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CNN Saturday Morning News

Reporter's Notebook

Aired May 18, 2002 - 09:34   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: So did the White House miss important clues in the months before September 11? And are changes necessary in the way the administration handles intelligence?

Joining us now to handle all this and your e-mails and calls, Kelly McCann, CNN security analyst, Kelly Wallace, CNN White House correspondent, Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon correspondent, and in Kabul, Mike Boettcher, CNN correspondent extraordinaire, who understands matters of national security all too well.

Good to have you all with us, thank you very much.


O'BRIEN: All right. Let's begin with some e-mail, shall we? This one comes to us from Sherry in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "I don't know what is worse, that the administration knew what the probable attack was going to be and did nothing, or they couldn't put one, two, and three together."

Kelly Wallace, take it.

WALLACE: Well, very important to note a couple of things there, Miles, to tell this view, that, number one, this administration only knew of a possibility, a possibility that bin Laden's al Qaeda network could consider hijacking an American airplane. Again, it was based on very general information, nothing specific, no specifics about time, place, or really method of attack.

So that's number one. The bigger question that a lot of lawmakers are raising is, how the administration in terms of the intelligence community perhaps didn't connect some of the dots. We know about a memo than FBI agent in Phoenix put out in July warning that Middle Eastern students could be taking flight classes in the United States and could be linked to Osama bin Laden. We know, of course, there was an arrest in August of Zacarias Moussaoui, he was under suspicion taking flight classes in the United States.

So a bigger concern about how, maybe, the intelligence community didn't put together some of these dots, but again, the administration very much saying it had no specific warning about what happened in September 11, Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right, let's go to the phone lines. Bob is on the line from Pennsylvania. Good morning, sir.

CALLER: Good morning. Yes, well, I'm curious to know exactly how they could have prevented these terrorists from getting into our country, number one, and how they could have prevented them from getting on the plane. When you say connect the dots, you know, all of this seems very, very vague to me. But there is nothing specific being said about how this could have been prevented from getting -- these people getting into our country...

O'BRIEN: Great, great question. Kelly McCann, why don't you start with that one?

KELLY MCCANN, CNN SECURITY ANALYST: Sure. That is a great question, because it addresses specifically where the rubber meets the road, which is always, you know, the point of impact. Obviously, that would have to be preemption, and we talked about that just a little while ago, Miles. And in fact, you can only find actionable material that is exact. And as Kelly Wallace just said, there was general threats, similar to what in 1999 President Clinton said was, it wasn't specific.

So no one is going to take an active role based on a potential. They're going to take an active role when things start to move in motion. And when that means continued surveillance, that means that you back a step further must have had intelligence that directed you on who to watch, et cetera.

Then you can go to the airport itself, of course, and we've stepped that security up. What it means is basically being OK with doing the politically incorrect thing and saying, I'm sorry, you evidence, you demonstrate these characteristics that are analogous to what we think might be an attack. You're not flying today, I'm sorry, we're going to interrupt your itinerary.

Well, you know, that's catastrophic in a lot of cases right now, because the American don't -- wouldn't stand for that. But in fact El Al does that all the time. If they don't put the pieces together, you're into flying.

O'BRIEN: All right. Sounds easier -- it's certainly easier said than done, isn't it, Kelly McCann?

MCCANN: Absolutely is.

O'BRIEN: Here's a pair of questions, and I want to give -- just give you a sense of how we're hearing from people who feel very strongly on both sides of this. Cheryl Baker in Ladoga, Indiana, has this, "Anyone who keeps up on world events knew a very long time ago, way before President Bush came into office, that terror was a threat. We have been threatened while other countries were feeling it. Now it hits us in a very big way, and we want to blame Bush. Hogwash," says Cheryl.

But then Jay Kramer has this. "President Bush claims that he knew nothing about terrorist activity prior to 9/11. Does it not seem coincidental that he was on a one-month-long vacation? I think that he knew something big was going to happen and was in hiding."

Kelly Wallace, you want to take that one?


O'BRIEN: I think Jay believes in the Grassy Knoll theory as well, but that's...

WALLACE: I, I -- yes, some conspiracy theorists out there. You know, what we do know is that the administration saying it was definitely concerned, that there was a lot of, quote, "chatter" out there, a lot of concern that something big was up. Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, coming out here fielding questions the other night, saying there was a lot of concern that something was up last summer. Most of the concern, though, focusing on threats overseas.

Now, the president, the viewer is right, was definitely at his Crawford, Texas, ranch in August. He had requested, really, to be briefed, get an up-to-date briefing on the threat posed by al Qaeda, in particular the threat posed in the United States, and it was during that briefing on August 6 when he was given this one-and-a-half-page memo, and in that memo did include the possibility, again, no general -- or general information, nothing specific, about the possibility of a hijacking.

You know, Miles, the administration has been saying the president was so concerned about al Qaeda that early last year he had his aides put together an action plan on ways to dismantle the al Qaeda network, that that plan was complete, that that report was actually sitting on Condoleezza Rice's desk, the president's national security adviser, on September 10 ready to go to the president. But of course then the attacks happened on September 11, Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right, let's throw in another e-mail here. "As I recall, it seems we were in the same position after Pearl Harbor, all these hints of what was to come were not put together until after the fact. I believe that President Bush would surely have done anything, as he says, to have kept this event from happening. I also believe that more cooperation between agencies such as the FBI and the CIA and sharing information would help prevent such a thing from happening in the future."

That's from Sally Magee in Hollywood, Florida.

Barbara Starr, do you get the sense that these intelligence agencies are not -- well, are they neither central nor intelligent?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, you know, the new expression in Washington this week is, Could they connect the dots? And this is something that the intelligence community's been struggling with for years. And I think it's worth talking about. What does it really mean to be able to connect the dots? Why is everybody using this expression?

The problem for the intelligence community really came to a head on September 11. The first problem in connecting the dots is how they collect information. They've known for a long time that they need to get better sources on the ground in the parts of the world where they feel the threats are. That's one problem, that's one dot.

The second dot is how do they analyze it? They have mountains and mountains and mountains of information and data that comes in. The intelligence community can only look at a small fraction of it. They're working on new methods to try and better sort and analyze information so they can look for patterns of activity when these kinds of threats emerge. Nobody's going to hand it to them on a platter. They have to find the patterns of activity. They have to look for clues.

And then the question that really came to a head on September 11 is the dissemination of information. That's the third dot that they've had trouble connecting. There's been a lot of controversy over the years, the CIA, the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the FAA, the military -- why don't they share all of the information they have so everybody can see the finished, analyzed information, everybody can operate off the same page?

Our sources tell us there's been a lot of improvement since September 11. But the question might be, why didn't it happen before September 11?

O'BRIEN: There might be some genetic predisposition toward not sharing secrets, I guess.

Let's go to Lisa Budden's e-mail. "Why does it take 3,000-plus people dying for this information to come out? Why don't they, or didn't they take al the threats this serious? I know there are way too many of these threats, but how do we know when the next September 11 is going to happen?"

Mike Boettcher.

MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you don't know. And last summer, Miles, way before 9/11, we were in the Middle East working on a documentary called "One Day Soon" for "CNN PRESENTS" which was about the likelihood of a mass casualty terrorism event before the end of the year. And that was based on the testimony of Admiral Wilson, who heads the Defense Intelligence Agency, who said in December of 1999, he said, "Within two years, there will be a mass casualty terrorism event on U.S. soil."

Now, in the Middle East last summer, there was buzz everywhere about something going on, but no one knew any specifics. Saudis, who had come out of the camp here in Afghanistan, where I am now, going back home, were talking about something big going to happen. There was a lot of this buzz, but no one knew exactly what it was.

It seems easy to connect the dots, but it really isn't, and you have to be a seer, almost, in order to really predict exactly how this attack is going to come down. But in terms of al Qaeda, as best we can determine in our investigation, this was a very closely held operation -- Miles. O'BRIEN: Well, but just to follow up, Mike, with you on that, it seems as if one thing is true here, and correct me if I'm wrong, it's like trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle, except the puzzle pieces are in various separate locations in disparate places, not just on one table with all the puzzle pieces in one place. Why is that?

BOETTCHER: Well, these -- Well, for the -- in this plot, the puzzle pieces are in Spain, they're in Malaysia, they're here in Afghanistan, they're in Saudi Arabia. They were spread all over. And trying to connect all of these together is very difficult.

I think one of the things they will try harder to do is to really look at coalescing these various intelligence items that might not seem connected to a singular al Qaeda threat, they may seem connected to something else, like intelligence that was gathered out of Malaysia.

There was not much thought to the fact that, well, maybe that is connected to this coming attack on 9/11. I mean, it was hard to imagine that. So I think now you're going to see a much more stand- back position, if you will, in terms of looking at that. There will be more people doing that.

But I -- you know, I've got to say from my gut that they were out there working hard because we were bumping into people this summer, and they weren't sitting around waiting for something to happen, they were out there looking for a way to stop something, and they didn't know exactly what it was, Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right. We're going to...

WALLACE: You know...

O'BRIEN: ... take a brief pause, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- Is that Barbara or Kelly?

WALLACE: It was Kelly, but I'll wait...

O'BRIEN: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- put it on hold...

WALLACE: ... and we'll get...

O'BRIEN: ... for just a second. We got to do a few commercials. You get -- you're first up after the commercial.


O'BRIEN: Stay with us for more of our Reporter's Notebook, OK?



JAY LENO, HOST: How's this for irony? Did you ever think two years ago Bush would be in trouble for something he knew? I guess you know, the White House admitted that President Bush was warned last summer about possible terrorist hijackings. Now the Democrats are criticizing him for not seeing the 9/11 attacks coming.

Is that fair? You think Bush knew, huh? Come on, he was attacked by a pretzel. He didn't see that coming. You know, I mean...


O'BRIEN: All right, with that, we'll shift into the political aspects of this. And I have an e-mail which I want to send over to Kelly. Kelly has another point to make as well, so we got a lot for her right now.

Bill Cribbs of Port Netches, Texas, has this. "Since the most informative reports and briefings were made during the Clinton administration, why is no one in the main press approaching that administration for their lack of response?" -- Kelly.

WALLACE: Well, you know, that question is being raised for the Clinton administration because of what we were reporting yesterday, this report coming out in September 1999 commissioned by an agency during the Clinton administration. It was more of a psychology of terrorism report, but it did come out with some possible predictions that al Qaeda operatives could ram planes packed with explosives into building such as the Pentagon, the CIA, or the White House.

I understand the former president has responded to that, saying, Look, this report was not based on any intelligence information. This White House is saying the same thing, that it was speculative and that no one raised alarm bells about it back in 1999.

But you do know, Miles, that some members of Congress have certainly pointed fingers at the Clinton administration saying that there were warning signs back then questioning what the former president did or did not do before he left office, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Let's go back to the phone lines. Gene is in New Jersey. Good morning, Gene.

CALLER: Good morning. If a public warning would have been issued prior to 9/11, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) or issued today at the drop of a hat, would that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) alerted the public enough to be aware of hijacks possibly taking place, and stop the terrorists from doing what they did?

O'BRIEN: Well, that's a big question. Does anybody want to take that one?

MCCANN: I could (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Kelly McCann, let's try it. That's a hard one to answer. Talking about a lot of hypotheticals here, but it is the question which is right at the core of this whole discussion.

MCCANN: It goes to that story that you just ran a couple of minutes ago about the fellows that videotaped, you know, a reservoir, and saw them. Yes, a general warning wouldn't necessarily make people identify a specific attempt at taking a plane.

But what it would do and what it should do is because there are so many citizens here, we really are the eyes and ears of the government. And by people being individually alert to suspicious behavior or things that could be construed as patterns of behavior consistent with a pending attack or being considered for target value, it absolutely could contribute directly, as this guy did in Connecticut, to, you know, investigating and finding out whether something is planned.

O'BRIEN: All right, let's get Barbara Starr in on this discussion, we have an e-mail for her. "If the CIA, FBI, and other agencies had been doing their jobs and comparing their notes, don't you think that it would have looked out of the ordinary that in addition to the possible hijackings, that certain Arab persons were also training on how to control aircraft once they're airborne, didn't care to learn how to land or take off the aircraft? This should have been noticed, and the Bush administration should have picked up on this."

That from Rich Auten.

Once again, that question of, Does it all seem so obvious on this date only?

STARR: Well, you know, it always does seem so obvious after the fact, clearly, to everybody. It gets back to the issue, you know, of intelligence sharing.

But I want to go back one step. You know, the Clinton administration, there's no question that the government had been chasing bin Laden and the al Qaeda for years. These are a very crafty group of people. They're spread all over the world. And the real fundamental question underlying all of this is, can you get what is called actionable intelligence? Can you find out what they're doing two steps ahead of them so you can be there and get them before they undertake one of these terrorist actions?

That was the problem for the Clinton administration, it's the problem for the Bush administration. Osama bin Laden has slipped the net several times in recent years, and they keep chasing him, but they're always one or two steps behind him. A lot of people think there could be another terrorist attack, but they don't know where to look right now.

Lot of concern, no specifics.

O'BRIEN: All right. And we'll shift gears slightly on that vein for Mike Boettcher to close things out here. This comes from Derrick. And it's on the general subject of the war against terrorism. "It seems to me that Iraq is a substantial and well-organized threat. Are there any imminent plans to take action against them, and if not, why?"

Mike, what are you hearing?

BOETTCHER: Well, that might be better addressed to Barbara Starr. But I will say this, that there is, again, this buzz out there that -- and there are strong proponents inside the Pentagon to take that action and inside the administration, others who oppose it.

One difficult thing is, we've got this war going on here, albeit it's a scaled-down version now, but it could pick up at any time, and we're expecting that to happen. We already have an operation going here.

And it's hard, with the current strength of the military, to fight two-front wars. So I think they really want to do as much as they can here in terms of attacking the holdout Taliban and al Qaeda before they would move on to Iraq. And that could take a few months.

O'BRIEN: Anybody else hearing any dribs and drabs about Iraq you want to add in? Barbara?

STARR: I think -- Miles, let me take that one on.

O'BRIEN: Go ahead, Barbara.

STARR: I can tell you that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was recently briefed by his top war planners on the Iraq war plan. They've dusted it off, they've revised it. Don Rumsfeld took a look at it and said he didn't like it. He thought it wasn't innovative enough. He sent it back to them, and they're reworking it. No decision from the president, we're told, but the war planners are dusting it off.

WALLACE: And of course, Miles, the Middle East figures in prominently there, the violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians, trying to contain that in order to have Arab support, support from those moderate Arab leaders for any possible military action in Iraq.

O'BRIEN: All right. Quickly, Kelly, final word.

MCCANN: I think that there's a forward-leaning mentality, Miles, and everyone hit the nail on the head. This is pre-work, and basically the ops plans are getting dusted off, and we're doing a better job domestically.

But people got to remember, you only have one life, you should live this one as well as you can. And if you spend it worrying somewhere, you're missing out.

O'BRIEN: All right. That's a good way to end it. Kelly Wallace, Kelly McCann, Barbara Starr, Mike Boettcher, excellent work on Reporter's Notebook. Thank you very much for your e-mails and phone calls this morning, we're sorry we couldn't -- we could have done it for an hour. We should have.