That the attacks came as a surprise was widely called an "intelligence failure." The term implies that the CIA and FBI have a foolproof way of detecting attacks and crimes before they happen. To be sure, some developments should be detected and, when they are not, can legitimately be characterized as failures. For example, the CIA failed to detect movements indicating that India and Pakistan were about to detonate nuclear test weapons in 1998. With satellite coverage, there was no excuse for not warning of such a development. But no one would suggest that when a bank has been robbed or the federal building in Oklahoma City blown up, the FBI "failed" to detect the plot.
Penetrating an organization like bin Laden's was extremely difficult. While twenty-year-old American John Philip Walker Lindh joined the Taliban and met bin Laden several times, he learned few secrets. For his inner circle, bin Laden was careful to recruit fanatics whom he or his people had known for years. The fact that even after the U.S. government offered rewards that began at $5 million and eventually zoomed to $25 million, no one turned him in demonstrates how loyal his organization was.
In the year before the attacks, George Tenet, director of Central Intelligence, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that bin Laden posed the "most serious and immediate threat" to the United States. But an assessment from the CIA director was hardly needed. Anyone who read the newspapers or watched television knew of al-Qaeda's previous attacks and threats.
Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the radical Islamic leader who was convicted of plotting to bomb the United Nations, the FBI's New York Field Office, and the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, urged followers to "break and destroy the morale of the enemies of Allah" by attacking their "high world buildingsand the buildings in which they gather their leaders." Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 plot on the World Trade Center, told FBI agents as they flew in a helicopter over Manhattan that the World Trade Center would not "still be standing if I had enough money." In 1995, a terrorist based in the Philippines threatened to fly a plane loaded with chemical weapons into the CIA at Langley and to blow up twelve U.S. airliners. All these plots were linked to bin Laden, and all were made public.
In retrospect, no one took the threats seriously enough. The Clinton administration's response to the bombings that bin Laden masterminded of the two American embassies in East Africa only demonstrated America's weakness and lack of resolve. In response to the attacks, the United States launched two strikes, one on training camps where bin Laden was supposedly hiding and one on a pharmaceutical plant where the CIA believed chemical weapons could be made for bin Laden.
Certainly American arrogance played a role. How could people with unpronounceable names living in caves threaten American might and technology? But al-Qaeda had a sophisticated appreciation of America's vulnerabilities. The FAA allowed knives up to four inches long to be taken on airplanes. Without any difficulty, the hijackers could pack knives and box cutters that they would use to threaten passengers and crew. Thanks to lax regulation and the airlines' shortsighted fixation on cost cutting, airline security had long been a joke.