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Context of 'May 16, 2002: Condoleezza Rice Incorrectly Claims President Bush’s Pre-9/11 Warning Contains Only Historical Information'

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The Joint Chiefs of Staff holds a large, worldwide exercise called Positive Force, which focuses on the Defense Department’s ability to conduct large-scale military operations and coordinate these operations. [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 8/14/2000 pdf file] The 2001 Positive Force exercise is a “continuity of operations exercise,” meaning it deals with government contingency plans to keep working in the event of an attack on the US. [Guardian, 4/15/2004] Over a dozen government agencies, including NORAD, are invited to participate. The exercise prepares them for various scenarios, including non-combatant evacuation operations, cyber attacks, rail disruption, and power outages. It includes “a series of simulated attacks against the maritime, surface and aviation sectors” of America’s national security transportation infrastructure. [US Congress, 5/8/2001; Provider Update, 10/2001; GlobalSecurity (.org), 6/9/2002] Apparently, one of the scenarios that was considered for this exercise involved “a terrorist group hijack[ing] a commercial airliner and fly[ing] it into the Pentagon.” But the proposed scenario, thought up by a group of Special Operations personnel trained to think like terrorists, was rejected. Joint Staff action officers and White House officials said the additional scenario is either “too unrealistic” or too disconnected to the original intent of the exercise. [Air Force Times, 4/13/2004; Boston Herald, 4/14/2004; Washington Post, 4/14/2004; New York Times, 4/14/2004; Guardian, 4/15/2004]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, Pentagon, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Time magazine reports: “For sheer diabolical genius (of the Hollywood variety), nothing came close to the reports that European security services are preparing to counter a bin Laden attempt to assassinate President Bush at next month’s G8 summit in Genoa, Italy. According to German intelligence sources, the plot involved bin Laden paying German neo-Nazis to fly remote-controlled model aircraft packed with Semtex into the conference hall and blow the leaders of the industrialized world to smithereens. (Paging Jerry Bruckheimer).” The report only appears on the Time website and not in the US version of the magazine. [Time, 6/20/2001] This report follows warnings given by Egypt the week before. In addition, there are more warnings before the summit in July. James Hatfield, author of an unflattering book on Bush called Fortunate Son, repeats the claim in print a few days later, writing: “German intelligence services have stated that bin Laden is covertly financing neo-Nazi skinhead groups throughout Europe to launch another terrorist attack at a high-profile American target.” [Online Journal, 7/3/2001] Two weeks later, Hatfield apparently commits suicide. However, there is widespread speculation that his death was payback for his revelation of Bush’s cocaine use in the 1970s. [Salon, 7/20/2001]

Entity Tags: James Hatfield, George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

President Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch on August 6, 2001. Advisors wait with classified briefings.President Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch on August 6, 2001. Advisors wait with classified briefings. [Source: White House]President Bush receives a classified presidential daily briefing (PDB) at his Crawford, Texas ranch indicating that Osama bin Laden might be planning to hijack commercial airliners. The PDB provided to him is entitled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.” The entire briefing focuses on the possibility of terrorist attacks inside the US. [New York Times, 5/15/2002; Newsweek, 5/27/2002] The analysts who drafted the briefing will say that they drafted it on the CIA’s initiative (see July 13, 2004), whereas in 2004 Bush will state that he requested a briefing on the topic due to threats relating to a conference in Genoa, Italy, in July 2001, where Western intelligence agencies believed Osama bin Laden was involved in a plot to crash an airplane into a building to kill Bush and other leaders (see April 13, 2004). The analysts will later explain that they saw it as an opportunity to convey that the threat of an al-Qaeda attack in the US was both current and serious. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 260] The existence of this briefing is kept secret, until it is leaked in May 2002, causing a storm of controversy (see May 15, 2002). While National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice will claim the memo is only one and a half pages long, other accounts state it is 11 1/2 pages instead of the usual two or three. [New York Times, 5/15/2002; Newsweek, 5/27/2002; Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002] A page and a half of the contents will be released on April 10, 2004; this reportedly is the full content of the briefing. [Washington Post, 4/10/2004] The briefing, as released, states as follows (note that the spelling of certain words are corrected and links have been added):
bullet Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US (see December 1, 1998). Bin Laden implied in US television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and “bring the fighting to America” (see May 26, 1998).
bullet After US missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, bin Laden told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington, according to a -REDACTED-service (see December 21, 1998).
bullet An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative told -REDACTED- service at the same time that bin Laden was planning to exploit the operative’s access to the US to mount a terrorist strike.
bullet The millennium plotting in Canada in 1999 may have been part of bin Laden’s first serious attempt to implement a terrorist strike in the US. Convicted plotter Ahmed Ressam has told the FBI that he conceived the idea to attack Los Angeles International Airport himself (see December 14, 1999), but that bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaida encouraged him and helped facilitate the operation. Ressam also said that in 1998 Abu Zubaida was planning his own US attack (see Late March-Early April 2001 and May 30, 2001).
bullet Ressam says bin Laden was aware of the Los Angeles operation.
bullet Although bin Laden has not succeeded, his attacks against the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998) demonstrate that he prepares operations years in advance and is not deterred by setbacks. Bin Laden associates surveyed our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as early as 1993 (see Late 1993-Late 1994), and some members of the Nairobi cell planning the bombings were arrested and deported in 1997.
bullet Al-Qaeda members—including some who are US citizens—have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks (see January 25, 2001). Two al-Qaeda members found guilty in the conspiracy to bomb our embassies in East Africa were US citizens (see September 15, 1998), and a senior EIJ member lived in California in the mid-1990s (see November 1989 and September 10, 1998).
bullet A clandestine source said in 1998 that a bin Laden cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks (see October-November 1998).
bullet “We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a [REDACTED] service in 1998 saying that bin Laden wanted to hijack a US aircraft to gain the release of ‘Blind Sheikh’ Omar Abdul-Rahman and other US-held extremists” (see 1998, December 4, 1998, and May 23, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 223] According to the Washington Post, this information came from a British service. [Washington Post, 5/18/2002]
bullet Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York (see May 30, 2001).
bullet The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full-field investigations throughout the US that it considers bin Laden-related (see August 6, 2001). CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group or bin Laden supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives (see May 16-17, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 223]
In retrospect, the briefing is remarkable for the many warnings that apparently are not included (see for instance, from the summer of 2001 prior to August alone: May 2001, June 2001, June 12, 2001, June 19, 2001, Late Summer 2001, July 2001, July 16, 2001, Late July 2001, Late July 2001, Summer 2001, June 30-July 1, 2001, July 10, 2001, and Early August 2001). According to one account, after the PDB has been given to him, Bush tells the CIA briefer, “You’ve covered your ass now” (see August 6, 2001). Incredibly, the New York Times later reports that after being given the briefing, Bush “[breaks] off from work early and [spends] most of the day fishing.” [New York Times, 5/25/2002] In 2002 and again in 2004, National Security Adviser Rice will incorrectly claim under oath that the briefing only contained historical information from 1998 and before (see May 16, 2002 and April 8, 2004).

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Islamic Jihad, Omar Abdul-Rahman, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Los Angeles International Airport, Condoleezza Rice, Abu Zubaida, Al-Qaeda, World Trade Center, Central Intelligence Agency, 9/11 Commission, Ahmed Ressam, Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

FBI agents at the bureau’s Minneapolis field office have been arguing with the FBI’s Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) over whether there is sufficient evidence to secure a warrant to search Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings (see August 20-September 11, 2001). The tensions surface in a call between Minneapolis agent Greg Jones and Supervisory Special Agent Mike Maltbie. This is a partial reconstruction of the conversation based on Jones’ notes: Maltbie: “What you have done is couched [the request] in such a way that people get spun up.” Jones: “Good. We want to make sure he doesn’t get control of an airplane and crash it into the [World Trade Center] or something like that.” Maltbie: “[T]hat’ not going to happen. We don’t know he’s a terrorist. You don’t have enough to show he is a terrorist. You have a guy interested in this type of aircraft—that is it.” Jones also asks whether the warrant request has been shown to Section Chief Michael Rolince yet, and Maltbie replies it has not. [US Congress, 10/17/2002; US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 153-5 pdf file; US Department of Justice, 3/1/2006 pdf file] Another Minneapolis agent, Harry Samit, also contacts Maltbie and expresses his frustration with RFU’s position that they do not have enough evidence. In an interview with the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General he recalls telling Maltbie: “… if you’re not going to advance this the FISA route, or if you don’t believe we have enough for a FISA, I shudder to think—and that’s all I got out. And [Maltbie] cut me off and said, ‘You will not question the unit chief and you will not question me. We’ve been through a lot. We know what’s going on. You will not question us.’ And that could be the mantra for FBI supervisors.” [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 155 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Radical Fundamentalist Unit, Greg Jones, FBI Minnesota field office, FBI Headquarters, Harry Samit, Michael Maltbie

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The New York Post has a banner headline on May 16, 2002.The New York Post has a banner headline on May 16, 2002. [Source: New York Post]The Bush administration is embarrassed when the CBS Evening News reveals that President Bush had been warned about al-Qaeda domestic attacks in August 2001 (see August 6, 2001). [New York Times, 5/15/2002; Washington Post, 5/16/2002] CBS’s David Martin reports: “The president’s daily intelligence brief is delivered to the president each morning, often by the director of central intelligence himself. In the weeks before 9/11 it warned that an attack by Osama bin Laden could involve the hijacking of a US aircraft.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 113] Bush had repeatedly said that he had “no warning” of any kind. Press secretary Ari Fleischer states unequivocally that while Bush had been warned of possible hijackings, “[t]he president did not—not—receive information about the use of airplanes as missiles by suicide bombers.” [New York Times, 5/15/2002; Washington Post, 5/16/2002] “Until the attack took place, I think it’s fair to say that no one envisioned that as a possibility.” [MSNBC, 9/18/2002] Fleischer claims the August memo was titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike the US,” but the real title is soon found to end with “Strike in US” [Washington Post, 5/18/2002] The Guardian will state a few days later, “[T]he memo left little doubt that the hijacked airliners were intended for use as missiles and that intended targets were to be inside the US.” It further states that, “now, as the columnist Joe Conason points out in the current edition of the New York Observer, ‘conspiracy’ begins to take over from ‘incompetence’ as a likely explanation for the failure to heed—and then inform the public about—warnings that might have averted the worst disaster in the nation’s history.” [Guardian, 5/19/2002] Current deputy press secretary Scott McClellan will point out in 2008: “The [CBS] report left much open to question. Was it suggesting that the president had received info that should have led him to act? Was it just a possible warning sign, like many others that may have gone unheeded? Or was it something else, possibly a nonspecific bit of intelligence from years earlier?” McClellan will write that the uncertainty “mattered little to Democratic leaders in Congress. They saw an opportunity to attack the president’s strong suit—his leadership in the war on terrorism—and cut into his enormous popularity ahead of the midterm elections that coming November.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 113]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), David Martin, Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush, Scott McClellan, Ari Fleischer, Joe Conason

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice holds a press conference to respond to the public leak (see May 15, 2002) of the title of President Bush’s August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Brief item entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” (see August 6, 2001).
Presidential Daily Brief - She asserts: “It was an analytic report that talked about [Osama bin Laden]‘s methods of operation, talked about what he had done historically, in 1997, in 1998.… I want to reiterate, it was not a warning. There was no specific time, place, or method mentioned.” [White House, 5/16/2002] In April 2004, Rice will testify under oath before the 9/11 Commission and repeatedly assert that it was “a historical memo… not threat reporting” (see April 8, 2004).
Comment by Philip Shenon - Author Philip Shenon will later comment, “She failed to mention, as would later be clear, that the PDB focused entirely on the possibility that al-Qaeda intended to strike within the United States; it cited relatively recent FBI reports of possible terrorist surveillance of government buildings in New York.” After rereading the transcript of the press conference, Shenon will call it a “remarkable document,” because “To many of the Commission’s staff, it offered proof of how, to Condoleezza Rice, everything is semantics. A threat is not a threat, a warning is not a warning, unless she says it is. The word historical appeared to have an especially broad definition to Rice. To her, a warning that was a few weeks or months old was of relatively little value because it was ‘historical.’”
Aircraft as Weapons - Rice also says, “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon—that they would try to use an airplane as a missile.” However, various government agencies were well aware of the concept of planes as missiles, including the FBI (see August 27, 2001), the Defense Department (see April 17-26, 2001), and the White House itself (see June 20, 2001). Shenon will point out that this news conference occurs eight months after the attacks, yet Rice is “suggesting that in all that time, no one had bothered to tell her [of these reports].” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 213, 237-239]

Entity Tags: Philip Shenon, Condoleezza Rice

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

9/11 Commission member Jamie Gorelick is given access to the previously sacrosanct Presidential Daily Briefings (PDBs) from the Clinton and Bush administrations (see Early December 2003). Like commission chair Thomas Kean, Gorelick is struck by the general lack of information in the documents (see Early December 2003), but the thing that strikes her most about the PDBs is just how many warnings were given in the months preceding the 9/11 attacks. Details of the predicted terrorist attack were lacking—the US intelligence community did not know where or when the attacks would take place—but the message from the spring, summer, and fall of 2001 was clear: the US must be prepared for a massive assault either on one of its foreign allies or on itself. Gorelick later recalls the warnings say the anticipated attacks are “the worst thing [the US has] ever seen—an unprecedented threat.” The August 6, 2001 PDB (see August 6, 2001) contained warnings about specific threats to American targets, particularly “federal buildings in New York.” Gorelick, like everyone else in the Commission, has never seen the actual August 6 PDB, and she is shocked by the detail and the specificity of the warnings. The characterization of the warnings as “historical” (see May 16, 2002) is inexplicable, she thinks. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 221-222]

Entity Tags: Jamie Gorelick, Thomas Kean, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Condoleezza Rice sworn in before the 9/11 Commission.Condoleezza Rice sworn in before the 9/11 Commission. [Source: Larry Downing/ Reuters]National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testifies before the 9/11 Commission under oath and with the threat of perjury. The Bush administration originally opposed her appearance, but relented after great public demand (see March 30, 2004). [Independent, 4/3/2004] The testimony is a huge media event and major television networks interrupt their programming to carry it live. First, the Commission’s Democratic Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton reads a statement trying to establish a tone of non-confrontation and saying that the Commission’s purpose is “not to put any witness on the spot,” but “to understand and to inform.”
Rice Reads Lengthy Statement - Knowing that she has a deal to appear only once and for a limited time, Rice begins by reading a statement much longer than those read by other witnesses testifying before the Commission, a move specifically approved by Hamilton and the Commission’s chairman Tom Kean. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 293, 295] In the statement she repeats her claim that “almost all of the reports [before 9/11] focused on al-Qaeda activities outside the United States.… The information that was specific enough to be actionable referred to terrorists operation overseas.” Moreover, she stresses that the “kind of analysis about the use of airplanes as weapons actually was never briefed to us.” But she concedes: “In fact there were some reports done in ‘98 and ‘99. I think I was—I was certainly not aware of them.” [Washington Post, 4/8/2004]
Heated Questioning from Democrats - The exchanges with the Republican commissioners are polite, but Rice’s interactions with the Democrats on the Commission become heated. According to author Philip Shenon, her strategy is to “try to run out the clock—talk and talk and talk, giving them no chance to ask follow-up questions before the 10 minutes that each of the commissioners had been allotted had run out.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 295] During questioning several subjects are discussed:
bullet Why didn’t counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke brief President Bush on al-Qaeda before September 11? Clarke says he had wished to do so, but Rice states, “Clarke never asked me to brief the president on counterterrorism.”
bullet What was the content of the briefing President Bush received on August 6, 2001 (see August 6, 2001)? While Rice repeatedly underlines that it was “a historical memo… not threat reporting,” commissioners Richard Ben-Veniste and Tim Roemer ask her why it cannot therefore be declassified. [Washington Post, 4/8/2004] Asked what the PDB item’s still-secret title is, Rice gives it as “Bin Laden Determined to Attack inside the United States,” leading to an audible gasp from the audience. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 298] Two days later, the White House will finally publish it, and it will be shown to contain more than just historical information.
bullet Did Rice tell Bush of the existence of al-Qaeda cells in the US before August 6, 2001? Rice says that she does not remember whether she “discussed it with the president.”
bullet Were warnings properly passed on? Rice points out: “The FBI issued at least three nationwide warnings to federal, state, and law enforcement agencies, and specifically stated that although the vast majority of the information indicated overseas targets, attacks against the homeland could not be ruled out. The FBI tasked all 56 of its US field offices to increase surveillance of known suspected terrorists and to reach out to known informants who might have information on terrorist activities.” But commissioner Jamie Gorelick remarks: “We have no record of that. The Washington field office international terrorism people say they never heard about the threat, they never heard about the warnings.” [Washington Post, 4/8/2004]
bullet Under questioning from Democratic commissioner Bob Kerrey, she admits that she worked with Philip Zelikow, the Commission’s executive director, during the Bush administration transition, and that they discussed terrorism issues.
bullet She claims that a plan Clarke presented to her to roll back al-Qaeda in January 2001 (see January 25, 2001) was not actually a plan, but merely “a set of ideas and a paper” that had not been implemented. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 299-300]
Central Issues Unresolved - Rice does not apologize to the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks, as Clarke did weeks earlier. The Associated Press comments, “The blizzard of words in Condoleezza Rice’s testimony Thursday did not resolve central points about what the government knew, should have known, did, and should have done before the September 11 terrorist attacks.” [Associated Press, 4/8/2004]
Testimony an 'Ambitious Feat of Jujitsu' - The Washington Post calls her testimony “an ambitious feat of jujitsu: On one hand, she made a case that ‘for more than 20 years, the terrorist threat gathered, and America’s response across several administrations of both parties was insufficient.’ At the same time, she argued that there was nothing in particular the Bush administration itself could have done differently that would have prevented the attacks of September 11, 2001—that there was no absence of vigor in the White House’s response to al-Qaeda during its first 233 days in office. The first thesis is undeniably true; the second both contradictory and implausible.” [Washington Post, 4/9/2004]
'Cherry-Picking' Rice's Testimony - In 2009, Lawrence Wilkerson, who is chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2004, will recall: “John [Bellinger, the legal adviser to the National Security Council] and I had to work on the 9/11 Commission testimony of Condi. Condi was not gonna do it, not gonna do it, not gonna do it, and then all of a sudden she realized she better do it. That was an appalling enterprise. We would cherry-pick things to make it look like the president had been actually concerned about al-Qaeda. We cherry-picked things to make it look as if the vice president and others, Secretary Rumsfeld and all, had been. They didn’t give a sh_t about al-Qaeda. They had priorities. The priorities were lower taxes, ballistic missiles, and the defense thereof.” [Vanity Fair, 2/2009]

Entity Tags: Jamie Gorelick, Lee Hamilton, Lawrence Wilkerson, George W. Bush, John Bellinger, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bob Kerrey, Bush administration (43), Tim Roemer, Condoleezza Rice, Thomas Kean, Richard Ben-Veniste, 9/11 Commission, Richard A. Clarke

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, 2004 Elections

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