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The Covered-Up Meeting

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, October 2, 2006 1:12 PM

The "State of Denial" in the title of Bob Woodward's new book describes President Bush's ongoing refusal to see the true consequences of the war he launched in Iraq.

But one of the book's most notable revelations suggests that the Bush White House was in another state of denial more than five years ago, this one about the threat of terrorism before September 11, 2001.

If the omniscient narrator of Woodward's book is to be believed, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice waved off warnings that should by any reasonable standard have put the government on high alert for an al-Qaeda attack.

And in what looks like a potential administration cover-up, Rice and the other participants in that meeting apparently never mentioned it to anyone, including investigators for the 9/11 Commission.

In a short excerpt from his book in Sunday's Washington Post, Woodward writes: "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. . . .

"He and Black hoped to convey the depth of their anxiety and get Rice to kick-start the government into immediate action. . . .

"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. . . .

"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. . . .

"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."

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "Members of the Sept. 11 commission said Sunday they were alarmed that they were told nothing about a July 2001 White House meeting at which George J. Tenet, then director of central intelligence, is reported to have warned Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, about an imminent attack by al-Qaeda and failed to persuade her to take action. . . .

"Some questioned whether information about the July 10 meeting was intentionally withheld from the panel. . . .

"In interviews Saturday and Sunday, commission members said they were never told about the meeting despite hours of public and private questioning with Ms. Rice, Mr. Tenet and Mr. Black, much of it focused specifically on how the White House dealt with terrorist threats in the summer of 2001.

"'None of this was shared with us in hours of private interviews, including interviews under oath, nor do we have any paper on this,' said Timothy J. Roemer, a Democratic member of the commission and a former congressman from Indiana. 'I'm deeply disturbed by this. I'm furious.'"

Peter Baker wrote in Saturday's Washington Post: "The report of such a meeting takes on heightened importance after former president Bill Clinton said this week that the Bush team did not do enough to try to kill Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said her husband would have paid more attention to warnings of a possible attack than Bush did. Rice fired back on behalf of the current president, saying the Bush administration 'was at least as aggressive' in eight months as President Clinton had been in eight years."

There has been a fascinating sequence of not-quite denials from administration officials.

As Baker wrote: "White House and State Department officials [Friday] confirmed that the July 10 meeting took place, although they took issue with Woodward's portrayal of its results. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, responding on behalf of Rice, said Tenet and Black had never publicly expressed any frustration with her response.

"'This is the first time these thoughts and feelings associated with that meeting have been expressed,' McCormack said. 'People are free to revise and extend their remarks, but that is certainly not the story that was told to the 9/11 commission.'"

That's not much of a defense for a potential cover-up -- saying that no one had ever mentioned it before.

And yet, in a Saturday press release entitled " Five Key Myths in Bob Woodward's Book ," the full extent of the White House's refutation was to quote McCormack.

On Sunday, White House counselor Dan Bartlett issued a new rebuttal on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." Here's the video ; here's the transcript .

Speaking for Rice, Bartlett said: "I spoke to her this morning. She believes this is a very grossly mis-accurate characterization of the meeting they had."

Stephanopoulos: "So this didn't happen?"

And here's the money quote from Bartlett: "That's Secretary Rice's view, that that type of urgent request to go after bin Laden, as the book alleges, in her mind, didn't happen."

Get that? In her mind, it didn't happen.

Rice weighed in herself this morning, with a full-throated denial -- that she remembered anything about the meeting.

Anne Gearan writes for the Associated Press: "Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she cannot recall then-CIA chief George Tenet warning her of an impending al-Qaeda attack in the United States, as a new book claims he did two months before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

"'What I am quite certain of 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, and the idea that I would somehow have ignored that I find incomprehensible,' Rice said."

Incomprehensible, indeed.

Peter Rundlet , a counsel to the 9/11 Commission, writes on the liberal Think Progress Web site: "Many, many questions need to be asked and answered about this revelation -- questions that the 9/11 Commission would have asked, had the Commission been told about this significant meeting. . . .

"Was it covered up? It is hard to come to a different conclusion. . . .

"At a minimum, the withholding of information about this meeting is an outrage. Very possibly, someone committed a crime. And worst of all, they failed to stop the plot."

Around the time of that July meeting, Rice and Bush were more focused on their pet issue: missile defense. And Bush wasn't interested in "swatting flies" -- he was already looking for a reason to attack Iraq.

And a month later, as Ron Suskind reported in his book, "The One Percent Doctrine," an unnamed CIA briefer flew to Bush's Texas ranch to call the president's attention personally to the now-famous Aug. 6, 2001, memo titled 'Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.' According to Suskind, Bush heard the briefer out and replied: "All right. You've covered your ass, now."

Also see my September 26 column: Not So Tough on Terror?

The Rest of the Book

For an overview of Woodward's book, see my Friday column: Is Woodward Calling Bush a Liar?

In Sunday's excerpt in The Washington Post, Woodward writes: "There was a vast difference between what the White House and Pentagon knew about the situation in Iraq and what they were saying publicly."

He writes about the administration's apparent lack of a military strategy in post-invasion Iraq. He quotes national security adviser Stephen Hadley saying in early 2004: "If we have a military strategy, I can't identify it. I don't know what's worse -- that they have one and won't tell us or that they don't have one."

He writes about Andrew H. Card Jr.'s concerns as he was stepping down from his post as chief of staff this spring.

"One of Card's great worries was that Iraq would be compared to Vietnam. . . .

"As best as Card could remember, there had been some informal, blue-sky discussions at times along the lines of 'What could we do differently?' But there had been no formal sessions to consider alternatives to staying in Iraq. To his knowledge there were no anguished memos bearing the names of Cheney, Rice, Hadley, Rumsfeld, the CIA, Card himself or anyone else saying, 'Let's examine alternatives,' as had surfaced after the Vietnam era. . . .

"Card was enough of a realist to see that there were two negative aspects to Bush's public persona that had come to define his presidency: incompetence and arrogance. Card did not believe that Bush was incompetent, and so he had to face the possibility that, as Bush's chief of staff, he might have been the incompetent one. In addition, he did not think the president was arrogant.

"But the marketing of Bush had come across as arrogant. Maybe it was unfair in Card's opinion, but there it was."

In Monday's excerpt in The Washington Post, Woodward describes Card encouraging Bush to consider a new secretary of defense after the 2004 election. Senior adviser Karl Rove was present for the conversation.

"[C]learly, the conduct of the war in Iraq would be the subject of confirmation hearings for anyone Bush nominated to be the new secretary of defense.

"Rove agreed they did not want to do anything that would prompt hearings on the war.

"'If we need to do it, we need to do it. But if we don't need to do it, you know,' Bush said, deciding nothing but sounding reluctant to make a change. . . .

"Card kept pushing, at one point raising the possibility of change at the Pentagon with Vice President Cheney.

"No, Cheney said, he was predisposed to recommend that the president keep Rumsfeld right where he was. Card was not surprised.

"In private conversations with Bush, Cheney said Rumsfeld's departure, no matter how it might be spun, would be seen only as an expression of doubt and hesitation on the war. It would give the war critics great heart and momentum, he confided to an aide, and soon they would be after him and then the president. He virtually insisted that Rumsfeld stay."

In an excerpt in Newsweek , Woodward describes Oval Office meetings between Bush and visitors with first-hand experience in Iraq who did not tell the president the whole story or the truth.

"Likewise, in these moments where Bush had someone from the field there in the chair beside him, he did not press, did not try to open the door himself and ask what the visitor had seen and thought. The whole atmosphere too often resembled a royal court, with Cheney and Rice in attendance, some upbeat stories, exaggerated good news, and a good time had by all."

The Coverage

Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe write in Newsweek: "White House spokesman Tony Snow took a dismissive, this-too-will-pass tone. Woodward's book is like 'cotton candy,' Snow said. 'It kind of melts on contact.'

"A truer simile might be to a loud musical instrument. An orchestra of books has raised a cacophony of doubts about the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq. Coming after Bernard Trainor and Michael Gordon's 'Cobra II,' Tom Ricks's 'Fiasco,' Ron Suskind's 'The One Percent Doctrine,' 'Hubris' by NEWSWEEK's Michael Isikoff and The Nation's David Corn, Woodward's 'State of Denial' resounded among the administration's growing chorus of critics like a clash of cymbals.

"With the midterm elections only five weeks away, Bush and his political minions have been striving mightily to direct the attention of voters away from Iraq and toward the threat of a terrorist attack. But Iraq keeps coming back into the headlines. ...

"The administration was not just unlucky. It was almost willfully blind to the risks entailed in invading and occupying a large, traumatized and deeply riven Arab country."

First Wave of Defense

David E. Sanger writes in Saturday's New York Times: "In Washington, Mr. Snow said, 'you're going to see people who are on the losing side of arguments being especially outspoken about their opinions. . .

"But Mr. Snow had difficulty explaining why President Bush had failed to listen to such a broad range of officials who had called for more troops, including Robert D. Blackwill, the former top Iraq adviser, and L. Paul Bremer III, the senior American official running the occupation. Nor did Mr. Snow explain why Mr. Bush's upbeat assessments of a 'Plan for Victory' in Iraq, laid out in speeches late last year, contrasted so sharply with the contents of classified memorandums written by officials who warned that failure was also a significant possibility."

Here's the transcript of Friday's briefing by Snow. In a subsequent press release titled "State Of The Obvious," Snow's office called attention to what it evidently considered the highlights: "We've read this book before. This tends to repeat what we've seen in a number of other books that have been out this year where people are ventilating old disputes over troop levels. . . . And rather than a state of denial, it's a state of the obvious, which is that there have been a number of disagreements over the years about troop levels and very -- people with very strong opinions have disagreed with this, and that this -- but if you take a look at what the president has been saying in recent weeks, where he was accused of fear-mongering, he understands that you got a tough and committed enemy. . . . All of those things will continue to be a focus of administration opinion, and the president, again, is not looking through rose-colored glasses."

Second Wave of Defense

Kevin G. Hall writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The White House on Sunday attacked investigative journalist Bob Woodward, accusing the reporter of pursuing an agenda in researching his new book 'State of Denial,' which portrays the Bush administration in an unflattering way.

"Appearing on the ABC news program 'This Week with George Stephanopoulos,' White House counselor Dan Bartlett said Woodward had 'already formulated some conclusions even before the interviewing began' with current and former top administration officials."

From the transcript :

Stephanopoulos: "Now in 2004 Bob Woodward wrote a book, 'Plan of Attack.' You went out publicly urged people to go buy it and read it. I take it you're not going to do that with 'State of Denial'?"

Bartlett: "Well George, it is a book that we participated at various levels within the administration, both in the White House and other parts of the administration department, defense and state, but I must say, George, I think as we worked with Bob on this project from the very outset it was unfortunate that we felt he had already formulated some conclusions even before the interviewing began."

Stephanopoulos: "[Y]ou're making a pretty serious charge here. You're saying that Bob Woodward, been around Washington for an awful long time, went into this with an agenda and basically wasn't an honest reporter."

Bartlett: "I didn't say that he wasn't an honest reporter. Reporters come in with conclusions or some firm ideas about where they want to take a book, and certain occasions when he met with administration officials and they would come to talk to me about their meetings with him, there was just a sense that despite spending hours with him that their points weren't getting across."

Stephanopoulos: "So you thought he had an agenda?"

Barlett: "I'm not going to use the word agenda but we did feel like he approached this book different than he did the first two. And that's why we made the decision that the president was not going to participate on it."

Stephanopoulos: "And the vice president didn't speak with him either."

Barlett: "That's correct."

Stephanopoulos: "So, you know, from the outside it looks like well, if Bob Woodward's going to write a positive book he gets cooperation, he gets praise. If it's a negative book, well he had -- didn't have agenda but you didn't approve of his approach."

On Washington Post Radio this morning, Woodward responded to Bartlett's charge: "It's not that I had an approach, or reached conclusions; it's that I had information that in many cases they wouldn't respond to. . . . They did not want to deal with what occurred."

Here's Bartlett talking to Wolf Blitzer on CNN: "Throughout this book, throughout many of the president's public speeches, he's been very blunt with the American people about the difficulty of this war. He's been very blunt about the challenges we face.

"He's gone to great lengths to explain how we're adapting our strategy to the enemy's tactics. As you've covered before, in late last year and early this year, the president gave a series of speeches where he was talking about how we had made some mistakes, how we've changed the way we're training Iraqi security forces, for example.

"In this book, I must say, I was really -- I am puzzled by the fact that he's come to the conclusion of this title, this central thesis, because I don't even think the evidence in his own book backs it up."

But even Bush at his most blunt falls well short of an accurate description of reality in Iraq; he has not acknowledged any fundamental mistakes in his Iraqi strategy, nor any mistakes at all made by him directly; and while talking about changing tactics, he has yet to describe a strategy.

Here's Woodward talking to Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes" last night.

Wallace: "And, according to Woodward, another key general, John Abizaid, who's in charge of the whole Gulf region, told friends that on Iraq, Rumsfeld has lost all credibility.

"'What does that mean, he doesn't have any credibility anymore?' Wallace asks.

"'That means that he cannot go public and articulate what the strategy is. Now, this is so important they decide,' Woodward explains. 'The Secretary of State Rice will announce what the strategy is. This is October of last year.' She told Congress the U.S. strategy in Iraq is 'clear, hold and build.'

"'Rumsfeld sees this and goes ballistic and says, 'Now wait a minute. That's not our strategy. We want to get the Iraqis to do these things.' Well it turns out George Bush and the White House liked this definition of the strategy so it's in a presidential speech he's gonna give the next month,' Woodward tells Wallace. 'Rumsfeld sees it. He calls Andy Card, the White House chief of staff and says 'Take it out. Take it out. That's not our strategy. We can't do that.' Card says it's the core of what we're doing. That's two and a half years after the invasion of Iraq. They cannot agree on the definition of the strategy. They cannot agree on the bumper sticker.'"

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Sunday that President Bush had called to affirm his support in the midst of an uproar over a new book raising questions about Mr. Rumsfeld's management of the war in Iraq."

Snow was on ABC's "Good Morning America" today, and said: "The president receives raw and realistic assessments all the time and frankly keeps pushing generals and others to try to give him honest answers. As a commander in chief, it is not your job to live in a state of delusion."

New York Times Review

Michiko Kakutani writes in the New York Times: "In Bob Woodward's highly anticipated new book, 'State of Denial,' President Bush emerges as a passive, impatient, sophomoric and intellectually incurious leader, presiding over a grossly dysfunctional war cabinet and given to an almost religious certainty that makes him disinclined to rethink or re-evaluate decisions he has made about the war. It's a portrait that stands in stark contrast to the laudatory one Mr. Woodward drew in 'Bush at War,' his 2002 book, which depicted the president -- in terms that the White House press office itself has purveyed -- as a judicious, resolute leader, blessed with the 'vision thing' his father was accused of lacking and firmly in control of the ship of state. . . .

"And there's the president and Karl Rove, his chief political adviser, trading fart jokes."

Kakutani surveyed the floodlet of Bush books in print back in May, and it's interesting to see how Woodward's book sounds quite familiar.

The Woodward Turnaround

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "For several years now, liberal critics have been denigrating Woodward as a high-level stenographer for an administration they detest, even as his last two books have also revealed information that embarrassed the White House. But this new volume -- written, unlike the others, without access to President Bush -- has media and political circles buzzing about whether the one-time Watergate sleuth has suddenly gotten tougher on the administration.

"'I found out new things, as is always the case when you re-plow old ground,' Woodward said. 'The bulk of them I discovered this year. I wish I'd had some of them for the earlier books, but I didn't.'"

David Carr writes in his media column for the New York Times: "The actual journalistic accomplishment in 'State of Denial' is less than grand. It took him three books to arrive at a conclusion thousands of basement-bound bloggers suggested years ago: that the Bush administration is composed of people who like war, don't seem to be very good at it and have been known to turn the guns on each other. Such an epiphany doesn't seem to reflect a reporter who had rarefied access. . . .

"One of Mr. Woodward's chief discoveries was that Donald H. Rumsfeld was not the asset that he first described him as. In 'Bush at War' in 2002, Mr. Rumsfeld was described as 'handsome, intense, well educated with an intellectual bend, witty with an infectious smile.' In 'Plan of Attack' in 2004, he was a leader whose 'way was clear, and he was precise about it.' In 'State of Denial,' he is a turf-obsessed control freak whose 'micromanaging was almost comic.'...

"Mr. Woodward's time spent living in the treetops seems to have blinded him to the fact that the forest below was on fire."

Tomorrow

Drowned out by the Woodward flood, but worthy of discussion: The Washington Post excerpt from Karen DeYoung 's new book on Colin Powell; this Tim Golden story about detainee policy in the New York Times; more on Abramoff, including this Michael Isikoff and Holly Bailey story in Newsweek; and the White House response to the Mark Foley scandal -- just " naughty e-mails "?

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