By Dan Eggen and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 3, 2006
Former CIA director George Tenet told the 9/11 Commission that he had warned of an imminent threat from al-Qaeda in a July 2001 meeting with Condoleezza Rice, adding that he believed Rice took the warning seriously, according to a transcript of the interview and the recollection of a commissioner who was there.
Tenet's statements to the commission in January 2004 confirm the outlines of an event in a new book by Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward that has been disputed by some Bush administration officials. But the testimony also is at odds with Woodward's depiction of Tenet and former CIA counterterrorism chief J. Cofer Black as being frustrated that "they were not getting through to Rice" after the July 10, 2001, meeting.
Rice angrily rejected those assertions yesterday, saying that it was "incomprehensible" that she would have ignored such explicit intelligence from senior CIA officials and that she received no warning at the meeting of an attack within the United States.
Rice acknowledged that the White House was receiving a "steady stream of quite alarmist reports of potential attacks" during that period, but said the targets were assumed to be in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Israel and Jordan.
"What I am quite certain of, however, is that I would remember if I was told -- as this account apparently says -- that there was about to be an attack in the United States," Rice said. "The idea that I would somehow have ignored that I find incomprehensible."
The meeting has become the focus of a fierce and often confusing round of finger-pointing involving Rice, the White House and the 9/11 Commission, all of whom dispatched staffers to the National Archives and other locations yesterday in attempts to sort out what had occurred.
Members of the commission -- an independent, bipartisan panel created by Congress to investigate the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks -- have said for days that they were not told about the July 10 meeting and were angry at being left out. As recently as yesterday afternoon, both commission chairman Thomas H. Kean and vice chairman Lee Hamilton said they believed the panel had not been told about the July 10 meeting.
But it turns out that the panel was, in fact, told about the meeting, according to the interview transcript and Democratic commission member Richard Ben-Veniste, who sat in on the interview with Tenet. The meeting was not identified by the July 10 date in the commission's best-selling report.
Rice added to the confusion yesterday by strongly suggesting that the meeting may never have occurred at all -- even though administration officials had conceded for several days that it had. A State Department spokesman said later that while the meeting definitely happened, Rice and Tenet disputed Woodward's characterization of her response.
"The briefing was a summary of the threat reporting from the previous weeks," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters traveling with Rice in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. "There was nothing new."
Despite this, McCormack said, Rice asked that Tenet provide the same briefing to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and then-U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft. The two men received it by July 17, he said. McCormack was unable to explain why Rice felt the briefing should be repeated if it did not include new material.
Ashcroft said in an interview yesterday that he was never briefed by Tenet or Black about an imminent domestic threat.
"I didn't get called on by Black or Tenet if they were going around doing such briefings," Ashcroft said. "If in fact they were making visits to emphasize the severity of the domestic threat, I'm a little disappointed they didn't bring that information to my attention."
Neither Black nor Tenet has made any public comments about the assertions in Woodward's book. Woodward declined yesterday to comment in detail, saying only that he stood by his reporting.
Tenet gave testimony about the July 2001 meeting with Rice at his Langley headquarters office on Jan. 28, 2004, occasionally referring to charts and slides. Philip Zelikow, who at the time was the commission's executive director and now works for Rice, was present along with other commission staff members, according to Ben-Veniste and to a portion of the transcript, which was read to The Washington Post by an official with access to it.
At one point in the lengthy session, Tenet recalled a briefing he was given on July 10 by Black and his staff, according to the transcript. He said the information was so important that he quickly called for a car and telephoned Rice to arrange for a White House meeting to share what he had just learned, according to the transcript and Ben-Veniste.
According to the transcript, Tenet told Rice there were signs that there could be an al-Qaeda attack in weeks or perhaps months, that there would be multiple, simultaneous attacks causing major human casualties, and that the focus would be U.S. targets, facilities or interests. But the intelligence reporting focused almost entirely on the attacks occurring overseas, Tenet told the commission.
It was at this session that Tenet said "the system was blinking red," which became a chapter title in the commission report, according to the official who saw the transcript.
According to three people present at the session, including Ben-Veniste, Tenet believed that Rice responded seriously to what she had been told. "We particularly questioned him about whether he had the sense that Dr. Rice and the others on the White House side understood the gravity of what he was telling them," said Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor. "He said that they believed that they did. . . . We asked him further whether Dr. Rice just shrugged this off, and he said he did not have such an impression."
Ben-Veniste's comments seem to contradict his own remarks over the weekend to the New York Times, in which he said that "the meeting was never mentioned to us." Ben-Veniste said yesterday that there was confusion between two different meetings and that the meeting described by Tenet is different in character from the one portrayed by Woodward.
Zelikow, who now works as one of Rice's closest aides as a State Department counselor, did not respond to a request for comment yesterday. He told the New York Times that none of the commission's witnesses had drawn attention to a July 10 meeting or had outlined the type of confrontation with Rice described by Woodward.
In comments to reporters, Rice also denied that she had endorsed ousting Rumsfeld at the end of Bush's first term, although she said she did tell President Bush that he might want to consider changing his entire foreign policy team.
"I did tell the president at one point that I thought maybe all of us should go, because we had fought two wars and had the largest terrorist attack in American history," Rice said. "When he asked me to be secretary of state, I said I think maybe you need new people. I don't know if that was somehow interpreted, but what I was actually talking about was me."
Wright reported from Shannon, Ireland, and Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.