Pentagon team said to have identified Mohamed Atta as threat a year before the attacks
August 10, 2005
Pentagon team spotted Sept 11 leader a year before attacks
A secret US military intelligence team identified the September 11 hijack leader Mohammed Atta and three of his accomplices as probable al-Qa'eda terrorists a year before the attacks.
But its suspicions were never shared with the FBI because the military was nervous about breaking restrictions on spying on US territory imposed after the Watergate scandal.
Until yesterday it was believed that Atta was never identified as a threat before leading the 19-man suicide squads which hit New York and Washington in 2001.
However, according to an intelligence official, a Pentagon team, Able Danger, named Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hamzi as members of an al-Qa'eda squad which it dubbed the "Brooklyn cell" a year earlier.
"We knew these were bad guys and we wanted to do something about them," the intelligence officer told the New York Times.
The officer took the information to the Special Operations command headquarters in Florida with a recommendation that it be passed to the FBI. It was not.
Able Danger, which used computers to throw up links in information from unclassified sources, had another purpose. "Ultimately, Able Danger was going to give decision-makers options for taking out al-Qa'eda targets," the officer said.
MIM: If the some law enforcement officials sensed that the hijackers were tied to Al Qaeda and presented a threat, what prevented the authorities from acting on their information ?
Was it misplaced political correctness, intelligence failure, or fear of being proven wrong about suspicions that enabled the hijackers to carry out the attacks?
Morning that left the US speechless
IT began much as any sunny September morning in America. Office workers in New York and Washington clutching bagels were streaming out of subway and metro stations. Others were already at their desks.
American Airlines Flight 11, carrying 81 passengers, nine flight attendants and two pilots, had taken off from Boston's Logan Airport at 8.02am bound for Los Angeles. It would never get there.
Instead, at 8.45, the Boeing 767 crashed into the 1,368-ft tall north tower of the World Trade Centre in Manhattan. It will never be known exactly what happened on board but terrorists had apparently hijacked the flight and diverted it to New York.
Some 11 minutes later, at 8.56, another Boeing 767, United Airlines Flight 175, flew straight into the World Trade Centre's south tower as millions of Americans watched the scene live on television. It had also been scheduled to fly from Boston to New York and had 65 people on board.
Within two hours, the United States, the world's only superpower, a nation of 280 million people providing the engine of the global economy and a quarter of its goods and services, was reeling from a co-ordinated series of deadly attacks.
The Manhattan skyline was enveloped in a cloud of debris. Sirens wailed across New York and people cowered behind parked cars for fear of further attacks. Behind the White House, smoke billowed from the Pentagon building on the other side of the Potomac.
Thousands had been killed, and the rest of the population was left trying to grapple with the magnitude of what had happened - and was still happening - in their midst.
One Department of Justice official in Washington who had remained at his desk despite being ordered out of his building looked up and just shook his head. There was nothing that could be said.
Normally loquacious network reporters were lost for words, their voices quavering as they described people leaping off the World Trade Centre to their deaths as their building collapsed above them.
Sighs and long silences punctuated news broadcasts as reports of planes being hijacked and crashing into buildings came thick and fast. The Oklahoma bombing of 1995 in which 168 people were killed, was already paling into insignificance in comparison.
The blows were aimed at the hearts of America's financial and political capitals, New York and Washington DC, and soon the country was effectively being shut down.
Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska described the attacks as "the second Pearl Harbor" and no one accused him of exaggeration. Senator John McCain said they were "an act of war and one that requires a national response".
Pearl Harbor, Oklahoma, the fall of Saigon, the assassination of John F Kennedy - almost no historical comparison seemed to capture the enormity of the events.
Parts of the National Guard reserve was mobilised, the Mexican border was shut and security tightened at Canadian crossing points. All federal buildings were evacuated and the highest state of military alert ordered. America had been sealed off.
Up to 50,000 people worked in the World Trade Centre, a complex of seven buildings, and tens of thousands more were in the vicinity. At that stage terrorism was only one of the possible reasons for the crash.
The scale of what was taking place had begun to dawn on the country when the second attack came. At first, the television footage seemed to show a secondary explosion within the World Trade Centre. It was only when the tape was slowed down that viewers could see the silhouette of a passenger plane eerily sliding towards the second tower.
By the time President Bush addressed the country from a school in Florida at 9.30am, a third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, was heading towards the Pentagon, the centre of US military operations, where 24,000 people were at work.
The Boeing 757, carrying 64 people, had taken off from Dulles airport, Virginia, just outside Washington, a few minutes earlier. One portion of the huge five-sided building collapsed shortly after impact at 9.38am.
It was immediately announced that the White House was being evacuated after security officials announced that a "credible" warning of a terrorist attack on the building had been received.
At first the evacuation was orderly, although presidential advisers and other staff, who had been gathered around their television sets watching what had happened to the World Trade Centre, were subdued and saying little.
Before they were all out of their offices, however, Secret Service agents were shouting at them to run. Police cars zoomed past the old executive office building and for a moment it was as if an air raid was taking place.
Suddenly, every plane in the air was a potential threat and every building potentially a glass and concrete coffin. People began to panic. There was a report of a bomb at the State Department in Foggy Bottom.
On Capitol Hill, hundreds of workers thought that they had heard an explosion nearby. As the streets of Washington became jammed with people and cars, the television networks flashed up news of a fire on the mall.
At the Pentagon, several dozen people were being taken to hospital as radio stations in New York were broadcasting appeals for blood donors. Military officials said there was a chance that the Pentagon would come under attack again.
An F-16 fighter circled over the building prepared to shoot down any aeroplane that had diverted from its flight path. At around 10.20am, a fourth aircraft crashed near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
This time, it appeared that an attack on Washington or perhaps Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, had been averted, either by the US Air Force or because of a struggle on board.
The United Airlines Boeing 757, Flight 93, had been en route from Newark, just outside New York, to San Francisco. Some 38 passengers, two pilots and five flight attendants had been on board.
Ground staff had been warned of the impending disaster by a passenger who had barricaded himself in a lavatory on board and screamed down a cellphone that a hijack was taking place. He was still talking when the plane exploded into the ground.
Michael Merringer, who was out on a mountain bike ride with his wife, Amy, about two miles away, said: "I heard the engine gun two different times and then I heard a loud bang and the windows of the houses all around rattled. I looked up and I saw the smoke coming up. Everything was on fire and there was trees knocked down and there was a big hole in the ground."
By this time, the Federal Aviation Authority had already ordered all flights in the United States to be postponed until at least 5pm. International flights were being diverted to Canada. In New York, by far the worst hit location, the terrible carnage was continuing.
At 9.50am, just over an hour after the first crash, there was a sucking sound and a surge of air as the floors within the south tower of the World Trade Centre collapsed.
The building was reduced to a pile of rubble, killing most of those inside as well as rescue workers desperately trying to save them. Lunchboxes and ties lay on the streets and thousands of pieces of paper fluttered in the sky. The north tower collapsed just before 10.30am.
Every symbol of modern America seemed to be affected. Disneyland in Orlando, Florida closed down. So did the Space Needle in Seattle and San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Casinos in Las Vegas announced heightened security.
Baseball's Major League cancelled all 15 of Tuesday's scheduled games and the Walt Disney Company temporarily shut all its American parks and said it was "assessing global operations".
In New York, the opening of the United Nations General Assembly was postponed, as were the primary elections for mayor. The airports, tunnels and bridges were closed as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said there had been a "horrendous number of lives lost" in the assault on his city.
Three of the four hijacked planes had been bound for Los Angeles before they had been turned into suicide bombs. But the main airport there was being evacuated even as frantic relatives arrived to find out what might have happened to their loved ones.
All along the east coast, telephone systems shut down because of the volume of calls and mobile networks were jammed. CNN began to broadcast details of where National Guard members should report.
It was not until 1pm, when it appeared that the attacks had ceased, that some sense of calm began to return. Sorrow was expressed but great anger too as politicians and commentators across the political spectrum demanded swift and decisive retribution.
Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama said: "This is total war. I think this is a wake-up call for America. This is a war, a real war." Henry Kissinger, the former American Secretary of State and an informal Bush adviser, spoke darkly of "an integrated attack that must be dealt with in an integrated way".
Not only the perpetrators must be held responsible, he said, but also those states that had made the assault possible. By 2.15pm, every one of more than 4,000 domestic American planes was on the ground in an unprecedented move by the Federal Aviation Authority.
The FBI was already assembling a team of several hundred agents to investigate the four attacks while the National Transportation Safety Board was seeking to recover the black boxes from the four aircraft.
Some terrorists may have died in the planes they hijacked but such a complex and well planned operation would have required perhaps dozens more on the ground.
Investigators were also focusing on warning signs beforehand as some FBI agents conceded that the day compared with Pearl Harbor in terms of the failure of American intelligence as well as the ferocity of the surprise attack. It was almost unthinkable that hijackers could have successfully boarded four planes at three different airports at the same time.
Speaking from Louisiana at 12.40pm, Mr Bush ordered the nation's armed services to "high-alert status" and vowed to "hunt down and punish those responsible".
His comments were muted, almost flat, as if he, like many Americans, had been left dumbfounded by the catastrophes and uncertain about what to do next.
Back in New York and Washington, thousands of workers shuffled back towards their homes in near silence. It had been just a few hours since they had travelled to work alongside those who had been killed on injured.
But more than simply the extent of the carnage seemed to affect them. The biggest shock was that this could happen in comfortable, secure America. Their country and their lives could surely never be the same again.