Video: Instinct foiled 1999 terror plot

By Lisa Myers Senior investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/29/2004 7:26:46 PM ET 2004-04-29T23:26:46

It's almost become an article of faith at the 9/11 commission hearings that high-level meetings in Washington helped stop a terrorist attack at the Los Angeles airport just before the turn of the millennium.  But the inside-the-Beltway gospel just isn't true.

NBC News went back to the customs agent who actually stopped an al-Qaida terrorist from entering the United States in 1999, and she says it was her gut instincts — not meetings in Washington — that helped her make the arrest.

In December of 1999, upon arriving on a ferry from Canada, al-Qaida operative Ahmed Ressam was arrested with a trunk full of explosives. His plan: to blow up Los Angeles International Airport.

Some members of the 9/11 commission now argue that al-Qaida’s plot was foiled because of almost frenetic White House meetings that month, keeping the bureaucracy on its toes.

On April 13, 2004, 9/11 commission member Timothy Roemer said, “The Clinton administration has a great deal of success during this time period.  My theory is, because of this small group that is meeting at the top levels of government.”

NBC News decided to take a close look at what happened four years ago.  Was the bomb plot foiled by an alert White House or by an alert agent on the front lines?

“His story didn’t make sense to me,” said customs inspector Diana Dean. Now retired, Dean was working the border that night. On a hunch something wasn’t quite right, she questioned Ressam and asked him to pop his trunk. Inside were big bags of white powder that were first thought to be drugs.

But that night, drug tests came back negative.  When investigators looked further, they found timers and realized the powder was explosives.

Dean said, “My heart dropped right into my toes when I realized what it was.”

She says no one had told her anything about being on alert for terrorists.

“I don’t recall any specific threats," she added.  "I don’t recall anybody saying watch for terrorists.”

Customs officials confirm that no alert had gone out to the field.

The Clinton administration was at battle stations during this period, and that extraordinary effort helped foil al-Qaida plots against Americans in Jordan.  But there’s simply no evidence that meetings in Washington stopped the planned attack on American soil.

In fact, senior counterterror officials attribute catching Ressam to good training and sheer luck.

As for Dean, she received an award and today shrugs off revisionist history in Washington, noting that success has many fathers.

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