Who’s to Blame?

David Tucker

May 1, 2002

A revelation! A scandal! A month or so before the September 11 attacks, the President received a warning that terrorists associated with Osama bin Laden might hijack an airplane. The President knew and nothing was done!

A revelation? It would be a revelation if we were told that the President did not get reports like this. They are common.

A scandal? Such reports are as useless as they are common. The report contained no details apparently about when, where or how. It said nothing about driving a plane into a building, let alone the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Federal agencies responded by going on a higher state of alert but without details they could not do more than that. This report does not indicate that the President knew anything beforehand about the attacks of September 11.

This much excitement over so insignificant a report makes one wonder. It occurs as Congress gets ready to investigate whether the intelligence agencies failed by not anticipating the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The “revelation” about the report to the President appears to be an effort to shift the blame. The report suggests that the intelligence agencies were doing their job but that others did not do theirs.

In fact, the really important information related to the issue of intelligence failure has been in the news for months. The intelligence community knew, or should have known, that Islamic extremists linked to bin Laden hijacked a plane in the early 1990s and planned to fly it into the Eiffel Tower. The man behind the first World Trade Center bombing and an associate of bin Laden, also had plans to hijack planes and fly them into buildings in Washington, which the intelligence community discovered after he was arrested. In addition, the intelligence community had reports from Europe that similar attacks would take place during an economic summit in Europe.

Despite warnings like this, no one in the intelligence community came to the conclusion that bin Laden might hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings. If such a conclusion had been reached, the FBI might have acted on warnings that Muslim militants were taking flying lessons but were not concerned about learning to take off or land.

What we have known for some time now suggests that there was an intelligence failure. At this point that conclusion is not a revelation. Maybe it should be a scandal.

Continue to Part II

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.