issued urgent warning to CIA of large-scale terror
By David Wastell
in Washington and Philip Jacobson in
ISRAELI intelligence officials say that
they warned their counterparts in the United States last
month that large-scale terrorist attacks on highly
visible targets on the American mainland were
on the World Trade Centre's twin towers and the
Pentagon were humiliating blows to the intelligence
failed to foresee them, and to the defence forces of
the most powerful nation in the world, which failed to
The Telegraph has learnt that two senior
experts with Mossad, the Israeli military intelligence
service, were sent to Washington in August to alert the
CIA and FBI to the existence of a cell of as many of 200
terrorists said to be preparing a big operation.
"They had no specific information about
what was being planned but linked the plot to Osama bin
Laden and told the Americans that there were strong
grounds for suspecting Iraqi involvement," said a senior
Israeli security official.
The CIA has said that it had no hard
information that would have led to the prevention of the
hijacking, but the FBI said it believed that cells
operating within America and totalling at least 50
terrorists were behind last week's devastating hijacks;
the names of new suspects are being added to the list
America's intelligence agencies are being
widely blamed for their failure to predict the attacks,
or anything like them, and for not discovering any of
the terrorist cells before the hijackings on Tuesday.
Some of those who took part had lived in the US for
months, or even years.
Evidence that a clear Israeli warning was
delivered to American authorities, but ignored, would be
a further blow to the reputation of the CIA, which is
under fire for its failure last week.
An administration official in Washington
said: "If this is true then the refusal to take it
seriously will mean heads will roll. It is quite
credible that the CIA might not heed a Mossad warning:
it has a history of being overcautious about Israeli
For years, staff at the Pentagon joked
that they worked at "Ground Zero", the spot at which an
incoming nuclear missile aimed at America's defences
would explode. There is even a snack bar of that name in
the central courtyard of the five-sided building,
America's most obvious military bullseye.
This weekend, five days after that target
was struck with devastating effect by a hijacked plane,
the joking has stopped.
It is far from certain that any military
commander would have had the courage to recommend
shooting down a passenger airliner, even in the
unprecedented circumstances of last Tuesday.
For three of the four airliners hijacked
last week, however, the question did not even arise. Two
pairs of combat fighters were scrambled into action but
did not get near enough to shoot any of them down.
Norad, the command headquarters in
Colorado responsible for defending all of North America
from air attack, was notified of the first hijack at
8.38am and six minutes later two F-15 fighter jets were
ordered into the air from Otis airforce base on Cape
Before they could take off, however, the
first hijacked airliner crashed into the World Trade
Centre's north tower at 8.46am. Six minutes later the
two military jets were airborne, but when the second
hijacked airliner hit the south tower shortly after 9am
they were still 70 miles from Manhattan.
The only successful action against the
hijackers was taken by passengers of the fourth
heroic decision to fight back led to its crashing
into the fields of Pennsylvania.
The reason lies in the strict distinction
America draws between civil and military power, combined
with the fact that until last week nobody had confronted
the possibility that a terrorist hijacker might turn
Although Norad has its own radar system
to track aircraft over the US, its prime task is to
watch for hostile aircraft approaching America from
outside. "We assume anything originating in US airspace
is friendly," said a spokesman.
For the same reason, the 20 or so
American fighter planes on permanent full alert in case
of a suspect intruder, were deployed at half a dozen
bases in the likeliest flightpaths of an attack from the
former Soviet Union, several hundred miles from New York
or Washington DC.
All aircraft flying over American
airspace are monitored and controlled by a network of 20
regional Federal Aviation Authority air traffic control
centres, backed up by individual airport control towers.
Military aircraft under Norad control can intervene with
domestic traffic only if called on for help by their
That is what happened on Tuesday, but in
no case was there apparently enough time after the FAA's
warning for fighter planes to reach the hijacked
More puzzling, there were 45 minutes
between air traffic controllers losing contact with the
third airliner, which took off from Dulles airport just
outside Washington, and its crash on to the Pentagon.
At that point, however, the aircraft was
still flying on its intended course westwards. It may
not have been until later, possibly after a passenger's
mobile phone call to the Justice Department, that the
civil authorities finally twigged what was
It was not the military but civilian air
traffic controllers at Washington's Reagan National
Airport - tipped off by their colleagues at Dulles - who
alerted the White House to the fact that an unauthorised
jet was flying at full throttle towards it.
As shaken White House staff began a
frantic evacuation, the aircraft banked, performed a 270
degree turn and sailed past lines of aghast drivers on
expressways to crash explosively into the west side of
If the airliner had approached much
nearer to the White House it might have been shot down
by the Secret Service, who are believed to have a
battery of ground-to-air Stinger missiles ready to
defend the president's home.
The Pentagon is not similarly defended.
"We are an open society," said a military official. "We
don't have soldiers positioned on the White House lawn
and we don't have the Pentagon ringed with bunkers and
It emerged last night that two F-16
fighters took off from Langley airforce base in Virginia
just two minutes before the American Airlines Boeing 767
crashed into the Pentagon, again too late to have a
chance of intercepting.
Only the fourth hijacked airliner, which
was less than 30 minutes from Washington when it
crashed, might have been successfully intercepted: air
traffic controllers at a regional centre in Nashua, New
Hampshire, told a Boston newspaper that at least one
F-16 fighter was in hot pursuit, and defence officials
confirmed that the fighters already launched from
Langley were on their way to intercept the flight when
passengers apparently took matters into their own
Deep inside the Pentagon, in the hardened
bunkers of the National Military Joint Intelligence
Centre, senior officials were said to be "stunned" by
the terrorists' achievement.
Within minutes of the attack American
forces around the world were put on one of their highest
states of alert - Defcon 3, just two notches short of
all-out war - and F-16s from Andrews Air Force Base were
in the air over Washington DC.
A flotilla of warships was deployed along
the east coast from bases in Virginia and Florida, with
two aircraft-carriers to help protect the airspace
around New York and Washington DC. Off the west coast, a
further 10 ships put to sea to take up station close to
Extra Awacs aerial reconnaissance
aircraft were sent aloft to ensure that nothing other
than military aircraft flew in American airspace - a
home-grown version of the "no-fly zones" enforced for
many years over Iraq. For much of the rest of the week,
the unsettling roar of F-15 and F-16 fighters patrolling
the skies high above America's biggest cities replaced
the usual rumble of commercial airliners.
On Friday, in a tacit admission that
America must in future be better prepared, Donald
Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, announced that fighters
were being put on a 15-minute "strip" alert at 26 bases
There was anger among politicians at what
many saw as the failure of the intelligence services,
and some officials on Capitol Hill began canvassing
support for a move to force George Tenet, the director
of the Central Intelligence Agency, originally appointed
by Clinton, to step aside.
James Traficant, a Democratic congressman
from Pennsylvania, said that for years Congress had
poured billions of dollars of largely unscrutinised
funding into America's intelligence services, "yet we
learnt of every one of these tragedies from Fox News and
CNN"- two television channels. Senator Richard Shelby, a
Republican member of the Senate intelligence committee,
said it was "a failure of great dimension".
There are moves to address one severe
shortcoming noted by many critics: the CIA's reliance on
technological rather than "human" means to gather
information, and its weakness as a means of finding out
what Osama bin Laden is up to.
During the Clinton administration,
Congress banned the CIA from recruiting as a paid
informer anyone with a criminal record or who was guilty
of human rights violations. James Woolsey, another
former CIA director, said: "Inside bin Laden's
organisation there are only people who want to be human
rights violators. If you don't recruit them then you
don't recruit anyone."