The 9/11 Report: Bad News for Bush

The final report of the 9/11 commission confirms many of the panel's preliminary findings that have – or should have – embarrassed the Bush administration. The commission does note, "Our aim has not been to assign individual blame. Our aim has been to provide the fullest possible account of the events surrounding 9/11 and to identify lessons learned." And it is true that the report does point to screw-ups and negligent policymaking committed during both the Bush II and Clinton administrations. But George W. Bush is the incumbent president who has to face the voters in November. Although Republicans in recent days have been highlighting the mistakes of the Clinton years, it is not inappropriate for voters to focus on what report tells us about Bush and his administration. As a public service, here is a look at several of those critical portions.

Bush's initial reaction. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 has made famous – or infamous – the scene when Bush, after having been told that a second airliner had hit the World Trace Center, sits for seven minutes in a Florida classroom, as the kids read a book. The 9/11 report says,

The President was seated in a classroom when, at 9:05, Andrew Card whispered to him: "A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack." The President told us his instinct was to project calm, not to have the country see an excited reaction at a moment of crisis. The press was standing behind the children; he saw their phones and pagers start to ring. The President felt he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening.

In the Moore film, Bush hardly looks as if he is projecting "calm." To me – and, of course, this is a highly subjective view – he has a what-the-hell-should-I-do expression on his face. But Bush backers and detractors are likely to see what they want to in that seven-minute performance. Bush's reaction, though, cannot be judged on the basis of what is now known about the 9/11 attacks. Consider this: when Bush was told about the second plane, it was obvious that the United States was under attack. Today we know that attack involved four planes. But at the moment that Card whispered into his ear, Bush (and everyone else) had no idea about the full extent of the assault. There could have been twenty airliners hijacked. There could have been WMD attacks coming. Perhaps minutes mattered. So how was it a projection of strength and calm for Bush to remain in a classroom – doing nothing – when who-knew-what was happening? He could have easily excused himself, especially as pagers and cell phones were sounding. His explanation rings hollow.

Terrorism as a priority for the Bush administration. Former counterterrorism Richard Clarke triggered a fierce, partisan debate earlier this year when he wrote in a book that the Bush administration pre-9/11 did not take the threat of al Qaeda seriously enough. The Bush administration challenged Clarke's account and attacked him vigorously. The 9/11 commission's report does suggest the terrorism was not an A-list topic for the Bush White House:

Within the first few days after Bush's inauguration, Clarke approached [national security adviser Condoleezza] Rice in an effort to get her – and the new President – to give terrorism very high priority and to act on the agenda that he had pushed during the last few months of the previous administration. After Rice requested that all senior staff identify desirable major policy reviews or initiatives, Clarke submitted an elaborate memorandum on January 25, 2001. He attached to it his [anti-al Qaeda] 1998 Delenda Plan and the December 2000 strategy paper. "We urgently need ...a Principals level review on the al Qida network," Clarke wrote.

He wanted the Principals Committee to decide whether al Qaeda was "a first order threat" or a more modest worry being overblown by "chicken little" alarmists. Alluding to the transition briefing that he had prepared for Rice, Clarke wrote that al Qaeda "is not some narrow, little terrorist issue that needs to be included in broader regional policy." Two key decisions that had been deferred, he noted, concerned covert aid to keep the Northern Alliance alive when fighting began again in Afghanistan in the spring, and covert aid to the Uzbeks. Clarke also suggested that decisions should be made soon on messages to the Taliban and Pakistan over the al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan, on possible new money for CIA operations, and on "when and how... to respond to the attack on the USS Cole."

The national security advisor did not respond directly to Clarke's memorandum. No Principals Committee meeting on al Qaeda was held until September 4, 2001 (although the Principals Committee met frequently on other subjects, such as the Middle East peace process, Russia, and the Persian Gulf ).

The lack of response to Clarke does appear to indicate that for Rice, at least, the al Qaeda threat was not a high priority. The report details the many steps the Bush administration did take in its first eight months to establish a counterterrorism policy aimed at al Qaeda. By no means were Rice and others doing nothing. But counterterrorism was not on the fast track. An example from the report:

In May, President Bush announced that Vice President Cheney would himself lead an effort looking at preparations for managing a possible attack by weapons of mass destruction and at more general problems of national preparedness. The next few months were mainly spent organizing the effort and bringing an admiral from the Sixth Fleet back to Washington to manage it. The Vice President's task force was just getting under way when the 9/11 attack occurred.

And another example:

The Bush administration did not develop new diplomatic initiatives on al Qaeda with the Saudi government before 9/11. Vice President Cheney called Crown Prince Abdullah on July 5, 2001, to seek Saudi help in preventing threatened attacks on American facilities in the Kingdom. Secretary of State Powell met with the crown prince twice before 9/11. They discussed topics like Iraq, not al Qaeda. U.S.-Saudi relations in the summer of 2001 were marked by sometimes heated disagreements about ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence, not about Bin Ladin.

Even when the Bush administration eventually finalized a "three-phase, multiyear plan to pressure and perhaps ultimately topple the Taliban leadership" – on September 10, 2001 – the plan was not ready for implementation. The report notes, "Funding still needed to be located. The military component remained unclear. Pakistan remained uncooperative. The domestic policy institutions were largely uninvolved."

Is it fair to hold the Bush crowd to a post-9/11 standard? In a way, yes. Presidents are responsible for what happens on their watch. When the economy improves or declines, they get the credit or the blame. In this case, though, the Bush administration can be faulted for establishing the wrong priorities. For instance, Bush and his lot said that missile defense was a top need because a ballistic missile attack from a rogue state was a top threat. (Intelligence community analysts disagreed with this threat assessment.) Well, the Bushies got that wrong.

The Bush administration's reaction to the threat reports of 2001. The 9/11 commission's final report elaborately details the flood of intelligence reports received in the spring and summer of 2001 indicating something big was coming from al Qaeda. The report backs up the CYA assertion made by administration officials that most of the reports appeared to suggest the target for such an attack would be outside the United States. Nevertheless, one question has been how the Bush administration responded to the high state of alert. One of his cabinet members comes out particularly poorly in the commission's report.

Attorney General Ashcroft was briefed by the CIA in May and by [acting FBI chief Thomas] Pickard in early July about the danger [being indicated in the intelligence reporting]. Pickard said he met with Ashcroft once a week in late June, through July, and twice in August. There is a dispute regarding Ashcroft's interest in Pickard's briefings about the terrorist threat situation. Pickard told us that after two such briefings Ashcroft told him that he did not want to hear about the threats anymore. Ashcroft denies Pickard's charge. Pickard says he continued to present terrorism information during further briefings that summer, but nothing further on the "chatter" the U.S. government was receiving.

The Attorney General told us he asked Pickard whether there was intelligence about attacks in the United States and that Pickard said no. Pickard said he replied that he could not assure Ashcroft that there would be no attacks in the United States, although the reports of threats were related to overseas targets. Ashcroft said he therefore assumed the FBI was doing what it needed to do. He acknowledged that in retrospect, this was a dangerous assumption. He did not ask the FBI what it was doing in response to the threats and did not task it to take any specific action. He also did not direct the INS, then still part of the Department of Justice, to take any specific action.

In sum, the domestic agencies never mobilized in response to the threat. They did not have direction, and did not have a plan to institute. The borders were not hardened. Transportation systems were not fortified. Electronic surveillance was not targeted against a domestic threat. State and local law enforcement were not marshaled to augment the FBI's efforts. The public was not warned. The terrorists exploited deep institutional failings within our government. The question is whether extra vigilance might have turned up an opportunity to disrupt the plot. As seen in Chapter 7, al Qaeda's operatives made mistakes. At least two such mistakes created opportunities during 2001, especially in late August.

The commission, then, is suggesting that Ashcroft's "dangerous assumption" contributed to a situation in which the FBI was not able to take advantage of al Qaeda's mistakes and thwart the 9/11 plot. In many other nations, if the chief law enforcement officer made a wrong assumption – even in good faith – that placed the nation at risk, he or she would resign or be canned. Yet Ashcroft has continued to enjoy the benefits of government employment.

How Bush and his senior White House advisers responded to the hair-raising "chatter" has been a critical issue. The report shows that the intelligence reporting in mid-2001 was indeed damn frightening. Here's a sampling:

On June 25, Clarke warned Rice and Hadley that six separate intelligence reports showed al Qaeda personnel warning of a pending attack. An Arabic television station reported Bin Ladin's pleasure with al Qaeda leaders who were saying that the next weeks "will witness important surprises" and that U.S. and Israeli interests will be targeted. Al Qaeda also released a new recruitment and fund-raising tape. Clarke wrote that this was all too sophisticated to be merely a psychological operation to keep the United States on edge, and the CIA agreed. The intelligence reporting consistently described the upcoming attacks as occurring on a calamitous level, indicating that they would cause the world to be in turmoil and that they would consist of possible multiple – but not necessarily simultaneous – attacks.

On June 28, Clarke wrote Rice that the pattern of al Qaeda activity indicating attack planning over the past six weeks "had reached a crescendo." "A series of new reports continue to convince me and analysts at State, CIA, DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency], and NSA that a major terrorist attack or series of attacks is likely in July," he noted. One al Qaeda intelligence report warned that something "very, very, very, very" big was about to happen, and most of Bin Ladin's network was reportedly anticipating the attack. In late June, the CIA ordered all its station chiefs to share information on al Qaeda with their host governments and to push for immediate disruptions of cells. The headline of a June 30 briefing to top officials was stark: "Bin Ladin Planning High-Profile Attacks." The report stated that Bin Ladin operatives expected near-term attacks to have dramatic consequences of catastrophic proportions. That same day, Saudi Arabia declared its highest level of terror alert. Despite evidence of delays possibly caused by heightened U.S. security, the planning for attacks was continuing.

On July 2, the FBI Counterterrorism Division sent a message to federal agencies and state and local law enforcement agencies summarizing information regarding threats from Bin Ladin. It warned that there was an increased volume of threat reporting, indicating a potential for attacks against U.S. targets abroad from groups "aligned with or sympathetic to Usama Bin Ladin." Despite the general warnings, the message further stated, "The FBI has no information indicating a credible threat of terrorist attack in the United States." However, it went on to emphasize that the possibility of attack in the United States could not be discounted. It also noted that the July 4 holiday might heighten the threats. The report asked recipients to "exercise extreme vigilance" and "report suspicious activities" to the FBI. It did not suggest specific actions that they should take to prevent attacks....

In mid-July, reporting started to indicate that Bin Ladin's plans had been delayed, maybe for as long as two months, but not abandoned. On July 23, the lead item for CSG [Counterterrorism Security Group] discussion was still the al Qaeda threat, and it included mention of suspected terrorist travel to the United States.

But at least one prominent Bush aide was not worried about al Qaeda. The commission writes,

[CIA director George] Tenet told us that in his world "the system was blinking red." By late July, Tenet said, it could not "get any worse." Not everyone was convinced. Some asked whether all these threats might just be deception. On June 30, the SEIB [Senior Executive Intelligence Brief] contained an article titled "Bin Ladin Threats Are Real." Yet Hadley told Tenet in July that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz questioned the reporting. Perhaps Bin Ladin was trying to study U.S. reactions. Tenet replied that he had already addressed the Defense Department's questions on this point; the reporting was convincing. To give a sense of his anxiety at the time, one senior official in the Counterterrorist Center told us that he and a colleague were considering resigning in order to go public with their concerns.

Which brings us to the infamous August 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Brief. Bush received this report after months of harrowing intelligence reporting. True, the "chatter" had diminished in recent weeks, but, as the commission notes, some of that "chatter" had caused some officials to be concerned about the possibility of a domestic attack. It was within this context that Bush received a PDB titled, "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US." The 9/11 commission, which interviewed Bush (after the White House first tried to limit the session and then insisted on a single, joint interview with Bush and Cheney) notes,

The President told us the August 6 report was historical in nature. President Bush said the article told him that al Qaeda was dangerous, which he said he had known since he had become President. The President said Bin Ladin had long been talking about his desire to attack America. He recalled some operational data on the FBI, and remembered thinking it was heartening that 70 investigations were under way. As best he could recollect, Rice had mentioned that the Yemenis' surveillance of a federal building in New York had been looked into in May and June, but there was no actionable intelligence. He did not recall discussing the August 6 report with the Attorney General or whether Rice had done so. He said that if his advisers had told him there was a cell in the United States, they would have moved to take care of it. That never happened.

Bush's explanation was disingenuous. The report was not merely "historical in nature." It provided information about the current threat. It said,

FBI information since that time [1998] 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.

It turns out the PDB overstated the number of ongoing investigations. But ponder this episode. Bush is told that al Qaeda is involved in "suspicious activity in this country," to the extent that there are 70 "full field investigations," and he did not make any further inquiries or ask the attorney general about any of this. Perhaps he was confident that the FBI and others were on the case. But a serious-minded president might have poked and prodded the agencies on the basis of this news. Ashcroft, for one, could have used some goosing. But Bush goosed no one.

The alliance (or lack thereof) between al Qaeda and Iraq. The 9/11 commission created a firestorm not too long ago when it released an interim report that said the commission had found no evidence of a "collaborative relationship" between Saddam Hussein's brutal regime and al Qaeda. In response, Bush and Cheney declared there had been a "relationship." After all, Bush had argued before the war that Hussein was "a threat because he is dealing with al Qaeda." Without that connection and without the (still missing) WMDs, Bush's primary case for war – Hussein as an "immediate" threat – would fall apart. Thus, Bush-backers and neocon advocates of the war have relentlessly tried to keep alive the supposed connection between Hussein and al Qaeda, even as the Senate intelligence committee report on the prewar intelligence says the intelligence community was correct to conclude there was no confirmation of a working relationship between the two.

After the 9/11 commission released that interim report, there was talk that its final report might shy away from this matter. But the commission hung tough. These are the relevant portions:

Bin Ladin was also willing [in the early 1990s] to explore possibilities for cooperation with Iraq, even though Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, had never had an Islamist agenda – save for his opportunistic pose as a defender of the faithful against "Crusaders" during the Gulf War of 1991. Moreover, Bin Ladin had in fact been sponsoring anti-Saddam Islamists in Iraqi Kurdistan, and sought to attract them into his Islamic army. To protect his own ties with Iraq, Sudanese leader Husan al] Turabi reportedly brokered an agreement that Bin Ladin would stop supporting activities against Saddam. Bin Ladin apparently honored this pledge, at least for a time, although he continued to aid a group of Islamist extremists operating in part of Iraq (Kurdistan) outside of Baghdad's control....

With the Sudanese regime acting as intermediary, Bin Ladin himself met with a senior Iraqi intelligence officer in Khartoum in late 1994 or early 1995. Bin Ladin is said to have asked for space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but there is no evidence that Iraq responded to this request. As described below, the ensuing years saw additional efforts to establish connections.....

Similar meetings between Iraqi officials and Bin Ladin or his aides may have occurred in 1999 during a period of some reported strains with the Taliban. According to the reporting, Iraqi officials offered Bin Ladin a safe haven in Iraq. Bin Ladin declined, apparently judging that his circumstances in Afghanistan remained more favorable than the Iraqi alternative. The reports describe friendly contacts and indicate some common themes in both sides' hatred of the United States. But to date we have seen no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States.

Isn't it time to say "case closed"? No doubt, the neocons will claim the 9/11 report, the CIA, and the Senate intelligence committee are all wrong on this subject. But at some point, don't good manners compel them to hoist the white flag? Speaking of which....

Mohamed Atta in Prague. Cheney and others have not been able to let go of the allegation – long deemed unlikely by the CIA and the FBI – that Atta, the ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers, met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague several months before the September 11 attacks. When the 9/11 commission issued a preliminary finding declaring there was no evidence to substantiate the allegation, Cheney insisted the Prague meeting remained an open question. In its final report, the commission tries to bury this charge once and for all. Will Cheney accept the panel's verdict? Probably not, but maybe he will stop talking about a meeting that probably never happened. This is what the commission reports:

Mohamed Atta is known to have been in Prague on two occasions: in December 1994, when he stayed one night at a transit hotel, and in June 2000, when he was en route to the United States. On the latter occasion, he arrived by bus from Germany, on June 2, and departed for Newark the following day. The allegation that Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in April 2001 originates from the reporting of a single source of the Czech intelligence service. Shortly after 9/11, the source reported having seen Atta meet with Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al Ani, an Iraqi diplomat, at the Iraqi Embassy in Prague on April 9, 2001, at 11:00 A.M. This information was passed to CIA headquarters.

The U.S. legal attache ("Legat") in Prague, the representative of the FBI, met with the Czech service's source. After the meeting, the assessment of the Legat and the Czech officers present was that they were 70 percent sure that the source was sincere and believed his own story of the meeting. Subsequently, the Czech intelligence service publicly stated that there was a 70 percent probability that the meeting between Atta and Ani had taken place. The Czech Interior Minister also made several statements to the press about his belief that the meeting had occurred, and the story was widely reported.

The FBI has gathered evidence indicating that Atta was in Virginia Beach on April 4 (as evidenced by a bank surveillance camera photo), and in Coral Springs, Florida on April 11, where he and Shehhi leased an apartment. On April 6, 9, 10, and 11, Atta's cellular telephone was used numerous times to call various lodging establishments in Florida from cell sites within Florida. We cannot confirm that he placed those calls. But there are no U.S. records indicating that Atta departed the country during this period. Czech officials have reviewed their flight and border records as well for any indication that Atta was in the Czech Republic in April 2001, including records of anyone crossing the border who even looked Arab. They have also reviewed pictures from the area near the Iraqi embassy and have not discovered photos of anyone who looked like Atta. No evidence has been found that Atta was in the Czech Republic in April 2001.

According to the Czech government, Ani, the Iraqi officer alleged to have met with Atta, was about 70 miles away from Prague on April 8–9 and did not return until the afternoon of the ninth, while the source was firm that the sighting occurred at 11:00 A.M. When questioned about the reported April 2001 meeting, Ani – now in custody – has denied ever meeting or having any contact with Atta. Ani says that shortly after 9/11, he became concerned that press stories about the alleged meeting might hurt his career. Hoping to clear his name, Ani asked his superiors to approach the Czech government about refuting the allegation. He also denies knowing of any other Iraqi official having contact with Atta.

These findings cannot absolutely rule out the possibility that Atta was in Prague on April 9, 2001. He could have used an alias to travel and a passport under that alias, but this would be an exception to his practice of using his true name while traveling (as he did in January and would in July when he took his next overseas trip). The FBI and CIA have uncovered no evidence that Atta held any fraudulent passports. KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] and [Ramzi] Binalshibh both deny that an Atta-Ani meeting occurred. There was no reason for such a meeting, especially considering the risk it would pose to the operation. By April 2001, all four pilots had completed most of their training, and the muscle hijackers were about to begin entering the United States. The available evidence does not support the original Czech report of an Atta-Ani meeting.

To recap, then: no working relationship between Hussein and al Qaeda, no Prague meeting, no strong reaction from Bush to the pre-9/11 warnings of a pending al Qaeda attack, no more than routine attention devoted to the al Qaeda threat by the Bush team in the months before September 11. GOPers can wag their fingers at Bill Clinton, who also did not do enough (obviously). But there is no denying this report is bad news for Bush and his crew.

The 9/11 report is available now in local bookstores and online.


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