May 2002

Friday, 17 May 2002

Before Sept. 11, Unshared Clues and Unshaped Policy

On July 5 of last year, a month and a day before President Bush first heard that al Qaeda might plan a hijacking, the White House summoned officials of a dozen federal agencies to the Situation Room.

"Something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it's going to happen soon," the government's top counterterrorism official, Richard Clarke, told the assembled group, according to two of those present. The group included the Federal Aviation Administration, along with the Coast Guard, FBI, Secret Service and Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Clarke directed every counterterrorist office to cancel vacations, defer nonvital travel, put off scheduled exercises and place domestic rapid-response teams on much shorter alert. For six weeks last summer, at home and overseas, the U.S. government was at its highest possible state of readiness -- and anxiety -- against imminent terrorist attack.

That intensity -- defensive in nature -- did not last. By the time Bush received his briefing at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., on Aug. 6, the government had begun to stand down from the alert. Offensive planning against al Qaeda remained in a mid-level interagency panel, which had spent half a year already in a policy review. The Deputies Committee, the second tier of national security officials, had not finished considering the emerging plan, and Bush's Cabinet-rank advisers were still a month away from their first meeting on terrorism. That took place Sept. 4, a week before hijacked planes were flown into the Pentagon and World Trade Center in synchronized attacks.

What Bush and his government did with the information they had in August became the subject of a political brawl on Capitol Hill yesterday, largely shorn of the context of those weeks before Sept. 11. A close look at the sequence of events, based on lengthy interviews early this year with participants and fresh accounts yesterday, appears to support the White House view that Bush lacked sufficient warning to stop the attack. But it also portrays a new administration that gave scant attention to an adversary whose lethal ambitions and savvy had been well understood for years.

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Last modified: Tue Feb 10 15:28:53 CST 2004