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Context of 'Summer 2001-September 10, 2001: US Domestic Agencies Fail to Mobilize in Response to Attack Warnings'

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The 9/11 Commission will later conclude that in spite of an unprecedented attack threat in the months before 9/11, US “domestic agencies never mobilized in response to the threat. They did not have direction, and did not have a plan to institute. The borders were not hardened. Transportation systems were not fortified. Electronic surveillance was not targeted against a domestic threat. State and local law enforcement were not marshaled to augment the FBI’s efforts. The public was not warned.” (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 265)

Sir Stephen Lander.Sir Stephen Lander. [Source: Public domain]According to an officially authorized book on the MI5 published in 2009, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, warns top British leaders that a surge in the number of reports of threat information is “sufficient to conclude that [Osama bin Laden] and those that share his agenda are currently well advanced in operational planning for a number of major attacks on Western interests.” Similar MI5 warnings about an imminent attack will continue up until 9/11, including one put out on the morning of 9/11. However, apparently none of these suggest a major attack in the US or an attack using hijacked airplanes. MI6 is Britain’s foreign intelligence agency, and presumably most information about al-Qaeda and attack threats would come from it and not MI5. In fact, MI5 appears to be much less aware of al-Qaeda at this time. Sir Stephen Lander, director general of MI5 from 1996 to 2002, will later say that MI5 was “slow to get going” on the al-Qaeda threat because it was preoccupied with the IRA, and after 9/11 it had a “major set to, sitting around a board room table working out how to move on.” (Gardham 10/5/2009) This warning appears similar, but not identical, to a warning 10 days later that is an analysis involving all British intelligence agencies (see July 16, 2001).

9/11 Commission member Jamie Gorelick is given access to the previously sacrosanct Presidential Daily Briefings (PDBs) from the Clinton and Bush administrations (see Early December 2003). Like commission chair Thomas Kean, Gorelick is struck by the general lack of information in the documents (see Early December 2003), but the thing that strikes her most about the PDBs is just how many warnings were given in the months preceding the 9/11 attacks. Details of the predicted terrorist attack were lacking—the US intelligence community did not know where or when the attacks would take place—but the message from the spring, summer, and fall of 2001 was clear: the US must be prepared for a massive assault either on one of its foreign allies or on itself. Gorelick later recalls the warnings say the anticipated attacks are “the worst thing [the US has] ever seen—an unprecedented threat.” The August 6, 2001 PDB (see August 6, 2001) contained warnings about specific threats to American targets, particularly “federal buildings in New York.” Gorelick, like everyone else in the Commission, has never seen the actual August 6 PDB, and she is shocked by the detail and the specificity of the warnings. The characterization of the warnings as “historical” (see May 16, 2002) is inexplicable, she thinks. (Shenon 2008, pp. 221-222)

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