Able Danger Blog

Click here to order Triple Cross in paperback now

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Operation Two Guys in a Bar

Interesting follow up on a story we blogged about here a few weeks ago.

Steve Engelberg was the editor for Judy Miller at the New York Times, when she got a tip that the NSA had intercepted a message between two Al Qaeda operatives in July 2001 where one said not to worry, they were planning something so big as a follow up to the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, the US would have to respond this time.

Steve was interviewed on MSNBC about the story last night and claimed:

We had two guys talking somewhere in the world about a possible al Qaeda attack. And the questions I asked Judy were, OK, which two guys, where are they, or is it two guys in a bar, or is it, you know, Ayman Zawahiri? I mean, we needed to know before we would even have anything to discuss with Bill, you know, what we had. And we didn‘t have much.

Of course, that was not what he told Editor Scott Malone recently:

“On September 11th, I was standing on the platform at the 125th Street station,” he remembered ruefully more than four years later. “I was with a friend and we both saw the World Trade Center burning and saw the second one hit. ‘It’s Al-Qaeda!’ I yelled. ‘We had a heads up!’ So yes, I do still have regrets.”

It does not quite fit with what Judy has said, either:

“I realized that this information was enormously sensitive, and that it was going to be difficult to get more information, but that my source undoubtedly knew more. So I promised to Steve that I would go back and try to get more. And I did... try.

“He knew who my source was. He knew that the source was impeccable. I had also confirmed from a second source that such a conversation had taken place -- that there was such an intercept -- though my second source did not seem to know as much about the content of the intercept as the first source did. But that was enough for me to know that there was a good story there.

“But whoever knew about the ‘who’ and the ‘where’ was not willing tell me at that time. After the fact I was told that, ‘The bad guys were in Yemen on this conversation.’ I didn’t know that at that time. I remember knowing that the person who’ve told me seemed to know who had been overheard, but he was not about to share that information with me....

Anyway, you can watch the Countdown segment at MSNBC.COM.

Here is the full transcript:

And could reporter Judith Miller have broken a story in July 2001 that might have changed history, might have altered 9/11? We‘ll talk to the editor who worked with her on the warning that never came.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.


OLBERMANN: It‘s almost exactly the same revisionist history that pointed a finger at Franklin Delano Roosevelt‘s administration long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that the government either knew the attack was coming, or helped to facilitate it in order to further its own agenda.

Sixty-plus years later, that argument is being applied to 9/11, 500 conspiracy theorists gathering in Chicago over the weekend to argue that the Bush administration trained the hijackers and blew up the twin towers. That may be a lot stronger stuff than most Americans can contemplate, let alone believe.

But what‘s hinted at in our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN has a far higher level of acceptance, the idea that enough people in the establishment knew something of what was coming, that somebody might have done something to alter or thwart the attacks, perhaps merely by revealing what they had heard.

A source apparently told “New York Times” reporter Judith Miller that al Qaeda was planning something big, but the story never ran. In July 2001, Miller was working on a series of investigative pieces into al Qaeda when an unnamed White House source gave her a tipoff, telling her about an NSA intercept between two al Qaeda operatives who were lamenting the lack of response from the U.S. to the bombing of the U.S.S. “Cole” in 2000. According to Miller, her source shared that, quote, “One al Qaeda operative was overheard saying to the other, ‘Don‘t worry, we‘re planning something so big now that the U.S. will have to respond.”

Miller said she took the tip to her editor, Stephen Engelberg, but that because she could not find out who the operatives were or where the conversation took place, they decided not to go with the story until they found more details. But they never found them.

Quote, “Washington being Washington, and the counterterrorism world being the counterterrorism world, I was soon off pursuing other things. I simply couldn‘t nail it down with more specificity.”

What happened two months later, we all know all too well.

Miller‘s then-editor at “The New York Times,” currently the managing editor for the newspaper “The Portland Oregonian,” Stephen Engelberg, joins us now.

Mr. Engelberg, thank you for your time, sir.


OLBERMANN: Can we apply the logical fallacy here, event A happens, in this case event A doesn‘t happing—happen, no story based on this tip happens. Event B then happens. Obviously it‘s 9/11. That does not necessarily mean event A caused event B. Or do you think a second source on that one tip would have actually changed things?

ENGELBERG: It‘s hard to say. I mean, one thing that you have to keep in mind is that in that period of history, July of 2001, there were an enormous number of tips floating around. The United States government, on the July 4 weekend of that year, was very, very worried that al Qaeda was going to attack an American embassy overseas. And we heard a lot about that.

And they were still quite nervous at the end of July when this tip came in. So this was not sort of an isolated thing that we only heard one of. This was one of, you know, a number of things that we heard about al Qaeda.

And the question was, you know, how reliable is it? And if it‘s reliable, what is the government doing about it? And we never got to even the second question, because we weren‘t able to confirm the first part of it.

OLBERMANN: What would have happened if you had, in some manner or way, gone with a one-source story hinting at a domestic terror attack or a terror attack of some great prominence from al Qaeda in July 2001? I mean, we hear that phrase, pre-9/11 thinking, these days until we get nauseous from it. But there was a different mindset about that. Would it have been taken seriously, do you think?

ENGELBERG: Well, it‘s hard to say. Perhaps. I mean, you certainly can spin a scenario that way, because the government already had so many other things in its hands, perhaps one last little nudge from a newspaper like that might have caused them to put together various pieces of the puzzle.

I mean, remember, we have Moussaoui in Minnesota, who gets arrested in August. We have the flight training in Phoenix. We have the CIA and FBI losing track of the two guys who came in who were living in California.

I mean, there were so many pieces of evidence out there that perhaps, sure, if we had done something, you never know, perhaps this would have just been the last little straw that broke the camel‘s back.

OLBERMANN: Bill Keller, who was the managing editor of “The New York Times” at the time, told the Internet reporter Rory O‘Connor that he‘d never heard anything about the al Qaeda attack tip from either you or from Ms. Miller. Is that true? And if so, you‘ve alluded to the number of tips at that time and the great generalized concern. But who made the call not to shoot that up further up the power structure? And what was the basis for it?

ENGELBERG: Well, I reported directly to Bill, and it wasn‘t really a big decision. I would bring him things that I felt had some reality behind them. And this particular tip, we didn‘t really have much to go on. We had two guys talking somewhere in the world about a possible al Qaeda attack. And the questions I asked Judy were, OK, which two guys, where are they, or is it two guys in a bar, or is it, you know, Ayman Zawahiri? I mean, we needed to know before we would even have anything to discuss with Bill, you know, what we had. And we didn‘t have much.

OLBERMANN: Do you find any inconsistency between the decision-making process on that story and the decision-making processes on the later Judith Miller stories about WMD, the ones that her name is now inextricably linked to?

ENGELBERG: Well, I was, you know, long gone from the “Times” by the time most of that material appeared. And I think “The Times” itself has said in its Editors‘ Note that if they had it all to do again, they might have proceeded a little differently.

Certainly, when I was there, Judy was, you know, encouraged by her bosses, including me, to vet this kind of stuff five different ways to Sunday. I mean, you know, one doesn‘t want to go out with anonymous sources and panic everybody without a very, very good reason.

OLBERMANN: Stephen Engelberg, the managing editor of the “Portland Oregonian,” formerly of “The “New York Times,” great thanks for sharing this with us. We appreciate it.

ENGELBERG: My pleasure.