Credible Warnings or False Alarms? What the US Knew on September 10, 2001
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Well before the fateful morning of September 11, 2001, the threat posed to Americans and the United States by Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda (The Base) network of terrorists was well documented and closely monitored. Two US agencies--the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)--each maintained units devoted to bin Laden. In 1998 and 2000, al Qaeda attacks on US targets had precipitated intensive investigations which yielded a wealth of knowledge about the terrorist operation. Those attacks also promoted increased cooperation between the FBI and CIA, which regularly exchanged personnel and information. Moreover, throughout the summer of 2001, there had been a steady drumbeat of warnings about terrorist attacks, which the US government treated with utmost seriousness. American travelers abroad, US embassies, businesses and military installations were all in a heightened state of alert. The Federal Aviation Authority issued general warnings to airlines. An FBI office reported on suspicious Middle Eastern men taking flying lessons in Phoenix; an aviation student in Minnesota was arrested. The CIA notified the FBI that two suspected al Qaeda members were in the US. This case brings together accounts of what US law enforcement and intelligence agencies knew about al Qaeda before September 11, 2001 and raises the question of why that knowledge--tips, satellite pictures, intercepted communications, defector reports, courtroom testimony--did not thwart the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. It frames, in particular, the challenges of synthesizing intelligence--the difficulties involved in assembling seemingly random incidents into a coherent picture and distinguishing between credible warnings and probable false alarms.
It can be used as a vehicle for discussion about intelligence-gathering per se, as well as government inter-agency and inter-departmental coordination.
- Case Author:
- Kirsten Lundberg
- Faculty Lead:
- Ernest May
- Pages (incl. exhibits):
- United States