Could the CIA and FBI Have Stopped 9/11?
Well before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, U.S. officials had plenty of reasons for paying close attention to Al Qaeda. In addition to the 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, Osama bin Laden had made his hatred of the United States well-known in a series of interviews and grandiose statements going back to 1995.
Given this long history, and given the ample evidence that Al Qaeda posed a threat to Americans, Washington’s failure to stop the attacks has been a source of considerable attention and consternation. As with so much in intelligence collection and analysis, the central challenge is in separating the signal from the noise.
The 9/11 Commission report identified a series of opportunities to disrupt the 9/11 attacks, laying much of the blame on a lack of coordination and communication between the CIA and FBI, with some additional criticism leveled at the National Security Agency. In particular, the report focused on 10 instances from January 2000 to August 2001 when information regarding Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi, two Saudi nationals residing in the United States, should have been shared between the CIA and FBI. Mihdhar, Hazmi, and three others hijacked and crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon on September 11. When the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General reviewed how the FBI handled intelligence before 9/11, it dedicated a chapter to information related to Mihdhar and Hazmi. According to these and other studies, a combination of bureaucratic impediments and personality clashes impeded efforts that might have complicated, or even thwarted, Al Qaeda’s nefarious plans.
Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, for example, focuses on the turf battles between Alec Station (the CIA’s Bin Laden unit headed up by the mercurial Michael Sheuer), the FBI counterterrorism guru John O’Neill, and White House advisor Richard Clarke. O’Neill had left the New York FBI office just prior to the attacks and taken a job as head of security at the World Trade Center. He was killed on 9/11, but both Scheuer and Clarke wrote books generally celebrating their role in trying to stop the attacks and faulting those who didn’t listen.
Numerous other books, articles, and documentaries by more objective and disinterested observers have explored the CIA versus FBI story too. One of the first post-9/11 accounts, The Cell, even put it in the subtitle: Inside the 9/11 Plot, and Why the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop It.
Some serious and seasoned observers anticipated that the failure to share information within the sprawling national security apparatus could expose the United States to preventable dangers. In May 2001, President George W. Bush tapped Bre
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