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Can We Stop The Next Attack?

25 minute read
Romesh Ratnesar and Massimo Calabresi

For a few harrowing weeks last fall, a group of U.S. officials believed that the worst nightmare of their lives–something even more horrific than 9/11–was about to come true. In October an intelligence alert went out to a small number of government agencies, including the Energy Department’s top-secret Nuclear Emergency Search Team, based in Nevada. The report said that terrorists were thought to have obtained a 10-kiloton nuclear weapon from the Russian arsenal and planned to smuggle it into New York City. The source of the report was a mercurial agent code-named DRAGONFIRE, who intelligence officials believed was of “undetermined” reliability. But DRAGONFIRE’s claim tracked with a report from a Russian general who believed his forces were missing a 10-kiloton device. Since the mid-’90s, proliferation experts have suspected that several portable nuclear devices might be missing from the Russian stockpile. That made the DRAGONFIRE report alarming. So did this: detonated in lower Manhattan, a 10-kiloton bomb would kill some 100,000 civilians and irradiate 700,000 more, flattening everything in a half-mile diameter. And so counterterrorist investigators went on their highest state of alert.

“It was brutal,” a U.S. official told TIME. It was also highly classified and closely guarded. Under the aegis of the White House’s Counterterrorism Security Group, part of the National Security Council, the suspected nuke was kept secret so as not to panic the people of New York. Senior FBI officials were not in the loop. Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani says he was never told about the threat. In the end, the investigators found nothing and concluded that DRAGONFIRE’s information was false. But few of them slept better. They had made a chilling realization: if terrorists did manage to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the city, there was almost nothing anyone could do about it.

In the days after Sept. 11, doomsday scenarios like a nuclear attack on Manhattan suddenly seemed plausible. But during the six months that followed, as the U.S. struck back and the anthrax scare petered out and the fires at Ground Zero finally died down, the national nightmare about another calamitous terrorist strike went away.

The terrorists did not. Counterterrorism experts and government officials interviewed by TIME say that for all the relative calm since Sept. 11, America’s luck will probably run out again, sooner or later. “It’s going to be worse, and a lot of people are going to die,” warns a U.S. counterterrorism official. “I don’t think there’s a damn thing we’re going to be able to do about it.” The government is so certain of another attack that it has assigned 100 civilian government officials to 24-hour rotations in underground bunkers, in a program that became known last week as the “shadow government,” ready to take the reins if the next megaterror target turns out to be Washington. Pentagon strategists say that even with al-Qaeda’s ranks scattered and its leaders in hiding, operatives around the world are primed and preparing to strike again. “If you’re throwing enough darts at a board, eventually you’re going to get something through,” says a Pentagon strategist. “That’s the way al-Qaeda looks at it.”

Thousands of al-Qaeda terrorists survived the U.S. military assault in Afghanistan and are beginning to regroup. Last weekend, U.S. forces attacked some 500 Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters holed up in the rugged, icy mountains outside the eastern town of Gardez, near the Pakistani border. The targets: four al-Qaeda training camps that were bombed last fall but, sources tell TIME, have since been reoccupied by al-Qaeda. Over the past month, locals say, groups of armed men have moved into the area from the Pakistani border town of Miren-Shah. The latest battle involved at least 1,000 Afghan troops and 60 U.S. Special Forces, who advanced on an al-Qaeda encampment by taking control of roads around Shah-e-Kot. The lead forces were rebuffed by heavily armed al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. U.S. aircraft, including B-52s, F-15Es, F-18s and AC-130 gunships, were called in to fire at enemy positions. At least one American was killed by hostile fire. “This could go on for several days,” a Pentagon official said.

As TIME reported in January, Western intelligence officials believe that al-Qaeda may now be under the control of Abu Zubaydah, a peripatetic aide of Osama bin Laden’s who has run training camps in Afghanistan and coordinated terror cells in Europe and North America. A European terrorism expert says Zubaydah oversaw the training of 3,000 to 4,000 recruits in al-Qaeda terrorist camps, most of whom are “out there somewhere in the world right now.” Zubaydah has instructed operatives to shave their beards, adopt Western clothing and “do whatever it takes to avoid detection and see their missions through,” the expert says.

In the past six months, the Administration and Congress have mobilized massive amounts of government money, intelligence and personnel to track terrorists at home and abroad and tighten the country’s protective net. But all nets have holes. A TIME investigation found some good news–notably that the CIA, FBI and other intelligence and law-enforcement agencies are finally starting to work as a team. But in other critical areas, such as gathering and analyzing intelligence, strengthening homeland security and rounding up al-Qaeda, the U.S. has yet to solve its most grievous problems. Much of the more than $1 billion that Washington has poured into intelligence services since 9/11 is merely high-octane fuel flooding a leaky and misfiring engine. America’s national security system is designed to fight Soviets rather than suicide bombers. Sources in the Pentagon, White House and Congress grumble that the CIA and the nation’s other intelligence bureaucracy were caught flat-footed by the Sept. 11 attack–“It was an abject intelligence failure,” a White House aide says–and many still doubt that the U.S. intelligence community is capable of seeing the next one coming.

Experts warn about mass contamination of the nation’s food supply and nuclear attacks on major U.S. cities precisely because these remote threats are the ones for which adequate defenses are not yet in place. The Coast Guard is arming itself against a possible terrorist attempt to destroy a major U.S. coastal city by detonating a tanker loaded with liquefied natural gas. The Bush Administration is bracing for another disaster. “We’re as vulnerable today as we were on 9/10 or 9/12,” says presidential counselor Karen Hughes. “We just know more.” Here is what TIME has learned about America’s vulnerabilities–and how the U.S. is working to bolster its defenses on four crucial fronts.


Since Sept. 11, no criticism of the CIA has been more damning than the fact that the agency’s legions of highly trained spooks were less successful at infiltrating al-Qaeda than was a Marin County, Calif., 19-year-old named John Walker Lindh. “They didn’t see it; they didn’t analyze it; they didn’t locate it or disrupt it,” says a U.S. official.”It’s just that simple.” In Senate hearings last month, CIA Director George Tenet, a Clinton Administration holdover who managed to hold on to his job after 9/11 because he is close to Bush, stubbornly defended the agency’s record. “It was not the result of the failure of attention and discipline and consistent effort,” he insisted.

And yet intelligence officials acknowledge privately that Sept. 11 laid bare many of the agency’s most crippling weaknesses. Six months later, the problems remain–buried under billions of dollars in post-9/11 funding and stubbornly resistant to change. Insiders agree that the CIA’s failure to learn of the Sept. 11 plot stemmed in large part from the CIA’s inability to gather human intelligence about foreign threats. The agency, a senior Administration official concedes, “got out of the human intelligence business in favor of technical collection” after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today the average overseas assignment for an agency spy-handler is three years, barely enough time to learn one’s way around, let alone penetrate a terror cell. And with the passing of the Soviet threat, many CIA officials lost interest in doing dirty human espionage–which means recruiting dangerous characters who can act as spies and infiltrate terror networks such as al-Qaeda’s. And even when informants were coaxed into cooperating, the CIA still required almost all “fully recruited” spies to take a polygraph test, something that scares off useful sources and in the past has failed to catch double agents. “We recruited a whole bunch of bad agents,” admits a senior intelligence official. “We wasted a lot of taxpayer money that way.”

The CIA is larded with Russian specialists left over from the cold war, even as the agency struggles to recruit and train officers with proficiency in other tongues. In last year’s graduating class of case officers, just 20% had usable skills in non-Romance languages. When the war in Afghanistan began, the CIA had only one Afghan analyst. As TIME reported last month, American intelligence agents in Kabul almost blew the chance to question a top-ranking Taliban minister, who may have had information on the hiding place of Mullah Omar. The spooks had yet to hire a Dari translator.

In response to TIME’s questions about these shortcomings, two senior intelligence officials said the agency has worked hard to close the language gap and improve recruitment of informants. Since 1998, Tenet has instructed the CIA’s espionage arm, the Directorate of Operations, to push its officers to diversify their language skills, boost recruitment and take greater risks. But despite some progress, a senior official admits, “we’re not there yet.” Robert Baer, a former CIA field operative in India, Tajikistan, Lebanon and Iraq, says the reforms did nothing to “break the cold war mold–it’s all about the culture.” The Administration has recalled old CIA hands with experience in Central Asia. Says an Administration official: “You ended up going back to retirees because the bench was so light on Afghanistan. We’re still trying to get up to speed.”

The dearth of qualified intelligence officers on the ground in Afghanistan has forced the U.S. to count on unreliable sources, dramatically increasing the risk of military mistakes, impeding the hunt for al-Qaeda leaders and giving Omar, bin Laden and their henchmen time to slip away. “The U.S. is totally dependent on locals, who have their own agenda,” says an expert in the region. A senior intelligence official disputes the scope of the problem, telling TIME that “this institution has never produced better human intelligence than it does today–but that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to do more.”

Even when America sets its own agenda, there are serious problems. The U.S. spends more than 90% of its $35 billion annual intelligence budget on spying gadgetry rather than on gathering human intelligence, and most of that money goes not to the CIA but to spy agencies within the Department of Defense, such as the National Security Agency (which does eavesdropping and code breaking) and the National Reconnaissance Office (which flies imagery satellites). The priciest gadgets are not always the ones suited to fighting the terrorist threat. During the past five years, while the U.S. spent billions of dollars to build and launch about half a dozen radar-imaging spy satellites, the CIA and others built 60 Predator unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS) at about $3 million apiece. The Predators, not the satellites, killed terrorists in Afghanistan.

High-tech surveillance can do little to track adversaries like the Sept. 11 hijackers, especially if they are in the U.S. legally and careful about what they say on the phone. So why does the CIA persist in spying the wrong way? Part of the answer lies in the culture of secrecy that arose during the cold war and continues to rule the agency’s hearts and minds. Today the secrets the CIA needs to pick up are often easily accessible–such as the travel plans of the Sept. 11 hijackers, two of whom managed to pay for their airline tickets with credit cards in their own names, even though the CIA had placed them on the terrorist watch list weeks before. Exploiting such “open sources” by combining them with newly discovered secrets is critical to fighting terrorists and others who hide in plain sight. And yet for years the agency discounted the value of open sources and let slip the quality of the intelligence analysts charged with studying them.

U.S. intelligence officials remain blind to this deficiency. Tenet insists that the agency’s proper focus remains “the relentless pursuit of the secret.” As long as U.S. intelligence continues to peer only in dark corners, we may struggle to discover what terrorists are hatching right in our backyard.


Here’s how the war on terrorism is supposed to work. In January a U.S. soldier prowling through an al-Qaeda compound in Afghanistan came across a document that contained outlines of a possible plot against the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, Yemen. The document contained the name of Fawaz Yahya al-Rabeei, a Saudi-born Yemeni who belonged to al-Qaeda, and it was passed to the CIA and FBI. Working with foreign intelligence services, the agencies came up with the names of 16 Rabeei associates and photographs of 13 of them. Then an FBI investigator poring over the list realized that the brother of one of the men was in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. On Feb. 11 agents detailed to Camp X-Ray showed the prisoner the photos and persuaded him to talk. The prisoner told them that a terrorist attack–against U.S. installations in Yemen or even the U.S. itself–was planned for the next day.

At 9 that night–after consulting with intelligence officials, White House aides and Office of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge–FBI Director Robert Mueller posted the names of the suspects and their mug shots on the FBI website and issued the government’s most specific terror warning since Sept. 11. No attack took place, but two days later a suspected al-Qaeda operative named Sameer Muhammad Ahmed al-Hada blew himself up with a hand grenade in a suburb of Sanaa, while fleeing from police. Al-Hada was connected to trouble: his brother-in-law is wanted by Yemeni police for conspiring in the Sept. 11 hijackings, and another sister is married to Mustafa Abdul Kader al-Ansari, one of the 17 men the FBI believed had plans to attack America.

The Yemen case was a rare, real-time example of resourceful gumshoeing, timely intelligence and open communication among government agencies. The latter in particular went wanting in the days before Sept. 11. Most notable is the story of Khalid al-Midhar. In January 2000 a group of al-Qaeda operatives met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to plot the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. Malaysian authorities caught the meeting on a surveillance videotape and turned it over to the CIA. Last summer the agency identified one of the attendees as al-Midhar, a Saudi who intelligence officials thought had entered the U.S. shortly after the meeting in Malaysia and left six months later. The CIA put his name on a watch list and handed it over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service–but by then al-Midhar had slipped back into the U.S. Within the next few days, the CIA briefed the FBI on al-Midhar. FBI officials say they initiated a frantic manhunt for al-Midhar but never found him. On Sept. 11, authorities believe, he flew American Airlines flight 77 into the Pentagon. Al-Midhar bought his Sept. 11 airline ticket under his own name, but American Airlines officials say no government authorities informed them he was on a terrorism watch list.

That Al-Midhar could elude three federal agencies, all of which knew his identity and the danger he posed, highlights the lack of coordination among U.S. intelligence agencies, whose biggest problem may be the intelligence system’s splintered structure. The array of semiautonomous agencies–13 in all–share a secure computer network, but collaboration is not in their nature. Interaction between outsiders and CIA analysts or officials is difficult. Says a frustrated Administration official: “We don’t have a place where it all comes together.”

The broad ground rules that gave each intelligence bureaucracy its own role and swath of territory don’t make much sense in the new war. The CIA has largely stayed out of domestic intelligence gathering, in part because of limits set by Congress in the ’70s to protect citizens from the agency’s excesses, such as dosing unwitting subjects with LSD. During the cold war and afterward, the Pentagon, FBI and CIA split the responsibility for tracking foreign threats, but each agency kept the others in the dark about what it was doing. That division of labor failed completely in spotting clues to Sept. 11, so it’s good news that in the race to stop the next attack, the lines between fiefs have finally started to blur. The Sept. 11 terrorists crossed national boundaries at will. In response, more FBI agents are working overseas than ever before. The Patriot Act passed in October gives the CIA greater access to law-enforcement information and allows the nsa to obtain warrants more easily for domestic wiretaps. In Afghanistan, the CIA has unleashed its 150-man covert paramilitary force to conduct sabotage, collect intelligence and train Northern Alliance guerrillas.

The paragon of interagency cooperation is the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, which was created in 1986 as a way to get FBI and CIA agents working side by side. In the past three years, the CTC has broken up three planned attacks by the Hizbollah terror group outside the Middle East, all of them targeting locations where Americans could have been killed. The CTC is everything the rest of the intelligence community is not: coordinated, dynamic and designed for the post-cold war threat. As a result, its staff has doubled to 1,000 since Sept. 11, and the Administration has deluged the center with new funding.

But the CTC’s staffers make up just 1% of the U.S. intelligence community. Some critics say the only sensible reform is for the CTC to become a model for the larger community–merging multiple intelligence agencies under the authority of the director of Central Intelligence. Congressional sources tell TIME that an advisory panel headed by former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft will recommend just such a reorganization later this year. But the idea probably won’t go anywhere. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is expected to oppose any proposal to take away the Pentagon’s control over the Defense Department’s intelligence agencies, where most intelligence dollars go. Tenet, who spent 10 years as a staffer on Capitol Hill, doesn’t want to challenge Rumsfeld, who is at the height of his power. Those who know Tenet say he has little taste for taking on superiors. “[Tenet’s] focus is always just going to be on getting the job done,” says a source close to the Scowcroft panel.


Once intelligence has been collected, analyzed and shared, it must be acted on–used to set priorities and bolster defenses. The government knows it can’t wait. In the past six months, billions have already gone toward reinforcing cockpit doors, tightening the airline baggage-screening process and hiring 28,000 new federal employees at airports to replace the private security firms that let al-Qaeda through on Sept. 11. In October the Administration created a new Office of Homeland Security to deal exclusively with the job of preparing the country for future terrorist threats. Since he took the job of Homeland Security czar, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge has had some rough sledding; Bush gave him no authority over Cabinet members or agencies, which means he lacks the clout to win crucial bureaucratic fights. But Ridge has shown his skill in the Washington art of writing checks. The Administration’s $38 billion homeland-security budget proposes a $380 million system to track the entry and exit of noncitizens and gives $282 million to the Coast Guard for protecting ports and coastal areas. This week, sources tell TIME, Ridge’s office plans to announce a new color-coded alert system to warn local law enforcement and the public about threats within U.S. borders. Even the military is setting up a new bureaucracy, the U.S. Northern Command, dedicated to defending the homeland. By Oct. 1 the military hopes to put a four-star general in charge of a standing domestic military force devoted to flying combat air patrols, guarding the borders and responding to attacks on U.S. soil.

Terrorists aren’t likely to be deterred. There’s plenty of intelligence that al-Qaeda operatives want to bring down more airliners–witness Richard Reid–and the government is still trying to get serious about stopping them. As recently as last month, Transportation Department investigators succeeded in slipping weapons and explosives past screening personnel and onto an aircraft at Miami International Airport.

Thanks to the new airport-security bill passed in Congress last November, airline security has been taken out of the hands of the FAA and given to the newly created federal Transportation Security Administration. But many of the changes that were supposed to be carried out by the TSA either haven’t been implemented or have been killed by compromise. Federal baggage screeners are in place at only 15 of the country’s 429 airports, and the TSA has not yet bought the 2,000 large detection devices it aims to have operating within nine months to inspect checked baggage for explosives. Airlines still aren’t required to match bags to passengers on every plane; on some aircraft, the improvements to cockpit doors amount to nothing but “a silly little bar,” in the words of one pilot. “It’s easy to imagine hundreds of horrific possibilities,” says TSA deputy head Steven McHale. “We can become paralyzed if we start thinking about all possible threats.”

In countless other areas as well, homeland security still needs an upgrade. The Administration plans to hire 800 more customs agents to police the borders but still lacks a system for tracking whether immigrants who enter legally overstay their visas, which three of the Sept. 11 hijackers did. Ridge, who will visit the U.S.-Mexican border this week, has proposed the sensible reform of getting the various border-control agencies–Customs, ins, Border Patrol and Coast Guard–to operate under a single command and work off the same technology. But he lacks the power to make it happen. Despite calls for the Federal Government to improve security at the country’s nuclear power plants and weapons sites–and the chilling discovery in Afghanistan of evidence that al-Qaeda may try to target them–little has been done to lock down the sites or to clear the air corridors above them. In October the FAA briefly banned aircraft from flying below 18,000 ft. and within 10 miles of 86 sensitive sites, including several nuclear power plants, but the ban was lifted in November and has not been reinstated.

Government agencies are starting to prepare for other previously unimaginable threats. Experts meeting last week in Lenox, Mass., said hackers in the Middle East have probed the huge computers that control the nation’s electric-power grid, and the government has received reports of possible physical reconnaissance of power plants by terrorists. Republican Senator Jon Kyl frets about explosives, such as the three substances found in Reid’s shoes, which in small quantities might be missed by airport screening devices and some bomb-sniffing dogs. Small amounts of old-fashioned explosives are potent enough to blow a hole in a fuselage, and experts can’t say for certain whether airport detectors can spot them. “I don’t really want to talk about this publicly,” Kyl says, “but it remains difficult to do something about.”

The homeland-security budget is aimed at keeping casualties down; almost all of the $9.5 billion allocated to combat bioterrorism, for instance, goes toward training and equipping local public-health authorities to treat victims and haul out bodies in the event of an attack. The assumption, of course, is that an attack will come. “We need to accept that the possibility of terrorism is a permanent condition for the foreseeable future,” Ridge told TIME. “We just have to accept it.”


The single most effective strategy for pre-empting another attack is to hit the attackers first–to disrupt and root out the terrorists who are planning the next strike. That’s hard but not impossible. The Sept. 11 hijackers kept low profiles, for example, but didn’t plan the attacks in cloistered secrecy. Mohamed Atta and his crew received money from al-Qaeda paymasters through traceable banking channels. Nine of them were singled out for special airport-security screenings on the morning of the attacks, the Washington Post reported, yet managed to slip through. The two hijackers who were on the government terrorist watch list before Sept. 11 possessed valid driver’s licenses under their own names and paid for their tickets with credit cards that the FBI could have easily tracked. In some cases, the FBI failed to share information it possessed on suspect individuals with other law-enforcement authorities; in others, the feds simply didn’t pay close enough attention.

They do now. Since Sept. 11, the number of FBI personnel working on counterterrorism has grown from 1,000 to 4,000. A new cybercrime division monitors credit-card-fraud schemes that terrorists use to fund their activities. Stung by criticism over its historic reluctance to share secret evidence with local cops, the FBI now sees it doesn’t have a choice. Edward Flynn, the police chief in Arlington County, Va., says the FBI is giving local cops more leads than they can handle. “They feel compelled to tell us this stuff,” he says.

Meanwhile, arrests of al-Qaeda suspects in the U.S. have dwindled. A handful of people in federal custody are still being investigated for possible links to terrorist activity. The worldwide dragnet has snared 600 alleged al-Qaeda operatives. And yet the bottom line is sobering: after six months of gumshoe work by just about every law-enforcement official in the U.S., the number of al-Qaeda sleeper cells that have been busted inside the country is precisely zero. Does that mean bin Laden’s men have gone further underground? “We don’t know,” says an FBI official. “If you go back and look at the hijackers, they had zero contact with any known al-Qaeda people we were looking at. They didn’t break laws. They didn’t do anything to come to anybody’s attention. Are there other people in the U.S. like that? We don’t know.”

As long as such uncertainty persists, so will the military assault on al-Qaeda abroad. The U.S. military campaign has removed bin Laden’s sanctuary and degraded his infrastructure of terror. Pentagon sources say that the U.S. has killed as many as eight high-ranking al-Qaeda officials, but most of the 11,000 terrorists believed to have spent time in al-Qaeda camps are still on the loose. Efforts to apprehend al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan have slowed, as thousands have bought safe refuge in the hamlets and villages of the Afghan countryside. “The mission is to take al-Qaeda apart piece by piece,” says Mohammed Anwar, the head of intelligence in Mazar-i-Sharif. “But it’s very difficult work.” CIA, FBI and military intelligence officials have spent eight weeks interviewing the 300 detainees in Cuba for information on the whereabouts of the al-Qaeda leadership, but defense sources told TIME that any prisoners now in U.S. custody know little, if anything, about bin Laden’s coordinates. While there is a genuine debate inside the government about whether he is still alive, there is far less argument about what will happen after Washington is able to confirm that he is dead. A U.S. official told TIME last week that it is widely presumed that al-Qaeda sleeper cells will take retaliatory action once the terrorist leader is killed or proved dead.

With al-Qaeda sprinkled around the globe, it becomes harder to develop the intelligence needed to take the fight to the enemy. Last week the Administration gave its clearest signal yet that the war won’t stop in Afghanistan or even the Philippines, when it announced plans to send special-ops troops to Yemen and the former Soviet republic of Georgia, both countries where al-Qaeda fighters are believed to be hiding.

By keeping the pressure up, the U.S. hopes to correct its biggest mistake of all. According to this view, the U.S.’s failure to retaliate massively after past al-Qaeda attacks against U.S. military barracks, battleships and embassies tempted bin Laden to go after ever more outrageous targets–and finally the World Trade Center. Now the U.S. has destroyed al-Qaeda’s training camps and undermined bin Laden’s capacity to lead. And yet the Sept. 11 hijackings were years in the making–which means bin Laden could have ordered up another, more lethal attack before his world came apart. “We were overwhelmingly defensive in our orientation before Sept. 11,” Admiral Dennis Blair, the head of the U.S.’s Pacific Command, told TIME. “Now we’ve gone on the offensive.” The big question is whether we did so in time.

–With reporting by Matthew Cooper, John Dickerson, Sally Donnelly, Michael Duffy, Elaine Shannon, Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington, Bruce Crumley/Paris, Tim McGirk/Kabul and Alex Perry/Mazar-i-Sharif

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