Tenet-Bush Pre-9/11 'Small Talk'
In late August 2001, when aggressive presidential action might have changed the course of U.S. history, CIA Director George Tenet made a special trip to Crawford, Texas, to get George W. Bush to focus on an imminent threat of a spectacular al-Qaeda attack only to have the conversation descend into meaningless small talk.
Alarmed CIA officials already had held an extraordinary meeting with then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice on July 10 to lay out the accumulating evidence of an impending attack and had delivered on Aug. 6 a special “Presidential Daily Brief” to Bush entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.”
“A few weeks after the Aug. 6 PDB was delivered, I followed it to Crawford to make sure the President stayed current on events,” Tenet wrote in his memoir, At the Center of the Storm. “This was my first visit to the ranch. I remember the President graciously driving me around the spread in his pickup and my trying to make small talk about the flora and the fauna, none of which were native to Queens,” where Tenet had grown up.
Tenet’s trip to Crawford – like the July 10 meeting with Rice and the Aug. 6 briefing paper for Bush – failed to shock the administration out of its lethargy nor elicit the emergency steps that the CIA and other counterterrorism specialists wanted.
While Tenet and Bush made small talk about “the flora and the fauna,” al-Qaeda operatives put the finishing touches on their plans.
It wasn’t until Sept. 4 – a week before 9/11 – when senior Bush administration officials, including Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “finally reconvened in the White House Situation Room” to discuss counter-terrorism plans “that had been lingering unresolved all summer long,” Tenet wrote.
Tenet’s memoir also provided new details about the emergency July 10 meeting that Tenet had demanded with Rice to lay out the startling new evidence of an impending al-Qaeda attack.
By July 10, senior CIA counterterrorism officials, including Cofer Black, had collected a body of intelligence that they first presented to Tenet.
“The briefing [Black] gave me literally made my hair stand on end,” Tenet wrote. “When he was through, I picked up the big white secure phone on the left side of my desk – the one with a direct line to Condi Rice – and told her that I needed to see her immediately to provide an update on the al-Qa’ida threat.”
‘Significant Terrorist Attack’
After reaching the White House, a CIA briefer, identified in the book only as Rich B., started his presentation by saying: “There will be a significant terrorist attack in the coming weeks or months!”
Rich B. then displayed a chart showing “seven specific pieces of intelligence gathered over the past 24 hours, all of them predicting an imminent attack,” Tenet wrote. The briefer presented another chart with “the more chilling statements we had in our possession through intelligence.”
These comments included a mid-June statement by Osama bin Laden to trainees about an attack in the near future; talk about decisive acts and a “big event”; and fresh intelligence about predictions of “a stunning turn of events in the weeks ahead,” Tenet wrote.
Rich B. told Rice that the attack will be “spectacular” and designed to inflict heavy casualties against U.S. targets, Tenet wrote.
“Attack preparations have been made,” Rich B. said about al-Qaeda’s plans. “Multiple and simultaneous attacks are possible, and they will occur with little or no warning.”
When Rice asked what needed to be done, the CIA’s Black responded, “This country needs to go on a war footing now.” The CIA officials sought approval for broad covert-action authority that had been languishing since March, Tenet wrote.
Despite the July 10 briefing, other senior Bush administration officials continued to pooh-pooh the seriousness of the al-Qaeda threat. Two leading neoconservatives at the Pentagon – Stephen Cambone and Paul Wolfowitz – suggested that the CIA might be falling for a disinformation campaign, Tenet wrote.
But the evidence of an impending attack continued to pour in. At one CIA meeting in late July, Tenet wrote that Rich B. told senior officials bluntly, “they’re coming here,” a declaration that was followed by stunned silence.
The intelligence community’s evidence was summarized in the special PDB that was delivered to Bush while he was vacationing at his ranch in Crawford.
The PDB ended by noting that “FBI information … indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York. The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers Bin Ladin-related. CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our Embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group of Bin Ladin supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives.”
Bush apparently was not pleased by the CIA’s intrusion on his vacation nor with the report’s lack of specific targets and dates. He glared at the CIA briefer and snapped, “All right, you’ve covered your ass,” according to an account in author Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine., which relied heavily on senior CIA officials.
Ordering no special response, Bush returned to his month-long vacation of fishing, clearing brush and working on a speech about stem-cell research.
While it will never be known whether a different reaction by Bush and his national security team might have disrupted the 9/11 attacks, a variety of options – both short- and long-term – were available.
Inside the FBI in August, there were other warnings that went unheeded. FBI agents in Minneapolis arrested Zacarias Moussaoui because of his suspicious behavior in trying to learn to fly commercial jetliners when he lacked even rudimentary skills.
FBI agent Harry Samit, who interrogated Moussaoui, sent 70 warnings to his superiors about suspicions that the Islamic extremist had been taking flight training in Minnesota because he was planning to hijack a plane for a terrorist operation.
FBI officials in Washington showed “criminal negligence” in blocking requests for a search warrant on Moussaoui’s computer or taking other preventive action, Samit testified more than four years later at Moussaoui’s criminal trial.
Samit’s futile warnings matched the frustrations of other federal agents in Minnesota and Arizona who had gotten wind of al-Qaeda’s audacious scheme to train pilots for operations in the United States. The agents couldn’t get their warnings addressed by senior officials at FBI headquarters.
But another big part of the problem was the lack of urgency at the top. Bush and his top aides shrugged off the growing alarm within the U.S. intelligence community.
Counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke said the 9/11 attacks might have been averted if Bush had shown some initiative in “shaking the trees” by having high-level officials from the FBI, CIA, Customs and other federal agencies go back to their bureaucracies and demand any information about the terrorist threat.
If they had, they might well have found the memos from the FBI agents in Arizona and Minnesota. They also might have exploited the information that two known al-Qaeda operatives, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawar al-Hazmi, had entered the United States. On Sept. 11, they boarded American Airlines Flight 77 and helped fly it into the Pentagon.
In his book, Against All Enemies, Clarke contrasted President Bill Clinton’s urgency over the intelligence warnings that preceded the Millennium events with the lackadaisical approach of Bush and his national security team.
“In December 1999, we received intelligence reports that there were going to be major al-Qaeda attacks,” Clarke said in an interview about his book. “President Clinton asked his national security adviser Sandy Berger to hold daily meetings with the attorney general, the FBI director, the CIA director and stop the attacks.
“Every day they went back from the White House to the FBI, to the Justice Department, to the CIA and they shook the trees to find out if there was any information. You know, when you know the United States is going to be attacked, the top people in the United States government ought to be working hands-on to prevent it and working together.
”Now, contrast that with what happened in the summer of 2001, when we even had more clear indications that there was going to be an attack. Did the President ask for daily meetings of his team to try to stop the attack? Did Condi Rice hold meetings of her counterparts to try to stop the attack? No.” [CNN’s “Larry King Live,” March 24, 2004]
In his book, Clarke offered other examples of pre-9/11 mistakes by the Bush administration, including a downgrading in importance of the counterterrorism office, a shifting of budget priorities, an obsession with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and an emphasis on conservative ideological issues, such as Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars missile defense program.
A more hierarchical White House structure also insulated Bush from direct contact with mid-level national security officials who had specialized on the al-Qaeda issue.
The chairman and vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission – New Jersey’s former Republican Gov. Thomas Kean and former Democratic Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton – agreed that the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented.
“The whole story might have been different,” Kean said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on April 4, 2004. Kean cited a string of law-enforcement blunders including the “lack of coordination within the FBI” and the FBI’s failure to understand the significance of Moussaoui’s arrest in August while training to fly passenger jets.
Yet, as the clock ticked down to 9/11, the Bush administration continued to have other priorities. On Aug. 9, 2001, Bush gave a nationally televised speech on stem cells, delivering his judgment permitting federal funding for research on 60 preexisting stem-cell lines, but barring government support for work on any other lines of stem cells derived from human embryos.
On side trips from his August vacation, Bush also made forays to Middle American cities that Bush said represented “heartland values” and the basic decency of Americans. Some residents living near the Atlantic and Pacific oceans viewed the hype about “heartland values” as a not-so-subtle snub at the so-called “blue” coastal states that favored Al Gore.
Bush kept drawing distinctions, too, between his presidency and Bill Clinton’s. Bush and his senior advisers continued their hostility toward what they viewed as the old Clinton phobia about terrorism and this little-known group called al-Qaeda.
Tenet’s late August trip to Crawford seeking to underscore the urgency of the terrorist threat may have been viewed in that light, helping to explain why it devolved into a meaningless discussion of the ranch’s “flora and fauna.”
Despite the Sept. 4, 2001, meeting of senior Bush aides to review the counterterrorism initiatives that had been languishing since March, the administration still didn’t seem moved by the urgency of the moment.
On Sept. 6, 2001, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld threatened a presidential veto of a proposal by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, seeking to transfer money from strategic missile defense to counterterrorism.
Also on Sept. 6, former Sen. Gary Hart, who had co-chaired a commission on terrorism, was again trying to galvanize the Bush administration into showing some urgency about the threat. Hart met with Rice and urged the White House to move faster. Rice agreed to pass on Hart’s concerns to higher-ups.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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