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What Did We Know?

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

What Did We Know?

Article excerpt

The now-famous presidential briefing memo of Aug. 6, 2001, titled "Bin Ladin (sic) Determined To Strike in U.S.," clearly raises questions about White House preparedness for a terrorist attack on the United States, at least in hindsight. What's getting less attention were similar warnings in leading American newspapers over the previous eight years.

The New York Times, which mentioned Osama bin Laden as early as March 28, 1993 -- a month after the World Trade Center had been damaged by a terrorist bomb -- reported that same year on

a larger threat to U.S. targets. In a May 2, 1993, story the Times quoted a RAND Corporation expert, Bruce Hoffman, warning that if the WTC attack "is what the second string was able to accomplish, imagine what a first-string terrorist group could do."

In the spring of 2002, for a research paper at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, I examined more than 2,300 news stories, editorials, columns and letters published in two leading American newspapers, the New York Times and The Washington Post, from the time of the 1993 WTC bombing to the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

While the resources and responsibilities of the nation's best newspapers are not to be compared to those of government, there are similarities in hints dropped and warnings uttered during those eight years that are parallel to at least most of the Aug. 6 briefing for the President. In fact, while much attention was previously given to the press' failure to emphasize the warnings of the Hart-Rudman Commission in 1999 and 2001, there is much in the press -- again viewed in hindsight -- that presaged the tragedy of 9/11.

In my Shorenstein paper, completed in May, 2002, I concluded that while the Hart-Rudman panel deserved attention when it predicted a major terrorist attack in the United States "over the next quarter-century," a three-part series on terrorism by the staff of the Times in January 2001 was more compelling. In the first of the series, a 6,200-word piece on bin Laden and his forces, it was reported, for example, that "Al Qaeda trains 'sleeper' agents ... to live undetected among local populations," planning attacks "months or years in advance."

As with government, there were mixed signals in the press as well. A May 31, 2001, Times story on the U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa said those attacks demonstrated "that while Mr. Bin Laden may be a global menace, his group, Al Qaeda, was at times slipshod, torn by inner strike, betrayal, greed, and the banalities of life. …

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