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002 / Powell Says U.S. Had Signs, but Not Clear Ones, of a Plot/New York Times/2001/October 03

Powell Says U.S. Had Signs, but Not Clear Ones, of a Plot/New York Times/2001/October 03


Wednesday October 03 02:57 PM EDT -
Powell Says U.S. Had Signs, but Not Clear Ones, of a Plot
Despite extensive efforts, intelligence agencies failed to pick up enough information to stop the Sept. 11 attacks, the secretary of state said.

WASHINGTON, Oct. 2 Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said today that the Bush administration had received a "lot of signs" that terrorists were planning attacks against the United States but extensive efforts by intelligence agencies failed to pick up enough information to stop the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. Early this summer "there were a lot of signs that there was something going on," Secretary Powell said. "But we never got the fidelity and the information that we would have liked to, some warning of what did actually happen."

In looking back today in an interview in his State Department suite, Secretary Powell expressed frustration that, despite a summer of warnings of possible terrorist actions against American civilian and military sites around the world, the information was not sufficient to identify the specific targets that were struck last month. "The intelligence agencies were trying," he said. "We were watchful throughout all of our embassy systems."

Mr. Powell praised George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, a holdover from the Clinton administration. The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is urging far-reaching changes in intelligence operations and an independent investigation into why the government did not foresee or prevent the Sept. 11 attacks. While he was generally upbeat in his accounting of the progress so far in the global campaign against terror, he made it clear that the administration was still at the early stages of winning full cooperation from allied and other nations.

For example, despite pledges of cooperation, Saudi Arabia has not yet said publicly that the United States would be able to use air bases there for offensive operations against targets in Afghanistan. Secretary Powell insisted that the administration is demonstrating to allies and moderate Arab governments that the case against Osama bin Laden and his network is convincing. He asserted that "all paths" lead to Mr. bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network, although he cautioned not to see it in terms of a case "that's going to trial in a court."

Instead, administration officials have been briefing allies on what he called "pretty good information" establishing the link between the airplane hijackers and Mr. bin Laden. "It's a campaign in many parts and pieces all working to go after a common enemy," Secretary Powell said. "That enemy's name is terrorism. And in its most ambitious manifestation it goes by the name Al Qaeda and the head of that awful holding company is bin Laden and he is responsible for tragedy against humanity, crime against the American people, crime against the civilized world and he must be held accountable."

Secretary Powell described in general terms the cable that has been sent to American embassies around the world outlining the case against Mr. bin Laden. He said it describes the history of the terrorist network, and recites existing indictments filed against Mr. bin Laden for his alleged involvement in the 1998 bombings of two American Embassies in East Africa. It also describes evidence of Mr. bin Laden's responsibility "for past crimes against the U.S. and against civilization," presumably including the attack last year on the American destroyer Cole in Yemen.

While the administration has not made any documents public, as General Powell suggested that it might 10 days ago, he said today that "over time enough information would surface" to convince the American people. "The case will never be able to be described as circumstantial," he said. "It's not circumstantial now." Secretary Powell also touched, gingerly, on the political future of Afghanistan. Despite a policy statement from the Bush administration last week stating that the Taliban does not represent the Afghan people, General Powell stopped well short of saying that the overthrow of the hard-line Islamic government is an explicit goal.

"Our goal in the first instance as the president has laid out is to go after Al Qaeda and its leader bin Laden and its camps in Afghanistan," he said. "And the Taliban regime will pay a price." Addressing the possibilty that the Taliban might not survive the coming confrontation, Secretary Powell said he hoped for the emergence of a new government that would be "representative" of the many ethnic groups that make up the Afghan people. "Hopefully, the Afghan people can find themselves under the leadership of a government that is representative of all the Afghan people and is a less repressive government than the kind that is there now." He held out the possibility of substantial economic assistance once the Taliban is out of the way.

Already the Bush administration has made available $170 million in relief aid, and officials suggested this weekend that another $100 million would be on the way by the end of the year. Secretary Powell said that figure would rise, and the United States would try to bring "some level of stability in their society." "We would see what we could do to put the country on a more secure footing," he said. "You're not doing your job if you are not thinking of future opportunities and possibilities."

Asked how he would define victory in the long campaign ahead, Secretary Powell gave a broad and ambitious definition one that centered more on how Americans felt than any specific military victory. "I see the success of this campaign being measured in the restoration of a degree of security in society, where people are not as frightened as they are now," he said.

He added that another measure of success would come "when there is less terrorism, far less, preferably zero terrorism with a global reach of the world." President Bush has often said many victories would arise from covert operations, never seen by the American people. But Secretary Powell said: "Even covert activities eventually produce visible results." Asked about his newly disclosed plans to declare that the administration supports the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a settlement in the Middle East, Secretary Powell said he had not decided when or where to outline his views.

After staying aloof from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for most of the year, the administration was about to dive in when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. Those attacks delayed the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where Mr. Bush had been planning to meet the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat, and Mr. Powell had been planning to deliver a speech outlining the administration's ideas for resolving the conflict. Today, Secretary Powell suggested that when that initiative resumed would depend on events in Afghanistan.

The intelligence warnings about terrorist attacks that Secretary Powell discussed today were received during the spring and summer, particularly before the Fourth of July and the summit meeting of industrialized nations in Genoa, Italy, that month. Vice President Dick Cheney referred to those reports in an hourlong interview on "Meet the Press" on Sept. 16 when he said that the government had information that a "big operation" was planned. But, like Secretary Powell today, Mr. Cheney said there was "no specific threat involving really a domestic operation."

Secretary Powell suggested that the State Department and the intelligence agencies had been on high alert against terrorism, and had been trying, though its embassies abroad, to home in on Mr. bin Laden's plans. But twice he said that the American intelligence gathering effort never came up with enough "fidelity" a word that seemed to suggest that they either misunderstood the signals they were receiving, or simply did not have enough specific data.

"There were a number of reports that we were worried about but that never crystallized," he said. "There were a lot of signs that there was something going on nobody could ever get the fidelity in those reports." In June and early July, United States intelligence officials warned that Mr. bin Laden and Al Qaeda appeared to be planning terrorist attacks against American interests. Those warnings prompted public alerts by the administration of possible terrorist attacks timed for the Fourth of July holidays.

When no attacks occurred around July 4, American intelligence officials began to assume that the immediate threat had passed. In retrospect, some American officials say that their focus on that holiday may have been a misreading of the information they had received. All through June and July, the State Department released reports warning that terrorist attacks were imminent in locations from the Mideast to East Asia. In July, for example, the department warned about possible attacks against installations in Japan and South Korea, as well as against American interests in the Arabian Peninsula.

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