The documents, which were obtained by the National Security Archive through the Freedom of Information Act, point to missed opportunities by intelligence agencies to apprehend or eliminate Osama bin Laden and better prepare security agencies for attacks involving hijacked civilian aircraft.
One memo, dated December 1998, details “planning by Usama [sic] bin Laden to hijack U.S airplane,” and notes that two individuals thought to be part of Al-Qaeda successfully evaded security checks at an undisclosed New York airport during a trial run. Another, dated March 2004, acknowledges that early Predator drone missions over Afghanistan in the fall of 2000 twice observed an individual “most likely to be Bin Laden” but the UAV was not equipped to act on the information.
Much of the new information reveals CIA counterterrorism units that were severely underfunded at the turn of the century and rendered incapable of aggressively pursuing bin Laden and his network of terrorists. “Due to budgetary constraints….CTC/UBL [Counterterrorism Center/Osama bin Laden Unit] will move from offensive to defensive posture,” reads one memo. It is dated April 5, 2000, just 17 months prior to the attacks.
The release of these documents undermines previous administrations’ insistences that they were fully committed to the capture or elimination of bin Laden and devoted adequate resources to achieve that end. And it also calls into question the Bush administration’s claim that they entered office with no readily available intelligence on how best to prepare for possible terrorist attacks. “Nobody organized this country or the international community to fight the terrorist threat that was upon us until 9/11,” said then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2006 during an interview with The New York Post.
In all, more than 100 internal memos and reports were released yesterday. The National Security Archive sought the release of these documents after they were referenced in footnotes from the 9/11 Commission’s official report, and though they applaud the CIA’s decision to release these documents, the group also notes that hundreds more remain unavailable for public consumption:
Although the collection is part of a laudable effort by the CIA to provide documents on events related to September 11, many of these materials are heavily redacted, and still only represent one-quarter of the CIA materials cited in the 9/11 Commission Report. Hundreds of cited reports and cables remain classified, including all interrogation materials such as the 47 reports from CIA interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed from March 24, 2003 – June 15, 2004, which are referenced in detail in the 9/11 Report.
ThinkProgress has compiled a timeline on the hunt for bin Laden.