New 9/11 Timeline Entries: Government Agencies' Initial Responses to the Attacks, John O'Neill's Warnings, and More

From the History Commons Groups blog:

A large number of new entries have been added to the Complete 9/11 Timeline at History Commons, covering a wide range of events relating to the 9/11 attacks. Entries cover, among other things, various warning signs of what was going to happen on September 11, 2001; the actions of John O'Neill, the FBI's top al-Qaeda expert; and new details of what happened on the day of 9/11.

CIA Was Initially Unsure Which Group Was Likely Behind the Attacks

Many entries describe events that occurred on September 11, 2001. Some of them describe the initial reactions and responses of government and military agencies to the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Top officials at CIA headquarters learned about the first crash during their regular 8:30 a.m. meeting, but they were initially unsure whether the incident was a terrorist attack or an accident. However, Richard Blee, chief of the CIA's bin Laden unit, immediately told his colleagues at the Counterterrorist Center at CIA headquarters, "That's bin Laden or al-Qaeda" when he saw the coverage of the crash on television. Unlike him, though, some analysts at the Counterterrorist Center initially concluded that Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, was to blame for the attacks. An article written by CIA analysts published a week or two before then had in fact claimed that Hezbollah was a greater threat to the United States than al-Qaeda.

Later on, Blee asked the FAA liaison at the Counterterrorist Center to provide the CIA with the passenger lists for the hijacked planes, but the liaison refused and so Blee had to ask FBI agents deployed to his unit to see if they could get the lists for him. Consequently, at around 1:00 p.m., CIA Director George Tenet received copies of the lists and he immediately noticed that the list for Flight 77 included the names of two known al-Qaeda members.

Later that afternoon, a few FBI agents in New York were told the names of some suspected hijackers during a conference call with FBI headquarters and one of the agents became enraged when he recognized one of these suspected hijackers as someone the FBI had been investigating.

Government Lawyers Discussed the Terrorist Attacks

After the second crash at the WTC, Timothy Flanigan, the deputy White House counsel, talked on the phone with Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson and was told what the Justice Department knew about the crashes, and he was surprised to hear that the FBI was treating them as crimes rather than acts of war.

Later that morning, Flanigan and another White House lawyer discussed whether the president had the legal authority to order the shooting down of a civilian aircraft, and they consulted a lawyer at the Pentagon who told them he did have this authority. That afternoon, Flanigan discussed how the US government could respond to the terrorist attacks with White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and John Yoo, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel, and Yoo said the president "could take just about any action he wished."

Meanwhile, at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Washington, DC, Bruce Baughman, a senior official with the agency, had to take charge because FEMA's top officials were away from Washington, attending a conference. At the Pentagon, Defense Intelligence Agency personnel "swung into crisis management" in response to the attacks on the WTC, but they did not evacuate and so a number of them were killed when the Pentagon was attacked, at 9:37 a.m.

However, bomb technicians from the FBI's New York field office were more fortunate, surviving the attacks because they were away for training that morning, while the one technician who stayed behind in New York died when the WTC collapsed as he was responding to the crashes.

When the Twin Towers came down, the New York field office was rendered unusable and so FBI agents quickly established a makeshift replacement facility at a parking garage in Manhattan, where they were based over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, two FBI agents in Phoenix, Arizona, visited a local flight school to see if any suspicious students had been there recently and the manager immediately gave them the file of Hani Hanjour, the hijacker who reportedly was at the controls of Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon.

Flight 77 Passenger Called Her Husband from the Hijacked Plane

Several new timeline entries describe the attempts by Barbara Olson, a passenger on Flight 77, to call her husband, Ted Olson, the solicitor general of the United States, on the morning of September 11 and her two successful calls from the hijacked plane.

Beginning at around 9:00 a.m., a secretary in Ted Olson's office at the Department of Justice received a series of unsuccessful calls featuring just an automated message, which were presumably made by Barbara Olson. Barbara Olson's first successful call, made sometime between 9:15 a.m. and 9:25 a.m., initially reached an operator, who Barbara Olson provided with details of the hijacking before she was connected to her husband's office. Barbara Olson then talked to Ted Olson and gave him several details of the hijacking, but the call got cut off after about a minute.

Ted Olson promptly called the Department of Justice command center and passed on the information his wife had given to him. Then, at sometime between 9:20 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., he received a second call from his wife in which she gave him further details of the hijacking of Flight 77 before the call got cut off. Subsequently, when Ted Olson saw the television reports about an explosion at the Pentagon, he immediately concluded that his wife's plane had crashed at the Department of Defense's headquarters.

Barbara Olson's calls to her husband were believed to be among four calls from Flight 77 that were recorded as being made to unknown numbers, although there was no "direct evidence" showing this. It is also possible that Barbara Olson called her husband's number at his old law firm that morning and left voicemail messages for him.

FAA Followed an Unidentified Plane Approaching Washington before the Pentagon Was Hit

A few entries describe miscellaneous events from the day of 9/11.

At FAA headquarters, officials followed an unidentified aircraft--presumably Flight 77, which reportedly crashed into the Pentagon--as it approached Washington and its progress was reported over a teleconference. Around the same time, senior officials in the Executive Support Center at the Pentagon who were discussing how to respond to the attacks on the WTC rejected the idea of evacuating their building.

After the Pentagon was hit, authorities failed to evacuate Secretary of Commerce Don Evans from his office at the Commerce Department in line with "Continuity of Government" plans and so Evans eventually went home of his own accord. And shortly after the Pentagon was attacked, firefighters were sent to the White House after the Secret Service incorrectly reported that a plane had crashed into it.

Later on, personnel in the White House Situation Room learned of a plane supposedly flying toward the US from Portugal that appeared to be hijacked, but it is was subsequently determined that the alleged flight did not exist. And I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, wondered if the recent assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, was carried out as part of the preparations for the day's terrorist attacks.

Sometime that afternoon, Cheney's doctors received the results of a blood test, which indicated that the vice president was at serious risk of a heart attack. Despite the apparent danger, Cheney refused to have another blood sample taken that evening, but tests on a sample he gave the following morning showed that the previous test results were incorrect and his health was in fact fine.

Some Officials Warned of the Danger Posed by Al-Qaeda

Numerous new timeline entries cover events that took place in the years before 9/11. Some of them describe incidents that indicated the type of attacks that would occur on September 11 or the predictions of those who foresaw these kinds of attacks.

FBI terrorism experts met after the bombing of the WTC in February 1993 to try and imagine what future terrorist attacks might involve, and they all agreed that these attacks could include multiple hijackings. And in January 2001, an interagency group recommended that federal buildings in Lower Manhattan, where the WTC was located, receive increased protection, due to the threat of terrorism. Also that month, Richard Clarke, the White House chief of counterterrorism, and Dale Watson, assistant director of the FBI's counterterrorism division, met senior FBI agents from all around the US and warned them about the threat posed by al-Qaeda.

Furthermore, in April 1995, terrorist conspirator Abdul Hakim Murad gave FBI agents details of plots against the United States while he was being flown from the Philippines to the US, and one possible future attack he mentioned was a second bombing of the WTC.

FBI Counterterrorism Official Repeatedly Warned of the Al-Qaeda Threat

A number of entries describe the actions of John O'Neill, the FBI's top expert on al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Some of these entries deal with warnings O'Neill gave before 9/11 about the danger facing America.

In June 1997, O'Neill gave an extensive speech in which he warned of the threat posed by religious extremist groups, although he made no mention of bin Laden. And in May 2001, following the convictions of four men for their involvement in the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, he told a colleague that more al-Qaeda attacks were going to occur.

In summer 2001, O'Neill and two other senior FBI officials met New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, and presented evidence of an imminent al-Qaeda plot, although they said any attack was most likely to occur outside the US. Around the same time, O'Neill talked to Kerik during an event in Washington and told him something "enormous" was going to happen, but he said it would occur abroad rather than in the US.

Other entries describe events that caused O'Neill to get in trouble with his superiors and led to his early retirement from the FBI in August 2001. O'Neill was placed under investigation after an incident in the summer of 1999, when he violated security protocols by taking his girlfriend to a secret FBI garage and letting her use the bathroom there. In April 2000, he accidentally left his handheld computer, which held the details of his police contacts, at the Yankee Stadium, although a guard was fortunately able to retrieve it for him.

The most serious incident occurred in July 2000, when his briefcase, which contained important classified information, was stolen after he left it unattended during a conference. Just over a year later, the New York Times publicly revealed that the FBI had been investigating O'Neill over this incident.

Hijackers Threatened to Crash a Plane into a Building in the 1970s

A few entries cover miscellaneous events that took place before 9/11. Two entries describe incidents from the 1970s. Organizers of the 1972 Munich Olympics asked police psychologist Georg Sieber to predict worst-case scenarios for the games and one of the scenarios he then came up with involved neo-fascists deliberately crashing a jet aircraft into the packed Olympic Stadium in a suicide attack. Later that year, three men hijacked a commercial airliner and threatened to crash it into a nuclear plant, and authorities subsequently feared they might crash it into President Richard Nixon's winter home in Florida.

A couple of entries describe training events that took place shortly before 9/11. A coalition of public and private organizations participated in two exercises in the summer of 2001, based on the scenario of a major hurricane hitting Long Island, New York, and these organizations benefited from the experience just weeks later, when they had to respond to the attacks on the WTC. And in July 2001, presumably as part of a training exercise, officials contemplated how they would respond to a chemical terrorist attack in the middle of Washington.

CIA Official Called 9/11 'a Triumph for the Intelligence Community'

Finally, a few entries cover events that occurred shortly after 9/11.

The FBI's New York field office, which usually dealt with al-Qaeda attacks, argued with FBI headquarters over which of them should lead the investigation of the 9/11 attacks and, against precedent, FBI Director Robert Mueller put the headquarters in charge of it.

Three days after 9/11, New York's Office of Emergency Management opened a massive new operations center at Pier 92 on the Hudson River, since its original operations center was destroyed when WTC Building 7, where it was located, collapsed on the afternoon of September 11.

And, alarmingly, an unnamed high-ranking CIA official told a reporter that be believed Americans would eventually see that "September 11 was a triumph for the intelligence community, not a failure."

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FBI explosives experts were away from New York on 9/11

Check out this new timeline entry, which reveals that the explosives experts from the FBI's New York field office just happened to be away from New York when the attacks on the World Trade Center occurred. They were at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, that morning, for in-service training. This may have saved their lives, since the one bomb technicians who stayed behind in New York tragically died when the World Trade Center collapsed while we was assisting the emergency response to the attacks.
Shortly After 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001: FBI Bomb Technicians Are Away from New York for Training When the WTC Is Attacked
All but one of the bomb technicians from the FBI’s New York field office are away from New York and therefore avoid getting involved with the immediate response to the attacks on the World Trade Center. They are attending in-service training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, along with bomb technicians from other FBI offices. They learn what has happened in New York when Supervisory Special Agent James Clemente, who has been teaching a course in the room next to theirs, comes into their classroom after seeing the second crash on television and realizing it was a terrorist attack. “I ran in there and I told them that both World Trade Towers had been hit by jumbo jets, they were both in flames, this is a terrorist attack,” Clemente will later recall. The bomb technicians are initially skeptical, thinking Clemente’s announcement is a joke or some kind of class exercise. But their pagers start going off and they then realize that a major event is indeed taking place. The bomb technicians from New York will promptly leave the FBI Academy and head back to their city. They are apparently fortunate to be away from their field office this morning. One bomb technician from each office that is receiving the training in Quantico has stayed behind, in case an emergency should occur. [Graff, 2011, pp. 380; Rothco Press, 2015] The bomb technician who stayed behind in New York, Special Agent Leonard Hatton, heads into the WTC to help evacuate people sometime after the second crash and he will tragically be killed when the Twin Towers collapse. [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 9/29/2001; Bergen Record, 8/15/2011] “It wasn’t lost on the bomb techs [from New York] that but for the serendipitous timing of the training, many of them would probably be dead along with Hatton,” journalist and author Garrett Graff will write. [Graff, 2011, pp. 380] “All the other bomb techs from the New York office would have likely died that day but for that training,” Clemente will comment. [Rothco Press, 2015]