May 20, 2002 | WebMemo on Department of Homeland Security

Undue Criticism for September 11

The Bush Administration has suffered undue criticism from several quarters concerning information that critics contend might have provided an indication of Osama bin Laden's terrorist plans before September 11th. These critics overstate their case and leap to conclusions that have yet to be proven. They confuse speculation with hard evidence and fail to appreciate the difference between vague warnings of possible intent and "actionable" intelligence that would have allowed government authorities to prevent the attack.

Although the U.S. government picked up tantalizing hints that bin Laden was up to something big, the precise nature and target of his terrorist plans was not known. President Bush received an August 6, 2001 intelligence briefing from the CIA containing a warning that bin Laden's followers might hijack airplanes. But that warning was based on 1998 information from a single British source who maintained that the goal of such an operation would be to take hostages who could be exchanged for captured members of bin Laden's terrorist network. Few imagined that a hijacked airliner would be turned into a precision-guided suicide bomb.

An FBI official in Phoenix wrote a July 5 memo expressing concern about a number of Arab pilots training at nearby flying schools. That FBI official should be commended and promoted for his intuitive powers. But his memo apparently was not acted upon by supervisors or shared widely within the FBI, let alone shared with the CIA or other intelligence agencies.

The CIA might have been better equipped to prevent a terrorist attack before it occurred. But the CIA's ability to operate within the United States is severely restricted by law. Moreover, its efforts were focused on threats to Americans overseas, where bin Laden repeatedly had struck before.

These breakdowns only highlight the need for an intelligence fusion center manned by all U.S. government agencies with an interest in counterterrorism that has the capability to query and collate intelligence from all U.S. government agencies. Such a fusion center should be run by the Department of Justice and should operate under guidance from the Homeland Security Director.

The September 11th attack was by no means the first terrorist attack launched by bin Laden. In hindsight, bin Laden must have been involved in the first World Trade Center bombing back in 1993. Before September 11, US counterterrorism officials suspected that bin Laden might organize an airline hijacking as a means of freeing the jailed "spiritual leader" of the 1993 bombers, the blind sheikh Abdul Rahman.

But bin Laden ambitions were severely underestimated. Because security had been increased at the World Trade Center, bin Laden apparently decided to use commercial airliners to fly over the new protective measures and finish the job his henchmen had botched in 1993.

It was the Clinton Administration, not the Bush Administration, that was in power for most of our nine year struggle against Osama bin Laden's terrorists. The United States received a wakeup call in 1993, but the Clinton Administration treated the terrorist attacks as individual criminal acts, not as coordinated military actions.

For more info on 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the evolution of Middle Eastern terrorist threats to the United States, see:

For more information on the threat posed by bin Laden's terrorist network, see:

Also see:

James Phillips is a Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy