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Two Months Before 9/11, an Urgent Warning to Rice

Sunday, October 1, 2006

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 State Department.

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."

Editor's Note: How much effort the Bush administration made in going after Osama bin Laden before the attacks of Sept. 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."

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