The Banality of Truth

The government finally admits pre-9/11 bumbling


On Tuesday Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell told the House Judiciary Committee things that, had a government official said them in the days, weeks, or months following 9/11, would have sparked public outrage—and may have significantly blunted the push for greater police and surveillance powers like the PATRIOT Act.

McConnell told lawmakers that "9/11 should have and could have been prevented."

Specifically, McConnell cited the pilot training sought by hijackers Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi and convicted terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui in the United States as an obvious warning sign that was ignored by Washington after feds on the ground flagged the activity.

"For whatever reason, we didn't connect the dots," McConnell said, not quite coming clean on the reasons.

Nevertheless, this position moved McConnell beyond previous remarks in June in which he held that "in his view" the terror attack was preventable, but that law adopted for a Cold War world prevented swift action to stop terrorists.

What happened to change the shading? For one, a widely overlooked story first published on September 10 by McClatchy Newspapers Washington reporter Greg Gordon happened.

In his dispatch, obviously timed to coincide with the sixth anniversary of the attacks, Gordon returns to the Moussaoui case. As the case unfolded in the spring of 2006 it became increasingly clear that top FBI officials likely missed an opportunity to stop the attack in late August 2001.

While the dogged investigation of Moussaoui by Minneapolis FBI agent Harry Samit and Samit's repeated attempts to get a warrant from FBI HQ in Washington to search Moussaoui's laptop and belongings has been well documented, Gordon's reporting uncovers new information that the FBI absolutely had information in its hands to roll up a large chunk of al Qaida's financing network in the days before 9/11 and stop the hijackings.

Moussaoui had long been regarding by his fellow jihadis as something of a loose cannon and security risk. Turns out they were right. Moussaoui's notebooks included Western Union routing numbers, routing numbers used by al Qaida operative Ramzi Binalshibh to send $14,000 to Moussaoui in August 2001.

But authorities never looked at those notebooks. Instead, FBI brass repeatedly blunted Agent Samit's attempts to search them, citing lack of information that Moussaoui was a known terrorist or foreign agent.

Gordon writes:

Instead, Moussaoui's tattered, blue spiral notebook sat in a sealed bag at an immigration office—unopened until after four hijacked jets slammed into New York's World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside, killing 2,972 people.

Gordon also notes that, leaping from the Binalshibh transactions, investigators pre-9/11 almost certainly could have traced his money back to an al Qaida moneyman in Dubai. The Dubai contact, in information developed after 9/11, turns out to have used one of his Western Union receipts to jot down a phone number in the United Arab Emirates. That UAE number received calls from 9/11 hijackers while they were living in Florida prior to their attack.

Given these connections, merely getting German authorities to nab Binalshibh may have been enough to derail the 9/11 mission in the United States. Teasing out the other contacts would have taken more effort, but would have delivered exponentially greater rewards. At the extreme, it is by no means stretch to think the authorities had the chance to quietly round-up 9/11 hijackers in the country prior to the attack. As Gordon notes, FBI agents at Moussaoui's trial testified that had he confessed—thus giving them access to his notebooks pre-9/11—they could have moved on 11 of the 19 hijackers.

Why didn't this happen anyway? For one there was Washington's steadfast refusal to move on information developed from the field offices without additional supporting intelligence. And here all the intelligence suggested that the United States had already degraded and "mapped out" al Qaida's financial network. For several years the National Security Agency was quite confident it had "broken" al Qaida security and had access to bank accounts and other communications points of contact for the global network. It does not appear, however, that anyone seriously considered the 150-year-old Western Union system as a viable method to fund a terror network. They were wrong.

Like the pointless search for a "bamboo Pentagon" in the jungles of Vietnam, American anti-terrorism efforts in the 1990s and pre-9/11 months assumed al Qaida was a terrorist CIA. It had a clear command structure to be infiltrated and advanced technology to be hacked into. We now know that it not true.

Or do we?

McConnell's admission of pre-9/11 mistakes came in service of defending greater surveillance powers for the federal government.