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9/11 & Bush's Negligence

By Robert Parry
March 24, 2006

In the U.S. government’s pursuit of the death penalty for Zacarias Moussaoui, FBI officials have inadvertently revealed how an even mildly competent George W. Bush could have prevented the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people – and set the country on a dangerous course for revenge.

FBI agent Harry Samit, who interrogated Moussaoui weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, 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 at Moussaoui’s death penalty hearing on March 20.

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. But the agents couldn’t get their warnings addressed by senior officials at FBI headquarters.

Another big part of the problem was the lack of urgency at the top. Bush, who had been President for half a year, was taking a month-long vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and shrugged off the growing alarm within the U.S. intelligence community.

Separate from the FBI field agents, the Central Intelligence Agency was piecing the puzzle together from tips, intercepts and other scraps of information. On Aug. 6, 2001, more than a month before the attacks, the CIA had enough evidence to send Bush a top-secret Presidential Daily Briefing paper, “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US.”

The CIA told Bush about “threat reporting” that indicated bin-Laden wanted “to hijack a US aircraft.” The CIA also cited a call that had been made to the U.S. Embassy in the United Arab Emirates in May 2001 “saying that a group of Bin Laden supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives.”

“The system was blinking red” during the summer of 2001, CIA Director George Tenet later told the 9/11 Commission.

Bush’s Justice Department and FBI headquarters were in the loop on the CIA reporting, but didn’t reach out to their agents around the country, some of whom, it turned out, were frantically trying to get the attention of their superiors in Washington.

Then-acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard 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.

Pickard “did not task field offices to try to determine whether any plots were being considered within the United States or to take any action to disrupt any such plots,” according to the 9/11 Commission’s report.

Contrasting Styles

Amid this bureaucratic inertia, Bush’s role was crucial. As President, he was the best-positioned official to force the various parts of the government to undertake a top-down review of what was known, what evidence was being missed, what could be done.

Richard Clarke, who had been President Bill Clinton’s counterterrorism chief and stayed in that job after Bush took office, said the Clinton administration reacted to such threats with urgent top-level meetings to “shake the trees” at the FBI, CIA, Customs and other relevant agencies.

Clarke said senior managers would respond by going back to their agencies to demand a search for any overlooked information and to put rank-and-file personnel on high alert, as happened when an al-Qaeda plot to bomb Millennium celebrations was thwarted in 1999.

“In December 1999, we received intelligence reports that there were going to be major al-Qaeda attacks,” Clarke said on CNN’s “Larry King Live” two years ago. “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 (national security adviser) Condi Rice hold meetings of her counterparts to try to stop the attack? No.”

In a March 19, 2006, speech in Florida, former Vice President Al Gore also noted this contrast between how the Clinton administration reacted to terrorist threats and how the Bush administration did in the weeks before Sept. 11.

“In eight years in the White House, President Clinton and I, a few times, got a direct and really immediate statement like that (Aug. 6, 2001 warning), in one of those daily briefings,” Gore said.

“Every time, as you would want and expect, we had a fire drill, brought everybody in, (asked) what else do we know about this, what have we done to prepare for this, what else could we do, are we certain of the sources, get us more information on that, we want to know everything about this, and we want to make sure our country is prepared.

“In August of 2001,” Gore added, “such a clear warning was given and nothing – nothing – happened. When there is no vision, the people perish.” [To see Gore’s speech on C-Span, click here.]

Gone Fishing

After receiving the CIA’s Aug. 6, 2001, warning, Bush is reported to have gone fishing and cleared brush at his ranch. There is no evidence that he did anything to energize or coordinate the government response to the expected attack.

“No CSG (Counterterrorism Security Group) or other NSC (National Security Council) meeting was held to discuss the possible threat of a strike in the United States as a result of this (Aug. 6) report,” the 9/11 Commission wrote. “We have found no indication of any further discussion before Sept. 11 among the President and his top advisers of the possibility of a threat of an al-Qaeda attack in the United States.”

Talking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on April 4, 2004, the commission’s chairman and vice chairman, New Jersey’s Republican former Gov. Thomas Kean and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., said they believed the Sept. 11 attacks were preventable.

“The whole story might have been different,” Kean said, citing a string of law-enforcement blunders including the “lack of coordination within the FBI” and the FBI’s failure to understand the significance of suspected hijacker Moussaoui’s arrest in August 2001 while training to fly passenger jets.

However, from the recent testimony at Moussaoui’s sentencing hearing, it’s now clear that FBI agents in Minnesota did grasp the significance of the flight training and did send alarming messages to Washington-based FBI officials responsible for counterterrorism. But those officials at headquarters apparently missed or ignored the warnings.

Moussaoui’s defense attorney, Edward B. McMahon Jr., asked Michael E. Rolince, who was chief of the FBI’s International Terrorism Operations Section, if he was aware that FBI agent Samit had sent a memo to Rolince’s office on Aug. 18, 2001, warning that Moussaoui was a potential terrorist.

“No,” Rolince answered. “What document are you reading?”

Samit’s report “sent to your office,” McMahon replied. Rolince said he never saw the urgent memo. [Washington Post, March 22, 2006]

When the 9/11 Commission interviewed Rolince for its 2004 report, Rolince “recalled being told about Moussaoui in two passing hallway conversations but only in the context that he [Rolince] might be receiving telephone calls from Minneapolis complaining about how headquarters was handling the matter,” though the calls never came, the report said.

But Rolince was not the only senior FBI official oblivious to the missed clues. The 9/11 report said acting FBI director Pickard and assistant director for counterterrorism Dale Watson weren’t briefed on Moussaoui prior to Sept. 11, either.

The significance of the new information from Moussaoui’s hearing – which followed his guilty plea to charges that he had conspired with al-Qaeda to commit acts of terrorism – is that there’s no longer any doubt that key pieces of the puzzle were tantalizing close to the FBI officials who could have done something.

FBI headquarters also blew off a prescient memo from an FBI agent in the Phoenix field office. The July 2001 memo warned of the “possibility of a coordinated effort by Usama Bin Laden” to send student pilots to the United States. The agent noted “an inordinate number of individuals of investigative interest” attending American flight schools.

No action was taken on the Phoenix memo before Sept. 11.

How Incompetent?

Yet, if President Bush had demanded action from on high, the ripple effect through the FBI might well have jarred loose enough of the pieces to make the overall picture suddenly clear, especially in view of the information already compiled by the CIA.

Ironically, that is almost the same argument that federal prosecutors are making in seeking Moussaoui’s execution. It’s not that he was directly involved in the Sept. 11 plot, they say; it’s that the government might have been able to stop the attacks if he had immediately confessed what he was up to.

To some civil libertarians, the case raises troubling Fifth Amendment issues by creating a precedent for putting someone to death who didn’t promptly confess and thus didn’t provide clues that might have prevented a separate murder that the defendant didn’t specifically know about and wasn’t directly involved in.

In effect, the government is basing its demand for Moussaoui’s death on the notion that the failure to do something that might have prevented the tragedy of Sept. 11 should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

However, the Bush administration has taken almost the opposite position on its own culpability. Despite a strong case for criminal negligence – beginning with FBI officials and reaching up to the Oval Office – Bush and other senior officials have insisted they have nothing to apologize for.

Indeed, Bush has made his handling of the Sept. 11 terror attacks the centerpiece of his presidential legacy. Arguably, he rode the whirlwind from the attacks right through the war in Afghanistan to the invasion of Iraq to his second term as President.

Only recently – after a similar case of botched leadership during the Hurricane Katrina disaster – has the air whooshed out of the Bush balloon. Add in the disastrous decisions around the Iraq War and many Americans see a pattern of arrogant, incompetent leadership that fails to give adequate heed to evidence or attention to details.

For other Americans, the theory of Bush’s incompetence doesn’t go nearly far enough to explain the breathtaking lapses that let the Sept. 11 attacks happen.

Some 9/11 skeptics have come to believe that the destruction of the Twin Towers and the damage to the Pentagon must have been an “inside job” with some elements of the Bush administration conspiring with the attackers to create a modern-day Reichstag Fire that would justify invading Iraq and consolidating political power at home.

The new Moussaoui evidence, however, tends to support the theory of incompetence, though of a kind so gross that it would border on criminal negligence, at the FBI as well as the White House.

Perceptive field agents did their job in sending up warning flares to Washington, but a vacationing President and an inattentive FBI bureaucracy failed to take note or take the necessary actions to head off the tragedy.

Then, with the Twin Towers and the Pentagon still smoldering, Bush and his neoconservative advisers saw in the nation’s anger and fear the emotions needed to implement an agenda of authoritarian rule at home and preemptive wars abroad.


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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