This special on the 9/11 Commission report addresses a critical question that continues to haunt America’s national psyche: how could the most powerful nation on earth been so utterly unprepared to protect its homeland?
WATCH A CLIP
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. This massive and often gripping report by the 9/11 Commission concludes that terrorists, quote, “exploited deep institutional failings within our government.” But it’s careful to avoid blaming anyone for failing to prevent the attacks. The commissioners say right up front that their purpose was not to assign individual blame but to provide the fullest possible account of the events surrounding what happened that day.
So they reviewed more than two and a half million pages of documents, interviewed more than 1200 people, held 19 days of public hearings, and issued this report. Reading it, your first impression could be that the attacks were indeed inevitable, and could not have been prevented. But in effect, this is to blame everybody in sight and, at the same time, no one. But read the report more closely and you are forced to ask: did the system fail, or the people who take an oath to make it work?
This remains a disturbing question, three years after “the dark birds of history,” in the poet’s prophetic metaphor, plunged into our lives…
COMMISSION CHAIR THOMAS KEAN: Good morning. As chair of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, I hereby open this 12th public hearing.
MOYERS: Day after day, as the 9/11 Commission hears testimony and gathers evidence, the families of those who died in the terrorist attacks listen and wait.
What they and the nation will learn offers little solace.
Commission counsel John Azzarello begins the story.
AZZARELLO: At 8:00 on Sept. 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 began its takeoff roll at Logan Airport in Boston.
MOYERS: Twenty minutes later.
OPERATOR: American Airlines emergency line. Please state your emergency.
MOYERS: Betty Ong, a flight attendant aboard American 11, uses an airphone to call American Airlines. Some of the families in the hearing room hear the exchange for the first time.
ONG: Okay, my name is Betty Ong. I’m Number 3 on Flight 11.
ONG: Our Number 1 got stabbed. Our purser is stabbed. Nobody knows who stabbed who and we can’t even get up to business class right now because nobody can breathe. And we can’t get to the cockpit, the door won’t open.
OPERATOR: Umm. At this point —
NYDIA GONZALEZ: This is Operations. What flight number are we talking about?
OPERATOR: Flight 12.
NYDIA GONZALEZ: Flight 12, okay —
ONG: No, we’re on Flight 11 right now. This is Flight 11.
OPERATOR: It’s Flight 11.
ONG: Boston to Los Angeles.
AZZARELLO: At 8:24 and 38 seconds, the following transmission came from American 11.
HIJACKER, FLIGHT 11: We have some planes. Just stay quiet, and you’ll be okay. We are returning to the airport.
AZZARELLO: The controller only heard something unintelligible; he did not hear the specific words, quote, “We have some planes,” end quote. The next transmission came seconds later.
HIJACKER, FLIGHT 11: Nobody move. Everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves, you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.
AZZARELLO: Hearing that transmission, the controller told us he then knew it was a hijacking.
MOYERS: The Federal Aviation Administration’s northeastern post, Boston Center, then tries to contact the military directly and places a call to the northeastern post of the North American Aerospace Defense Command. It is known as NEADS.
AZZARELLO: At 8:37 and 52 seconds, Boston Center reached NEADS. This was the first notification received by the military at any level that American 11 had been hijacked.
FAA BOSTON CENTER: We have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need you guys to — we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there to help us out.
NEADS: Is this real-world or exercise?
FAA BOSTON CENTER: No, this is not an exercise, not a test.
MOYERS: NEADS commanders order fighter jets into the air to find and follow the hijacked plane.
AZZARELLO: F-15 fighters were ordered scrambled at 8:46 from Otis Air Force Base. But NEADS did not know where to send the alert fighter aircraft. Quote, “I don’t know where I’m scrambling these guys to. I need a direction, a destination.”
MOYERS: The hijackers had turned off the plane’s radar signal. The location and altitude of the missing plane are anyone’s guess.
AZZARELLO: American 11 impacted the World Trade Center’s North Tower at 8:46 and 40 seconds.
MOYERS: In the chaotic first moments, many TV broadcasts report that the tower has been hit by a small plane.
Commission staff attorney Dana Hyde picks up with the president.
HYDE: In Florida, the president’s motorcade was just arriving at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School, where President Bush was to read to a class and talk about education. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card told us he was standing with the president outside the classroom when senior advisor to the president Karl Rove first informed them that a small, twin engine plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. The president’s reaction was that the incident must have been caused by pilot error.
MOYERS: No one traveling with President Bush knows that American 11 has been hijacked or that a second plane that had taken off from Boston, United 175, is now missing.
FAA NEW YORK CENTER: We have several situations going on here. It’s escalating big, big time, and we need to get the military involved with us.
We’re involved with something else. We have other aircraft that may have a similar situation going on here.
AZZARELLO: New York Center contacted New York terminal approach control and asked for help in locating United 175.
NY AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: I got somebody who keeps coasting, but it looks like he’s going into one of the small airports down there.
FAA NEW YORK CENTER: I’m trying to bring him up.
NY AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: Got him just out of 9,500. 9,000 now.
FAA NEW YORK CENTER: Do you know who he is?
NY AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: We’re just, we just we don’t know who he is. We’re just picking him up now.
FAA NEW YORK CENTER: All right. Heads up man, it looks like another one coming in.
MOYERS: At that moment, FAA personnel in Boston are struggling to comprehend the earlier transmission from the hijacker who had said, quote: “We have planes.”
FAA BOSTON CENTER: Are you still there?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE VOICE: Yes, I am.
FAA BOSTON CENTER: The guy said that “We have planes.”
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE VOICE: They have what?
FAA BOSTON CENTER: “Planes,” as in plural.
AZZARELLO: At 9:03 and two seconds, United 175 crashed into the South Tower.
FAA BOSTON CENTER: A second one just hit the Trade Center.
FAA NEW ENGLAND REGION: Okay. Yeah, we gotta get — we gotta alert the military real quick on this.
HYDE: The president was seated in a classroom of second graders when, at approximately 9:05, Andrew Card whispered to him, quote, “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.”
The national press corps was standing behind the children in the classroom. He saw their phones and pagers start to ring. The president felt he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening.
MOYERS: President Bush stays in the classroom for almost seven more minutes. During that time, the military — NEADS — learns that the second plane has hit the second tower.
NEADS COMMANDER: We need to talk to FAA. We need to tell ’em if this stuff is gonna keep on going, we need to take those fighters, put ’em over Manhattan. That’s the best thing, that’s the best play right now. So coordinate with the FAA. Tell ’em if there’s more out there, which we don’t know, let’s get ’em over Manhattan. At least we’ve got some kind of play.
MOYERS: A third hijacking was already underway. Commission senior counsel John Farmer reports.
FARMER: American 77 began its takeoff roll from Dulles International Airport at 8:20. At 8:54, American 77 began deviating from its flight plan. American 77 traveled undetected for 36 minutes on a course heading due east for Washington, DC.
MOYERS: The confusion intensifies.
FAA REPRESENTATIVE: I just had a report that American 11 is still in the air and it’s on its way toward — heading toward Washington.
NEADS TECHNICIAN: American 11 is still in the air —
FAA REPRESENTATIVE: Yes.
NEADS TECHNICIAN: — on its way toward Washington?
FAA REPRESENTATIVE: It was evidently another aircraft that hit the tower. That’s the latest report we have.
NEADS TECHNICIAN: Okay.
FAA REPRESENTATIVE: I’m going to try to confirm an ID for you, but I would assume he’s somewhere over either New Jersey or somewhere further south.
NEADS TECHNICIAN: Okay. So American 11 isn’t the hijack at all, then, right?
FAA REPRESENTATIVE: No, he is a hijack.
NEADS TECHNICIAN: American 11 is a hijack?
FAA REPRESENTATIVE: Yes.
NEADS TECHNICIAN: And he’s going into Washington.
FAA REPRESENTATIVE: This could be a third aircraft.
NEADS MISSION COMMANDER: Okay, American Airlines is still airborne. Eleven, the first guy, he’s heading toward Washington. Okay, I think we need to scramble Langley right now and I’m going to take the fighters from Otis and try to chase this guy down if I can find him.
MOYERS: NEADS commanders, hearing nothing from the Secretary of Defense, again take the initiative to order fighter jets into the air, this time from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. But the pilots are chasing a phantom plane. American 11 has already crashed into the first tower.
HYDE: Between 9:15 and 9:30, the staff was busy arranging a return to Washington. No one in the traveling party had any information during this time that other aircraft were hijacked or missing. As far as we know, no one was in contact with the Pentagon. The focus was on the president’s statements to the nation.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Today, we’ve had a national tragedy. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.
MOYERS: It is 9:31, 45 minutes after the first plane hit the World Trade Center. The president still has not talked to the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. And Rumsfeld still has not moved to the command center in the Pentagon.
American 77 is headed straight for Washington. Vice President Cheney is in the White House.
HYDE: News of an incoming aircraft, later discovered to be American 77, prompted the Secret Service to order the evacuation of the vice president just before 9:36. The vice president entered the underground tunnel that led to the shelter at 9:37.
Once inside, Vice President Cheney and the agents paused in an area of the tunnel that had a secure phone, a bench, and a television. The vice president asked to speak to the president, but it took time for the call to be connected. He learned in the tunnel that the Pentagon had been hit, and saw television coverage of smoke coming from the building.
MOYERS: American 77 struck the Pentagon at 9:37 and 46 seconds.
Another plane is heading toward Washington. United 93 had taken off from Newark at 8:42. Twenty-three minutes after the hijacking of the first plane was reported, neither the government nor the airlines had yet warned pilots across the country who were still being cleared for take-off.
HIJACKER, FLIGHT 93: Uh, is the captain. Would like you all to remain seated. There is a bomb on board and are going back to the airport, and to have our demands. Please remain quiet.
MOYERS: FAA Command Center in Herndon, Virginia learns from television reports that the Pentagon has been hit. It is left to the FAA’s national operations manager to give the unprecedented order to ground the nation’s civil air system.
The families in the hearing room learn that with no directions coming from the top, FAA staff and NEADS officers struggled on 9/11 to mount a homeland defense on their own.
FARMER: At 9:46 and again two minutes later, Command Center updated FAA headquarters that United 93 was now, quote, “29 minutes out of Washington, DC,” end quote.
Command Center suggested that someone at headquarters should decide whether to request military assistance.
FAA HEADQUARTERS: They’re pulling Jeff away to go talk about United 93.
FAA COMMAND CENTER: Do we want to think about scrambling aircraft?
FAA HEADQUARTERS: Oh, God, I don’t know.
FAA COMMAND CENTER: That’s a decision somebody’s going to have to make probably in the next 10 minutes.
FAA HEADQUARTERS: You know, everybody just left the room.
MOYERS: The chain of command in the event of a hijacking calls for the president to empower the Secretary of Defense to send up military aircraft and, if necessary, give an order to shoot down the plane.
FARMER: The president apparently spoke to Secretary Rumsfeld briefly some time after 10:00, but no one can recall any content beyond a general request to alert forces. The president and the secretary did not discuss the use of force against hijacked airliners in this conversation.
MOYERS: Staffers are fleeing the West Wing. The vice president is in the conference room in the bunker beneath the White House. Reports begin to come in of an inbound aircraft bearing down on Washington.
FARMER: At some time between 10:10 and 10:15, a military aide told the vice president and others that the aircraft was 80 miles out. Vice President Cheney was asked for authority to engage the aircraft. He authorized fighter aircraft to engage the inbound plane.
MOYERS: “In about the time it takes a batter to decide to swing,” his chief of staff testifies, the vice president makes the grave decision to shoot down the plane. Cheney will tell the commission he had conferred with the president. But the commission reports that, quote, “There is no documentary evidence” of that call.
FARMER: Also at the conference table was White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Bolton. Bolton watched the exchanges and after what he called, quote, “a quiet moment,” suggested that the vice president get in touch with the president and confirm the engage order.
MOYERS: Vice President Cheney then calls the president. They talk for two minutes.
But the fighter pilots cannot shoot at something they cannot find. Here’s the commission’s executive director, Philip Zelikow.
ZELIKOW: There was only one set of fighters orbiting Washington, DC during this timeframe, the Langley F-16s. They were armed and under NORAD’s control. But the Langley pilots were never briefed about the reason they were scrambled. As the lead pilot explained, quote, “I reverted to the Russian threat. I’m thinking cruise missile threat from the sea. You know you look down and see the Pentagon burning and I thought the bastards snuck one by us. You couldn’t see any airplanes, and no one told us anything.”
FARMER: The air defenders searched for United 93’s primary radar return and tried to locate assets to scramble toward the plane. NEADS called Washington Center to report.
NEADS: I also want to give you a heads-up, Washington.
FAA DC: Go ahead.
NEADS: United 93 — have you got information on that yet?
FAA DC: Yeah, he’s down.
NEADS: He’s down?
FAA DC: Yes.
NEADS: When did he land? Because we have confirmation—
FAA DC: He did not land.
NEADS: Oh, he’s down. Down?
FAA DC: Yes. Somewhere up northeast of Camp David. They don’t know exactly where.
FARMER: The time of notification of the crash of United 93 was 10:15. The NEADS air defenders never located the flight or followed it on their radar scopes. The flight had already crashed by the time they learned it was hijacked.
MOYERS: At 10:39, Vice President Cheney tries to bring Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld up to date. Rumsfeld, the commission discovers, did not enter the chain of command, quote, “until after the morning’s key events were over.”
ZELIKOW: The vice president said, “There’s been at least three instances here where we’ve had reports of aircraft approaching Washington, a couple were confirmed hijack. And, pursuant to the president’s instructions I gave authorization for them to be taken out. Hello?”
Secretary of Defense: “Yes, I understand. Who did you give that direction to?”
Vice President: “It was passed from here through the operations center at the White House, from the shelter.”
Secretary of Defense: “Okay, let me ask the question here. Has that directive been transmitted to the aircraft?”
Vice President: “Yes, it has.”
Secretary of Defense: “So, we’ve got a couple of aircraft up there that have those instructions at the present time?”
Vice President: “That is correct. And it’s my understanding they’ve already taken a couple of aircraft out.”
MOYERS: The vice president is mistaken. His shoot down order came after the fourth plane had crashed.
When the passengers of United 93 storm the cockpit, the hijackers took the plane down in western Pennsylvania, just 20 minutes flying time from Washington.
ZELIKOW: NORAD officials have maintained that they would have intercepted and shot down United 93. We are not so sure. We are sure that the nation owes a debt to the passengers of United 93. Their actions saved the lives of countless others, and may have saved either the U.S. Capitol or the White House from destruction.
MOYERS: In the days and weeks after 9/11, a shocked and grieving people began to ask what government officials had known — and when they had known it. Eight months later, the president’s national security adviser tries to quiet the criticism.
RICE: I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon; that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile.
MOYERS: But Condoleezza Rice is wrong.
Had she looked, Dr. Rice might have found in the files of the intelligence community what the 9/11 Commission would uncover. The attack she deemed unimaginable had, in fact, been imagined. Repeatedly.
Twelve times in the seven years before 9/11, the CIA reported that hijackers might use airplanes as weapons.
The most specific of those warnings involve this man: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — or as the spies now call him, KSM.
After evading capture for years, KSM was arrested last year in a middle of the night raid. This is how he looked when he was handed over to the CIA. In custody, KSM has talked. The results of his top secret interrogation, shared with commission investigators, provide a chilling map of the road to 9/11, as well as a surprise. KSM not only imagined the unimaginable, he engineered it.
ZELIKOW: In early 1999, bin Laden summoned KSM to Kandahar to tell him that his proposal to use aircraft as weapons now had al-Qaida’s full support.
MOYERS: In terrorist circles, it is even called the “planes operation.”
ZELIKOW: KSM met again with bin Laden at Kandahar in the spring of 1999, to develop an initial list of targets. The list included the White House and the Pentagon, which bin Laden wanted, the US Capitol and the World Trade Center, a target favored by KSM.
MOYERS: The brainstorming about an attack on American soil began almost a decade before 9/11. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his nephew, Ramzi Yousef, thumbed through photo albums of American skyscrapers. “We were looking for symbols of economic might,” KSM will admit.
February, 1993, just one month after Bill Clinton’s inauguration. It is Ramzi Yousef, with financing from KSM, who parks a rented Ford van loaded with a 1,500-pound chemical bomb in the underground garage of the World Trade Center.
The massive explosion kills six people. But it fails to bring the towers down as Yousef had hoped.
It is the first warning shot.
Yousef escapes to plot again. Seventeen months later, he and his uncle, KSM, travel to the Philippines to carry out a scheme they nickname Bojinka, for “big bang.”
Bombs are to be placed aboard a dozen US 747s, jumbo jets, timed to explode simultaneously as they fly over the Pacific. With 400 passengers on each plane, more than 4,000 people would die.
MOYERS: But as Yousef and another terrorist are mixing chemicals to make the explosives, a fire breaks out in their apartment. Police arrive and discover a bomb factory.
Yousef once again escapes. But his laptop is left behind.
SIMON: The outlines of the plot were found on the computer. And it was a breathtaking plot in its audacity.
MOYERS: Steve Simon, who worked in the Counterterrorism Security Group on the National Security Council at the time, testified before the 9/11 Commission.
SIMON: If it weren’t for the accidental discovery of the fire in that apartment, that slaughter that they intended to carry out in the skies over the Pacific would have happened.
MOYERS: One Bojinka conspirator is arrested and he reveals a second, more audacious plot: A plane filled with explosives will be crashed into the CIA. They also want to hit the Pentagon, but as he will complain to interrogators, they need more pilots.
It is an early blueprint for 9/11. Someone else has imagined the unimaginable.
August, 1996. Osama bin Laden spreads the word that he is declaring holy war on America. He calls on Muslims worldwide to join in deadly attacks against the US military to force their withdrawal from Saudi Arabia — where they have been since the first war against Iraq in 1991.
The CIA sets up a small unit to track bin Laden. This man is its first director. The CIA would permit him to talk only if we do not reveal his identity. The 9/11 Commission calls him “Mike.”
MIKE: The picture that was put together by early ’97 certainly was one of a terrorist group unlike any other we had ever seen.
MOYERS: Crucial information had come from an operative who stole $110,000 from bin Laden and was on the run. He walks into a US Embassy in Africa seeking refuge. And he tells startled officials about camps in Afghanistan where young men are training for a global jihad.
MIKE: That occasion was a wonderful example of working hard and then being lucky. He provided us excruciatingly detailed information about al-Qaida and bin Laden’s role in it.
MOYERS: Eight years after al-Qaida was created, the CIA finally learns the name of the enemy.
But they still do not know that in Afghanistan, KSM has asked bin Laden to fund an attack “far more spectacular” than Bojinka: mass murder on American soil.
Two years later.
OSAMA BIN LADEN: Every American is our enemy and will be our target.
MOYERS: In 1998, bin Laden issues a fatwa, a religious decree, urging radical Islam to unite to bring his war home to America.
MIKE: The ’98 fatwa basically announced a coalition of groups that had joined under the umbrella of al-Qaida and announced that they would no longer focus only on military targets, that all Americans were suitable for attack.
SIMON: We had other source reporting that indicated he was thinking in terms of a quote, unquote, “Hiroshima” for the US. We were running around with our hair standing up. This was a guy whose idea of violence was stupendous.
MOYERS: Three months later on Aug. 7, 1998, bin Laden strikes. Suicide bombers hit American embassies in the capitals of Kenya and Tanzania. It is the eighth anniversary of US troops arriving in Saudi Arabia in the lead up to the Gulf War.
The two truck bombings, just nine minutes apart, leave 224 people dead and nearly 5,000 wounded.
SIMON: It was a staggering display of competence and bloodthirstiness — bad combination.
MOYERS: To KSM, the Embassy bombings confirm that bin Laden is willing to hit the United States — and hit hard.
The very next day, CIA director George Tenet reports to the Clinton White House that bin Laden will attend a terrorist conclave at an al-Qaida training camp.
The president orders a military assault.
On Aug. 20, 75 Tomahawk cruise missiles rain on the Afghan camps. Another 13 hit a plant in Sudan suspected of supplying nerve gas to al-Qaida.
In Washington, it is the year of scandal. The capital’s political and media elites are engaged in a massive distraction.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: But I want to say one thing to the American people —
MOYERS: Clinton’s credibility is crumbling, his judgment suspect.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.
MOYERS: “The intense partisanship of the period,” the 9/11 Commission reports, will affect the future “use of force against bin Laden.”
PRESIDENT CLINTON: And I need to go back to work for the American people.
SIMON: The prevailing reaction to these strikes was “huge blunder, wag the dog.” And the prevalence of that reaction tended to blind the American public — and the people, you know, who shape the public’s opinions — tended to blind them all to the fact that we were facing a serious, lethal threat.
MOYERS: Dec. 4, 1998. President Clinton gets a stunning piece of news. In his daily briefing — what’s called a PDB — the CIA tells him that bin Laden and his cohorts are preparing to attack inside the United States, quote, “perhaps including an aircraft hijacking.”
Two weeks later, CIA sources signal an opportunity. Bin Laden will spend the night in the governor’s compound in Kandahar.
MIKE: The intelligence officer in charge on the ground thought we would be lucky ever to get that quality intelligence again.
MOYERS: The field officer insists, “Hit him tonight. We may not get another chance.”
But the pending impeachment trial has cut Clinton’s room for error. If there is “collateral damage” — if civilians are killed — he will be branded as reckless. With its weapons locked and loaded, the US military is ordered to stand down.
Clinton did sign covert guidelines directing the CIA to go after the al-Qaida leader. But the agents could kill bin Laden only in self-defense, as they tried to capture him.
MIKE: It was always easier to have killed him. It was never permissible by the people who made the policy decisions.
MOYERS: The administration is gun shy. CIA officers fume.
Christmas, 1999, one year later. The world prepares for the coming of a new millennium. The counterterrorism warriors fear the enemy will use the occasion as a symbolic moment to inflict Armageddon on the infidels.
SIMON: The CIA was instructed to go out to all their sources overseas and pump them and pump them again, just squeeze, until the pits popped out of their sources for any information. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was instructed to activate all its wire taps domestically that were related to terrorism investigations.
MOYERS: The vigilance brings results. In Port Angeles, Washington, a US customs agent orders a “nervous and strange-acting” man coming off a ferry from Canada to open his car’s trunk. Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian, is traveling with enough explosives to level a one-square-block building.
In prison, Ressam reveals his target: Los Angeles International Airport.
SIMON: The key thing during this period is that the mobilization was managed at the White House.
MOYERS: At least two terrorist schemes were disrupted. But the celebrations will not last long.
During the worldwide search for millennium plotters, the CIA had pumped sources whose links to al-Qaida are known to be “notorious.” They learn that suspected terrorists will travel to Malaysia in early January 2000.
The spies identify Khalid al Mihdhar and learn that Nawaf al Hazmi is traveling with him. What they do not know is that KSM has called a summit to map out the 9/11 attacks.
Malaysian intelligence catches the men on camera and sends the surveillance to CIA headquarters.
The CIA obtains a photocopy of Mihdhar’s Saudi passport and discovers he has a US visa. It was “considered interesting,” the head of the Agency’s counterterrorism team will tell the commission, but “not heavy water yet.” Remarkably, Mihdhar is not added to a terrorist watchlist.
When the Malaysia summit ends, Mihdhar and Hazmi, traveling under their own names, fly to Thailand, seated side by side.
MOYERS: And there, the CIA loses them. The two men — sworn to bin Laden and martyrdom — book a direct flight from Bangkok to Los Angeles. Undetected, they land in the United States on Jan. 15, 2000.
Using their real names, they rent an apartment in San Diego and obtain California driver’s licenses. They even live, for a time, with an active FBI informant.
But the CIA has not bothered to give the FBI their names to check. Neither the informant nor his FBI handler has any reason to suspect them.
Oct. 12, 2000. Two suicide bombers in a dinghy packed with explosives brush the side of a US Navy destroyer docked in Yemen. The blast rips a 40-by-40 foot hole in the USS Cole.
Seventeen US sailors are killed, at least 40 injured.
Bin Laden would recreate the attack and use it in a video to attract recruits for his jihad against America.
MIKE: They humiliated the greatest power on earth and the greatest power on earth couldn’t find a way to respond in any way at all, but instead talked itself into paralysis because they couldn’t find a smoking gun to identify the people who were claiming to have done it.
MOYERS: Although the attack bears al-Qaida’s signature, the CIA and FBI refuse to formally declare bin Laden the culprit. The US does not hit back.
Al-Qaida’s “planes operation” is now deepening its roots on American soil.
On May 29, Marwan al-Shehhi had arrived in Newark, armed with a multiple-entry tourist visa.
Five days later, Mohamed Atta followed him, coming as a tourist from Prague. He was granted the customary six-month stay.
At the end of June, Ziad Jarrah also landed in Newark. He violates his tourist visa almost immediately when he enrolls in flight school.
On Dec. 8, Hani Hanjour lands in Cincinnati. He’s been granted a student visa because he wants to study flying.
All four had trained in al-Qaida’s camps in Afghanistan. All four will earn flying certificates from the Federal Aviation Administration. All four will pilot hijacked planes on 9/11.
Jan. 20, 2001. The job of defending the home front passes from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush.
By law, the new president now heads the National Security Council. He appoints Condoleezza Rice, one of his closest confidantes, as his national security adviser.
Five days after the inauguration, Rice receives a memo written by this man: Richard Clarke. Clarke, who managed counterterrorism policy on Clinton’s National Security Council, its lead expert on al-Qaida, is kept on the job by Bush and Rice.
In the memo, Clarke declares an “urgent need” that the “Principals,” the heads of the CIA, FBI, State and Defense Departments, meet to be briefed on the al-Qaida threat.
That meeting does not happen. As the 9/11 Commission investigates why, the actions of President Bush and his national security team will come under scrutiny.
LEHMAN: Were you told before the summer that there were functioning al-Qaida cells in the United States?
RICE: In the memorandum that Dick Clarke sent me on Jan. 25, he mentions sleeper cells. There is no mention or recommendation of anything that needs to be done about them.
MOYERS: But that was misleading. In the Jan. 25 memo, Clarke had also attached a plan of action to “roll back” bin Laden.
RICE: We were not presented with a plan.
KERREY: Well, that’s not true. It is not —
RICE: We were not presented, we were not presented — we were presented with the —
KERREY: I’ve heard you say that, Dr. Clarke. If that 25 January 2001 memo was declassified, I don’t believe —
RICE: The fact is that what we were presented on January the 25th was a set of ideas —
RICE: — and a paper, most of which was about what the Clinton administration had done.
MOYERS: To this day, the White House has refused to declassify Clarke’s memo. Rice had effectively demoted him, downgraded his office, and informed him he was no longer needed at the meetings of the principals.
ROEMER: How high a priority was fighting al-Qaida in the Bush administration?
CLARKE: I believe the Bush administration in the first eight months considered terrorism an important issue but not an urgent issue.
GORTON: Was there any actionable intelligence, under either the narrow or broader definition, that caused you to recommend an immediate military response to some provocation?
CLARKE: I suggested, beginning in January of 2001, that the Cole case was still out there—
MOYERS: In early February, the CIA and the FBI at last agree that al-Qaida had bombed the USS Cole.
CLARKE: I was told on a couple of occasions, well, that, you know, that happened on the Clinton administration’s watch. I didn’t think it made any difference. I thought the Bush administration, now that it had the CIA saying it was al-Qaida, should have responded.
THOMPSON: The Cole. Why didn’t the Bush administration respond to the Cole?
RICE: I think Secretary Rumsfeld has perhaps said it best. We really thought that the Cole incident was past, that you didn’t want to respond tit for tat.
THOMPSON: I’ve got to say that answer bothers me a little bit because of where it logically leads, and that is — and I don’t like what-if questions, but this is a what-if question. What if in March of 2001, under your administration, al-Qaida had blown up another US destroyer? What would you have done? And would that have been tit for tat?
RICE: I don’t know what we would have done —
MOYERS: Even as the White House takes no action, America’s electronic eyes and ears pick up new threats all over the world. By April, the “chatter,” as the spies call it, is ominous.
At the same time, there is a changing of the guard at the FBI. In midsummer, a 26-year Bureau veteran, Thomas Pickard, is named acting director.
ROEMER: Did you ever have the opportunity to brief the president of the United States on counterterrorism issues?
PICKARD: No, I did not.
ROEMER: Did you ever brief the vice president of the United States on counter —
PICKARD: Yes, I did.
ROEMER: And did you brief the vice president on an al-Qaida presence in the United States?
ROEMER: And what was his reaction?
PICKARD: He was surprised that al-Qaida was here in the United States, as was the attorney general.
BEN-VENISTE: According to the statement that our staff took from you, you said that you would start each meeting discussing either counterterrorism or counterintelligence. At the same time, the threat level was going up and was very high.
You said that you told the attorney general this fact repeatedly in these meetings. Is that correct?
PICKARD: I told him at least on two occasions.
BEN-VENISTE: And you told the staff, according to this statement, that Mr. Ashcroft told you that he did not want to hear about this any more. Is that correct?
PICKARD: That is correct.
MOYERS: Attorney General John Ashcroft disputes Pickard’s testimony. But the record shows that when the FBI asks for money to add hundreds more agents to track terrorist threats, the attorney general says no.
At the same time, al-Qaida is in high gear, as commission senior counsel Dietrich Snell describes.
SNELL: While the pilots trained in the United States, bin Laden and al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan started selecting the muscle hijackers, those operatives who would storm the cockpit and control the passengers on the four hijacked planes.
MOYERS: The muscle men train for the coming assault using knives to slaughter a sheep and a camel.
SNELL: In late April 2001, the muscle hijackers started arriving in the United States, specifically in Florida, Washington, D.C. and New York. They travel mostly in pairs and were assisted upon arrival by Atta and Shehhi in Florida, or Hazmi and Hanjour in DC and New York.
MOYERS: KSM has instructed them to acquire new, “clean” passports — that won’t show their travels to Afghanistan — before applying for U.S. visas.
The nineteen hijackers will clear U.S. customs a total of 33 times. At least six will violate immigration laws while living in the United States. And Mohamed Atta — who commanded the operation — is allowed to re-enter the country even though he’d overstayed his previous visa.
SNELL: In addition to assisting the newly arrived muscle hijackers, the pilots busied themselves during the summer of 2001 with cross-country surveillance flights and additional flight training.
MOYERS: Unknown to the CIA or the FBI, the al-Qaida pilots crisscross the country, scouting weaknesses in airport security, as well as the best time to storm a cockpit. And they have “no problems,” Atta reports to bin Laden and KSM, bringing box cutters on board.
SNELL: Each flew first class, in the same type of aircraft he would pilot on Sept. 11.
MOYERS: The intelligence “chatter” grows louder and more ominous.
On June 25, Clarke warns Rice that, quote: “Six separate intelligence reports showed al-Qaida personnel warning of a pending attack.”
Three days later, he warns her that the pattern of al-Qaida activity indicating planning for an attack, quote, “had reached a crescendo.”
In early July, the CIA urgently warns the White House of, quote, “spectacular terrorist attacks” that will result in, quote, “numerous casualties.”
“The system was blinking red,” CIA director George Tenet testifies. Nearly 40 times before 9/11, he briefs the president on the rising threat — a pending attack — by bin Laden. And Condoleezza Rice has known since January that al-Qaida sleeper cells are in the United States.
BEN-VENISTE: Did you tell the president at any time prior to Aug. 6 of the existence of al-Qaida cells in the United States?
RICE: First, let me just make certain —
BEN-VENISTE: If you could just answer that question —
RICE: Well, first —
BEN-VENISTE: — because I only have a very limited —
RICE: I understand, Commissioner, but it’s important —
BEN-VENISTE: Did you tell the president?
RICE: It’s important that I also address — It’s also important, Commissioner, that I address the other issues that you have raised. So I will do it quickly, but if you’ll just give me a moment.
BEN-VENISTE: Well, my only question to you is whether you told the president.
RICE: I really don’t remember, Commissioner, whether I discussed this with the president.
MOYERS: But on Aug. 6, 2001, President Bush does receive a stark warning in his daily intelligence brief, PDB.
BEN-VENISTE: There was nothing reassuring, was there, in that PDB?
RICE: Certainly not.
MOYERS: The two CIA analysts who draft it will testify they wanted to make clear that the threat of al-Qaida striking on American soil is “current and serious.”
BEN-VENISTE: The president was in Crawford, Texas, at the time he received the PDB. You were not with him, correct?
RICE: That’s correct. I was not at Crawford, but the president and I were in contact, and I might have even been, though I can’t remember, with him by video link during that time. The president was told this is historical information — I’m told he was told this is historical information. And there was nothing actionable in this.
MOYERS: The Commission will learn that this “historical information” is, in fact, a pattern of activity leading to 9/11.
BEN-VENISTE: Isn’t it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the August 6th PDB warned against possible attacks in this country? And I ask you whether you recall the title of that PDB.
RICE: I believe the title was “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.” Now, the PDB—
BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.
RICE: No, Mr. Ben-Veniste, you—
BEN-VENISTE: I will get into the—
RICE: I would like to finish my point here.
BEN-VENISTE: I didn’t know there was a point.
RICE: Given that you asked me whether or not it warned of attacks—
BEN-VENISTE: I asked you what the title was.
RICE: What the August 6th PDB said, and perhaps I should read it to you—
BEN-VENISTE: We would be happy to have it declassified in full at this time, including its title.
MOYERS: Two days after Rice’s testimony and after the Commission’s most heated showdown with the Bush Administration over access to classified information — the PDB, heavily blacked out — is released on the Saturday night before Easter.
The president had been informed that, quote: “Bin Laden told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington.”
The president had been informed that FBI information, quote, “indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.”
And the president had been informed of reports that a group of bin Laden supporters are, quote, “in the US planning attacks.”
But the president stays at his Texas ranch for 23 more days. His national security adviser does not convene a Cabinet-level meeting to discuss the urgent warnings.
ROEMER: Not once do the principals ever sit down. You, in your job description as the national security adviser, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the president of the United States and meet solely on terrorism to discuss, in the spring and the summer, when these threats are coming in; when you’ve known since the transition that al-Qaida cells are in the United States; when, as the PDB said on Aug. 6, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack the United States.”
RICE: The PDB does not say the United States is going to be attacked. It says bin Laden would like to attack the United States. I don’t think you, frankly, had to have that report to know that bin Laden would like to attack the United States. The threat reporting— the threat reporting—
ROEMER: So why aren’t you doing something about that earlier than August 6th, then?
MOYERS: The Commission never gets a satisfactory answer to that question.
BEN-VENISTE: My question to you, sir, is that if you had the information that the president of the United States was requesting what information the FBI had up to that moment about the potentiality for a strike by bin Laden in the United States, would you not have pulsed the FBI to determine from every FBI agent in this country what information they had at that moment that might indicate the possibility of a terrorist attack here?
PICKARD: Yes, I would have.
BEN-VENISTE: Certainly if you knew that the president of the United States was asking—
PICKARD: I was not informed that the president was asking.
MOYERS: There were dots that might have been connected.
For example: As the threats spiked, an FBI officer assigned to the CIA’s bin Laden unit, identified by the Commission only as “Mary,” is shown the cables from the January 2000 Malaysia summit. She reads that Mihdhar has a US visa, and that Hazmi has flown to Los Angeles. But still, the clues are not sent up the chain of command.
A Phoenix FBI agent notices a number of Arab men at flying schools in Arizona and alerts Washington that bin Laden might be sending students to the U.S. to learn to fly “to conduct terror activity.”
The agent urges a nationwide investigation. Top FBI officials do not see his memo until the afternoon of Sept. 11.
So that critical clue is not connected with another one discovered by FBI agents in Minnesota.
A French national with North African roots raises suspicion at a flight school outside Minneapolis.
Arguing that Zacarias Moussaoui is, quote, the “type of person who could fly something into the World Trade Center,” the Minnesota agents ask Washington for a warrant to search his computer and his apartment. FBI headquarters responds there is not enough evidence and denies the request.
ROEMER: What could you have done with some of that information, with the spiked alerts, with the spectacular attack on the horizon, in the summer of 2001?
CLARKE: I would like to think that had I been informed by the FBI that two senior al-Qaida operatives who had been in a planning meeting earlier in Kuala Lumpur were now in the United States, and we knew that, and we knew their names — and I think we even had their pictures — I would like to think that I would have released or would have had the FBI release a press release with their names, with their descriptions, held a press conference, tried to get their names and pictures on the front page of every paper, America’s Most Wanted, the evening news, and caused a successful nationwide manhunt for those two, two of the 19 hijackers.
MOYERS: Not until late August does the CIA finally add the names of the two hijackers they’d lost — Hazmi and Mihdhar — to a terrorist watch list. The FBI still does not order an urgent nationwide search.
Not until Sept. 4 — after almost eight months in office — does Rice finally chair a meeting of the men in charge of the CIA, FBI, State and Defense Departments to discuss al-Qaida. She does not invite Richard Clarke.
The Principals meet in the White House Situation Room but take no urgent action.
Seven days later. The “planes operation” — the plan for mass murder that began with KSM’s proposal five years earlier — is set.
Nineteen volunteers for the suicide mission begin the check in for their flights.
Each of them will pass through airport security.
7:18 that morning. At Dulles International Airport outside Washington, Khalid al Mihdhar sets off the first metal detector but not the second. He is waved on.
Twenty minutes later, Nawaf al Hazmi sets off both alarms. He is checked by hand and then cleared to board American 77 — along with three other hijackers — and 59 passengers and crew.
GRAPHIC: “The public was not warned.” — Final Report of the 9/11 Commission
This transcript was entered on May 14, 2015.