John O'Neill knew.Orcinus reminds us that at least one man in the FBI was well aware of the Al Qaeda threat and was gutsy enough to do something about it, as Richard Clarke explained to PBS Frontline:
I saw a report that indicated that the man who had plotted the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the ringleader, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, was about to move within Pakistan. There was a closing window to catch him. So, thinking there might be somebody in the FBI on a Sunday morning, I called and John answered the phone. I said, "Who's this?" He responded, "Well, who the hell are you? I'm John O'Neill." I explained, "I'm from the White House. I do terrorism. I need some help."
So I told him my story on the classified phone line. He had never worked on the case before, but he obviously knew the importance of it. He went into action over the course of the next two or three days; he never left the office. He worked the phones out to Pakistan, he worked the phones to the Pentagon, and he worked the phones at the State Department. Together with us, [he] put together the rush team that managed to catch Ramzi Ahmed Yousef in Pakistan just before he moved into Afghanistan, which would have been beyond our reach. It was a pretty intense couple days, but it worked. It was, in the way, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, because the same drive he brought to that first encounter, he brought to everything he did.
I think the intelligence community, the FBI, were unanimous, certainly throughout the year 2000 into 2001, that there was in fact a very widespread Al Qaeda network around the world in probably between 50-60 countries -- that they had trained thousands, perhaps over 10,000 terrorists at the camps in Afghanistan; that we didn't really know who those people were. We didn't have names for very many of them, and we didn't know where they were; but since bin Laden kept saying the United States was the target, the United States was the enemy, that we had to expect an increasing rate of sophistication of attacks by this large Al Qaeda network against the United States.
As John O'Neill kept saying, there was no reason to think they're always going to go after us in Saudi Arabia or Africa or Yemen. They tried to go after us, O'Neill would say, in 1993, in the first World Trade Center attack. O'Neill was convinced, in retrospect -- and it took the FBI others a long time to realize it, many years actually -- but O'Neill was convinced by the year 2000, certainly probably earlier than that, that the 1993 attack was in fact a bin Laden-led attack. We hadn't heard the phrase Al Qaeda at the time.
We now know, going back through historical documents, that there was an Al Qaeda [back then]. It had just been formed, just been given that name. It was small. But O'Neill would say the attack of 1993 was Al Qaeda. The attempted attack at the millennium in the United States was Al Qaeda.
Whatever deterrents we had that said "you should never try to attack us in the United States," that hadn't worked. Therefore, he would say -- and I think everyone in the FBI leadership and the CIA leadership was saying -- "The attack is going to be big. It could be in Saudi Arabia or the Middle East. It could also be in the United States."
Our obsession with John O'Neill began with his obituary in the New York Times in September 2001, followed by this post on the PBS Frontline episode David Neiwert cites above.
The names of two of the hijackers who flew into the Pentagon on Flight 77 were on O'Neill's desk before he left the FBI. Not exactly a "lack of specificity" of information, as the White House now claims. There was plenty more that could have been done by any administration that chose to pay attention.