Special Report: The Day of the Attack

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CHARLES KRUPA/AP

The day after the attack, the sun rises over where the World Trade Towers stood in lower Manhattan

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And though everyone wanted to be prudent, there weren't a lot of suspects to round up. Palestinian terror groups are experienced at suicide missions, but have never attempted an operation this large. Groups with links to the Iranian government took down the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, killing 19, but that target was a long way from the U.S. Libya has lost its taste for terror, most experts believe, and Iraq's Saddam Hussein has always favored loud, brutish force over quiet finesse. Besides, no group other than Osama bin Laden's loose knit network of operatives in dozens of countries worldwide has ever shown the will, wallet or gall to attack the U.S. before. Bin Laden is responsible for the attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Three weeks ago when he told an Arab journalist he would mount an unprecedented attack on the U.S. "This was well funded and well planned," said Senator Pat Roberts, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "It took a lot of planning. The weather had to be just so on the East Coast. They used sophisticated tactics where they hijacked planes, killed the crew, and they had to have aviators or navigators who knew what they were doing."

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Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage gathered his senior aides in the State Department's seventh-floor secure facility shortly after 9 a.m. Tuesday for a videoconference with the Administration's top national security aides. National Security Adviser Rice and her top counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clark were on one screen, with FBI Director Mueller and his senior aides, the CIA's counterterrorism director, and FAA officials on others. Vice President Cheney was supposed to be in on the teleconference, but the Secret Service had already spirited him off to a safehouse. "We knew we were in trouble," says one official who was present. "We've got suicide attacks here."

Rice stayed silent as the meeting progressed; Clark did most of the talking. Finally at around 9:45 a.m., aides behind Mueller started murmuring and whispering into his ear. Mueller interrupted everyone. "The Pentagon has been hit by an airplane," the FBI chief announced. All the State Department officials turned their heads to Armitage, who was running the building in Powell's absence. "Let's increase security outside the building," Armitage said calmly, seeming unperturbed. Another aide piped up. "We probably need to think about getting the hell out of here," he said. Armitage decided to evacuate, and an alternate command center was set up at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Va. Senior State Department aides jumped in staff cars to race to Arlington but immediately ran into clogged traffic in Washington.

By Tuesday afternoon, the spooks were making progress. Eavesdroppers at the supersecret National Security Agency had picked up at least two electronic intercepts indicating the terrorists had ties to bin Laden. By nightfall, less than 12 hours after the attacks, U.S. officials told TIME that their sense that he was involved had got closer to what one senior official said was 90%. The next morning, U.S. officials told TIME they have evidence that each of the four terrorist teams had a certified pilot with them; some of these pilots had flown for an airline in Saudi Arabia and received pilot training in the U.S. It's not yet clear whether the pilots were trained in the U.S., or in Saudi Arabia or both. Intelligence officials believe each team had four to six persons. Some team members, it is thought, crossed the Canadian border to get into the U.S. Sources told TIME that within the past few months, the FBI added to the U.S. watch list two men whom the bureau believed to be associated with one of the Islamic Jihad terror groups. Through a screwup, the suspects were lost. The two men appear to have been on the American Airlines Flight 77, the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, sources told TIME. Boston appears to have been a central hub for the operation; U.S. intelligence believes a bin Laden cell in Florida was a support group helping with the aviation aspects of the attack.

Intelligence officials poring over old reports believe they got their first inkling of planning for the attack last June, although at the time the intelligence was too vague to indicate the scale of the operation. In the summer U.S. embassies, particularly those in the Middle East, were put on heightened alert, as was the U.S. military in the region. The CIA was getting vague reports "of some kind of spectacular happenings" by terrorists, said a U.S. intelligence official, but the reports were vague as to timing. "A lot of this reporting we had in the summer that gained our attention and had us concerned, but wasn't specific, could have been tied to this," said a U.S. intelligence official.

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