Jul 23, 2003

9/11 Report Release CNN

Bergen: Censored Saudi section 'highly significant' Thursday, July 24, 2003 Posted: 1226 GMT ( 8:26 PM HKT) (CNN) -- Missed clues and opportunities by U.S. intelligence agencies are said to be highlighted in a congressional report on the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, according to several sources who also say the FBI will bear the brunt of the criticism. The report by a joint congressional committee is to be released Thursday. CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen, the author of "Holy War: An In-depth Look at Osama bin Laden and Islamic Militant Groups Around the World," talked about the report with CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. COOPER: First, let's talk about this, obviously, this censored part of it -- the part that deals with Saudi Arabia. How significant is that? BERGEN: Well, I think that's highly significant. I think the Saudis have obviously had a long period of time in which, in one way or another, they've supported groups like al Qaeda. They had a wake-up call with the attack in Riyadh that killed 25, and I think they're taking much more proactive efforts against al Qaeda itself. But the fact is that 15 of the hijackers were Saudi. Saudi charities have supported al Qaeda's activities. And I think it's very hard to investigate a closed society like Saudi Arabia. We won't know what's in that classified section that has been deleted from the report, unfortunately. But it is very interesting that Saudi [Arabia] sort of continues to get a pass from this administration for reasons that aren't entirely clear. I've talked to people directly involved in the investigation. Now, this is before the Riyadh attack, but they used words like "despicable," "obstructionist" to describe Saudi cooperation into the 9/11 attack. And you would have thought, after 9/11, that the Saudis would be welcoming with open arms American investigators. That's not the case. COOPER: And so fascinating to -- that you hear those words privately, because publicly, as you well know, what comes from the administration is -- the words are far more benign, nothing close to despicable. How significant, I mean, is there anything really new in this report that -- at least the public part of it, that we, that you have seen so far? BERGEN: I haven't read it. But from what I understand, it doesn't seem there's anything earth- shattering. And I think it would have been surprising if they had. Don't forget, this plot was incredibly closely held. I don't know if you remember that videotape with bin Laden with the Saudis' cleric, or the supposed cleric, the supporter, which was found by U.S. forces after the fall of the Taliban. COOPER: Sure. BERGEN: On that tape, bin Laden points to Suleiman Abu Ghaith, who's the group's spokesman, after all, and says, 'Hey, we didn't even clue this guy in about it.' So even within the top echelon of al Qaeda itself, this was a very tightly held secret. I'm sure there were mistakes made by many agencies. I think it was a systematic failure, in fact, really. The problem ... was really a lack of imagination. I myself thought there was a catastrophic attack coming down the pike in the summer of 2001, and talked publicly about it, and told other people that I thought it was happening. But I thought it would happen in the Middle East or in Asia or in Africa or in places it happened before. If somebody said to me here in Washington or New York there would be these attacks, I would have just said, 'That's just impossible.' So I think that was the mindset of the media, the mindset of investigative agencies. And so, even with the information, the little dribs and drabs that were out there, sure, al Qaeda pilots were training in the United States. We knew this from the embassy bombing trial, that al Qaeda people were training as pilots in the United States as early as '93. But no one put all these things together, unfortunately. COOPER: Well, as you said, a failure of imagination more than anything else. Let's hope we've become a lot more imaginative since then. Peter Bergen, thanks very much for joining us. BERGEN: Thank you.