Two Months Before 9/11, an Urgent Warning to Rice
The Washington Post
Sunday 01 October 2006
Editor's Note: How much effort the Bush administration made in going
after Osama bin Laden before the attacks of September 11, 2001, became
an issue last week after former president Bill Clinton accused
President Bush's "neocons" and other Republicans of ignoring bin Laden
until the attacks. Rice responded in an interview that, "what we did
in the eight months was at least as aggressive as what the Clinton
administration did in the preceding years." -The Washington Post
On July 10, 2001, two months before the attacks on the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon, then-CIA Director George J. Tenet met with
his counterterrorism chief, J. Cofer Black, at CIA headquarters to
review the latest on Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist
organization. Black laid out the case, consisting of communications
intercepts and other top-secret intelligence showing the increasing
likelihood that al-Qaeda would soon attack the United States. It was a
mass of fragments and dots that nonetheless made a compelling case, so
compelling to Tenet that he decided he and Black should go to the
White House immediately.
Tenet called Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser,
from the car and said he needed to see her right away. There was no
practical way she could refuse such a request from the CIA director.
For months, Tenet had been pressing Rice to set a clear
counterterrorism policy, including specific presidential orders called
"findings" that would give the CIA stronger authority to conduct
covert action against bin Laden. Perhaps a dramatic appearance - Black
called it an "out of cycle" session, beyond Tenet's regular weekly
meeting with Rice - would get her attention.
Tenet had been losing sleep over the recent intelligence he'd
seen. There was no conclusive, smoking-gun intelligence, but there was
such a huge volume of data that an intelligence officer's instinct
strongly suggested that something was coming. He and Black hoped to
convey the depth of their anxiety and get Rice to kick-start the
government into immediate action.
He did not know when, where or how, but Tenet felt there was too
much noise in the intelligence systems. Two weeks earlier, he had told
Richard A. Clarke, the National Security Council's counterterrorism
director: "It's my sixth sense, but I feel it coming. This is going to
be the big one."
But Tenet had been having difficulty getting traction on an
immediate bin Laden action plan, in part because Defense Secretary
Donald H. Rumsfeld had questioned all the National Security Agency
intercepts and other intelligence. Could all this be a grand
deception? Rumsfeld had asked. Perhaps it was a plan to measure U.S.
reactions and defenses.
Tenet had the NSA review all the intercepts, and the agency
concluded they were of genuine al-Qaeda communications. On June 30, a
top-secret senior executive intelligence brief contained an article
headlined "Bin Laden Threats Are Real."
Tenet hoped his abrupt request for an immediate meeting would
shake Rice. He and Black, a veteran covert operator, had two main
points when they met with her. First, al-Qaeda was going to attack
American interests, possibly in the United States itself. Black
emphasized that this amounted to a strategic warning, meaning the
problem was so serious that it required an overall plan and strategy.
Second, this was a major foreign policy problem that needed to be
addressed immediately. They needed to take action that moment -
covert, military, whatever - to thwart bin Laden.
The United States had human and technical sources, and all the
intelligence was consistent, the two men told Rice. Black acknowledged
that some of it was uncertain "voodoo" but said it was often this
voodoo that was the best indicator.
Tenet and Black felt they were not getting through to Rice. She
was polite, but they felt the brush-off. President Bush had said he
didn't want to swat at flies.
As they all knew, a coherent plan for covert action against bin
Laden was in the pipeline, but it would take some time. In recent
closed-door meetings the entire National Security Council apparatus
had been considering action against bin Laden, including using a new
secret weapon: the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, that
could fire Hellfire missiles to kill him or his lieutenants. It looked
like a possible solution, but there was a raging debate between the
CIA and the Pentagon about who would pay for it and who would have
authority to shoot.
Besides, Rice seemed focused on other administration priorities,
especially the ballistic missile defense system that Bush had
campaigned on. She was in a different place.
Tenet left the meeting feeling frustrated. Though Rice had given
them a fair hearing, no immediate action meant great risk. Black felt
the decision to just keep planning was a sustained policy failure.
Rice and the Bush team had been in hibernation too long. "Adults
should not have a system like this," he said later.
The July 10 meeting between Tenet, Black and Rice went unmentioned
in the various reports of investigations into the Sept. 11 attacks,
but it stood out in the minds of Tenet and Black as the starkest
warning they had given the White House on bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
Though the investigators had access to all the paperwork on the
meeting, Black felt there were things the commissions wanted to know
about and things they didn't want to know about.
Philip D. Zelikow, the aggressive executive director of the Sept.
11 commission and a University of Virginia professor who had
co-authored a book with Rice on Germany, knew something about the July
10 meeting, but it was not clear to him what immediate action really
would have meant. In 2005 Rice hired Zelikow as a top aide at the
Afterward, Tenet looked back on the meeting with Rice as a
tremendous lost opportunity to prevent or disrupt the Sept. 11
attacks. Rice could have gotten through to Bush on the threat, but she
just didn't get it in time, Tenet thought. He felt that he had done
his job and had been very direct about the threat, but that Rice had
not moved quickly. He felt she was not organized and did not push
people, as he tried to do at the CIA.
Black later said, "The only thing we didn't do was pull the
trigger to the gun we were holding to her head."
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