Pre-9/11 Warning to Saudis That Bin Laden Might Target Civilian Airliners

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More than three years before the 9/11 attack on the United States, U.S. officials warned Saudi Arabia that Osama bin Laden "might take the course of least resistance and turn to a civilian [aircraft] target," according to a declassified cable released by the National Security Archive today. The warning was made by the U.S. regional security officer and a civil aviation official in Riyadh based on a public threat bin Laden made against "military passenger aircraft" and his statement that "we do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians."

The State Department cable was not mentioned in the report of the 9/11 Commission which investigated how U.S. intelligence failed to detect planning for the terrorist attacks, using civilian airliners, on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Archive analyst Barbara Elias.

The National Security Archive released the cable, and a CIA memorandum, "We're at War," written by then director George Tenet, as it prepared to commemorate its 20th anniversary on Friday. "Obtaining the declassification of these documents on the war on terrorism epitomized two decades of work to bring transparency and accountability to relevant issues in U.S. foreign policy," said Archive Executive Director Thomas Blanton. "American citizens not only have a right to know, they have a need to know."

In his urgent "We're at War" memo written five days after the 9/11 attacks to his top deputies, CIA Director George Tenet demanded an urgent and "unrelenting focus" on "bringing all of our operational, analytical, and technical capabilities to bear--not only to protect the US both here and abroad from additional terrorist attacks--but also, and more importantly, to neutralize and destroy al-Qa'ida and its partners."

The confidential memo called for "absolute and total dedication as a leadership team" and stated that he and his deputies would "translate the urgency of the difficult tasks ahead to the men and women we lead by our behavior and actions." In waging the war on terrorism, Tenet wrote, "we must lead... Never has our professionalism and discipline been at a greater premium."

The memo was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by National Security Archive senior fellow, Jeffrey Richelson. It was first identified in Bob Woodward's bestselling book, Bush At War.

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