Michael Morell on 9/11, the CIA and Afghanistan, Half 1 – “Intelligence Issues”

On this episode of Intelligence Issues, host Michael Morell presents private reflections in Half One among a two-part essay on the CIA’s strategic warnings earlier than 9/11, the fear plots it helped foil in its aftermath, and developments in Afghanistan immediately. Morell explains why he believes the CIA offered “the loudest and most persistent warning within the historical past of the company on any situation” about al Qaeda to each the Clinton and Bush administrations, and descriptions the missteps which will have led to the assaults. He additionally reveals new particulars concerning the stage of frustration amongst CIA management with inaction by the White Home. 


  • Warnings earlier than 9/11: “The theme of this era – which runs from the early-Nineteen Nineties into 2001 – is that the CIA offered strategic warning of the al Qaeda menace.  In my opinion, this was arguably the loudest and most persistent warning within the historical past of the company on any situation. Ever. “
  • Foiled assaults: “With the assistance of intelligence and safety companies around the globe, CIA launched operations in opposition to 38 targets in 55 nations. The tempo was frenetic, with vital coordination between CIA, NSC, DOJ and the FBI.  Dozens of arrests have been made around the globe. The disruption operation labored.  There have been no profitable assaults through the millennium.  The disruption effort, by tightening safety at US border crossings, even helped thwart an assault on the homeland — an assault on Los Angeles worldwide airport.”
  • Frustration at CIA: “I strongly sensed through the spring and summer time of 2001 that Tenet was deeply annoyed with the White Home.  I sensed that Tenet felt that the White Home simply didn’t get it.  I feel that is why he went to such nice lengths – taking on the briefing from me, taking his CT staff to see Rice twice.  I feel he was attempting something he may to get their consideration.”

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – Michael Morell on the CIA, 9/11 and Afghanistan

PRODUCER: Olivia Gazis

MICHAEL MORELL: Thanks for becoming a member of us immediately. There was a lot speak over the previous couple of weeks about 9/11, to incorporate what occurred within the run-up to that tragic day and what occurred in its quick aftermath. A lot of this has centered on questions of what the CIA did and what it did not do in each of those intervals.

Many interviews have been performed, many articles written, many documentaries made.

What I wish to do on this, and within the subsequent episode, is to share my private ideas on all this.

Why do I wish to do that? As a result of a lot of you, our listeners, have reached out and requested me to take action and since I imagine there’s a lot misunderstanding that has swirled round CIA’s position, a few of it for years.

Let’s begin with the run-up to 9/11. This can be chapter one in our story. Chapter Two – the aftermath – can be subsequent week.

The theme of this era – which runs from the early-Nineteen Nineties into 2001 – is that the CIA offered strategic warning of the al Qaeda menace. In my opinion, this was arguably the loudest and most persistent warning within the historical past of the company on any situation. Ever.

The sub-theme is that the then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet noticed the menace as clearly as anybody; he drove the intelligence group to concentrate on it, even in an atmosphere of extraordinarily restricted assets; and he repeatedly took his considerations to the very best ranges of the U.S. authorities.

How do I do know all this? As a result of previous to 9/11,I served for six years as the pinnacle of the workers that produces the President’s Each day Transient, as Tenet’s govt assistant, as a deputy in CIA’s counterterrorist middle, and as President Bush’s first intelligence briefer, a job I held from January 4, 2001 to January 4, 2002.

Let me stroll by means of this era.

CIA first recognized Osama bin Laden as a menace in 1993, eight years earlier than 9/11. At the moment, we noticed him as a financier of terrorism. This put him on our radar.

In 1995, we linked Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 assault on the World Commerce Heart, to bin Laden’s cash and to a bin Laden-run safehouse in Peshawar, Pakistan. This raised our curiosity in bin Laden much more.

That very same 12 months, the intelligence group printed a Nationwide Intelligence Estimate, what we name an “NIE.” An NIE is an analytic product representing the thought-about view of all the intelligence group.

This specific NIE warned that civil aviation in the USA was a goal of terrorists. That is six years earlier than 9/11. It stated, and I quote, “If terrorists working on this nation are methodical, they are going to determine critical vulnerabilities within the safety of home flights.” Unquote.

This paper was offered to not solely to the everyday nationwide safety officers within the govt department nevertheless it was additionally offered to the FAA and to the airline trade. And like all NIEs, it was offered to Congress.

Additionally in 1995, the Philippine police disrupted a plot hatched within the Philippines by Ramzi Yousef and his uncle, a person named Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. The uncle, who we name KSM, would go on to grow to be the mastermind of 9/11.

This Philippine plot was a multi-faceted assault plan that included hijacking a number of airliners, flying them to the USA, blowing up most of them in flight, and crashing one into CIA headquarters in Virginia.

This was an vital reference to terrorists utilizing airplanes as weapons – and it was not the primary such reference we had seen and reported on. At the very least one different had come earlier than. Those that say that CIA by no means imagined terrorists utilizing planes as weapons are simply improper.

Due to all of this, CIA, in early 1996, created a stand-alone unit, referred to as Alec station, to trace bin Laden and his actions. The purpose was to determine precisely what he was doing.

Simply months later – that very same 12 months and 5 years earlier than 9/11 – CIA concluded that bin Laden was rather more than a terrorist financier. He was a terrorist himself.

Certainly, we concluded that bin Laden was a pacesetter of a terrorist group, that he was decided to drive the USA out of the Center East, overthrow Sunni Arab regimes and set up an Islamic caliphate in these nations — and that he deliberate to perform this by hanging the USA wherever he may, most significantly on our personal soil, right here within the homeland.

We even stated in late 1996 that bin Laden was concerned with buying weapons of mass destruction to perform his targets.

On account of this judgment, the CIA, led by Director Tenet, offered lots of of labeled and unclassified warnings of the menace posed by bin Laden.

These warnings appeared in CIA analytic merchandise, Nationwide Intelligence Estimates, and testimonies earlier than congress, each open and closed, over a number of years.

One of many Nationwide Intelligence Estimates, printed in 1997, stated and I quote, “Civil aviation stays a very engaging goal for terrorist assaults in gentle of the worry and publicity that downing of an airliner would evoke.” Unquote.

Tenet even wrote private memos to President Clinton and to his Nationwide Safety Council counterparts concerning the menace. The writing of such private memos by a director was unprecedented. I by no means noticed a director try this earlier than, and i’ve by no means seen one do it since.

Then the primary proof that CIA’s warnings have been on the mark appeared with crystal readability. On the morning of August seventh, 1998, two of our embassies in East Africa, one in Kenya and one in Tanzania, inside seconds of one another, have been hit by huge suicide truck bombs – killing 12 People and over 200 Africans.

Inside two days, CIA concluded that al Qaeda was behind the bombings. President Clinton responded with cruise missile strikes, however they did little to no harm to al Qaeda.

These assaults drove Tenet to push the intelligence group even more durable. He requested for an in depth plan to enhance CIA’s assortment in opposition to al Qaeda. He wrote what got here to be referred to as the “we’re at struggle” memo to drive the remainder of the intelligence group to do the identical.

Opposite to traditional knowledge, each the CIA and the broader group responded. Sources have been moved from different crucial points to terrorism. The concentrate on al Qaeda throughout the group was raised. Relationships with different intelligence companies have been expanded. Our assortment improved.

A part of these efforts included growing drones to gather intelligence, together with to search out bin Laden. In addition they included looking for more and more aggressive covert motion authorities to go after bin Laden. And so they included the US navy working to weaponize a drone to provide a president the choice to take direct motion in opposition to the terrorist chief. The navy’s work on with the ability to hit a goal who was open air was accomplished earlier than 9/11. Solely coverage approvals remained.

The elevated effort to gather intelligence paid off. CIA and the remainder of the intelligence group recognized in 1999 a number of al Qaeda plots timed to the millennium. Tenet instructed President Clinton to count on 5 to fifteen assaults in opposition to the US, our allies, and our pursuits.

In response, President Clinton ordered a worldwide operation to disrupt al Qaeda wherever we may.

With the assistance of intelligence and safety companies around the globe, CIA launched operations in opposition to 38 targets in 55 nations. The tempo was frenetic, with vital coordination between CIA, NSC, DOJ and the FBI. Dozens of arrests have been made around the globe.

The disruption operation labored. There have been no profitable assaults through the millennium. The disruption effort, by tightening safety at US border crossings, even helped thwart an assault on the homeland — an assault on Los Angeles worldwide airport.

Certainly, the arrest of the LAX plotter, Ahmad Ressam, attempting to cross the border from Canada into the USA with explosives and detonators not solely stopped that individual assault. It additionally was a manifestation of bin Laden’s need to convey the battle to the homeland.

Then out of the blue one other wake-up name. In mid October 2000, simply weeks earlier than the presidential election, the usCole, a guided missile destroyer, anchored off the coast of Yemen, was hit by a suicide boat, killing 17 U.S. sailors, and injuring 37.

At this level, the Clinton administration had been by means of the primary world commerce middle bombing, the African embassy bombings, the millennium threats, and now the assault on the Cole. The president and his nationwide safety advisor, Sandy Berger, had themselves grow to be seized with al Qaeda.

In consequence, Berger requested Tenet: If there have been no constraints on covert motion authorities and no constraints on assets, how would you go after al Qaeda to be able to degrade its capacity to assault us?

The outcome was a CIA memo that was referred to as the “Blue Sky Memo.” It was delivered to Berger, however the Clinton administration got here to an finish earlier than the plan may very well be mentioned inside the interagency and earlier than it – in some kind – may grow to be coverage.

So, assess the Clinton administration’s efficiency on al Qaeda? Hindsight is 20/20, and it’s subsequently, I feel, basically unfair to ask such a query, however, with that caveat, I imagine the Clinton administration ought to have come earlier to the belief that we wanted to get rather more aggressive with al Qaeda. Sandy Berger ought to have requested his query and run a coverage course of on the reply after both the East Africa bombings or at minimal after the millennium menace.

Why did not this occur? I do not know. I do not suppose the work has ever been carried out to reply this query. To make sure, the Clinton administration had different issues on its plate – the struggle within the Balkans, the emergence of the Pakistani nuclear program, and others. And, in fact, the administration was coping with the political fallout from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Nonetheless, I feel an in depth reply to this query stays to be produced.

In December of 2000, George W. Bush is said the winner of the presidential election and the transition to a brand new administration begins. The warnings that the CIA had been offering the Clinton administration at the moment are made loud and clear to the Bush administration.

Terrorism basically and al Qaeda specifically was a precedence subject in Bush’s first intelligence briefing — when he turned the Republican nominee for president. The deputy director of Central Intelligence on the time, John McLaughlin, Tenet’s second in command, presided over this briefing. As a result of the al Qaeda situation was such an vital a part of the briefing, McLaughlin introduced with him a senior official from CIA’s counterterrorism middle to stroll bush by means of the menace.

On this session, McLaughlin instructed candidate Bush that, if he turned president, People have been prone to die from terrorism on his watch.

Of their first assembly after Bush was declared the winner of the election, Clinton instructed Bush that al Qaeda could be probably the most vital nationwide safety situation he would face as president. Sandy Berger stated the identical to his successor as nationwide safety advisor, Condoleezza Rice.

The al Qaeda menace was a major subject of dialog when Tenet and his head of operations, Jim Pavitt, briefed each Bush and VP-elect Cheney on CIA covert actions at Blair home per week earlier than the inauguration.

Solely 5 days after the inauguration, Dick Clarke, the person liable for counterterrorism coverage on the White Home and a holdover from the Clinton administration, repackaged the Blue Sky Memo, which had been sitting in his secure for the reason that departure of Berger. Clarke despatched it to Rice, and he stated that there was an pressing want for an early NSC Principals assembly on al Qaeda. Like Tenet and Berger, Clarke needed to take the gloves off.

On the exact same day, CIA wrote a PDB merchandise for the brand new president pinning accountability for the Cole assault on bin Laden. No motion was taken in opposition to al Qaeda.

Just a bit over a month after the inauguration, Tenet gave a package deal of draft covert motion authorities to Rice’s deputy, Steve Hadley. The package deal included the authorities that may be required to hold out the actions within the Blue Sky Memo. The White Home, for causes that I do not know, requested that the package deal be withdrawn.

Then the lights began to blinking crimson: menace reporting spiked within the spring and early summer time of 2001. The PDB for 2 months was stuffed with such reporting. The titles of those items included “bin Laden planning a number of operations,” “bin Laden assaults could also be imminent,” “bin Laden planning excessive profile assaults,” and “UBL threats are actual.” Phrases resembling “catastrophic” and “a number of simultaneous assaults” have been used within the items.

On April 18, Tenet, after having been briefed the night time earlier than on new menace reporting took over the PDB briefing, switching seats with me, expressing in phrases, his tone, and his physique language that he believed we have been going to get hit and hit onerous.

On Might 30, Tenet took McLaughlin, his head of counterterrorism Cofer Black, and the pinnacle of Alec station to his weekly assembly with Rice as a result of he was so involved concerning the menace reporting. “How dangerous do you suppose it’s?” Rice requested Black. Black instructed her that through the millennium the menace stage was at an 8, on a ten scale. “Proper now,” Black stated, “we’re at 7.”

On July 10, Tenet once more took his CT staff to see Rice. The pinnacle of Alec Station instructed her, and I quote, “There can be a major terrorist assault within the coming weeks or months,” finish quote. Tenet and his deputies stated the USA should go on the offense in opposition to al Qaeda. In response, three days later, the White Home held a deputies assembly on al Qaeda, however no motion was taken.

I ought to add, and that is the primary time I’ve ever stated this publicly, is that I strongly sensed through the spring and summer time of 2001 that Tenet was deeply annoyed with the White Home. I sensed that Tenet felt that the White Home simply didn’t get it. I feel that is why he went to such nice lengths – taking on the briefing from me, taking his CT staff to see Rice twice. I feel he was attempting something he may to get their consideration.

Then the menace reporting dried up. Gone. It turned out that al Qaeda, anticipating one other spherical of cruise missile strikes after the 9/11 assaults, went to floor. They went to the hills, actually. Our sources misplaced entry.

Regardless of the dearth of latest reporting, Tenet remained deeply involved. He requested for a overview of all of the earlier menace reporting, of the whole lot we then knew, to verify we had not miss something.

On this course of, CIA’s management discovered that officers within the counter terrorist middle had discovered in early 2000 that two al Qaeda terrorists had Visas to enter america however that they’d did not alert their chain of command or to formally watchlist them. Now each have been in the USA. So, Tenet ordered a right away repair to the error, and the 2 have been watch-listed in mid-August. Their names have been Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi. They turned out to a part of the 9/11 plot.

The following knowledge level on this story line is 9/11 itself, with 3,000 folks killed. It was the biggest assault on the American homeland within the historical past of the nation.

So, assess CIA’s efficiency within the run-up to 9/11?

On one stage, maybe an important stage, CIA by no means received a problem extra proper than it received al Qaeda earlier than 9/11. By no means did CIA warn as a lot and as loudly about one thing because it did about bin Laden and al Qaeda. CIA was created to warn of strategic shock, and it did that in spades with bin Laden.

On one other stage, there was a shortcoming. CIA – and our companions at NSA – didn’t, pre-9/11, penetrate bin Laden’s internal circle to the purpose the place we might have discovered sufficient data to cease the plot, to cease the assault. We did this after 9/11 routinely, which we are going to discuss within the subsequent episode, however we didn’t do it beforehand.

I feel there have been two causes for this. First, al Qaeda had secure haven, given to them by the Taliban, which made them very tough to get at from an intelligence perspective. And, maybe most vital, CIA, when Tenet took over, was almost damaged by a decade of price range cuts – the so-called Chilly Warfare peace dividend.

CIA was beneath nice strain on assets. We wanted rather more than we had. Tenet made repeated requests to the Workplace of Administration and Funds for extra assets.

Tenet even wrote a private letter to President Clinton asking for extra assets to fund an even bigger effort in opposition to bin Laden and al Qaeda. This too was unprecedented for a director.

The administration didn’t reply to those requests. It was solely in 1999, when then-Speaker of the Home Newt Gingrich noticed the necessity, that the intelligence group obtained extra assets, and this was carried out over the objections of the administration. However even this useful resource infusion was for just one 12 months, so it was of little assist in sustaining our operations over the following two years – the 2 years instantly earlier than 9/11.

CIA additionally made a mistake. It was the watch-listing error I simply spoke about. It was an sincere mistake – born of an enormous workload in Alec station. That is not an excuse; it is simply a proof. However, on the finish of the day, it was nonetheless a mistake.

It’s value asking what would have occurred if the CIA had watch-listed the 2 when it first discovered about them within the early 2000. We do not know, in fact, however most certainly, they’d have been denied entry to the USA. And, on this case, we might not have found the 9/11 plot. Certainly, the person who was imagined to have been the twentieth hijacker was not allowed entry to the USA as a result of an alert immigration agent concluded that he was trying to illegally enter the USA and despatched him again to level of origin, which was Dubai, however with no data gained on what he was actually as much as.

I ought to notice that CIA was not the one group to misstep previous to 9/11. The FBI officers working in Alec station on the time, of which there have been a number of, all with laptop entry, additionally missed the Mihdhar and Hamzi data.

A number of have been conscious of the knowledge however didn’t act on it. And once we did watch-list them in mid-August the FBI assigned the case to an agent who had simply completed his rookie 12 months and the bureau labeled the case “routine,” the bottom doable precedence stage. However, once more, if they’d been discovered, they most likely would merely have been deported.

There was additionally a memo from the FBI’s Phoenix discipline workplace of a number of Arabs chickening out coaching and never being concerned with takeoffs and landings. This reporting was not acted on by FBI headquarters nor was it shared with the interagency, together with CIA.

After which there was Zacarias Moussaoui. The FBI arrested him on August sixteenth, 2001 on immigration fees. Moussaoui, too, was coaching to fly airplanes, and suspicious flight instructors had referred to as the FBI. Moussaoui was within the nation illegally, and he was arrested. However, the FBI, for authorized causes, didn’t search Moussaoui’s baggage, the contents of which tied him to al Qaeda. It turned out that Moussaoui knew concerning the 9/11 plot, and he was in our custody. KSM would later say that had he recognized about Moussaoui’s arrest that he would have postponed the assaults, believing them compromised.

What about coverage within the Bush administration? How to consider that? I feel this query has confused many individuals as there are two distinct points that have to be addressed – the primary is the strategic warning about al Qaeda that the Bush staff obtained even earlier than they took workplace and the second is the menace reporting that got here throughout their desks within the spring and summer time. It’s important to have a look at these individually to evaluate the administration’s efficiency on coverage.

On the primary situation: I feel it’s truthful to say that regardless of the strategic warnings from the intelligence group and from the outgoing Clinton staff, and regardless of sturdy suggestions coming from Dick Clarke contained in the White Home, the Bush staff didn’t do a coverage overview on al Qaeda as early because it ought to have, given the compelling nature of the strategic menace. I imagine that that coverage overview ought to have occurred instantly after the inauguration. Had it, maybe it might have resulted in a way more aggressive coverage, maybe it might have resulted within the Blue Sky suggestions being authorised. But in addition, maybe not.

With regard to the second situation: senior Bush administration officers have at all times stated that the menace reporting from the spring and summer time was by no means particular as to time, place, and technique. That could be a truthful and an correct assertion. However the menace reporting for the millennium was additionally not significantly particular, however President Clinton nonetheless ordered a complete disruption effort that ended up paying enormous dividends. I imagine this could have been carried out by the Bush administration as effectively.

To be truthful to the Bush administration, the al Qaeda posed was a brand new form of menace. It was a menace from a non-state actor. Non-state actors weren’t a problem the final time republicans had in energy. The Bush nationwide safety staff initially centered on nation states and the menace they might pose to the USA. It took them time to be taught {that a} rag-tag group of extremists, working in grime coaching camps in the course of Afghanistan, may pose an immense menace to America.

Congress shouldn’t be neglected of this evaluation both. The Gore fee on airline security beneficial in early 1997 various enhancements to airline safety, together with most of the adjustments that may ultimately be carried out after 9/11. However, Congress, earlier than 9/11, didn’t move into regulation a single considered one of these suggestions, largely beneath strain from an airline trade that feared the safety enhancements would inconvenience passengers.

Would any of the intel, regulation enforcement, coverage, or legislative missteps have made a distinction? Would any of them have prevented the 9/11 assaults? That may be very onerous to say. It’s simple to make arguments for why they might have made a distinction, however it’s onerous to make an argument that they’d have made a distinction. Sadly, we are going to by no means know.

However all of those, significantly when put collectively, are why I’ve at all times referred to as 9/11 a ‘nationwide failure.’

Yet another thought: within the context of what I simply outlined, a method of taking a look at bin Laden’s success on 9/11 is that he received fortunate with timing. Time ran out on the Clinton administration when it needed to take the gloves off and time ran out for the Bush staff to completely perceive the menace. Bin Laden threaded the needle.

That concludes chapter considered one of this story. Be part of us subsequent week for the second chapter – the quick aftermath of 9/11.

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