In spring and summer 2001, the CIA and counterterrorism experts frantically rang warning bells, trying to get President Bush to order a full-court press aimed at stopping an attack that al-Qaeda was plotting. U.S. intelligence agencies weren’t sure exactly where al-Qaeda would strike but they were sure that something big was coming.
The neocons, however, had regarded the Clinton administration’s fear about al-Qaeda terrorism as a distraction, a relatively minor concern when compared to the neocon certainty that the far greater Middle East danger came from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
In the neocon world view, “regime change” in Iraq would be the great “game changer,” setting in motion the toppling of hostile governments in Syria and Iran – and ultimately enabling Israel to dictate surrender terms to its close-in adversaries, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
So, when many Clinton holdovers renewed their alarms in 2001, the warnings fell mostly on deaf ears inside the Bush administration. Indeed, some of Bush’s top neocons believed the CIA analysts were being tricked into getting the inexperienced young President to take his eye off the ball, that is, off Iraq.
In an op-ed  for the New York Times on the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, journalist Kurt Eichenwald fills in some missing pieces to the pre-9/11 narrative, putting into context the infamous “Presidential Daily Brief” of Aug. 6, 2001, which was entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”
Since the PDB was declassified in 2004, Bush’s defenders have argued that the President’s indifference to the warning was because the PDB was mostly a historical recounting of past al-Qaeda operations. But Eichenwald writes that the PDB was only one of a series of alarming reports that counterintelligence officers were putting before Bush and his national security team.
“While those documents are still not public, I have read excerpts from many of them, along with other recently declassified records, and come to an inescapable conclusion: the administration’s reaction to what Mr. Bush was told in the weeks before that infamous briefing reflected significantly more negligence than has been disclosed,” Eichenwald writes. “In other words, the Aug. 6 document, for all of the controversy it provoked, is not nearly as shocking as the briefs that came before it.”
For instance, Eichenwald reports that by May 1, 2001, the CIA had informed the White House that “a group presently in the United States” was plotting a terrorist attack. By June 22, a PDB called the expected al-Qaeda strike “imminent” although the precise timing was considered flexible.
So, when the Aug. 6 PDB arrived, it already had a troubling context, mounting evidence that al-Qaeda had placed a team of terrorists inside the United States with plans for a dramatic attack on American soil. Yet, Bush brushed aside the Aug. 6 warning while vacationing at his Texas ranch and literally went fishing. Why?
Eichenwald writes that Bush’s nonchalance could be traced to the success of neocon advisers in convincing the President that the warning was “just bluster.” The neocons have never been known to be humble in their assessment of their own intellectual prowess and that self-certainty apparently swayed Bush.
According to Eichenwald, “An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat.
“Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives’ suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day. In response, the C.I.A. prepared an analysis that all but pleaded with the White House to accept that the danger from Bin Laden was real.”
Eichenwald writes that a PDB of June 29 read, “The U.S. is not the target of a disinformation campaign by Usama Bin Laden.” The brief listed evidence, “including an interview that month with a Middle Eastern journalist in which Bin Laden aides warned of a coming attack, as well as competitive pressures that the terrorist leader was feeling, given the number of Islamists being recruited for the separatist Russian region of Chechnya,” Eichenwald reports.
The CIA continued to build on its case, including comments from operatives close to bin Laden that the impending attack would have “dramatic consequences” with heavy casualties. “Yet, the White House failed to take significant action,” Eichenwald writes.
“Officials at the Counterterrorism Center of the C.I.A. grew apoplectic. On July 9, at a meeting of the counterterrorism group, one official suggested that the staff put in for a transfer so that somebody else would be responsible when the attack took place, two people who were there told me in interviews. The suggestion was batted down, they said, because there would be no time to train anyone else. …
“On July 24, Mr. Bush was notified that the attack was still being readied, but that it had been postponed, perhaps by a few months. But the president did not feel the briefings on potential attacks were sufficient, one intelligence official told me, and instead asked for a broader analysis on Al Qaeda, its aspirations and its history. In response, the C.I.A. set to work on the Aug. 6 brief.”
Over the past several years, other senior intelligence officials have commented on the mounting evidence of a planned attack and the failure of Bush to react.
“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.”
Some information even began to reach Washington reporters, but apparently not enough or the right ones. New York Times reporter Judith Miller, in a 2006 interview with AlterNet , said a well-placed CIA official briefed her on an al-Qaeda intercept over the July Fourth holiday in 2001.
“The person told me that there was some concern about an intercept that had been picked up,” Miller said. “The incident that had gotten everyone’s attention was a conversation between two members of al-Qaeda. And they had been talking to one another, supposedly expressing disappointment that the United States had not chosen to retaliate more seriously against what had happened to the [destroyer USS] Cole [which was bombed on Oct. 12, 2000].
“And one al-Qaeda operative was overheard saying to the other, ‘Don’t worry; we’re planning something so big now that the U.S. will have to respond.’”
Miller, who herself had close ties to the neocons, expressed regret that she had not been able to nail down enough details about the intercept to get the story into the newspaper. The Alternet interview was published in May 2006 after Miller resigned from the Times, in part, over her cozy ties with key neocons in Bush’s administration.
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 [national security adviser] 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 footingnow.” 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 kept pouring 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 2001, 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 those destined for destruction as waste at fertility clinics.
While the team of al-Qaeda terrorists made final preparations for their attack, 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 Rep. 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 just 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.
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.
So, on Aug. 6, 2001, the CIA dispatched senior analysts to brief Bush who was starting a 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 PDB 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.
A 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 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. “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 Rep. 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 news media mostly hailed Bush’s split decision as “Solomon-like” and proof he had greater gravitas than his critics would acknowledge.
One Last Pitch
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 neocon 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-Mich., seeking to transfer money from strategic missile defense to counterterrorism.
Also on Sept. 6, former Sen. Gary Hart tried 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. However, nothing was done before al-Qaeda struck on Sept. 11.
When the first plane crashed into the North Tower at the World Trade Center in New York at 8:46 a.m., President Bush was on a trip to Florida, visiting a second-grade classroom. After the second plane hit the South Tower at 9:03 a.m., White House chief of staff Andrew Card whispered into Bush’s ear that “America is under attack.”
Bush sat dumbstruck for seven minutes holding a book, The Pet Goat. He later said he didn’t react immediately because he didn’t want to alarm the children.
Though Bush’s neocon advisers had been disastrously wrong about anticipating al-Qaeda’s terrorist strike, they quickly turned the catastrophe to their advantage by convincing Bush that he should go beyond simply striking back at al-Qaeda; that he should seize the opportunity to take out Saddam Hussein as well.
The Bush administration was soon on course to launch not only an invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, but Iraq as well. The neocons also revived their dreams about using Iraq as a launching pad for additional “regime change” in Syria and Iran. In the short term, the 9/11 disaster worked out so well for the neocons that some cynics began to suspect that the neocons had secretly wished for the attack all along.
As the years wore on, neocon hubris contributed heavily to the bloody mess in Iraq as nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers died along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. The war in Afghanistan became a blood-soaked quagmire, too. The price tags for the wars were soon exceeding $1 trillion.
Bush’s military overreach set the stage for the 2008 election of Barack Obama who famously opposed the Iraq invasion as a young aspiring politician in Chicago. Yet, despite the calamities in their wake, the neocons never went far from the center of Washington influence and power. They retreated to high-paying jobs at think tanks, wrote books and sought out a new Republican presidential hopeful.
The Romney Retreads
The smart neocon bet was soon placed on Mitt Romney, who like Bush was a relative neophyte on foreign policy. The smooth-talking neocons quickly earned a place of trust in the Romney camp. The former Massachusetts government largely delegated to the neocons the job of writing his foreign policy white paper, “An American Century .”
Romney allowed the title to be an obvious homage to the neocon Project for the New American Century, which in the 1990s built the ideological framework for the Iraq War and other “regime change” strategies of President Bush. Romney recruited Eliot Cohen, a founding member of the Project for the New American Century and a protégé of prominent neocons Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, to write the foreword.
Romney’s white paper chastised Barack Obama for committing himself to pulling out the 30,000 “surge troops” from Afghanistan by mid-2012 and conducting a gradual withdrawal of the remaining 70,000 by the end of 2014. Romney’s white paper argued that Obama should have followed the advice of field commanders like then-Gen. David Petraeus and made withdrawals either more slowly or contingent on American military success. The white paper also opposed a full withdrawal from Iraq.
The white paper made clear that if Romney wins the White House, he is determined to reconstruct much of Bush’s foreign policy, complete with a renewed insistence on U.S. military dominance of the world and a full restoration of neocon influence.
Romney’s “An American Century” also brought back a favorite tactic of the Bush years, the baiting of Americans who dare criticize the nation’s hubristic foreign policy of the last decade. Echoing a favorite Republican talking point, Romney scolded Obama for supposedly “apologizing” for America.
The white paper stated: “In his first year in office alone, President Obama issued apologies for America in speeches delivered in France, England, Turkey, and Egypt not to mention on multiple similar occasions here at home.
“Among the ‘sins’ for which he has repented in our collective name are American arrogance, dismissiveness, and derision; for dictating solutions, for acting unilaterally, for acting without regard for others; for treating other countries as mere proxies, for unjustly interfering in the internal affairs of other nations, for committing torture, for fueling anti-Islamic sentiments, for dragging our feet in combating global warming, and for selectively promoting democracy.
“The sum total of President Obama’s rhetorical efforts has been a form of unilateral disarmament in the diplomatic and moral sphere. A President who is so troubled by America’s past cannot lead us into the future.”
In other words, Romney’s neocons were reaffirming their long-held pattern of demonizing anyone who tries to discuss U.S. foreign policy honestly. After all, the neocons of the Bush years were guilty of pretty much every “sin” that is cited above. Apparently, it’s disqualifying to tell the truth if it makes the neocons look bad.
Romney also attacked Obama for even modestly trimming the U.S. military budget, which is now is roughly equal to what is spent by all other nations on the planet combined. According to “An American Century,” Romney “will put our Navy on the path to increase its shipbuilding rate from nine per year to approximately fifteen per year. He will also modernize and replace the aging inventories of the Air Force, Army, and Marines, and selectively strengthen our force structure.
“And he will fully commit to a robust, multi-layered national ballistic-missile defense system to deter and defend against nuclear attacks on our homeland and our allies.” The white paper did make one concession to reality by conceding that “this will not be a cost-free process. We cannot rebuild our military strength without paying for it.” The white paper added:
“Romney will begin by reversing Obama-era defense cuts and return to the budget baseline established by Secretary Robert Gates in 2010, with the goal of setting core defense spending — meaning funds devoted to the fundamental military components of personnel, operations and maintenance, procurement, and research and development — at afloor of 4 percent of GDP,” or about $565 billion.
Typical of a neocon-written white paper, there also was the obligatory declaration that the United States must do whatever is necessary to protect Israel’s interests. It stated: “Israel is the United States’ closest ally in the Middle East and a beacon of democracy and freedom in the region. The tumult in the Middle East has heightened Israel’s security problems.
“Indeed, this is an especially dangerous moment for the Jewish state. It has deteriorating relationships with Turkey and Egypt. It faces longstanding dangers from Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, a violent and highly unstable Syria, and a nuclear-aspiring Iran whose leadership is openly calling for Israel’s annihilation.
“To ensure Israel’s security, Mitt Romney will work closely with Israel to maintain it strategic military edge. … The United States must forcefully resist the emergence of anti-Israel policies in Turkey and Egypt, and work to make clear that their interests are not served by isolating Israel.
“With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Romney’s policy will differ sharply from President Obama’s. … President Obama for too long has been in the grip of several illusions. One is that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the central problem in the region [which has] led the administration to believe that distancing the United States from Israel was a smart move that would earn us credits in the Arab world and somehow bring peace closer.
“The record proves otherwise. The key to negotiating a lasting peace is an Israel that knows it will be secure. … The United States needs a president who will not be a fair-weather friend of Israel. The United States must work as a country to resist the worldwide campaign to delegitimize Israel. We must fight against that campaign in every forum and label it the anti-Semitic poison that it is. Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is not up for debate.”
Romney also suggested an expansion of legal authority for U.S. officials conducting the “war on terror.” His white paper said: “As president, Mitt Romney will empower all relevant military, intelligence, and homeland security agencies with the appropriate legal authority and policy guidance to dismantle terrorist groups and prevent terrorist attacks on our homeland and on targets abroad.”
Those broader legal authorities would take aim at what Romney calls “an emerging threat to the homeland [from] the radicalization of U.S. citizens and residents leading to ‘homegrown’ Islamist terrorism. … Mitt Romney will make countering this mounting danger a top priority. …
“Our counterterrorism professionals will need to continue to develop ‘fusion centers’ and other innovative systems to collect and systematically analyze information about domestic activities. They will need the capacity, consistent with U.S. law, to collect and unflinchingly analyze communications between terrorist networks abroad and people within our borders.”
It’s always hard to know what neocons mean when they say “consistent with U.S. law,” since they devised the Bush administration’s doctrine of unlimited presidential powers, but the word “unflinchingly” suggests they envision a robust domestic spying program.
With most political observers predicting a close election in November, the neocons hope that they can ride back into power in Washington behind a President Romney and then resume their role as his foreign policy foremen, advising the inexperienced Romney much as they did the novice Bush.
In making a choice for President, therefore, the American voters must realize that they are electing not just the people on the ballot but a cast of advisers who come along with the winners. Mitt Romney has made clear that he will staff much of his foreign policy team with neocon retreads from the Bush-43 administration.
Though these neocons always talk tough, the overwhelming evidence now indicates that when the United States was actually under the imminent threat of a domestic attack, the arrogant neocons blocked a meaningful response. Then, after the devastation, they compounded the mistake by diverting the U.S. military into a war on Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11.
One of the questions that American voters might want to consider before Nov. 6 is whether a Romney presidency, staffed with belligerent neocons, would make the United States safer or put its citizens more at risk.