The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, March 10, 2002
Time Off

Overlooking clues, with fatal consequences
Manohar Malgonkar

THE United States of America spends thirty billion dollars a year on its secret services.

The superstar of these services is the C.I.A., which, over the years has built for itself a formidable reputation: of organising revolts, promoting proxy wars, propping up obedient regimes even of tyrant dictators and even organising raids to "take out’ world leaders categorised as "rogues’. "Look and be afraid, for I am the Nag of all Secret Services, may not have been the officially adopted motto of the C.I.A., but it was certainly its public image: all-knowing, muscular, quick to act.

Not any more, though. The events of September 11, 2001 have shown up Naga to have been a piece of rope if not quite lifeless, certainly not up to its given tasks: to discover the nefarious plots of America’s enemies and foil them before they could be acted upon.

The sad truth is that the C.I.A. was caught napping. As will be seen, there were a few signals that should not have escaped the notice of an alert intelligence. O.K. the terrorists may not have put in ads in the papers or held street parades carrying banners saying ‘Watch out we’re going to blow up WTC’: Yet there were enough clues going round which should have served as warnings.

Of coffee, tea and cultivated taste
February 17, 2002
Gandhara orphans
February 10, 2002
The ‘menace’ of wildlife
January 20, 2002
Before September 11 — and after
January 6, 2002
The anger of gods
December 16, 2001
Good words, sinister connotations
November 4, 2001
Unravelling the Kashmir story
October 14, 2001
A land stalked by the ‘thought police’
October 7, 2001
More on Jeffrey Archer
September 2, 2001
Archer shoots a Crooked Arrow
August 26, 2001
A glimpse of Nepal’s past
August 12, 2001
High-profile parties and protocol
July 22, 2001
Stories that make authors rich
July 8, 2001
Unknown heroes or icons
July 1, 2001
Degrees of intolerance
June 10, 2001
Red hands and red faces
May 20, 2001
Pictures that speak
May 13, 2001
Treasures in princely museums
May 6, 2001
Battle honours for staying power
April 29, 2001
Errors of precision
April 15, 2001
Hats off to the sahibs
April 1, 2001

In fact they had carried out what might be termed a ‘pilot’ project to bring down the towers as early as 1993. A bomb exploded in the WTC building, killing six and wounding, so they say, "more than a thousand." That stung the F.B.I. into a flurry of action. All evidence pointed to a man called Ramzi Yousef, a Pakistani citizen. Yousef was nabbed in a hotel room in Pakistan two years later, and his case officer from the F.B.I., Lewis Schiliro, went to Pakistan to escort Yousef to the US to stand trial. On a cold February night in 1995, he was flown to New York city in a helicopter, blindfolded, as seems to be the U.S. practice with dangerous captives. Yousef was unrepentant, even boastful. He told Schiliro who sat in the next seat: "My original plan was to plant enough explosives in one of the 110-storey twin buildings to topple it, killing 250,000 people in the tower and on the ground." But that it was only because he didn’t have enough money to buy the explosives, he had "settled for a much smaller blast."

The F.BI. men who formed Yousef’s escort obviously could not resist the impulse to bring home to their prisoner the futility of such mad schemes. As their chopper flew over the Hudson river and Manhattan, they had his blindfold removed and taunted him: "See? It’s still standing."

Yousef, it is reported, squinted in silence at the twin towers for a few seconds and then told them: "Next time. If I have more money, I’ll knock it down.

Of course, for Yousef himself, there was no possibility of a ‘next time’. But, as we now know, there were other Ramzi Yousefs waiting in line to take his place and finish off what he had set out to do; young, athletic, resourceful, highly motivated, and with ample funds at their disposal. It took them another six years, but this time it went off with clockwork precision.

What they had done, was truly beyond belief — to the extent that, paradoxically, the flawless manner in which the terrorists had carried out their plans, itself was sought to be made an excuse by America’s intelligence services to explain away their own inadequacies and failures. Something that none of them had even imagined as a contingency in their periodic exercises to deal with the activities of terrorist groups, had actually happened. It was not easy for them to come to terms with the reality.

Seymour Hersh, the investigative journalist has described the mood of the American intelligence-gathering organisations as being one of frustration and confusion. Some of the insiders he talked to just could not get over their feeling of disbelief. "Just taking out one jet and getting it into the ground, could have been a success," one of them told Hersh. These men had taken out four.

As might be expected, there were recriminations and fingerprinting. That things had gone wrong was only too clear. But whose fault was it that all these terrorists as many as nineteen of them all of foreign descent, some travelling on forged passports, one or two of them with earlier records of wrongdoings, and virtually all of them fitting neatly into the computer-generated profile of a likely terrorist, had entered the country and had gone on living month after month in small-town America in neighbourhoods of tightly-knit citizens allergic to outsiders. Not one of them could have travelled as a passenger on an EL. AI plane. There was talk that the C.I.A.’s Chief, George Tenet, would be sacked.

How had these men managed to remain undetected in spite of their markedly unusual, almost eccentric preferences for food and music and, even more, their ability to spend money freely even though they had no sources of income? They were far from normal in their religious zeal too, to the extent that they were all martyrdom freaks: men who knew to within minutes the moment when they were going to die. It seems almost inhuman that not even one of those men had second thought about their terrible resolve.

"Spying is waiting," wrote John Le Carre, the creator of George Smiley, the "master spy’. The 19 men carried out the 9-11 attacks had had to wait for years for the right opportunity. And the longer an agent had to wait to finish his job the more difficult it became for him to lead his double life without betraying himself in some manner. Smiley who had made spying his life’s work had a way of latching on to clues that no one else seemed to notice. He, surely would have found a clue to what these 19 men were up to by the peculiarities in their behaviour as D-Day and Zero-Hour approached.

On their last flight, at least one group bought first class air tickets but travelled coach anyhow? The ticket-checkers at the airport did not so much as point out to these men that they were in the wrong class. Oh, just some Arab playboys with oil-money!

Now, in hindsight, the answer seems clear. First class tickets were there for the asking; in coach, there was a faint chance of overbooking. So why take the risk when all that mattered to them was that they must not miss that flight? If they had been, in that process of questioning, subjected to even the most cursory of body-searches, they would have found the knives which the team-members carried. That might have saved at least one of the targets.

And what would have happened if the F.B.I. had only treated an even more timely warning with proper seriousness?

The owner of the Minnesota flying school had reported to their local branch that one of his students had made a bizarre request. He only wanted to be taught how to steer a jetliner, and did not want to learn how to take off or land it. And when the owner had reminded the student that he would nevertheless have to pay for the full course, 8000 dollars, the student had not only agreed, but paid the money in cash.

Even that request now seems logical, if a little careless. Why should the man want to learn how to land a plane when this particular plane was not going to land anywhere at all but was to be rammed into its target?

George Smiley might just have been able to reason it out. But both at the CIA and the F.B.I. what is called ‘clockwork’ meaning the deciphering of clues, is entrusted to electronic machines. The latest news on the subject is that the secret services have withstood the storm. George Tenet is still C.I.A.’s Chief. The budgetary allotments for both services are to go up. Thirty billion is just not enough.


This feature was published on March 3, 2002