Just minutes after the cameras went dark in the Senate hearing room on Condoleezza Rice on April 8, ABC News anchor Peter Jennings invited Richard Clarke — now an ABC News consultant — to comment.
Mr. Clarke reiterated his central allegation that the Bush administration failed to “shake the trees” by daily meetings with Cabinet officials together and contrasted that to his own behavior during the Millennium crisis. “And by having the Cabinet members come to the White House every day in crisis mode and then go back to their departments and look for anything that is anywhere in the departments in December 1999, we were able to get the kind of information we needed to stop the [Millennium] attacks,” Mr. Clarke said.
That assertion would have been a powerful argument — if it true. But as Mr. Clarke himself knew, the U.S. government managed to stop Millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam, dispatched by al Qaeda to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve 1999, because an alert U.S. Customs inspector at our border with Canada acted on instinct, not on information “shaken from the trees” by the Cabinet.
Miss Rice pointed this out in her own testimony. But she politely refrained for adding the devastating details of how the Clinton administration was nearly hit with a catastrophic terrorist attack because of its own blindness and refusal to confront the al Qaeda spiderweb. I published those details in Reader’s Digest in a March 2002 profile of top French counterterrorism Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a man I had come to respect highly over the 15 years I had known him.
Judge Bruguiere had been tracking Ahmad Ressam since 1996, and by early 1999 had his “hair on fire” because he knew Ressam was plotting an attack against America.
Judge Bruguiere didn’t have details of the actual attack, but he knew how Ressam fit into the al Qaeda “spider’s web,” and knew he was sent from Europe to Canada to prepare his attack.
By March 1999, Judge Bruguiere had gathered enough information from terrorist cells he had broken up in France, Jordan and Australia, to send a thick file to the Canadian authorities, asking that they arrest Ressam and hold him for interrogation. Months went by, and nothing happened.
Finally, Judge Bruguiere traveled personally to Montreal in October to force the issue. By then, Ressam had vanished. At one apartment Judge Bruguiere searched that Ressam had occupied, he seized a pocket datebook that detailed purchases of bomb-making chemicals. The millennium bomber had slipped through the cracks. He had gone operational.
Judge Bruguiere returned to France with a sense of dread. “We came back to France,” Judge Bruguiere told me, “and on Dec. 14, 1999, the news came of Ressam’s arrest. As you know, it was completely by chance. Just plain luck.”
The Canadians had two opportunities to stop him and did nothing. Neither they nor apparently Judge Bruguiere himself had thought to give the FBI a heads-up.
U.S. Customs officer Diana Dean explained she had found the olive-skinned Canadian named Benni Norris unusually nervous. The ferry from Vancouver had just chugged up to its slip at Port Angeles, Wash., on the afternoon of Dec. 14, 1999, and Norris lowered the window of his Chrysler 300. Despite the chilly air, Norris was sweating, Officer Dean noticed.
When she asked him to open his trunk, Norris bolted. After a brief chase, Officer Dean and another officer arrested him. In the trunk, they found 130 pounds of plastic explosives, two 22-ounce plastic bottles full of nitro glycol, and a map of LAX, Los Angeles International Airport. Murder was on his mind.
Not only did Mr. Clarke and his Cabinet-level meetings fail to shake any information from the trees about the Millennium plot: When U.S. prosecutors encountered the man who identified himself as Benni Norris, they didn’t have a clue who he was.
But in a tiny garret office in the Palais de Justice in Paris, Judge Bruguiere understood what had happened, and immediately telephoned a friend at the U.S. Justice Department in D.C., sketching out what he knew.
Ultimately, Judge Bruguiere sent the complete file on Ressam a k a Benni Norris to U.S. prosecutors, and spent seven hours testifying in a Seattle, Wash., court as a witness in the case. Without his help, the U.S. case against Ressam would have been much weaker. Thanks to Judge Bruguiere, Ressam agreed to become a government witness against Osama bin Laden and to help expose elements of the al Qaeda network.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the intelligence failures that contributed to September 11. In his interviews with me, Judge Bruguiere sketched out six reforms he felt were essential to help unmask bin Laden’s operations in the United States. We called them “Bruguiere’s rules.” They involved better communication among prosecutors, better international cooperation and specialized investigators.
But this 15-year veteran of trench warfare against terrorists did not think more meetings — Cabinet level, or otherwise — would have any effect. “We are seeing the globalization of terror,” Judge Bruguiere said. “To combat it, we need a global response, to operate in dozens of countries around the world, just as the terrorists do.”
One final irony involves another al Qaeda terrorist whose file Judge Bruguiere knew intimately: Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker, who was arrested on Aug. 17, 2001, by Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents because of suspicious activity while attending the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Minneapolis, Minn.
When I went to see him in Paris shortly after September 11, 2001, Judge Bruguiere was grinning from ear to ear. “You’ve heard about Moussaoui?” he said, meaning Moussaoui’s arrest. Judge Bruguiere had a file on him that he couldn’t wait to transmit to the U.S. prosecutors. One hint: He wasn’t the 20th hijacker but was preparing a follow-on wave of attacks.
In the end, Judge Bruguiere was never able to transmit his file to the U.S. prosecutors in a form they could use to prosecute Moussaoui. The Moussaoui case — lacking that hard information — remains blocked to this day.
The French government of President Jacques Chirac, stepped in and ordered Judge Bruguiere to break off formal cooperation with the United States. Our one-time ally in the war on terror was about to demonstrate it had new priorities that would play themselves out dramatically during the Iraq crisis a year later.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine and author of “The French Betrayal of America” (Crown Forum).