9/11 Report: Urgency in the eye of the beholder
by CA Pol Junkie
Chapter 8 of the Report, "The System Was Blinking Red," has alot of compelling information. The crux of it was that competent people were extremely alarmed about dire warnings of terrorist attacks and trying desperately to prevent it. Some higher up never really understood what was happening.
First, a little background on the players:
George Tenet was Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), which means he was head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Condoleeza Rice was/is National Security Advisor (NSA), which means she heads the National Security Council (NSC).
Stephen Hadley was/is Deputy National Security Advisor, which means he works for Condoleeza Rice.
Richard Clarke was head of the Counterterrorism Security Group (CSG), which is part of the NSC.
The President's Daily Brief (PDB) is a very high level intelligence briefing seen only by a handful of people, including the President, Vice President, and DCI.
The Senior Executive Intelligence Brief (SEIB) is a watered-down version of the PDB seen by a broader group of top-level officials.
Here is a timeline of 2001 constructed from excerpts of Chapter 8 of the Final Report of the 9/11 Commission:
As 2001 began, counterterrorism officials were having frequent but fragmentary reports about threats. Indeed, there appeared to be possible threats almost anywhere the United States had interests - including at home.
In spring of 2001, the level of reporting on terrorist threats and planned attacks increased dramatically to its highest level since the millennium alert.
On March 23, in connection with discussions about reopening Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, Clarke warned National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice that domestic or foreign terrorists might use a truck bomb - their "weapon of choice" - on Pennsylvania Avenue. That would result, he said, in the destruction of the West Wing and parts of the residence. He also told her that he thought there were terrorist cells within the United States, including al Qaeda.
The next day [April 20], a briefing to top officials reported "Bin Ladin planning multiple operations."
In May 2001, the drumbeat of reporting grew louder with reports to top officials that "Bin Laden public profile may presage attack" and "Bin Laden network's plans advancing." In early May, a walk-in to the FBI claimed there was a plan to launch attacks on London, Boston, and New York. Attorney General John Ashcroft was briefed by the CIA on May 15 regarding al Qaeda generally and the current threat reporting specifically. The next day brought a report that a phone call to a U.S. embassy had warned that Bin Laden supporters were planning an attack in the United States with "high explosives." On May 17, based on the previous day's report, the first item on the CSG's agenda was "UBL: Operation Planned in U.S." The anonymous caller's tip could not be corroborated.
On June 25, Clarke warned Rice and Hadley that six separate intelligence reports showed al Qaeda personnel warning of a pending attack. [snip] Clarke wrote that this was all to sophisticated to be merely a psychological operation to keep the United States on edge, and the CIA agreed. The intellgence 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 warned Rice that the patternof 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, 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.
The headline of a June 30 briefing to top officials was stark: "Bin Ladin Planning High-Profile Attacks." The report stated tha tBin Ladin operatives expected near-tern attacks to have dramatic consequences of catastrophic proportions.
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 discussion was still the al Qaeda threat, and it included mention of suspected terrorist travel to the United States.
By late July, Tenet said, it could not "get any worse." Not everyone was convinced. Not everyone was convinced. Some asked whether all these threats might just be deception. On June 30, the SEIB 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 teh Counterterrorist Center told us that he and a colleague were considering resigning in order to go public with their concerns.
On July 27, Clarke informed Rice and Hadley that the spike in intelligence about a near-term al Qaeda attack had stopped. He urged keeping readiness high during the August vacation period, warning that another report suggested an attack had just been postponed for a few months "but will still happen."
During the spring and summer of 2001, President Bush had on several occasions asked his briefers whether any of the threats pointed to the United States. Reflecting on these questions, the CIA decided to write a briefing article summarizing its understanding of this danger. Two CIA analysts involved in preparing this briefing article believed it represented an opportunity to communicate their view that the threat of a Bin Ladin attack in the United States remained both current and serious. The result was an article in the August 6 Presidential Daily Brief titled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US." It was the 36th PDB item briefed so far that year that related to Bin Ladin or al Qaeda, and the first devoted to the possibility of an attack in the United States.
Here the 9/11 Commission sums up what should be clear from the timeline:
Most of the intelligence community recognized in the summer of 2001 that the number and severity of threat reports were unprecedented. Many officials told us that they knew something terrible was planned, and they were desperate to stop it.
Imagine how Clarke, Tenet, and the counterterrorism analysts must have felt knowing something big was coming. Wolfowitz didn't get it, though, and Bush's reaction was pretty much "whatever - same old stuff":
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.
Rice saw her job description starting at the water's edge:
Hadley told us that before 9/11, he and Rice did not feel they had the job of coordinating domestic agencies. They felt that Clarke and the CSG (part of the NSC) were the NSC's bridge between foreign and domestic threats.
The government did take steps overseas to prevent a possible attack there, but did almost nothing domestically:
There was a clear disparity in the levels of response to foreign versus domestic threats. Numerous actions were taken overseas to disrupt possible attacks - enlisting foreign partners to upset terrorist plans, closing embassies, moving military assets out of the way of possible harm. Far less was done domestically - in part, surely, because to the extent that specifics did exist, they pertained to threats overseas. As noted earlier, a threat against the embassy in Yemen quickly resulted in its closing. Possible domestic threats were more vague. When reports did not specify where the attacks were to take place, officials presumed that they would again be overseas, though they did not rule out a target in the United States. Each of the FBI threat advisories made this point.
So, we had institutional problems and not-my-problemism preventing an effective response to the unprecedented threat. So what did Bush do? He chopped wood on the ranch with no worries. He is famous for delegating tasks to others, but that left nobody responsible for domestic security. It wasn't in Rice's job description, and Clarke couldn't do it without help from Rice and Bush. There is a line which separates competence from incompetence and delegation from indifference. Bush went way over it.