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Context of 'January 22, 2004: CIA Director Tenet’s Memory Losses Alarm 9/11 Commission'

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President Bill Clinton signs a memorandum of notification authorizing the CIA to kill Osama bin Laden. The memo is sent to Clinton by National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, apparently at the request of CIA Director George Tenet, who has discussed the memo with Berger and seems to have given it his blessing. The highly classified memo concerns operations by a group of CIA tribal assets in Afghanistan who are monitoring bin Laden. Their task had previously been to capture bin Laden and they had been banned from assassinating him, but these rules are now changed and a kill operation is authorized. The memo makes it very clear that “the president [is] telling the tribal leaders they could kill bin Laden.” 9/11 Commission Executive Director Philip Zelikow will later recall the memo tells the tribal leaders: “you may conduct an operation to kill him,” adding, “There were no euphemisms in the language.” Although the CIA is still legally prevented from assassinating people, Clinton administration lawyers now say that bin Laden is an imminent danger to the US, so he can be killed as a part of pre-emptive self-defense. Despite his role in drafting the memo, Tenet and his deputies will later claim to the 9/11 Commission that Clinton never issued such clear authorization (see Before January 14, 2004). However, the order to assassinate bin Laden is garbled within the CIA and the CIA’s bin Laden unit appears not to receive it (see December 26, 1998 and After). [Washington Post, 2/22/2004; Shenon, 2008, pp. 357-8]

Entity Tags: Philip Zelikow, Osama bin Laden, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

CIA records show that CIA Director George Tenet briefed President Bush twice in August—once in Crawford, Texas, on August 17, and once in Washington, on August 31. [Washington Post, 4/15/2004] In Tenet’s 2007 book, he will briefly mention that “A few weeks after the August 6 PDB [titled ‘Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US’ (see August 6, 2001)] was delivered, I followed it to Crawford to make sure the president stayed current on events. That was my first visit to the ranch.” [Tenet, 2007, pp. 145] Later asked about what he told Bush at this meeting, Tenet will only say, “I held nothing back from the president. He understood our concerns about threats. He understood what we were doing around the world at the time.” [MSNBC, 5/7/2007] By the time of the second briefing, Tenet has been briefed about Zacarias Moussaoui’s arrest (see August 23, 2001), but, apparently, he fails to tell Bush about it. [Washington Post, 4/15/2004] In April 2004, Tenet will testify under oath before the 9/11 Commission that he had no direct communication with President Bush during the month of August. [New York Times, 4/15/2004] This is quickly discovered to be untrue. A CIA spokesperson will then claim, “He momentarily forgot [about the briefings]” (see April 14, 2004). [Washington Post, 4/15/2004] Tenet will personally brief Bush six more times before 9/11 and will still apparently fail to mention Moussaoui to him (see September 1-8, 2001).

Entity Tags: Zacarias Moussaoui, George J. Tenet, George W. Bush, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

CIA Director George Tenet and senior CIA senior staff are briefed repeatedly about the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui. When news of the case first reaches the CIA, Tenet is absent and his deputy John McLaughlin is briefed, probably around August 20, 2001. [9/11 Commission, 4/13/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 541]
Series of Briefings - Tenet is informed of Moussaoui on August 23 in a briefing entitled “Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly.” The briefing states that Moussaoui paid for his training in cash, was interested to learn a plane’s doors do not open in flight, and wanted training on London to New York City flights. [US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria District, 7/31/2006 pdf file] At the same time Tenet is briefed on a number of other items, including the arrest of one of Moussaoui’s associates, Djamel Beghal (see July 24 or 28, 2001), and a group of Pakistanis arrested in Bolivia during preparations for a hijacking. [Tenet, 2007, pp. 200] Tenet and other CIA officials are then kept up to date with developments in the case in a series of at least five briefings. [US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006 pdf file; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006 pdf file; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006 pdf file; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006 pdf file; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006 pdf file]
No Discussion with Other Agencies - However, others such as President Bush and the White House Counterterrorism Support Group (CSG) are not told about Moussaoui until after the 9/11 attacks begin (see August 16-September 10, 2001). Even the acting director of the FBI is not told (see August 16-September 10, 2001), despite the fact that lower level FBI officials who made the arrest tried to pass on the information. Tenet later maintains that there was no reason to alert President Bush or to share information about Moussaoui during an early September 2001 Cabinet-level meeting on terrorism, saying, “All I can tell you is, it wasn’t the appropriate place. I just can’t take you any farther than that.” [Washington Post, 4/17/2004; US District Court of Eastern Virginia, 5/4/2006, pp. 6 pdf file]
'Lousy Explanation' - 9/11 Commissioner Tim Roemer will later come to the conclusion that this is, in author Philip Shenon’s words, a “lousy explanation,” and that Tenet should have called Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard to talk about the case, because Tenet was well aware that the FBI was “dysfunctional” at terrorism investigations and that it did not have a permanent director at that time. Roemer will ask, “The report about Moussaoui shoots up the chain of command at the CIA like the lit fuse on a bomb, but Director Tenet never picks up the phone to call the FBI about it?” Roemer will conclude that a call from Tenet to Pickard might have prevented 9/11, and will be amazed Tenet does not mention it at the September terrorism meeting, “If the system is blinking red, why don’t you bring it up?” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 361]

Entity Tags: George J. Tenet, John E. McLaughlin, Central Intelligence Agency, Zacarias Moussaoui, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

With President Bush back in Washington after a long vacation, CIA Director George Tenet resumes personally delivering the Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) to him. Tenet has one meeting with Bush on August 31, 2001, after Bush’s return (see August 17 and 31, 2001), and then briefs him six more times in the first eight days of September. Bush is out of town the next few days, so he is briefed by other CIA personnel. [Agence France-Presse, 4/15/2004] By this time, Tenet has been told about the arrest of suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui (see August 23, 2001). But there is no evidence he mentions this to Bush before 9/11. Further, on August 23, 2001, the CIA watchlisted 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi and began looking for them in the US (see August 23, 2001), but there’s no evidence Tenet or anyone else briefed Bush about this, either.

Entity Tags: Zacarias Moussaoui, George W. Bush, Khalid Almihdhar, George J. Tenet, Nawaf Alhazmi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

9/11 Commission Executive Director Philip Zelikow makes his first visit to the CIA, where he meets Mark Lowenthal, a CIA staffer responsible for liaising with 9/11 investigations, and Winston Wiley, the CIA’s assistant director for homeland security. Both men have met Zelikow before and Wiley dislikes him, later saying that Zelikow “reeks of arrogance,” and, “Here’s a guy who spent his career trying to insinuate himself into power so when something like this came his way, he could grab it.”
Recriminations at First Meeting - Although the visit is just supposed to be an initial meeting introducing the 9/11 Commission to the CIA, according to Lowenthal, Zelikow starts by saying, “If you had a national intelligence director, none of this would have ever happened.” According to Wiley, Zelikow says that 9/11 was the result of a “massive failure” at the CIA and happened because “you guys weren’t connected to the rest of the community.” Zelikow will later say that he has no recollection of making these remarks and did not have a firm opinion on a director of national intelligence at this time, but both Lowenthal and Wiley will recall both the remarks and being extremely surprised by Zelikow’s tone. Lowenthal thinks that Zelikow has already decided that the intelligence community needs to be restructured, with a national intelligence director appointed above the CIA director, and that Zelikow is “going to make this [the 9/11 investigation] all about the CIA.”
Tenet's Reaction - When Lowenthal warns CIA Director George Tenet about the interview, Tenet cannot believe what Lowenthal is telling him and thinks Lowenthal may have misheard Zelikow. According to journalist and author Philip Shenon, Tenet thinks the idea the CIA is most responsible for 9/11 is “crazy” and the idea of creating a national intelligence director “even nuttier.” Tenet is sure that the “incompetent, arrogant FBI” is most at fault for 9/11 and that if Zelikow gets out of hand, he can deal with the situation by talking to some of the 9/11 commissioners he knows. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 76-80]

Entity Tags: George J. Tenet, Central Intelligence Agency, Philip Zelikow, 9/11 Commission, Winston Wiley, Mark Lowenthal

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

In interviews with the 9/11 Commission, unnamed deputies for CIA director George Tenet repeatedly claim that, before 9/11, they were never given a clear instruction to assassinate Osama bin Laden. This is false, as President Bill Clinton issued such an order following the 1998 embassy bombings (see December 24, 1998). According to author Philip Shenon, the deputies tell the commission “again and again” that they had not been given clear orders to assassinate bin Laden, but “that the CIA had instead been given a confusing set of presidential orders that allowed for bin Laden’s capture, but not his death.” Officers at the CIA apparently blamed this on “overly cautious” lawyers at the White House and Justice Department. The commission learns the deputies’ claims are false from Clinton’s former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger in January 2004 (see January 14, 2004). [Shenon, 2008, pp. 253-4]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The 9/11 Commission interviews CIA Director George Tenet, but, due to frequent evasive answers, the commission doubts that he is telling them the full truth. The commission, represented at the interview by Executive Director Philip Zelikow, Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, and some staffers, takes the unusual step of putting Tenet under oath before questioning him, because, in the words of author Philip Shenon, “The CIA’s record was full of discrepancies about the facts of its operations against bin Laden before 9/11, and many of the discrepancies were Tenet’s.”
"I Don't Recall" - The commission immediately begins to doubt Tenet’s veracity, as he keeps saying, “I don’t remember,” “I don’t recall,” and “Let me go through the documents and get back to you with an answer.” This is despite the fact that Tenet spent a long time revising for his discussions with the commission beforehand (see Before January 22, 2004). Author Philip Shenon will summarize: “Tenet remembered certain details, especially when he was asked the sorts of questions he was eager to answer… But on many other questions, his memory was cloudy. The closer the questions came to the events of the spring and summer of 2001 and to the 9/11 attacks themselves, the worse his memory became.” In addition, the memory lapses concern not only details, but also “entire meetings and key documents.” Tenet even says he cannot recall what was discussed at his first meeting with President George Bush after his election in 2000, which the commission finds “suspicious.” Neither can he recall what he told Bush in the morning intelligence briefings in the months leading up to 9/11.
"We Just Didn't Believe Him" - Zelikow will later say that there was no one “a-ha moment” when they realize Tenet is not telling them the full truth, but his constant failure to remember key aspects disturbs them, and in the end, Zelikow will say, “we just didn’t believe him.” After the meeting, Zelikow, who seemed to have decided that the CIA had failed in the run up to 9/11 at the very start of the investigation (see Late January 2003), basically reports to the commissioners that Tenet perjured himself. The staff and most of the commissioners come to believe that, in Shenon’s words, Tenet is “at best, loose with the facts,” and at worst “flirting with a perjury charge.” Even Commission Chairman Tom Kean, “who found it difficult to say anything critical of anyone,” comes to believe that Tenet is a witness that will “fudge everything.”
CIA View - CIA staffers will later dispute this, saying that Tenet’s inability to remember some things was perfectly normal. CIA staffer Rudy Rousseau will say, “I’m surprised he remembered as much as he did.” Tenet’s chief of staff John Moseman will say, “Neither he [Tenet], nor we, held anything back… To suggest so now is not honorable.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 257-260]

Entity Tags: Philip Shenon, George J. Tenet, Richard Ben-Veniste, Central Intelligence Agency, Thomas Kean, Philip Zelikow

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

FBI Director Robert Mueller launches a charm offensive to win over the 9/11 Commission and ensure that its recommendations are favorable to the bureau.
Commission Initially Favored Break-Up - The attempt is greatly needed, as the Commission initially has an unfavorable view of the FBI due to its very public failings before 9/11: the Phoenix memo (see July 10, 2001), the fact that two of the hijackers lived with an FBI counterterrorism informer (see May 10-Mid-December 2000), and the failure to search Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings (see August 16, 2001). Commissioner John Lehman will say that at the start of the investigation he thought “it was a no-brainer that we should go to an MI5,” the British domestic intelligence service, which would entail taking counterterrorism away from the bureau.
Lobbying Campaign - Author Philip Shenon will say that the campaign against the commissioners “could not have been more aggressive,” because Mueller was “in their faces, literally.” Mueller says he will open his schedule to them at a moment’s notice and returns their calls within minutes. He pays so much attention to the commissioners that some of them begin to regard it as harassment and chairman Tom Kean tells his secretaries to turn away Mueller’s repeated invitations for a meal. Mueller even opens the FBI’s investigatory files to the Commission, giving its investigators unrestricted access to a special FBI building housing the files. He also gets Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, head of MI5, to meet the commissioners and intercede for the bureau.
Contrast with CIA - The campaign succeeds and the Commission is convinced to leave the FBI intact. This is partially due to the perceived difference between Mueller and CIA Director George Tenet, who the Commission suspects of telling it a string of lies (see July 2, 2004). Commissioner Slade Gorton will say, “Mueller was a guy who came in new and was trying to do something different, as opposed to Tenet.” Commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton will also say that the Commission recommended changing the CIA by establishing the position of director of national intelligence. It is therefore better to leave the FBI alone because “the system can only stand so much change.”
Change Partially Motivated by Fear - This change of mind is also partially motivated by the commissioners’ fear of the bureau. Shenon will comment: “Mueller… was also aware of how much fear the FBI continued to inspire among Washington’s powerful and how, even after 9/11, that fear dampened public criticism. Members of congress… shrank at the thought of attacking the FBI.… For many on Capitol Hill, there was always the assumption that there was an embarrassing FBI file somewhere with your name on it, ready to be leaked at just the right moment. More than one member of the 9/11 Commission admitted privately that they had joked—and worried—among themselves about the danger of being a little too publicly critical of the bureau.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 364-368]

Entity Tags: John Lehman, 9/11 Commission, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Robert S. Mueller III, Eliza Manningham-Buller, Philip Shenon, Slade Gorton, Lee Hamilton

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In a public interview with the 9/11 Commission, CIA Director George Tenet falsely claims that he had no communication with President Bush during August 2001, a period when the CIA was aware of increasing signs al-Qaeda would attack the US. Tenet actually met Bush at least twice during this period (see August 17 and 31, 2001). The claim is made in a question and answer session with Commissioner Tim Roemer, who asks Tenet about it because of its links to the mid-August arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui and Tenet’s knowledge of this (see August 17 and 31, 2001, August 23, 2001, and September 1-8, 2001).
"I Don't Believe I Do" - When Roemer asks Tenet “when do you see him [Bush] in August?” Tenet replies, “I don’t believe I do.” Roemer asks again and Tenet, who spent days reading documents to be ready for his discussions with the 9/11 Commission (see Before January 22, 2004), says: “He’s in Texas, and I’m either here or on leave for some of that time. So I’m not there.” When asked about whether he spoke to Bush on the phone in August, he says, “we talked to him directly through the spring and early summer almost every day,” but he himself did not speak to Bush in August.
Bombshell - Roemer thinks the admission CIA Director Tenet did not talk to the president for a month during a period of increased threat is a “bombshell,” and is aware that others on the commission believe that Tenet has repeatedly lied to them (see January 22, 2004 and July 2, 2004). However, as Tenet denies there were any such meetings or conversations and Roemer does not know otherwise yet, he cannot pursue the topic and moves on to the question.
Furious - However, Tenet’s statement is quickly discovered to be untrue, and later that day the CIA’s press office calls round Washington informing reporters that Tenet “momentarily forgot” about the two briefings. Roemer is then “furious” with Tenet. He had wanted to withhold judgment on Tenet despite the criticism from the Commission’s staff, but now decides that he can “assume the worst about Tenet’s veracity—and the worst about what had happened in August between him and the president.”
'Hotter than Hades - Roemer is especially skeptical of Tenet’s claim he does not recall that he flew to Texas in the middle of August: “It’s probably 110 degrees down there, hotter than Hades… You make one trip down there the whole month and you can’t remember what motivates you to go down there to talk to the president?” Roemer’s suspicion that Tenet and Bush talked about domestic terrorism will later be supported by a section in a 2007 book by Tenet, which says, “a few weeks after the Aug. 6 PDB [entitled “Bin laden Determined to Strike in US”] was delivered, I followed it to Crawford to make sure the president stayed current on events.” In the book, Tenet will recall not only flying to Texas, but also being driven around the ranch by Bush and discussing the plants and animals on it with him. [Washington Post, 4/15/2004; Shenon, 2008, pp. 361-362]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Tim Roemer, George J. Tenet

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The 9/11 Commission arranges for a final interview of CIA Director George Tenet. The Commission’s staff thinks of the interview as a “final test of Tenet’s credibility,” because they believe that both he and other CIA managers have not been telling them the full truth (see Before January 14, 2004 and January 22, 2004). In particular they want to ask him about a memorandum of notification that enabled the CIA to kill Osama bin Laden, but was not acted on (see December 24, 1998).
What Memo? - When the Commission’s Executive Director Philip Zelikow says he wants to talk about the memo, Tenet, who spent a long time revising for his sessions with the Commission (see Before January 22, 2004), replies, “What are you referring to?” Zelikow explains about the memo, but Tenet says, “I’m not sure what we’re talking about.” He then says he remembers an early draft of the memo, which did not authorize the CIA to kill bin Laden. Zelikow explains that the draft Tenet is referring to is an early version of the memo, and that a later version, apparently requested by Tenet himself, allowed the CIA to kill bin Laden. Zelikow has not been able to bring the memo with him, because it is so highly classified, and Tenet still does not remember, saying, “Well, as I say, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Disbelief - Author Philip Shenon will write: “Zelikow and [Commission staffer Alexis] Albion looked at each other across the table in disbelief. It was the last straw with Tenet, the final bit of proof they needed to demonstrate that Tenet simply could not tell the truth to the Commission.” Zelikow will later say that he concluded Tenet’s memory lapses were not genuine, but that “George had decided not to share information on any topic unless we already had documentary proof, and then he would add as little as possible to the record.”
False Denial - However, Tenet will deny this was the case, and say he could not remember the authorization to kill bin Laden because he had been on holiday when it was signed and transmitted to Afghanistan. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 359-360] However, the 9/11 Commission will state that this memo was “given to Tenet.” In addition, the 9/11 Commission Report calls the message in which the instructions were communicated to the assets in Afghanistan that were to kill bin Laden “CIA cable, message from the DCI.” DCI stands for director of central intelligence, Tenet’s official job title. Therefore, Tenet very probably did know about it. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 132, 485]

Entity Tags: 9/11 Commission, George J. Tenet, Philip Zelikow, Central Intelligence Agency, Alexis Albion

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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