Most foreign intelligence and counter-terrorism experts looked at first on the guilt-shoving antics of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Congress as moves in an in-house Washington power play. They did not believe for a minute that US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were ignorant of any hint of the impending terrorist attacks, and had not been forewarned of some aspects of al-Qaeda planning for its deadly attacks in New York and Washington on September 11.
But this week, the affair took an ominous turn when foreign agencies joined the blame game, threatening to start an international slugfest that could destroy the relations of trust developed among the various intelligence services battling world terrorism.
Bush, during a visit on Tuesday, June 4, to National Security Agency headquarters at Fort Mead, tried his best to gloss over the crisis. He acknowledged the lack of communication prevailing between the CIA and FBI before the September 11 attacks, but quickly added there was no evidence to indicate the administration could have prevented the suicide-hijackings. He went on to say: “What I am concerned about is tying up valuable assets and time and possibly jeopardizing sources of intelligence.” He said he believed the finger-pointing came from “level 3 staffers trying to protect their hides – I don’t think that’s a concern. That’s just Washington. DC.”
Bush’s comments coincided with some extremely odd disclosures.
The first, appearing in the United States, claimed the CIA had set up a super-secret paramilitary unit that aims to capture wanted terrorist leaders outside the United States. The unit is to operate under the command of the CIA’s counter-terrorism center. The number of its members, the types of weapons they will use and the location of their base remains a tightly guarded secret.
A senior official in Washington said: “In effect, it will be an anti-terror paramilitary force that will concentrate on operations against terrorists.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources are hard put to explain this report. The CIA’s counter-terrorism center is known to be running one or more of this type of anti-terrorism field unit for some time past. The anonymous official may have been hinting at a new framework established specifically to nab Osama bin Laden and his right-hand man, Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader Iman al-Zawahri. Still, it is hard to believe that the CIA had no paramilitary groups before then and had not used them to stage covert operations to snare terrorists overseas and bring them to the United States.
Then, on June 5, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak claimed in an interview given to The New York Times ahead of his weekend talks with Bush at Camp David that he and Egyptian intelligence had warned Washington before 9/11 that al-Qaeda was about to carry out terrorist attacks inside the United States.
In separate statements, the White House, CIA and FBI promptly denied knowledge of any such information. This step was most unusual in that it cast doubt on a world leader’s veracity on an immensely important security-intelligence issue, just before his arrival in Washington for friendly talks.
A day later, The New York Times reported exclusively that US intelligence suspects for the first time that a 37-year-old Kuwaiti, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — a name almost unknown to the US public although it appears on the FBI’s list of its 22 most wanted terrorists — had a more central and decisive role than previously thought in organizing al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11. It also said US intelligence recently concluded there had been a direct link between the first attempt to topple the World Trade Center in 1993, an attack carried out by Ramzi Yousef, an Islamic extremist group’s plot to hijack 11 passenger planes in the Far East in 1995 and crash them into main US cities, including Washington, and the 9/11 strikes.
Mohammed, whom the article said was related to Yousef, was connected to all these episodes, according to The New York Times. Most of the US media, including national networks, picked up the report in one form or another.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism and intelligence sources report that a major furor broke out over this disclosure in some of the counter-terrorism and intelligence agencies that have been most cooperative with the United States in the fight against al Qaeda. They recall angrily that between 1994 and early 2000, they repeatedly advised the White House, CIA and FBI to home in on Ramzi Yousef’s associates if they wanted to prevent more al Qaeda and Egyptian Jihad attacks in the United States. US officials were also warned in the 1990s that Islamic extremists, such as Yousef and his Kuwait cousin, were conspiring to try again where they failed in Manila in 1995, and hijack planes for crashing into American city buildings.
Their warnings unheeded, these outside agencies nevertheless persevered from March 1997 to January 2000 in their efforts to wake Washington up to the peril, even buttonholing insiders with access to the appropriate intelligence and law enforcement authorities. As a result, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources have established that high US political and intelligence officials were apprised as far back as 1997 and 1998 of the menace posed by Ramzi Yousef and his kinsman, were aware of their connections with al-Qaeda, their dependence on its funds for their operations and their complicity in the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 and the failed hijackings of 1995. Most importantly, their determination to make a second attempt was brought to the attention of those officials in good time.
Members of these agencies warn that toying with information it refused to hear five years ago as a counter in the blame game is no way to fight terrorism. If this goes on, US intelligence will continue to trip over its own feet in its pursuit of terrorists.