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Context of 'Mid-July 2001: Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz Doubts Attack Warnings'

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After the Bush administration takes office in January 2001, it is slow to develop new approaches to Pakistan and Afghanistan. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice orders a new policy review for al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but sets no deadline for it to be completed. State Department officials will later say that Secretary of State Colin Powell shows little interest in the policy review. It takes four months for the Bush administration to even nominate a new assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs. President Bush and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf exchange formal letters with each other shortly after Bush takes office, but the letters have little impact. In January, US ambassador to Pakistan William Milam prepares two cables to brief the new Bush administration about Pakistan, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda. There is no response from Washington and no request for further information, even though Milam is the point person for meetings with the Taliban. The US embassy is not consulted at all about the new policy review, indicating just how low a priority the review is. A senior US diplomat will later say: “Al-Qaeda was not on the radar screen in Washington. Nobody thought there was any urgency to the policy review. Papers were circulated, dates were made to meet, and were broken—it was the usual bureaucratic approach.” The first significant meeting related to the review takes place in April, but little is accomplished (see April 30, 2001). The first cabinet-level meeting relating to the policy review takes place on September 4, just one week before the 9/11 attacks. US policy towards Pakistan is discussed, but no firm decisions are reached (see September 4, 2001). After 9/11, Rice will say: “America’s al-Qaeda policy wasn’t working because our Afghanistan policy wasn’t working. And our Afghanistan policy wasn’t working because our Pakistan policy wasn’t working. We recognized that America’s counterterrorism policy had to be connected to our regional strategies and our overall foreign policy.… Al-Qaeda was both a client of and patron to the Taliban, which in turn was supported by Pakistan. Those relationships provided al-Qaeda with a powerful umbrella of protection, and we had to sever that.” [Rashid, 2008, pp. 56-60]

Entity Tags: Pervez Musharraf, Al-Qaeda, Bush administration (43), George W. Bush, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Taliban, William Milam

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice later testifies to the 9/11 Commission that in the first eight months of Bush’s presidency before 9/11, “the president receive[s] at these [Presidential Daily Briefings] more than 40 briefing items on al-Qaeda, and 13 of those [are] in response to questions he or his top advisers posed.” [Washington Post, 4/8/2004] The content of the warnings in these briefings are unknown. However, CIA Director George Tenet claims that none of the warnings specifically indicates terrorists plan to fly hijacked commercial aircraft into buildings in the US. [New York Times, 4/4/2004] Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will later emphasize, “Tenet on 40 occasions in… morning meetings mentioned al-Qaeda to the president. Forty times, many of them in a very alarmed way, about a pending attack.” [Vanity Fair, 11/2004] These briefings are normally given in person by CIA Director George Tenet, and are usually attended by Vice President Cheney and National Security Adviser Rice. In the Clinton administration, up to 25 officials recieved the PDB. But in the Bush adminisration before 9/11, this was sharply reduced to only six people (see After January 20, 2001). Other top officials have to make due with an Senior Executive Intelligence Brief generally released one day later, which is similar to the PDB but often contains less information (see August 7, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 256, 533]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Al-Qaeda, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, George J. Tenet, Condoleezza Rice

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The Bush administration finally has its first Deputy Secretary-level meeting on terrorism. [Time, 8/12/2002] According to counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke, he advocates that the Northern Alliance needs to be supported in the war against the Taliban, and the Predator drone flights need to resume over Afghanistan so bin Laden can be targeted. [Clarke, 2004, pp. 231] Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz says the focus on al-Qaeda is wrong. He states, “I just don’t understand why we are beginning by talking about this one man bin Laden,” and “Who cares about a little terrorist in Afghanistan?” Wolfowitz insists the focus should be Iraqi-sponsored terrorism instead. He claims the 1993 attack on the WTC must have been done with help from Iraq, and rejects the CIA’s assertion that there has been no Iraqi-sponsored terrorism against the US since 1993 (see April 30, 2001). (A spokesperson for Wolfowitz later calls Clarke’s account a “fabrication.”) [Clarke, 2004, pp. 30, 231; Newsweek, 3/22/2004] Wolfowitz repeats these sentiments immediately after 9/11 and tries to argue that the US should attack Iraq. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage agrees with Clarke that al-Qaeda is an important threat. Deputy National Security Adviser Steve Hadley, chairing the meeting, brokers a compromise between Wolfowitz and the others. The group agrees to hold additional meetings focusing on al-Qaeda first (in June and July), but then later look at other terrorism, including any Iraqi terrorism. [Clarke, 2004, pp. 30, 231-32] Vice President Cheney’s Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin also attend the hour-long meeting. [Time, 8/12/2002]

Entity Tags: Stephen J. Hadley, Richard Armitage, Richard A. Clarke, Taliban, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Central Intelligence Agency, John E. McLaughlin, Northern Alliance, Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

According to a 2006 book by journalist Bob Woodward, in the months before 9/11, CIA Director Tenet believes that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is impeding the effort to develop a coherent strategy to capture or kill bin Laden. Rumsfeld questions al-Qaeda communications intercepts by the NSA and other other intelligence. [New York Times, 9/29/2006] Woodward writes in his book, “Could all this be a grand deception? Rumsfeld had asked. Perhaps it was a plan to measure US reactions and defenses. Tenet had the NSA review all the intercepts, and the agency concluded they were of genuine al-Qaeda communications.” As a result of these doubts, on June 30, 2001, a Senior Executive Intelligence Brief (SEIB) sent to top White House officials contains an article entitled, “Bin Laden Threats Are Real” (see June 30, 2001). [Woodward, 2006, pp. 50] However, apparently this does not quell the doubts. For instance, in mid-July 2001, Tenet is told that Deputy Defense Secretary and close Rumsfeld ally Paul Wolfowitz still doubts the surge of warnings and suggests that bin Laden may merely be trying to study US reactions to an attack threat (see Mid-July 2001).

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, George J. Tenet

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz gives a commencement address at the United States Military Academy graduation at West Point, New York, where he focuses on the danger of surprise attacks. To an audience of about 15,000 people, he points out that 2001 marks the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor—“a military disaster whose name has become synonymous with surprise”—and notes that, “Interestingly, that ‘surprise attack’ was preceded by an astonishing number of unheeded warnings and missed signals.” He continues, “Yet military history is full of surprises… Very few of these surprises are the product of simple blindness or simple stupidity. Almost always there have been warnings and signals that have been missed.” He says one of the reasons these warnings have so often been missed is “a routine obsession with a few familiar dangers,” which “has gotten whole governments, sometimes whole societies, into trouble.” He stresses the need to “use the benefit of hindsight to replace a poverty of expectations with an anticipation of the unfamiliar and the unlikely,” thereby overcoming “the complacency that is the greatest threat to our hopes for a peaceful future.” [US Department of Defense, 6/1/2001; US Department of Defense, 6/2/2001] Journalist James Mann will later reflect on this speech, saying that Wolfowitz “was more prescient than he could have imagined. America was about to be attacked. Once again the United States was unable to deal with the unfamiliar and the unlikely. Once again there were unheeded warnings and missed signals.” [Mann, 2004, pp. 29] In spite of his words of caution, around this time Wolfowitz himself appears to be ignoring the danger of a possible attack by al-Qaeda. In July, he will reportedly doubt whether the recent surge in al-Qaeda warnings is really of significance (see Mid-July 2001). And at a meeting on terrorism in April, he’d complained, “I just don’t understand why we are beginning by talking about this one man bin Laden” (see April 30, 2001).

Entity Tags: Paul Wolfowitz

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

A Senior Executive Intelligence Brief (SEIB) sent to top White House officials is entitled, “Bin Laden Planning High-Profile Attacks.” It states that bin Laden operatives expect near-term attacks to have dramatic consequences of catastrophic proportions. Despite evidence of delays possibly caused by heightened US security, the planning for the attacks is continuing. The briefing also contains another report entitled, “Bin Laden Threats Are Real.” SEIBs are typically based on the previous day’s President Daily Briefings (see January 20-September 10, 2001), so it is probable Bush is given this warning. Also on this day, Saudi Arabia declares its highest level of terror alert. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 256-257, 534; US District Court of Eastern Virginia, 5/4/2006, pp. 3 pdf file]

Entity Tags: White House, Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley tells CIA Director George Tenet that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz questions the significance of the recent surge in al-Qaeda warnings. Wolfowitz apparently suggests that bin Laden may merely be trying to study US reactions to an attack threat. Tenet replies that he has already addressed these questions and that the reporting is convincing. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 259] Tenet is likely referring to a report delivered to the White House on June 30 entitled “Bin Laden Threats Are Real” (see June 30, 2001) that was prepared to deal with nearly identical doubts from Defense Secretary Rumsfeld (see Summer 2001). In April 2001, Wolfowitz said in a meeting that the main terrorist threat to the US was from Iraq, not bin Laden (see April 30, 2001).

Entity Tags: Paul Wolfowitz, Stephen J. Hadley, George J. Tenet, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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