- It's also the case that I think if you actually look back at the millennium period, it's questionable to me whether the argument that has been made that somehow shaking the trees is what broke up the millennium period is actually accurate -- and I was not there, clearly.
But I will tell you this. I will say this. That the millennium, of course, was a period of high threat by its very nature. We all knew that the millennium was a period of high threat.
And after September 11th, Dick Clarke sent us the after-action report that had been done after the millennium plot and their assessment was that Ressam had been caught by chance -- Ressam being the person who was entering the United States over the Canadian border with bomb-making materials in store.
I think it actually wasn't by chance, which was Washington's view of it. It was because a very alert customs agent named Diana Dean and her colleagues sniffed something about Ressam. They saw that something was wrong. They tried to apprehend him. He tried to run. They then apprehended him, found that there was bomb-making material and a map of Los Angeles.
Now, at that point, you have pretty clear indication that you've got a problem inside the United States.
I don't think it was shaking the trees that produced the breakthrough in the millennium plot. It was that you got a -- Dick Clarke would say a lucky break -- I would say you got an alert customs agent who got it right.
And the interesting thing is that I've checked with Customs and according to their records, they weren't actually on alert at that point.
So I just don't buy the argument that we weren't shaking the trees enough and that something was going to fall out that gave us somehow that little piece of information that would have led to connecting all of those dots.
Juan Cole has already discussed in depth how "the Millennium plot" arrests tended to undermine the Bush administration's pooh-poohing of Richard Clarke's damning critique of Bush's "war on terror":
- What Clarke's book reveals is that the way Ressam was shaken out at Port Angeles by customs agent Diana Dean was not an accident. Rather, Clinton had made Clarke a cabinet member. He was given the authority to call other key cabinet members and security officials to "battle stations," involving heightened alerts in their bureaucracies and daily meetings. Clarke did this with Clinton's approval in December of 1999 because of increased chatter and because the Jordanians caught a break when they cracked Raed al-Hijazi's cell in Amman.
I haven't seen the passages in Clarke's book yet detailing this matter, but Cole leaves the impression that Ressam was caught because Clarke put border officials on high alert -- though this was not in fact the case. In fact, just as Rice asserted today, Ressam was captured primarily through the work of a Customs agent who was simply doing her job as she might normally. (The Seattle Times had a riveting account of the arrest as part of its excellent series on the Ressam case.)
However, that's not the entire story, either.
I checked with Mike Milne, the PIO for Customs in Seattle -- which oversees the Port Angeles bureau where Ressam was caught -- and he confirmed that there was no "high alert" for his agents in December 1999.
"There wasn't such a thing back in those days as elevated alert levels or terrorist-watch kinds of issues within U.S. Customs at that time," Milne said. "What this was was a case of inspectors just doing their jobs as they normally would.
"I've sat through with Diana Dean on a number of occasions when she has done interviews with national, international and local media, and she would just tell you that she was doing her regular line of questioning, trying to determine if this person was somebody that could just be released, whether they required an additional secondary examination. In this case, what piqued her interest was the circuitous routing -- you know, he was going to Seattle via Victoria and Port Angeles. You know -- you can just drive down I-5 if you want to drive from Vancouver to Seattle."
After the Ressam capture, however, Milne said, "We in Customs Service went into an immediate change of how we did operations along the U.S.-Canada border."
So Rice is technically correct. But her "context" for the case omits the bigger picture -- which tends, in fact, to corroborate Clarke's version, and moreover paints Rice and her Team Bush cohorts in a decidedly incompetent light.
The bigger picture includes what happened next: Namely, FBI agents and the Clinton counterterror team, headed by Clarke -- realizing the enormity of what Ressam represented -- sprung quickly into action and soon uncovered most of the rest of his co-conspirators. Ressam, it must be remembered, was scheduled to bomb L.A. International Airport. However, there were at least three other millennium plots, all outside the U.S. but against mostly American targets. (As far as I know, the speculation that the Space Needle was targeted has been mostly discredited.) More to the point, investigators began uncovering a much broader assortment of Al Qaeda terrorist cells operating within the U.S.
This happened largely because of Clarke's "battle station" status for officials in Washington. The Seattle FBI agent investigating the case, Fred Humphries, was quickly brought under the wing of John O'Neill, Clarke's counterterrorism chief (and himself a victim of 9/11, having been forced out by the Bush administration). And O'Neill, as Clarke explained in a PBS interview last year, used Ressam to springboard into a broad swath of terrorist cells -- and because of that, the other components of the Millennium Plot were stymied:
- What happened in the millennium plot was that we found someone who had lived in Boston who was the leader of the planned attack at the millennium in Jordan. We found someone who lived in Canada who was planning a simultaneous attack in Los Angeles. When we started pulling on the strings, what we found was there were connections to people in Seattle, Boston, Brooklyn, Manhattan and other cities throughout the United States.
Every time we looked at one of these individuals who looked like an Al Qaeda person, they lead us to someone else who was an Al Qaeda person -- probably, somewhere else in the United States.
So I think a lot of the FBI leadership, for the first time, realized that O'Neill was right -- that there probably were Al Qaeda people in the United States. They realized that only after they looked at the results of the investigation of the millennium bombing plot. So by February 2000, I think senior people in the FBI were saying there probably is a network here in the United States, and we have to change the way the FBI goes about finding that network.
The work needed to make that change, as Clarke has made clear in his testimony, is a significant part of what he tried to bring to the attention of Bush administration officials shortly after being sworn into office in January 2001. It was the chief reason he asked for a Principals meeting then -- though Rice and the Bush team now contend he was supposedly focused solely on dealing with Al Qaeda abroad. As we all now know, that Principals meeting did not occur until Sept. 4.
Even more significant is the fact that -- just as the Aug. 6 Presidential Daily Briefing that is now the focus of the post-testimony controversy apparently suggests, according to 9/11 commissioners Bob Kerrey and Tim Roemer -- the same warning signs that had alerted officials to the Millennium Plot -- were replicating themselves.
As the Center for American Progress details in its rebuttal to Rice's testimony:
- Page 204 of the Joint Congressional Inquiry into 9/11 noted that "In May 2001, the intelligence community obtained a report that Bin Laden supporters were planning to infiltrate the United States" to "carry out a terrorist operation using high explosives." The report "was included in an intelligence report for senior government officials in August ." In the same month, the Pentagon "acquired and shared with other elements of the Intelligence Community information suggesting that seven persons associated with Bin Laden had departed various locations for Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States." [Sources: Joint Congressional Report, 12/02]
That wasn't all. Just as one of the key conspirators -- namely, Ahmed Ressam -- had been caught in 1999, leading Clarke, O'Neill and the counterterrorism team to break up the rest of the Millennium plot, so had one of the 9/11 conspirators evidently already been captured on Aug. 15: Zacarias Moussaoui.
Did Bush's counterterrorism team spring into action and catch the rest of his co-conspirators? Well, no. But then, we all knew the answer to that.
As the conclusion of the Seattle Times series details:
- This case involved a suspect in custody in Minnesota: Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national of Moroccan descent. Moussaoui was a student pilot who had frightened flight-school trainers in Minneapolis by insisting on learning to steer a jumbo jet while showing no interest in learning to take off or land.
FBI agents in Minneapolis had questioned Moussaoui on Aug. 15 and asked to read files on his laptop computer. He refused to let them.
The agents needed probable cause to persuade a judge to issue a search warrant to seize the laptop. They contacted Ghimenti in Paris, asking him to find out what the French intelligence service might have on Moussaoui.
From the French, Ghimenti obtained a substantial dossier: The French had been tracking Moussaoui since 1995. He had links to al-Qaida. He had journeyed to Afghanistan several times and had trained at a terrorism camp.
Ghimenti passed the information along to Coleen Rowley, chief division counsel in the Minneapolis FBI office, and it went to the counterterrorism section at headquarters.
Rowley and other Minneapolis agents were convinced Moussaoui was a terrorist threat. So was the veteran Ghimenti. But for reasons still unclear, the counterterrorism section in Washington would not seek the warrant.
As Joe Conason put it in today's Salon:
- The public testimony of Condoleezza Rice before the 9/11 commission had a strategy and a structure, to use terms that she favors. The obvious strategy was to swathe every answer to a challenging question from the commissioners in "context" that did more to obfuscate than clarify.
They keep saying, you know, that Sept. 11 was "the day that changed everything." I'm not so sure about that.
But there is one thing I know changed that day: The Bush administration's grotesque incompetence, and its devastating consequences, were laid bare for all the world to see. It's just taken this long for the smoke to clear -- and not even Condi Rice's fresh layer of fog can hide it any longer.