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American Morning

Who Knew What in Intelligence Community Before September 11th Attacks?

Aired May 28, 2002 - 07:13   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: We are going to turn now to the question of who knew what in the intelligence community before the September 11 attacks. Over the past two weeks, there have been a number of reports that the FBI missed signals that may have hinted at the terror attacks.

In the current issue of "The New Yorker" magazine, journalist Seymour Hersh writes, "A useful question concerns the degree to which al Qaeda owed its success to the weakness of the FBI and the agency's chronic inability to synthesize intelligence reports, draw conclusions and work with other agencies."

Seymour Hersh joins us now from Washington -- welcome back -- good to see you again, Seymour.


ZAHN: Let's talk about what the FBI has consistently argued that al Qaeda was a sophisticated and organized network. But in your piece, you point out that many of these hijackers behaved in a very amateurish manner to the point at which even normal standersby (ph) on an airplane suspected something. Please...

HERSH: Yes, I was talking...

ZAHN: Yes, carry through with that thought.

HERSH: I was talking about the actor, James Woods, who actually was on a flight in August about six weeks before September 11 and saw four people that were obviously -- as he jokingly said, they were either FBI agents or terrorists, four Arab-American men, young, well- dressed, went on first class, had no baggage, no luggage, no carry- ons, no books, no magazines, just sat there.

And he expressed his worries to the -- he travels a lot. He is not generally very nervous. He expressed his worries to the flight attendant, who was worried. They called in the -- not the captain, but the first officer, who sealed the door, and they all said that these guys posed, you know, a chronic -- sort of a chronic threat there.

And at least the stewardess or the flight attendant wrote a letter to the FAA about it, which of course as we now know is sort of useless, since nobody paid attention anyway before 9/11 to anything.

And they turned out to be, as he subsequently learned from talking to FBI agents and identifying various terrorists, two of the terrorists. And as I went further into this in talking to the FBI -- and by the way, a lot of guys in the FBI want to do their job as well as anybody else. This is sort of a beat up the FBI day unfortunately. They did make mistakes, but I think, you know, they are trying to do better. Let's hope they can.

In any case, what I learned was that the FBI did isolate about a dozen flights in which the terrorists working collectively, not individually -- we always assumed and the intelligence community, the CIA too, has told us ever since 9/11, that these guys were great. They were sleepers living here five years, did everything perfectly. We haven't -- as you know, we haven't indicted anybody specifically in connection with the 9/11, except Moussaoui, who wasn't -- you know, he was in jail at the time -- Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th man.

The FBI has been able to justify or to indict nobody. They haven't found any clue with these guys. And so they have told us consistently that these were -- their failure was because of how good they were.

But it turns out that various flight members, groups from flight 1, flight 2, flight 3 and flight 4, the four planes that went down, were flying together in sort of a basic violation of what we call operational security. In other words, if you capture one, you then have the whole operation. They were flying together at a very almost clumsy, amateurish ways for weeks before 9/11, which means not only as I say the operational security wasn't that good, but they hadn't figured out what they were doing, which plane they were going to hit until probably sometime in August, which doesn't make this the most well-planned -- you know, it turns out maybe the Marx brothers could have gotten together and hijacked a plane before 9/11. We just weren't ready.

So the fault was more in a funny way, there's a positive side to that, because it means with improved security, if we could get our act together, we can make the country a lot more safe.

ZAHN: That's the big if, I guess, at this hour.

Seymour, I wanted to put up another quote from your article on the screen right now for you to further analyze for us. You wrote: "FBI officials admitted that there are still questions about the reliability of some of the information that was gathered in the days immediately after September 11. They maintain that they have correctly established the true identity of all 19 hijackers by consulting records and going back to their countries of origin. There are, however, lingering questions about at least eight of them."

Are you saying that officials still aren't sure who these hijackers were?

HERSH: Well, they say they are. The problem is that, as I also write, you know, three-quarters of a million identities, you know, social security cards, et cetera, are stolen every year. This is no question that some of these hijackers were -- their identity was based on stolen documents, stolen social security cards, et cetera. And from the very beginning, people in the intelligence community, within the CIA I should say, have said to me that some of the first clues they got, you know, the first signs they had was the terrorists used their own credit cards. And they didn't seem to change identity in the last few months as they roamed around America.

Well, people in the community immediately thought, the CIA, that these were not good identities. And I think the answer is, we really don't know. The FBI says it's reasonably sure of the true identities, but as I am sure as everybody in the audience who pays attention to this knows, the Saudis, Saudi Arabia has not been very forthcoming. Fifteen of the hijackers grew up there.

And what we find is somebody we have identified firmly as a hijacker has a very common name in the Arab world. A Saudi newspaper will quote this happened for months afterwards -- we are not interested in it any more, but for a long time, the papers reported all of this. Some mother would announce in Saudi Arabia that her son, who we have described as being on the flight, was, you know, picking, you know, olives in the backyard that day, was at home and happy.

So there are a lot of serious questions about the identity, as I say, of not all of them, but many of them had false identities of just who they are. And why we are so sure we have any names is beyond me, but we have to cling to something. The problem is that we were so unprepared for what happened, when we should have been, you know, as I think I wrote. They were there to be seen, but we had no way of seeing them. And so we really have to work overtime, it seems to me, to get everybody to cooperate much better.

And by the way, I'd like to defend the new FBI director, Mr. Mueller. Everything I hear -- and I don't know the man -- but everything I hear from people inside is that he is really trying to change things, and it's a very hard thing to change. It's like moving a ship. You've got to take it very slowly. The FBI has become a very insular, arrogant organization, and it is changing, and it can only get better.

ZAHN: Yes, well, there are some pretty significant reforms they are talking about making there, and we'd love to have you come back and help us better understand the impact of all of that. Seymour Hersh, again, good to see you. And folks who want t read more about what you have had to say this morning can pick up a copy of "The New Yorker" and read your article, "Mixed Messages" -- thanks again.

HERSH: Thank you.