By PAUL DE LA GARZA
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 2001
WASHINGTON -- American intelligence officials put the terrorist Osama bin Laden at the top of the list of suspects in Tuesday's attacks, but cautioned it was too early to determine responsibility.
Meanwhile, because no warning was sounded, the attacks in New York and Washington once again raised questions about the competency of America's intelligence community.
"Our government failed the American people," said Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., echoing the sentiments of others in Congress and across the country.
Mark Mansfield, a CIA spokesman, defended the agency. "CIA has worked diligently and relentlessly to try to counter terrorism," he said. "Our resources are being devoted to determine who is responsible for these horrible acts."
Sen. Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate committee that helps oversee the intelligence community, said it was too early to say whether the attacks pointed to an intelligence failure. Rather, he said, the attacks address the need to beef up U.S. intelligence with additional spies, better analysis, better eavesdropping equipment and more investment in research and development.
First of all, Graham said, government officials and the American people must recognize terrorism as the No. 1 national security threat.
"Not since Pearl Harbor has the United States been attacked in its own territory as we were today," the Florida Democrat said. "Not since Pearl Harbor has our nation been placed on the challenge that it finds its today.
"We recommit as we did in 1941 that this act of terrorism will not go unpunished. This would be my equivalent of war."
Graham said he did not know of any suspects yet, but acknowledged that the list was a "fairly short one."
Under pressure to name suspects, U.S. officials urged patience, reminding reporters that initial reports suggested Arab terrorists were responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing. In the end, two Americans were convicted.
The officials acknowledged that few terrorist organizations had the capability to carry out such sophisticated and well-timed attacks on the United States. Among them: bin Laden's organization.
Since 1998, U.S. intelligence has suspected the Saudi millionaire in at least three bombings against American targets around the world, including two involving embassies in Africa and last year's suicide attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.
As early as the beginning of summer, U.S. officials were aware of a general threat of a terrorist attack against targets in the United States. Although precautions were taken, officials would not elaborate.
Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, who gets regular intelligence briefings, confirmed the likely suspect was bin Laden.
"The big suspicion has been bin Laden because he's not only been making threats for a quite a long time but we are convinced he was involved in the bombing of our embassies in Africa."
Bin Laden is based in Afghanistan. He is thought to be living under the protection of the nation's ruling Taleban, which espouses a harsh brand of Islamic law.
He is the most wanted terrorism suspect in the United States. He was indicted on charges of complicity in the previous 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center that killed six people and injured hundreds of others. His organization openly declares the death of Americans as one of its principal goals, making no distinction between civilian and military targets.
Followers of bin Laden reportedly gave warning three weeks ago that they were preparing another "huge and unprecedented attack" on American interests, according to Abdel Bari Atwan, the London-based editor of Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper.
Gene Poteat, a former CIA officer and president of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, urged caution in pointing the finger at bin Laden. He noted that there are other groups capable of carrying out these types of attacks.
"It's a drastic escalation over any single target type of thing," he said. "The escalation, the sophistication, they're going to the heart of the country now.
"It's hatred of the United States."
Abdelwahab Hechiche, a professor of government and international relations at the University of South Florida, also said any number of terrorist groups would have reason to orchestrate the attacks.
If the goal, he said, was to destabilize the Arab-Israeli peace process, the list of suspects would include the Islamic Jihad, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and bin Laden.
"Osama bin Laden, of course, he is like an ambassador at large in the area of terrorism," Hechiche said. "He has connections with many different groups."
One of the intended effects of the attack, Hechiche said, would be to make Americans wonder about the competency of their government.
"In terrorism, one of the greatest targets of acts of terrorism is to make a society lose confidence in its government's capacity to protect its people," he said.
Indeed, to reassure Americans, President Bush returned to the White House Tuesday night, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and congressional leaders held a news briefing for reporters at the Pentagon. Rumsfeld pointed out to reporters that he was conducting the briefing at the Pentagon, one of the targets of the attacks.
Critics, meantime, wondered about the state of the American intelligence community, including the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency. Recent intelligence failures include India's detonation of a nuclear device, the embassy bombings in Africa and the USS Cole.
Young said he was disappointed that intelligence agencies did not know about the attack ahead of time. "What really frustrates me is that we spent a lot of money developing overhead sensors and so forth, but we have not done the job getting human intelligence."
He said the attack could not have been detected by satellite spying devices, but it could have been detected by infiltrating the terrorist organizations.
- Staff writers Alicia Caldwell and David Adams contributed to this report.