Bin Laden may have tricked spies: Officials say their intelligence pointed to an attack overseas
WASHINGTON — U.S. officials began piecing together a case linking Osama bin Laden to the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, aided by intercepted communications between his supporters.
Bush-administration officials and other experts said the millionaire Saudi exile was their top suspect. U.S. intelligence intercepted communications discussing the attacks, according to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
"They have an intercept of some information that included people associated with bin Laden who acknowledged a couple of targets were hit," Hatch said. He declined to be more specific. Hatch also said law-enforcement officials have data possibly linking one person on one of the four ill-fated flights to bin Laden.
Names of suspected terrorists with possible ties to bin Laden were on the hijacked planes' passenger rosters, a government source said.
Senior intelligence officials began sifting the mountains of information that U.S. spies and satellites have been collecting — surveillance photos, transcripts of telephone calls, reports from CIA agents — on bin Laden and his loose-knit organization, often called al-Qaeda, or "the base."
What they found is deeply troubling: Since May, there had been numerous warnings that bin Laden or another terrorist leader was preparing a major campaign against Americans, but all the intelligence suggested that any attacks would come overseas. Military and diplomatic posts abroad were kept on heightened states of alert, and the State Department warned travelers of the danger in an advisory Friday, but America's own airports and potential targets were still asleep. What that suggests, two senior administration officials said, is the frightening possibility that bin Laden may have used America's most precious intelligence assets, the multimillion-dollar spy satellites that take pictures and eavesdrop on phone calls and data transmissions, to deceive the United States.
The vast electronic "take" on bin Laden, said officials who requested anonymity, contained no hints of a pending campaign in the United States itself: no orders to subordinates, no electronic fund transfers, no reports from underlings on their surveillance of the airports in Boston, Newark and Washington.
Instead, the officials said, bin Laden appears to have used the communications he knew the United States was monitoring to throw America's spies off his trail and turned to human couriers to carry his real messages and money.
Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Lebanon's Hezbollah both turned to similar tactics after they discovered that foreign intelligence agencies could eavesdrop on their phone calls.
"This apparently was well-planned over a number of years, planned by real pros and experts," Hatch said in Washington after speaking with FBI and intelligence officials.
"Bin Laden is the leading candidate," said a senior intelligence official who requested anonymity. "There's nothing hard, but he's one of a very few people who would want to do this and who also has access to the tools and the kind of people you need to do this."
In past attacks, early speculation has been dead wrong: Mideast extremists were suspected of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. For two years, Iran was suspected of the 1989 Pan Am 103 midair bombing, for which a Libyan intelligence agent was convicted in January.
But U.S. officials also have built a strong circumstantial case for bin Laden involvement. His network of extremists from Islamic countries stretching from Algeria to the Philippines, most of whom trained in Afghanistan, is the only international group known to have the means, motive, methods and track record to carry out the deadliest terrorist attack in history.
"It's very difficult to imagine anyone but Osama pulling this off. He has the declared motive and the stated objective. He has to be the most plausible, credible suspect. It looks like he's finally hit the home run that he's been talking about for years," an intelligence analyst said.
The sheer scope of the operation may be the single strongest piece of evidence pointing to bin Laden.
"The global network needed to pull this off, the finances involved in training people and putting them in place, the operational resources, the teams of people to do advance intelligence requires a truly robust organization. And there's only one of that caliber: bin Laden," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist and director of the Rand Corp.'s Washington office. "This is not just a bunch of angry guys pulled off the streets."
In Congressional testimony in February, CIA Director George Tenet warned, "Osama bin Laden and his global network of lieutenants and associates remain the most immediate and serious threat. Since 1998, bin Laden has declared all U.S. citizens legitimate targets of attack."
As evident during the twin 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, bin Laden is "capable of planning multiple attacks with little or no warning," he said. He also cautioned that bin Laden operations are increasingly difficult to trace because he has turned to allies to cover his tracks.
U.S. counterterrorism officials say other Mideast groups, such as Islamic Jihad or Hamas, are less sophisticated and have limited attacks largely to the Mideast.
"This kind of attack would require a great deal of preparation. You'd need people in place for at least three to four months to accomplish this unprecedented set of attacks," said Stanley Bedlington, a former CIA terrorism analyst.
In 1995, for example, five Islamic terrorists unconnected to bin Laden plotted to blow up 11 U.S. passenger jets over the Far East in a single day of synchronized terror. The plot was uncovered after an apartment fire in Manila.
But the Taliban, the ruling Islamic militia in Afghanistan where he is thought to be based, said bin Laden lacks the resources for such an operation.
In Kabul, Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel told reporters the Taliban had stuck to its promise to limit bin Laden's ability to communicate by taking away his satellite telephone and other equipment.
One well-placed source said bin Laden agents also may have worked with other groups, as is now suspected in the U.S.S. Cole attack in Yemen last year that killed 17 U.S. sailors.
He said the intelligence information suggested the al-Qaeda network was involved, but noted the militant Saudi fugitive "frequently uses surrogates."
Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press and Reuters is included in this report.