Neck Deep: The Real 9/11 Scandal
Editor’s Note: As George W. Bush tries to squeeze 16 more months of political advantage from America’s 9/11 memories, it is worth recalling how different history might have been had the Bush administration heeded intelligence warnings in the summer of 2001.
Bush’s supporters have worked mightily to foist off blame for the attacks on the Clinton administration, but the truth is that the key developments in the emergence of Osama bin Laden and his terrorist band date back to the Reagan-Bush years of the 1980s – and the missed opportunities to stop the attacks fell heavily on George W. Bush’s watch.
That reality is recalled in this excerpt from the new book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush:
During the lazy summer of 2001, relatively few Americans had even heard of al-Qaeda, which in Arabic means “the base.” This organization of Islamic extremists had taken shape during the CIA-supported war against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
In the years of the late Cold War, CIA Director William J. Casey and other anti-Soviet hard-liners viewed Islamic fundamentalism as a tool to pry historically Muslim territories in the southern Soviet Union away from Moscow and its atheistic communist government.
So, besides arming a multinational force of Islamists to fight in Afghanistan, the CIA printed thousands of copies of the Koran and smuggled them into the Soviet Union.
In another trade-off for the Afghan war, the CIA looked the other way while Pakistan was developing its nuclear bomb. The CIA wanted nothing to interfere with the vital cooperation that Pakistani intelligence was providing in funneling weapons to the anti-Soviet Afghan rebels and their Islamic allies, including bin Laden.
But after the Soviets were driven from Afghanistan in 1989, many of the CIA-trained Islamist guerrillas turned their fury against other infidels encroaching on Muslim lands. The most obvious intruder was their old patron, the United States.
Bin Laden, the scion of a wealthy Saudi family which controlled much of the construction in the oil-rich kingdom, disdained the Saudi princes for their decadent ways and their reliance on the Americans for their security. The acetic and religious bin Laden grew more alienated from the Saudi power structure in 1990 when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
Bin Laden despised Hussein as a secular leader of an Arab country and wanted him driven from Kuwait, but bin Laden was disgusted at the thought of non-Muslims setting up military bases near Islamic holy sites in Saudi Arabia.
He volunteered to raise an Islamic army of mujahedeen to push Hussein out of Kuwait. But the Saudi royals threw in their lot with the Americans, the British and a multinational force that succeeded in routing the Iraqi army in early 1991.
But, just as bin Laden had feared, the Americans did not dismantle their military bases in Saudi Arabia. They made them more permanent.
In the early 1990s, bin Laden moved his fledgling al-Qaeda organization to Sudan and built up an array of interrelated businesses as a framework for his political activities.
He reached out to Islamic extremists from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Oman, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Somalia and Eritrea. Many were exiles from losing battles against the power structures in their home countries.
During this transition period, bin Laden intensified his anti-American rhetoric and issued a fatwa – or religious order – in 1992 against U.S. “occupation” of Islamic lands. U.S. intelligence began to suspect that al-Qaeda was responsible for scattered attacks against U.S. targets in the Middle East and East Africa.
By 1996, pressure from the United States and other countries persuaded the Sudanese government to expel bin Laden and his organization. Bin Laden left Sudan on May 19, 1996, and returned to his old sanctuary in Afghanistan.
Though in a weakened position, bin Laden began reviving al-Qaeda in the mountains of Afghanistan, with the protection of the Pakistani intelligence services and the fundamentalist Taliban government in Kabul.
Bin Laden rebuilt his financial structure, set up training camps and forged alliances with other extremist organizations, such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad led by exile Ayman al-Zawahiri. On Feb. 23, 1998, a resurgent bin Laden issued another fatwa against the United States, specifically authorizing his followers to kill Americans whether they were civilian or military.
Five months later, on Aug. 7, 1998, al-Qaeda militants struck at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The bombing of the Nairobi embassy killed 12 Americans and 201 others.
In Dar es Salaam, 11 people died. Bin Laden declared publicly that if inciting attacks intended to drive Americans and Jews from the Islamic holy lands is a crime, “let history be a witness that I am a criminal.”
After the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, President Bill Clinton ordered heightened attention on bin Laden and al-Qaeda, looking for ways of getting the terrorist leader expelled from Afghanistan or killed.
On Aug. 20, 1998, the United States launched a missile strike against bin Laden’s Afghan base, killing about two dozen people but missing bin Laden, who was believed to have left the compound a few hours earlier.
Besides failing to kill bin Laden, Clinton earned the derision of Republicans and many Washington pundits, who accused him of a “wag-the-dog” attempt to distract attention from the scandal over his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.
In the months that followed, as the U.S. government weighed additional countermoves, bin Laden’s operatives prepared for another strike inside the United States, this one to coincide with the Millennium celebrations at the end of 1999.
An intelligence report from the National Intelligence Council, which advises the President on emerging threats, warned that al-Qaeda should be expected to “retaliate in a spectacular way” for the 1998 cruise missile attack on Afghanistan.
Tipped by Jordanian intelligence on al-Qaeda’s plans, the Clinton administration ordered tightened security and got lucky when alert border guards at Port Angeles, Washington, apprehended Ahmed Rassam, who was on his way to Los Angeles to plant bombs at the international airport.
At the height of Campaign 2000, al-Qaeda took aim at another U.S. target, the destroyer USS Cole, as it docked in the port of Aden. On Oct. 12, 2000, al-Qaeda operatives piloted a small boat laden with explosives against the Cole’s hull, blasting a hole that killed 17 crew members and wounded another 40.
Back in Afghanistan, bin Laden anticipated – and desired – a retaliatory strike. He hoped to lure the United States deeper into a direct conflict with al-Qaeda, which would enhance his group’s reputation and – assuming a clumsy U.S. response – would radicalize the region’s Muslim populations.
Bin Laden evacuated al-Qaeda’s compound at the Kandahar airport and fled into the desert near Kabul and then to hideouts in Khowst and Jalalabad before returning to Kandahar where he alternated sleeping among a half dozen residences.
But lacking hard evidence proving who was behind the Cole bombing, Clinton didn’t order a retaliatory strike. Only during the transition to the Bush presidency did U.S. intelligence reach a conclusion that the attack was “a full-fledged al-Qaeda operation” under the direct supervision of bin Laden.
However, Clinton left a decision on what do next up to the incoming administration – and it didn’t agree with Clinton’s assessment that al-Qaeda ranked at the top of the U.S. threat list. From his opening days in office, Bush rebuffed recommendations from almost anyone who shared Clinton’s anxiety about terrorism.
On Jan. 31, 2001, just 11 days after Bush’s Inauguration, a bipartisan terrorism commission headed by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman unveiled its final report, bluntly warning that urgent steps were needed to prevent a terrorist attack on U.S. cities.
“States, terrorists and other disaffected groups will acquire weapons of mass destruction, and some will use them,” the report said. “Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.” Hart specifically noted that the nation was vulnerable to “a weapon of mass destruction in a high-rise building.”
The 9/11 Commission later wrote, “in February 2001, a source reported that an individual whom he identified as the big instructor (probably a reference to bin Laden) complained frequently that the United States had not yet attacked. According to the source, bin Laden wanted the United States to attack, and if it did not he would launch something bigger.”
By then, Muhamed Atta and other al-Qaeda operatives were moving into position for their next deadly operation. From safe houses in California and Florida, they enrolled in American flight schools and took lessons on how to fly commercial jetliners.
When congressional hearings on the Hart-Rudman findings were set for early May 2001, the Bush administration intervened to stop them. The presumed reasoning was that the Bush administration didn’t have much to show either in terms of accomplishments or plans of its own.
Instead of embracing the Hart-Rudman findings and getting to work on the recommendations, Bush set up a White House committee, headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, to examine the issue again and submit a report in fall 2001.
“The administration actually slowed down response to Hart-Rudman when momentum was building in the spring,” said former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
By late spring 2001, other alarm bells were ringing, frequently and loudly. Credible evidence of an impending attack began pouring in to U.S. intelligence agencies.
“It all came together in the third week of June,” said Richard Clarke, who was the White House coordinator for counterterrorism. “The CIA’s view was that a major terrorist attack was coming in the next several weeks.”
In late June, CIA Director George Tenet was reported “nearly frantic” about the likelihood of an al-Qaeda attack. He was described as running around “with his hair on fire” because the warning system was “blinking red.”
On June 28, a written intelligence summary to Bush’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice warned that “it is highly likely that a significant al-Qaeda attack is in the near future, within several weeks.”
On July 5, 2001, at a meeting in the White House Situation Room, counterterrorism chief Clarke told officials from a dozen federal agencies that “something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it’s going to happen soon.”
But instead of sparking an intensified administration reaction to the danger, the flickering light of White House interest in the terror threat continued to sputter.
By July 10, senior CIA counterterrorism officials, including Cofer Black, had collected a body of intelligence that they presented to Director Tenet.
“The briefing [Black] gave me literally made my hair stand on end,” Tenet wrote in his memoir, At the Center of the Storm. “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.”
After reaching the White House, a CIA briefer, identified in Tenet’s 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.
“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 recalled.
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.
Through the sweltering heat of July, Bush turned his attention to an issue dear to the hearts of his right-wing base, the use of human embryos in stem-cell research.
Medical scientists felt stem cells promised potential cures for debilitating and life-threatening injuries and illnesses, from spinal damage to Alzheimer’s disease. Yet, despite this promise, the Christian Right objected on moral grounds to the extraction of cells from embryos, even if they were destined for destruction as waste at fertility clinics.
Bush also was eyeing a month-long vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
While Atta and his team made final preparations, the U.S. press corps also missed the drama playing out inside the U.S. intelligence agencies. The hot stories that steamy summer were shark attacks and the mystery of a missing Capitol Hill intern Chandra Levy, who’d had an affair with Representative Gary Condit, a California Democrat.
The news media pretended that its obsession with Levy’s disappearance was a heartfelt concern to help her parents find their missing daughter; the sexual gossip about Levy and Condit proved to be a fortuitous byproduct.
Yet, as cable news played the Chandra Levy case 24/7, a far more significant life-or-death drama was playing out inside the FBI and CIA.
At the FBI’s Phoenix field office, FBI agent Kenneth Williams noted the curious fact that suspected followers of bin Laden were learning to fly airplanes at schools inside the United States.
Citing “an inordinate number of individuals of investigative interest” attending American flight schools, Williams sent a July 10, 2001, memo to FBI headquarters warning of the “possibility of a coordinated effort by Usama Bin Laden” to send student pilots to the United States. But the memo produced no follow-up.
National FBI officials seemed paralyzed at the thought of taking proactive measures. Instead they concentrated on what to do after an anticipated terror attack.
Then-acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard later told the 9/11 Commission that he discussed the intelligence threat reports with FBI special agents from around the country in a conference call on July 19, 2001. But Pickard said the focus was on having “evidence response teams” ready to respond quickly in the event of an attack.
CIA officials encountered similar foot-dragging at the White House. At least two officials in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center were so apoplectic about the blasé reactions from the Bush administration that they considered resigning and going public with their concerns.
Instead, the CIA hierarchy made one more stab at startling Bush into action.
On Aug. 6, 2001, the CIA dispatched senior analysts to brief Bush near the beginning of his month-long vacation at his Crawford ranch. They carried a highly classified report with the blunt title “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.”
This Presidential Daily Brief summarized the history of bin Laden’s interest in launching attacks inside the United States and ended with a carefully phrased warning about recent intelligence threat data:
“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 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.
Putting the CIA’s warning in the back of his mind and ordering no special response, Bush returned to a vacation of fishing, clearing brush and working on a speech about stem-cell research.
Yet, inside the FBI as the month wore on, there were more warnings that went unheeded. FBI agents in Minneapolis arrested Zacarias Moussaoui in August 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 al-Qaeda operative had been taking flight training in Minnesota because he was planning to hijack a plane for a terrorist operation.
But 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.
Another big part of the problem was the lack of urgency at the top. Counterterrorism coordinator 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.
Clarke contrasted President 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. “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.”
In his book, Against All Enemies, 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 Reagan’s 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 Governor Thomas Kean and former Democratic Indiana Representative Lee Hamilton, respectively – 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, 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 that would be derived from human embryos.
Scientists complained that the existing lines were too tainted with mouse cells and too limited to be of much value. But the national news media mostly hailed Bush’s split decision as “Solomon-like” and proof that he had greater gravitas than his critics would acknowledge.
CIA Director Tenet said he made one last push to focus Bush on the impending terrorism crisis, but the encounter veered off into meaningless small talk.
“A few weeks after the August 6 PDB was delivered, I followed it to Crawford to make sure the President stayed current on events,” Tenet wrote in his memoir. “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.
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.
On Sept. 6, 2001, Defense Secretary Donald 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. Hart was still trying to galvanize the Bush administration into showing some urgency about the terrorist threat. Hart met with Condoleezza 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, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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