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Wednesday, 22 May, 2002, 09:20 GMT 10:20 UK
World Trade Centre: Could the attacks have been prevented?
The White House has moved quickly to defend President Bush against claims that he could have done more to prevent the 11 September attacks.

The national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, says the President was briefed in August last year that Osama bin Laden planned to hijack American aircraft.

But she says the information was very generalised and did not relate to the possibility of attacks on buildings.

The disclosure comes as a US congressional committee prepares for a hearing into intelligence failings in the months leading up to 11 September.

The FBI Director, Robert Mueller, has repeatedly said he wished agents had acted on information that terrorist groups had sent students to flight schools in the US.

Since September, the FBI has been reorganised to increase its emphasis on counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence work.

Could the 11 September attacks have been prevented? Where did intelligence go wrong? Have the lessons been learnt?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

In all seriousness, what could have Bush done to prevent 9/11? Yes, he could have enforced more airport security....but I truly believe that if someone was as dedicated as Bin Laden and his followers seem to be, they would find another way of causing mass destruction
Kirsty, Scotland

The 9/11 attacks remind me very much of Pearl Harbour - and one of the things they have in common is that they both could have been prevented. In a way, I would say that both attacks were allowed to happen - whether by sheer incompetence or evil intentions, I do not know.
Corina, Canada

What is the point in assigning blame so long after the event?

Adam, UK
How on earth do you legislate, or counter attack or defend against people who are willing to sacrifice their lives for a belief ? The fact that Bush had a level of intelligence before the attacks means very little as the terrorists would simply have found another way to spread mass terror and inflict the atrocities they did. What is the point in assigning blame so long after the event? There seems to me to be little point in squabbling after the event has taken place - better they should concentrate on prevention.
Adam, UK

The events of September 11th were tragic. If information was available that indicated that these attacks could happen then surely an increase in airport security could have taken place without alerting the public that something was going on. With this new information entering the public domain it only goes to confirm what I, and I think, many people already knew - the 'Dubbya' administration don't have the first clue what they are doing.
Dave B, UK

What the Bush administration had an obligation to do if they were warned of hijacked plane missiles, was to give instructions on how to monitor and react against commercial flights going astray and deviate significantly from their approved flight plans - especially when approaching population centres hundreds of miles away from their original destination. Isn't anyone surprised by the remarkable efficiency displayed by the American authorities after the attacks? It seems this efficiency was absent before 9-11.
Peter Vafeades, Cyprus

Just after the attacks I suggested to my US friends that there was a possibility somebody official knew a big terrorist attack was going to happen yet it was kept quiet because it would allow the new Bush administration to justify any amount of increased military spending. My friends thought I was just a cynical Brit conspiracy theorist, but they don't think that now.
Steve B, Scotland

Isn't hindsight wonderful? I wonder now if the Clinton administration could also have prevented the Oklahoma bombing, the attack on the US embassy in Kenya, the first World Trade Center explosion and the USS Cole attack? No? Probably not. I am furious at the Democrats for this cynical, political attack during an election year. Their concern is not with the welfare of America, but with their own agenda.
Maya, USA

Even the more credible intelligence usually leads to nothing.

Scott, USA
President Bush will surely feel some heat for this latest news. But even if the limited intelligence the White House had were made public, the terrorist act of 9/11 still would not have been adverted. The information that the White House had was fairly useless. Sure, a warning could have been made, but nothing like what happened was imagined. Terrorist alerts and warning are almost a monthly ordeal now, but even the more credible intelligence usually leads to nothing.
Scott , USA

What has come out is that the Bush administration has been less than forthcoming with the information that it knew prior to September 11. I firmly believe that a proper response to September 11 mandates that we need to know the full truth. It isn't to assign blame, but rather a recognition that you need to know the full truth simply because you need to prevent these kind of incidents in the future and that is easier to do if you know everything.
Mark Allen, USA

Whether the US knew or not seems irrelevant. The UK has dealt with IRA bombings for years. How many explosions occurred and how many were either aborted or stopped? You may catch a majority yet total success seems unrealistic. 9-11 was a type of weapon use that the public never envisioned. Car bombs, other explosives, guns, even gas (Japan) have been the norm. These the world expect, not 747 guided missiles. And the quantity of information necessary to collect and organize into a picture of possible and realistic events to stop, I believe, is enormous and impossible.
Scott, USA

Regardless of whether American intelligence was aware of the threat of terrorism in connection to September 11th, people should be extremely worried. It must be realized that either intelligence organizations knew about the threats but did not react, or they were taken completely by surprise and were completely powerless in preventing the attacks.
Matthew Comin, Canada

If someone wants to hurt people they will always find a way.

Ken, US
Even if they had information that a terrorist attack was likely, they wouldn't have known where and when exactly. The best they could have done was to increase airport security, which should have been secure anyway. We all know it wasn't. Although airport security should be tighter, we can't blame the airports or airlines either. If someone wants to hurt people they will always find a way. As sad as 9/11 is, no one wants to be strip searched before boarding a plane nor do we want to give up our freedom to move about. I am not a big Bush supporter but we can't blame him. We also shouldn't rely on the CIA or FBI either, we criticise them when they miss something yet we all value our privacy.
Ken, US

Yes, it probably could have been prevented, but hindsight is so banal and easy. However, the hypocrisy of the Democrats trying to pin the blame for 9-11 on the Bush Administration is laughable. The head of the CIA is a Clinton appointee and holdover from his administration. Thomas Pickard, another Clinton appointee, was the temporary acting head of the FBI until just six days before 9-11, when Bush's FBI team took over. The head of the Department of Transportation, which is in charge of airport security, was the lone Democrat on Bush's cabinet.
Tom Hoffman, USA

I was astounded and appalled to find out that cockpit doors were not reinforced and locked from the inside. After decades of hijackings, I never imagined such an obvious requirement would be overlooked. The intelligence services had done a surprisingly good job of preventing attacks before 9/11, but it has to be viewed as a major failure. People who had been to Afghanistan for terrorist training were taking flight lessons in our own country; we have to be able to make that kind of connection.
Don, USA

I think the timing of the release of this information has been badly handled and that is what is causing it to have undue prominence. The White House have given the impression that they have released it now because they have to, which in turn is being taken as implication that there is something to hide. Their defence of this is only making this worse, with Cheney's response effectively saying that you're not allowed to criticise now. A more honest upfront message would probably have kept this in far better perspective. Of course you can't act on every possible threat that comes in every day across the whole of the intelligence network. But the security organisations are there to protect, and questions do need to be asked about how these can operate better.
Ron, England

The authorities take action on the balance of probabilities.

Paul R, UK
Intelligence reports are usually like the sayings of Nostradamus, easy to see with hindsight. Reports are generated regularly, are thin on specific details and times, and are often inaccurate. So to regularly take drastic national action, as would have been the case, on the basis of such reports would have affected the lives of every citizen and attracted huge criticism. The authorities take action on the balance of probabilities, to minimise disruption to our daily lives while maximising our security. So although the attacks could have been prevented by closing down the US, the only realistic way would have been better intelligence.
Paul R, UK

It may well be true that the US government had some sort of advance warning that terrorists were planning some sort of attack. But no-one could have foreseen what happened - it's unfair to blame the US government for not acting on what was, no doubt, very little information. I assume that US security has been tightened up so the likelihood of a similar event happening there again has been reduced. But when it comes down to it, how could this well-planned attack have been prevented? It could happen here or anywhere else in the world, so I hope our government (in particular) hasn't taken its eye off the ball.
H R Lee, England

When I was booking to go to Boston in early May 2001, I specifically requested not to be booked on any American airline. And I told the puzzled travel agent that it was too risky given what was happening in the Middle East. If I could work this out why couldn't the FBI? I was also unable to find an immigration official to stamp my passport on leaving through Boston airport. This was just 10 days before the attacks. So presumably I will shortly be arrested for overstaying my visa!
Ruth Muller, South Africa

I was in New York on September 11th. I must admit that I felt a degree of anger when I heard that the US Government might have had prior warning. I had flown United Airlines a few days earlier and was about to board a flight at JFK on that fateful Tuesday morning. However, as has been pointed out, the blame lies squarely with the terrorists. They are the ones who carried out the attack and being wise after the event helps no one.
Huw, UK

It says something of their lack of original thinking but doesn't condemn them in the least

James, Australia
Isn't hindsight wonderful! If you had heard that terrorists planned to hijack an airliner in the US what would you say BEFORE September 11? Would you be as worried as you perhaps are now? This is once again a sad example of the media over reacting to a tiny piece of nothing. Obviously a movie or TV star hasn't gotten killed or arrested in the past couple of days or else this wouldn't be so big.

The CIA told the US President that some terrorist groups might be planning to hijack US airliners. Terrorist groups have been doing this sort of thing on a regular basis since the 70s. Without a date, time, names or faces, increasing security can only go so far especially when the crude weapons used by the hijackers were not even banned from being taken on board aircraft at the time. What the CIA, nor the president couldn't anticipate was the hijackers use of the planes as flying bombs nor of their use of such crude weaponry to take over the planes. It was something they couldn't conceive of and perhaps it says something of their lack of original thinking but doesn't condemn them in the least.
James, Australia

Surely the whole world must be aware of the foundations of U.S. freedom. The government has no right to become entangled in the lives of our citizens unless it has specific knowledge that a crime is in progress or about to occur. Without infiltrating terrorist cells, there is only circumstantial evidence before 9/11. As the aphorism goes, those who are prepared to surrender freedom for security will receive neither. We must be vigilant against those who would harm us, but we must not trample our own freedom in the process.
Werner L. Stunkel, USA

In the tradition of the British Back bench Parliamentarian - Resign! Resign! The NSA and CIA need to clean house. Some cabinet secretaries need to spend more time with their families.
Dan, US

What happened on Sept 11th was terrible. So many died for someone's ideas and religion but to suggest that we blame Bush is stupid, security forces (e.g C.I.A) have to be lucky 100% of the time terrorists only have to be lucky once, no matter how much you tighten security or raise your defence budget they will try again. Bush is a man who loves his country and would not see harm come to any of them, people should stop pointing fingers on who to blame and help to rid this world of these terrorist groups so this will never happen again.
Stephen, UK

If I said I was going to crash a bus into a building, are you going to stop me? Do you know what bus? Do you know what building? Do you know when I'm going to do it? The CIA cannot act on vague threats.
Andrew, New Zealand

We should direct our blame, our retribution and our contempt solely at the terrorists

Bryan, UK
Responsibility for the attacks of 11 September lies solely with the terrorist organisations and that is where we should direct our blame, our retribution and our contempt. Any suggestion that the airlines, the police, the CIA or the President could have done better is an insult to them and to the thousands of victims of the attacks.
Bryan, UK

I'm very much of the opinion that if terrorists want to perform an attack, they will, no matter what precautions are taken. A warning may have stopped them in September, but if they were determined enough then they would simply have carried it out another time.
Carly, UK

Clearly there was a severe lapse in security to allow not just a single but four aircraft to be hijacked simultaneously. But I think it said as much about the state of security on America's airlines than it does about the failings of its intelligence service.
Keith Collantine, UK

Knowing that terrorists are planning to hijack planes is surely not the same thing as knowing they are planning to crash those planes into buildings.
Andy, The Netherlands

If nothing else is learned from a tragic and dastardly attack like this, hopefully it will be that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom and security. As a frequent air traveller in the US and throughout the world, I was amazed at the lack of security in US airports even before 11 September. American citizens need to balance their desire for inexpensive and timely domestic flights with the need for security. This, along with a ruthless and tireless rooting out of the military, political and financial sources of terrorism should help to prevent future attacks.
Mike, USA

If the American government knew of a threat, they had a duty to their people to protect and inform them

They may not have been prevented but how do we know? If the American government knew of a threat to commercial planes prior to the attack they had a duty to their people to protect and inform them. They certainly should have enforced stronger security at all airports. Considering two of the hijackers nearly missed their flight, I think that had stringent security checks been in place - then yes, maybe 11 September could have been avoided. The fact that the US government were aware of the possibility and chose to do nothing to protect the citizens of the United States was a serious failure by the Bush administration.

Sadly for those who died and for the families who grieve for them, very little can be done to stop fundamentalists. It is a fact that in our apathetic society, extremists are the only groups who feel that they need to act on their opinions, whether political or religious.
Nichola, UK

Even if the president was made aware of the terrorist threats, I wouldn't imagine anyone could have envisaged what the outcome would be. I imagine that the US receives threats on a daily basis, most of which come to nothing. Unfortunately, everyone needs someone to point the finger at and it looks like Bush is the target this time. Even if they did know what was going to happen, would they have done anything? Look at how this has benefited American interests elsewhere.
Graeme, UK

To Graeme, UK: I take great offence to your statement about "American interests" being served? Which interests are those? Since 11 September, our economy has suffered, unemployment has increased, tourism has decreased, the entire east coast went into shock for three months, and Daniel Pearl was murdered trying to investigate the extremist groups afterward. This, of course, is not to mention the shame of seeing deaths in Afghanistan from "friendly fire" and miscalculations based on the word of dishonest Afghans. If you're talking about the natural gas pipeline, then do not call that an "American interest". I, and most of the other 300 million Americans, do not for a second think that a stupid pipeline is worth what happened to our friends, neighbours, and guests who were in the planes and the World Trade Center that day. If I sound a little cranky, you try watching F-15s fly overhead every day for six months protecting your life, and tell me it doesn't get to you.
Jennifer Ethington, NJ, USA

Regardless of whether Bush knew about these possible terrorists attacks, he only knew them in the conventional form. No intelligence, however sophisticated, could have predicted the chaos on 11 September. It was unconventional and highly unexpected.
Stephen, UK

Terrorism means to create 'terror'. Even if the President of the United States was informed it makes no difference. You cannot predict a terrorist's plans unless you have them in black and white before you. Any amount of intelligence could not have foreseen the events to come. For example, when the IRA tip-off the police, they aren't stupid enough to say where they are going to plant the bomb, they just do it and watch the devastation unfold. It's blindingly obvious. There is no way to stop terrorism happening, the only way to remedy the situation is by removing the head of these organisations which most civilised world leaders are trying to do, and it doesn't help if people are so un-cooperative. United we stand, divided we fall.
Mark, UK

I don't believe that September 11 specifically could have been prevented. As others have said, no one could have envisaged what happened that tragic day. However, intelligence and international relations experts had for the past few years been stating that the US must change its foreign policy or face the wrath of extremists. The question of whether or not September 11 could have been prevented is a much wider one, and on a less literal scale, I think the answer is yes, terror can be prevented, when the inequalities of wealth and power in this world are rectified.

Most of the Islamic world is not set on the destruction of the West, but when they see their own suffering in stark contrast to America's prosperity, they become desperate, and bombing them willy nilly is not going to change that. Neither is a ridiculous war on drugs going to bring peace and prosperity to Colombia. The fact remains that the West is responsible for some of the most devastating terrorism. When America realises that with power comes responsibility, only then will things change. A little less greed, and a little more humanity might just save us before this plant goes completely to pot. Otherwise, the future is bleak and we will have the hegemons to blame as much as the terrorists.
Carinne Luck, UK

US intelligence was probably anticipating the use of guns and explosives, and maybe that's what security was looking for

John Franklin, UK
Did US intelligence have names, photos, descriptions and likely locations of the potential hijackers before September 11? Without these I think it would have been all but impossible for them to have prevented the attacks. Remember that air travel in the US is on a huge scale, with many thousands of passengers of middle eastern origin or appearance travelling each day. They could hardly have stopped and intimately searched everyone of such appearance for potentially months on end, it would have caused an uproar.

While security at US airports has been criticised since the attacks, the hijackers showed awareness of how far they could push security in only smuggling small knives like box-cutters onboard. US intelligence was probably anticipating the use of guns and explosives, and maybe that's what security was looking for. No wonder they missed the smartly dressed men carrying little more than craft knives in their shoulder bags and attache cases.
John Franklin, UK

If every threat -every action outside the norm was investigated by law enforcement agencies the terrorist would already have won. We would be living in a police state - our movement and actions restricted. NI and Israel suffered (and are still suffering) under greater security scrutiny than most people in the west would be willing to tolerate in our day to day lives and did that stop every bomb or murder? No it did not and can not. The terrorist only has to get lucky once.
Andrew, UK

One must remember that the 11 September attacks allowed Bush et al to push through an agenda that the public at large had demonstrated that it would not previously tolerate. Many Americans said that the US government had some knowledge beforehand and could have done something to prevent or minimize what happened. Those of us who asked questions were maligned and accused of being terrorists. We still are.
Anne Carr, USA

The report is that they were informed that hijackings were possible. Not where, when and who. The administration alerted all the Law enforcement agencies. I'm not sure what else they could have done. In response to Graeme's ridiculous remark that they wouldn't have stopped it even if they could have. What kind of monsters do you think we are anyway. You have to really be eaten up with hatred for Bush to suggest such a thing.
John, USA

Prosperity breeds complacency, and after the roaring '90s Americans felt that they were untouchable

Matt, US
Would many people in the US have even looked up from their toys and heeded such a warning? I doubt it. Prosperity breeds complacency, and after the roaring '90s Americans felt that they were untouchable.
Matt, US

OK, they didn't stop the September 11 terrorists but I would be interested to know how many hundreds or thousands of similarly devastating events have been averted thanks to our intelligence organisations. We just don't hear about those near-misses.
Alan, UK

This kind of spurious retrospective conjecture is not even worthy of being called journalism - how can anyone know if such a catastrophic and complex event could really have been avoided?!
Kevin, UK

Even if the government had warned us of a possible terrorist threat, what would we have done? In the days before September 11, almost no one thought that something this horrible could happen. It was just unthinkable. There was nothing we could have done if we were warned.
Mitchel Hayden, United States

It is well understood that the Bush administration was already concerned about al-Qaeda and wanted to remove the Taleban. The September 11 attacks provided a very good reason to conduct a war on these groups, so even if the authorities did know about the attacks, and could have prevented them, they may have had a motive for allowing 'something' to take place. However, my guess is that the full nature of the attacks was not known before the event.
Frank, UK

I think we should be careful while criticising the Bush administration when we know for a fact that guns and knives were easily smuggled onto planes in the UK, under Blair administration and that was after "heightened security measures" at UK airports. And what about the consecutive multi million dollar robberies at Heathrow airport? I am sure, even the MI6 knew it, (about September 11) but what can it do if the CIA didn't move quickly enough? I think it's time the whole thing should be played down as the war on terror continues to wage.
Khan, UK

Press freedom
Is truth a victim of the war on terror?

Key stories

European probe


See also:

17 May 02 | Americas
17 May 02 | Americas
16 May 02 | Americas
04 Dec 01 | Americas
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