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A Long Time Planning?

Reported by Judy - August 9, 2004 -

Fox News today (August 9) made sure that their shows played up the GOP talking point supplied by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in an op-ed piece in today's Wall Street Journal. Unfortunately, Ridge stretched the truth.

In his editorial, Ridge defending last week's terror alert concerning possible attacks on five sites in New York and Washington, D.C., based on surveillance information al Qaeda had been collecting since the year 2000. Ridge justified the release by pointing to the 9/11 Commission report, writing that the "commission found that the 'casing' for the Nairobi embassy bombing began in 1998 began in 1993 and that the planning for the horrific attacks of 9/11 began to take shape as early as 1996. Image if we had uncovered schematics for flying commercial airlines in the World Trade Towers in early 2001."

The Fox and Friends co-hosts followed their leaders' talking points. Brian Kilmeade (8:05 a.m EDT) noted that the 9/11 attacks were "planned in 1996 and executed in 2001."

On Fox News Live, Kelly Wright (9:01 a.m. EDT) referred to Ridge's editorial, saying that al Qaeda began planning for the 9/11 attacks in 1996. Later in the show, Jon Scott (9:14 a.m. EDT) interviewed two memers of Congress, including Rep. Rob Partman, R-Ohio, who reiterated the talking point that some of the information for 9/11 was put together in 1996.

What does the 9/11 Commission report really say about planning for the operation? For one, thing it doesn't say is that al Qaeda began planning the operation in 1996.

According to the 9/11 Commission report, plot mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed began thinking about using aircraft as weapons against the WTC and CIA headquarters as early as 1995 (p. 153). But as the report notes, KSM had no funds to carry out such a plan. He was not a member of al Qaeda and barely knew Osama bin Laden. But bin Laden did meet with KSM in mid-1996, not because he was so anxious to hear about his proposal, but because KSM's nephew had plotted the 1993 World Trade Center bombing ( p. 148).

At the mid-1996 meeting, KSM presented several ideas, only one of which was a forerunner to the 9/11 plot but involving ten airplanes. KSM admits "that his proposal received a lukewarm response from al Qaeda leaders skeptical of its scale and complexity. Although Bin Laden listened to KSM's proposal, he was not convinced that it was practical. As mentioned earlier, Bin Ladin was receiving numerous ideas for potential operations--KSM's propsal to attack U.S. targets with commercial airplanes was only one of many." (p. 154)

That is a far cry from saying that planning for 9/11 "began to take shape" as early as 1996.

KSM did not join al Qaeda until 1998 or 1999 and Osama bin Laden did not endorse his plan until March or April 1999 and came up with a list of targets that spring (p. 154). Potential pilots began preliminary training, not involving flying lessons in 1999 (p. 156.) They began researching flight schools and practicing on flight simulator programs in early 2000 (p. 168).

Ridge -- and his friends at Fox -- want to use the 9/11 commission report to justify the release of old information based on alleged pre-planning of 9/11, but the ruse doesn't work. Far from presenting a case that al Qaeda began planning in 1996 for the attack, the testimony and interviews in the report indicate that in 1996 the man pushing the idea, KSM, was not even part of al Qaeda, and the leader of al Qaeda (bin Ladin) wasn't interested in his ideas.
Real planning only began in 1999, at most two and half years before 9/11.

That sort of information is a weak reed to use to support a case that information gathered in 2000 by itself represents a credible threat of an imminent attack today. In deciding to release the information, Ridge needed to be more careful about how he framed the information, presenting it as an analysis of vulnerabilities in certain buildings rather than implying it was an indication of a plan to attack.