Al Qaeda Unchecked for Years, Panel Says
Tenet Concedes CIA Made Mistakes
By Walter Pincus and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 15, 2004; Page A01
U.S. intelligence services failed to recognize the emergence of the al Qaeda terrorist network until more than a decade after it was founded in 1988, playing down a tide of reports that documented the danger posed by the group, according to findings released yesterday by the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The CIA's Counterterrorist Center never developed a plan to deal with the possibility that terrorists might use airplanes as weapons despite growing evidence during the 1990s that terrorist groups had attempted or were planning such plots, the commission's staff also found.
CIA Director George J. Tenet acknowledged yesterday that he did not brief President Bush, FBI leaders or Cabinet members after he was informed in late August 2001 of the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui, who would later be charged as a conspirator in the terror attacks. The briefing for Tenet was titled "Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly."
"We made mistakes," Tenet told the panel yesterday, referring to the general failure to detect the terror plot that left 3,000 people dead. "We all understood bin Laden's intent to strike the homeland but were unable to translate this knowledge into an effective defense of the country."
Tenet also said it would take five more years to "have the kind of clandestine service our country needs."
The findings by the panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, were the second time in as many days that the commission's investigators have unveiled a sweeping condemnation of the U.S. intelligence community, this time focused on the CIA. The same investigators released a report Tuesday that the panel's chairman had described as "an indictment of the FBI."
The staff found that major collection and analysis activities targeting al Qaeda were delayed even after a defector from the terrorist organization began providing details about the network in 1996.
The CIA had learned that Osama bin Laden was linked to the 1992 attacks on U.S. military personnel in Yemen and the 1993 downing of a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter in Somalia, the report said. The agency also received reports in 1997 that al Qaeda operatives were surveilling institutions in the United States as a precursor to a likely attack.
But still, the U.S. intelligence community "did not describe this organization, at least in documents we have seen, until 1999," according to the report.
During his testimony yesterday, however, Tenet disputed the claim that the CIA wasn't aware of al Qaeda and bin Laden until that late date. Tenet said the report's finding wrongly assumed that "people weren't getting this kind of data. That's just not true."
In one of its more stinging case studies, the staff report noted that Tenet learned on Aug. 23 or 24, 2001, about the arrest in Minnesota a week earlier of Moussaoui, a suspected jihadist who was attempting to learn how to fly jetliners.
Tenet said he did not tell President Bush, who was vacationing in Texas, or FBI management about the development. Nor did he mention the case at a Sept. 4 White House Cabinet meeting, where approval was given for a new presidential directive on terrorism.
Tenet said he assumed "that this was something that would be laid down in front of" the White House Counterterrorism Security Group. In fact, the Moussaoui information remained in the FBI's international terrorism division. Thomas J. Pickard, acting FBI director until a week before the attacks, has testified that he did not learn of it until the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001.
Tenet testified that the case first came to his attention because the FBI agent was looking for any intelligence the CIA had about Moussaoui to get a court order to open his computer.
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FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III testified that it will "take time" to transform the bureau to meet threat of terrorists, and he urged the Sept. 11 commission not to recommend that the U.S. establish a domestic intelligence agency.
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
Live, 1 p.m. ET: James M. Lindsay, vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, will discuss the 9/11 Commission hearings.