The massive report released July 22 by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States reveals that the Clinton Administration was warned in early 2000 that U.S. borders were open to terrorists and that terrorist sleeper cells had already penetrated the United States.
The warning came in a memo written by National Security Council aide Richard Clarke after al Qaeda had failed in its Millenium Plot, which included plans to detonate a bomb at Los Angeles International airport on Jan. 1, 2000. That attack was foiled when terrorist Ahmed Ressam panicked and ran as he was pat-searched by a Customs agent at Port Angeles, Wash., where Ressam had arrived from Canada via ferry.
A search of Ressam’s rental car turned up the bomb he intended to use in Los Angeles.
Clarke made recommendations on how the United States could combat the al Qaeda threat. His memo said U.S. efforts thus far had “not put too much of a dent” in Osama bin Laden’s network.
In summarizing Clarke’s Jan. 11, 2000, memo, the 9/11 commission, says, “If the United States wanted to ‘roll back’ the threat, disruption would have to proceed at ‘a markedly different tempo.’ Second, ‘sleeper cells’ and ‘a variety of terrorist groups’ had turned up at home.”
National Security Council staff advised the Clinton Administration to promote CIA efforts to go after al Qaeda, crack down on terrorists in the United States, and bolster immigration enforcement.
“The NSC staff advised [National Security Adviser Sandy] Berger that the United States had only been ‘nibbling at the edges’ of Bin Laden’s network and that more terror attacks were a question not of ‘if’ but rather ‘when’ and ‘where,'” says the 9/11 commission report. “The Principals Committee met March 10, 2000, to review possible new moves. The principles ended up agreeing that the government should take three major steps. First, more money should go to the CIA to accelerate its efforts to ‘seriously attrit’ al Qaeda. Second, there should be a crackdown on foreign terrorist organizations in the United States. Third, immigration law enforcement should be strengthened, and the INS should tighten controls on the Canadian border (including stepping up U.S-Canada cooperation).”
The Clinton Administration failed to respond aggressively. CIA counterterrorism funding became bogged down in an internal fight in the administration. “The FBI operated a web of informants, conducted electronic surveillance, and had opened significant investigations in a number of field offices,” the report continues. But “on a national level . . . the FBI never used the information to gain a systematic or strategic understanding of the nature and extent of al Qaeda fundraising.”
On the immigration front, among Clarke’s recommendations were “creating an interagency group to target illegal entry,” “imposing tighter controls on student visas,” and “taking legal action to prevent terrorists from coming to the United States and to remove those already here, detaining them while awaiting removal proceedings.”
Concludes the commission: “These proposals were praiseworthy in principle. In practice, however, they required action by weak, chronically underfunded executive agencies and powerful congressional committees, which were more responsive to well-organized interest groups than to executive branch interagency committees.”