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Was 9/11 really inevitable?

Jeff Daniels, left, plays FBI agent John O'Neil in
Jeff Daniels, left, plays FBI agent John O'Neil in "The Looming Tower," a Hulu mini-series based on the book of the same name by Lawrence Wright.
JoJo Whilden

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While the nation is preoccupied with the gun debate and the Russia probe, a Hulu mini-series that premiered on Feb. 28 takes us back to 9/11 — and tries to make the case that it could have been prevented.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by New Yorker writer, Lawrence Wright, “The Looming Tower" chronicles the infighting between the CIA and FBI leading up to the 9/11 attacks.

For the adaptation, Wright turned to documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney. The two of them made the 2015 film, "Going Clear," about the Church of Scientology, based on a Wright book of the same name. But Wright didn't want this story to be told as a documentary. He tells The Frame that he thought a drama where audiences could get invested in the characters week-to-week would be more effective.

The series aims to illustrate the question of whether 9/11 could have been avoided had there been more cooperation between the FBI and CIA. The Frame host John Horn met with Wright to discuss the writing of the book, the making of the Hulu mini-series, and the political implications of it all.

Interview Highlights

On the real FBI agent John O'Neil, played by Jeff Daniels, who died in 9/11:

He had been the head of counterterrorism in the FBI in New York. But he had been washed out of the FBI because he had taken classified information out of the office. And he had got a job as the head of security at the World Trade Center. He died that day. At the time, I thought, How ironic. He's supposed to get Bin Laden, but Bin Laden got him. And the more I learned about John, I realized it wasn't irony, it was Greek [tragedy]. This was a man [whose] friend said, John, you'll be safe now!' They already hit the World Trade Center in 1993. And [O'Neil] said, No, they'll come back to finish the job. So he instinctively placed himself at ground zero.

On the real FBI agent, Ali Soufan, played by Tahar Rahim:

One of our heroes is based on Ali Soufan. He was the case agent on the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in October of 2000, where 17 American sailors were killed. And he was 29-years-old when he became the lead investigator. He was one of eight Arabic speaking agents in the FBI. [They were] totally unprepared. The FBI was set up to fight the Cold War. He's played by a magnetic young French-Algerian actor called Tahar Rahim. He's a Muslim. He's a Lebanese American — the character he's playing. And we see him more than anyone, caught between these two worlds. The America that he has moved to and appreciates for all the liberties. Even as a young man in the civil war in Lebanon. And here he goes to America, becomes valedictorian of his class. And he's an FBI agent. America has given him unbelievable opportunities. My belief is that by telling human stories like this — and this is a real story — people can get closer to understanding what's going on inside a different human experience. That's where there's value.  

On the rivalry between the CIA and the FBI:

The truth is, the CIA and the FBI have different missions. They're institutionally opposed to each other. The CIA's job is to find out intelligence, to get information and hoard it. The FBI's job is to arrest people, put them on trial. In order to convict them you let all this information out of the bag. There's an institutional resistance to working with each other. It's also personal. That was one of the tragedies that befell us leading up to 9/11. The two people who, in some respects, were most cognizant of the danger that Al Qaeda posed for America were John O'Neil in the FBI and Michael Scheuer in the CIA, who ran the Bin Laden station. It was called Alec Station. And, they were even at war with their own institutions who weren't taking them seriously. They hated each other. After 9/11, Michael Scheuer testified before Congress that the only good thing that happened during 9/11 was that a building fell on John O'Neil. That's an accurate measurement of the institutional rivalry between those two agencies. 

On whether 9/11 could have been prevented:

I do believe very strongly that 9/11 could have been prevented had the CIA and the FBI worked together. In particular, I think the fault lies very much on the CIA side.

Ali Soufan, when he was investigating the Cole bombing, uncovered information from some of his informants about a meeting that had taken place in Malaysia in January of 2000. That was 10 months before the Cole bombing. He suspected that it was where the Cole bombing had been planned. And that was correct. So he sent three queries to the CIA asking for information: Do you know about a meeting in Kuala Lampur? And three times they said no. But they did know. They also knew that after that meeting, two Al Qaeda members flew to Los Angeles, and then from there went to San Diego. This is January 15th, 2000. We're 18 months away from 9/11. And it turns out that these two Al Qaeda members are in the U.S.

They don't tell the FBI. And the FBI had all the authority it needed to get a warrant on Al Qaeda. They could follow them, they could clone their computer. They could have any information they desired to. But the CIA withheld that information. Now, there was a memo that came in through the CIA headquarters about Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, these two hijackers that came from Malaysia, saying that they were in America. According to the Inspector General report to the CIA, 50-60 people inside the agency read it. That's just the number of people who read it. So it was widely known, widely known that Al Qaeda is in America. Why they didn't tell the FBI? No one has been held accountable. I'm not asking for people's heads on a stake, but I am saying, Look at this, look at what happened, look at the consequences, and make your mind up.

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