WASHINGTON – The CIA warned as early as 1995 that Islamic extremists were likely to attack U.S. aviation, Washington landmarks or Wall Street and by 1997 had identified Usama bin Laden (search) as an emerging threat on U.S. soil, a senior intelligence official said Thursday.
The official took the rare step of disclosing information in the closely held National Intelligence Estimate (search) for those two years to counter criticisms in a staff report released Wednesday by the independent commission examining pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failures.
That staff report accused the CIA of failing to recognize Al Qaeda (search) as a formal terrorist organization until 1999 and mostly regarding bin Laden as a financier instead of a terrorist leader during much of the 1990s.
But the U.S. intelligence official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said the 1997 National Intelligence Estimate produced by the CIA mentioned bin Laden by name as an emerging terrorist threat on its first page. The National Intelligence Estimate is distributed to the president and senior executive branch and congressional intelligence officials.
The 1997 assessment, which remains classified, "identified bin Laden and his followers and threats they were making and said it might portend attacks inside the United States," the official said.
Philip Zelikow, executive director of the Sept. 11 commission, confirmed the 1997 warning about bin Laden but said it was only two sentences long and lacked any strategic analysis on how to address the threat. "We were well aware of the information and the staff stands by exactly what it says," he said.
The intelligence official also said that while the 1995 intelligence assessment did not mention bin Laden or Al Qaeda by name, it clearly warned that Islamic terrorists were intent on striking specific targets inside the United States like those hit on Sept. 11, 2001.
The report specifically warned that civil aviation, Washington landmarks such as the White House and Capitol and buildings on Wall Street were at the greatest risk of a domestic terror attack by Muslim extremists, the official said.
Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin (search) testified Wednesday that by early 1996 his agency had developed enough concern about bin Laden to create a special unit to focus on his threat. "We were very focused on this issue," McLaughlin told the commission.
The commission's report did credit the CIA after 1997 with collecting vast amounts of intelligence on bin Laden and Al Qaeda, which resulted in thousands of individual reports circulated at the highest levels of government. These carried titles such as "Bin Laden Threatening to Attack U.S. Aircraft" in June 1998 and "Bin Laden's Interest in Biological and Radiological Weapons" in February 2001.
Despite this intelligence, the CIA never produced an authoritative summary of Al Qaeda's involvement in past terrorist attacks, didn't formally recognize Al Qaeda as a group until 1999 and did not fully appreciate bin Laden's role as the leader of a growing extremist movement, the commission said.
"There was no comprehensive estimate of the enemy," the commission report alleged.
But the senior intelligence official said the commission report failed to mention that CIA had produced large numbers of analytical reports on the growth, capabilities, structure and threats posed by Al Qaeda throughout the late 1990s and those detailed reports were distributed to the front lines of terror-fighting agencies.
The CIA most frequently provided these individual and highly detailed analyses to the White House Counterterrorism Security Group charged with formulating anti-terrorism policies and responses, the official said.