Accessibility links

U.S.: Intelligence Experts Say Attacks Might Have Been Prevented

  • Andrew Tully

Former U.S. intelligence officials say terrorists caught U.S. officials off-guard with last month's attacks on New York and Washington. The analysts told a hearing in Congress that previous attacks against the U.S. took place in foreign countries. As a result, they said, American officials did not expect an attack on their own soil.

Washington, 4 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Former U.S. intelligence officials say the country might have been able to prevent the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington last month. But they say the terrorists lulled Washington into believing any attacks on American interests would be carried out overseas.

This assessment was made yesterday (3 October) at a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee, which sought to explore the scope of the Al-Qaeda network run by Osama bin Laden.

U.S. President George W. Bush says bin Laden is the chief suspect behind the 11 September attacks, in which hijackers rammed fuel-laden commercial jetliners into the two towers of New York's World Trade Center, and into the Pentagon in Washington. About 6,000 people are believed to have been killed that day.

Oliver Revell, who once served as the chief of counterintelligence for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), told the committee that Al-Qaeda has been leading up to major attacks on American soil since 1992, when it attacked U.S. forces conducting a humanitarian mission in famine-wracked Somalia.

But Revell said that until last month, the anti-American campaign of terror was conducted in other countries. He cited the attack on a U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996, the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the attack on a U.S. warship in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000.

According to Revell, these attacks led U.S. intelligence to assume -- mistakenly -- that further attacks also would be mounted overseas.

"By 11 September, we should have known that we were the principal targets of a terrorist campaign unlike any that we had ever faced. And yet we totally failed to recognize the impending disaster that stalked our nation."

Revell also noted that Al-Qaeda's methods are constantly evolving. In the four cases he cited, the group used truck bombs, then a bomb aboard a small boat. And last month, of course, they used hijacked airliners. And, he said, their communications have been changing: Now they seldom use telephones and the Internet to communicate to avoid interception. Instead, he said, most orders are relayed vocally.

After last month's attacks, Revell said, American intelligence and law enforcement officials resign themselves to the fact that there will be another terror attack in the U.S., and they must be prepared for the unexpected.

"We have to learn the lessons because we will again be attacked, and they will change their tactics next time. So we can't just prepare for the last event."

Another witness was Vincent Cannistraro, the former chief of counterintelligence for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Like many intelligence analysts, he said the best way to learn what terrorist organizations are planning is to rely less on spy satellites and other sophisticated surveillance equipment. Cannistraro said there is no substitute for human intelligence -- recruiting a spy from within the terrorist group itself.

But Cannistraro complained that during the past decade, Congress has refused to allow the CIA to hire agents who have been suspected of human rights abuses or similar wrongdoing. The former CIA official said that policy has led to a drought of essential information.

"We need human penetration, and for that we need a refocus and a redefinition, which means that we have to recruit people who, by definition, have blood on their hands because they are terrorists. We have to get agents within the group. That means recruiting people who are already there or recruiting other people in the area who are likely to be recruited by Al-Qaeda."

Revell agreed. He said that when he was an FBI agent, he was permitted to recruit spies from within U.S. organized crime to help win convictions of high-ranking criminals. According to Revell, during the past 10 years, he has been baffled that the CIA could not do the same in its overseas operations.

"I could never understand why it was all right domestically for the FBI to recruit members of the Mafia, la Cosa Nostra -- you know, known killers -- who were the only ones who could penetrate the la Cosa Nostra and give us that information, but the CIA could not use individuals of this type."

A member of the committee, Congressman Tom Lantos (D-California), asked the witnesses if other suspected terrorist organizations -- he specifically named the Palestinian group Hamas and the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah -- were linked to the 11 September attacks. The witnesses replied that there was no hard evidence to this effect.

But Revell said there has been what he called "substantial intelligence" that both Hamas and Hezbollah have cooperated with Al-Qaeda. And he noted that the U.S. indictment of bin Laden says Hezbollah was linked to the embassy bombings in 1998.

Lantos then asked if the U.S. should pursue these groups and those like them once it is finished neutralizing Al-Qaeda and perhaps the Taliban. The witnesses said yes. Cannistraro put it this way:

"I believe that, as the president said, we should go after every terrorist group that targets Americans. If they carry out terrorist operations against Americans, I think we have a responsibility to our fellow citizens to go after the source of it and deter future acts of terrorism. We're talking about human life here, so I don't think there's any question we should go after those groups that target Americans."

A third witness was Charles Santos, a former special assistant to the U.S. undersecretary for political military affairs at the United Nations. Santos said that it is important to understand the mentality of organizations like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban -- the militia that controls most of Afghanistan, where bin Laden is said to be hiding.

Santos said Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have combined their well-known brand of fanatical Islamic fundamentalism with what he called "hyper-nationalism" -- which he likened to the intolerant nationalism of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

According to Santos, this religious and nationalist extremism work well together. He called them "two sides of the same coin." And he said that until Western nations understand this mentality, they may not be able to fight terrorism effectively.