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The Cell: Inside the 9/11 Plot, and Why the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop It

The Cell: Inside the 9/11 Plot, and Why the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop ItBy John Miller and Michael Stone with Chris Mitchell
Published by Hyperion Books

PROLOGUE

September 11, 2001, started out as such a nice day -- no, a beautiful day. Then it all turned.

ABC News/Good Morning America, 9:05 A.M.

DON DAHLER

Well, we see -- it appears that there is more and more fire and smoke enveloping the very top of the building, and as fire crews are descending on this area, it -- it does not appear that there's any kind of an effort up there yet. Now remember -- Oh, my God!

DIANE SAWYER

Oh my God! Oh my God!

CHARLES GIBSON

That looks like a second plane has just hit . . .

How many times have you heard someone say, "Well, things will never be the same." It is rarely true. Things always go back to being the same. But not this time. Before the day was out many of my friends were dead. Many had just barely escaped. Many of them were badly hurt. Many who got out without even a scrape will be emotionally scarred for years if not forever. Many of them don't even know it yet, or just won't admit it.

Things will never be the same.

I have been a crime reporter since I was a teenager. I have seen or heard everything that a crime reporter could. Or so I thought, until September 11, 2001. I was listening to the citywide radio frequency of the NYPD when I heard Joe Esposito, the NYPD chief, yell into his radio: "Car 3 to Central, advise the Pentagon New York City is under attack!" Been around a long time. Hadn't heard that one before.

I sat with Peter Jennings at the anchor desk in New York watching the flames when a plume of white smoke appeared where the South Tower had stood.

DON DAHLER

The second building that was hit by the plane has just completely collapsed. The entire building has just collapsed . . . it folded down on itself and it's not there anymore.

PETER JENNINGS

We are talking about massive casualties here at the moment and we have -- whoo -- that is extraordinary.

DON DAHLER

There is panic on the streets. There are people screaming and running from the site. The gigantic plume of smoke has reached me and I'm probably a quarter of a mile north of there.

By the time the Towers collapsed in a cloud of metal and dust and humanity, I knew this was the work of bin Laden. No one told me. No one had to. It had been a long time coming. I was part of the small club, regarded by many as alarmists, who had been predicting a major attack on U.S. soil since just before the millennium. Even so, I never imagined this result. Nor, do I think, did anyone else.

Things will never be the same.

Those of us who had studied terrorism in general or bin Laden in particular knew that the most reliable way to predict future behavior was to examine past behavior. Truck-bombs, murders, yes -- even airplane hijackings. But no one had ever used a huge jetliner as a projectile -- a missile -- against a skyscraper before. No one had ever committed mass murder on this scale in a set of coordinated acts of terrorism in a single day. Not until September 11, 2001. That was the day my crime story turned into a war. Or had it been one all along?

We all asked, how could this have happened, how could we not have known, why were we not prepared? This book will answer many of those questions. No doubt years will be spent parsing every memo and intelligence report to see what little clues might have been missed. We will deal with that in this story too. But if there is any true value to this narrative, it is not the little picture of the single clue passed over; it is the big picture to stand back from, to appreciate its shape and detail.

How did this happen to us? To find the answers we had to go back more than a decade and follow the thread forward to September 11, 2001. As we did, a recurring pattern emerged. It raises questions: Was the FBI fully up to the job of countering terrorists? What about the CIA? Was terrorism a priority in the Bush White House or in Ashcroft's Justice Department prior to September 11, 2001?

This is not a book about how the FBI agents or the CIA's officers on the front lines screwed up. Quite the contrary. Successful cases and captures were made. A number of horrific terrorist plots were disrupted. We found in almost every case that the cops, agents and spies who followed their instincts were usually in the right place and on the right trail. But we found a recurring pattern. Over and over again the investigators were waved off the right trail. The reasons ranged from risk-averse bosses to bureaucratic resigned to ensure that the left hand would never know what the right hand was doing.

What struck us was the remarkable stories of those investigators. What we learned is that for more than a decade, the very system they worked for seemed to conspire against them as often as it supported them.

In many ways it seems like America was the sleeping giant. Every time the terrorism alarm went off, the giant stirred to consciousness, hit the snooze button and went back to sleep. Each time it sounded the alarm was a little louder. The Kahane murder, the World Trade Center bombing, the plot to blow up the bridges and tunnels, the East Africa embassy bombings, the USS Cole attack.

In 1998, I sat with Osama bin Laden in a hut in Afghanistan as he told me he was declaring war on America. His words at the time may have sounded hyperbolic, but read them now.

"We are sure of our victory. Our battle with the Americans is larger than our battle with the Russians. We predict a black day for America and the end of the United States."

From the moment bin Laden declared war on America, one of his frustrations seemed to be that he couldn't get America to declare war back. Not until the loudest and bloodiest alarm sounded on September 11 did the giant finally awake.

Copyright 2002 John Miller Enterprises Ltd. and Michael Stone

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