July 2002 asked if unusual number of Arab students taking flight lessons in US could be part of known Bin Laden plane hijacking plan)

Washington Post 16 May 2002 ‘Bush Was Told of Hijacking Dangers’,
(Bush warned by FBI in Aug 2001 memo that Bin Laden planning to hijack planes in US)

Observer 6 Jun 2004 ‘UK spymasters shrugged off al-Qaeda recruit's warning’,,6903,1232389,00.html
(Al Qaeda recruit warned FBI in New York about UBL’s hijacking plan in April 2001)

Washington Post 03 Jun 2004 ‘CIA Failed To Share Intelligence On Hijacker - Data Could Have Been Used to Deny Visa’,¬Found=true (CIA found one 9-11 hijacker met with known terrorists by late 2000/early 2001 – did not inform FBI or immigration service)

Reuters 20 Sep 2002 ‘CIA knew about 3 hijackers in 2000 - 9/11 inquiry’,

Guardian 03 Jun 2002 ‘Hijackers 'trailed by CIA before attacks'’,
(18 months before 9-11, but didn’t inform FBI or Immigration Service)

Independent 19 May 2002 ‘Bush told in August of specific threat to US’, (excerpt below)

In 1996, Abdul Hakim Murad, a Pakistani terrorist convicted of trying to destroy 12 American jumbo jets as they flew over the Pacific, intended to fly a plane into the CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia. He had learnt to fly at several US flying schools, but the FBI discounted the threat of such suicide attacks.

Minneapolis Star Tribune ‘Eagan Flight Trainer Wouldn't Let Unease About Moussaoui Rest’,

Guardian 17 May 2002 ‘US asks: just what did Bush know?’,

As far back as 1994, the French authorities foiled a plot by Algerian terrorists to fly an airliner into the Eiffel tower. The next year, the Philippine police warned the US that Ramzi Youssef, responsible for the first bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1993, had contemplated flying a commercial plane into the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

The Independent 25 February 2004 ‘Germans told CIA of 9-11 hijacker’,
(German gvt gave CIA name and telephone number of one of the Sep11th hijackers in 1999 - CIA did nothing)

USA Today 28 May 2002 ‘Letter shifts heat to FBI’,

She [FBI agent Coleen Rowley] said supervisors in Washington, and one unidentified supervisory agent in particular, not only failed to respond to potentially important information, but also worked against Minnesota agents who sought search warrants against Zaccarias Moussaoui, a flight student who had been arrested on immigration charges in August. The French-Moroccan is now charged with being part of the al-Qaeda conspiracy that carried out the attacks.

A Minnesota agent who interviewed Moussaoui last August wrote in his notes that Moussaoui, 33, might be interested in flying a jet into the World Trade Center. Despite Minnesota agents' suspicions about Moussaoui — which later were confirmed by French intelligence reports linking him to al-Qaeda — Rowley said FBI headquarters refused to support a search of Moussaoui's laptop computer.
Even after the Sept. 11 attacks had begun, Rowley wrote, "the (supervisory special agent) in question was still attempting to block the search of Moussaoui's computer, characterizing the World Trade Center attacks as a mere coincidence with Minneapolis' prior suspicions."

Time Magazine 21 May 2002 ‘The Bombshell Memo : Coleen Rowley's Memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller - An edited version of the agent's 13-page letter’,

Boston Globe 15 Sep 2001 OFFICIALS AWARE IN 1998 OF TRAINING

Guardian 14 Jun 2002 ‘UK spies fooled by scale of raid on US’
(MI6 warned CIA Bin Laden attacks causing thousands of casualties imminent months before 9-11)

Independent 07 Sep 2002 ‘Revealed: The Taliban minister, the US envoy and the warning of September 11 that was ignored’, (Taliban foreign minister warned US govt Al Qaeda planning major attack in US weeks before 9-11)


John Burgess said...

I'd like to suggest an alternative--and more true--suggestion for your point three, about why Saudis received better treatment on visas and the like.

The fact is that visas are given based on the record of the behavior of other citizens in a country. If a country's visa applicants have a record of jumping visa status, of becoming dependent upon US taxpayers, of spurious 'marriages' arranged solely to obtain Green Cards, future applicants from those countries received heightened scrutiny.

Prior to 9/11, Saudis were absolutely the best visa applicants in the world, according the the standards developed by Congress for issuing visas.

Saudis didn't overstay their visas; 99.5% of them returned to Saudi Arabia when the purpose of their visit was finished.

Saudis paid their bills, in full, including out-of-state tuition at American universities and schools--including flight schools.

Saudis rarely married Americans and when they did, they universally took their spouses back to Saudi Arabia.

Saudis largely avoided getting involved in scams and crooked businesses, something many Arab citizens could not say.

Essentially, Saudis were seen as an excellent risk, a high-profit customer for US services, and easy to deal with.

9/11, of course, changed that view.

Now, in addition to face-to-face interviews (which was always standard, never mind what some journalists suggest), all Saudi males, between 15-65, have their applications screened not only at the American Embassy or Consulate by State's Consular Officers, but all names are sent back to the US to be run through the collected intelligence database, then screened one more time by DHS personnel assigned to the Embassy and Consulates.

The process, as it now runs, takes a minimum of two weeks. It can take as much as six months.

While security may be enhanced, there is also a downside. Sick Saudis have died while waiting for visas for medical care in the US. Saudi students have had to abandon their university studies because visas could not be obtained in time for them to return to the US for the start of the semester. American universities have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in tuition because the hassles were just too great for Saudi or other Arab students.

That might be a good trade off in the minds of some. I don't happen to think it is.

If you're actually interested in Saudi Arabia and US-Saudi relations, you might like to take a look at my blog, Crossroads Arabia. I've been writing it since leaving the US Foreign Service and base it on two tours of duty in Saudi Arabia and a 25-year career primarily in the Middle East.

calgacus said...

Hi John - thanks for your comment - very interesting and very informative and obviously based on experience. I'll definitely be reading your blog,