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Context of 'September 4, 2001: Cabinet-Rank Advisers Discuss Terrorism, Approve Revised Version of Clarke’s Eight Month-Old-Plan'

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Al Gore (close left) and Bill Clinton (close right), in a Small Group meeting. Sitting at the table between them, from left to right, are George Tenet, Henry Shelton, William Cohen, and Sandy Berger.Al Gore (close left) and Bill Clinton (close right), in a Small Group meeting. Sitting at the table between them, from left to right, are George Tenet, Henry Shelton, William Cohen, and Sandy Berger. [Source: CBC] (click image to enlarge)In the wake of the embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), top Clinton officials begin frequently meeting to discuss terrorism and continue to do so through the rest of Clinton’s term. What is called the “Small Group” of cabinet-ranked principals involved in national security meets almost every week on terrorism. The lower level interagency Counterterrorism Security Group led by counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke regularly meets two or three times a week. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger will later say, “From August 1998, bin Laden was Enemy No. 1.” However, terrorism still has to compete with other issues. For instance, US diplomats are reluctant to press Pakistan to do more on terrorism because of other competing diplomatic issues with Pakistan. The Bush administration by contrast will only hold two cabinet-level meetings on terrorism during the nine-month period spanning from January 2001 to September 11 (see September 4, 2001). [New York Times, 12/30/2001]

Entity Tags: Small Group, Pakistan, Sandy Berger, Counterterrorism and Security Group

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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

Richard Clarke.Richard Clarke. [Source: Robert Flores/ Defense Information Systems Agency]Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke submits a proposal to National Security Adviser Rice and “urgently” asks for a Cabinet-level meeting on the al-Qaeda threat. [Clarke, 2004, pp. 230-31] He forwards his December 2000 strategy paper and a copy of his 1998 “Delenda Plan” (see August 27, 1998). He lays out a proposed agenda for urgent action:
bullet Approve covert assistance to Ahmed Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban. [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004]
bullet Significantly increase funding for CIA counterterrorism activity. [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004]
bullet Respond to the USS Cole bombing with an attack on al-Qaeda. (The link between al-Qaeda and that bombing had been assumed for months and is confirmed in the media two days later.) According to the Washington Post, “Clarke argue[s] that the camps [are] can’t-miss targets, and they [matter]. The facilities [amount] to conveyor belts for al-Qaeda’s human capital, with raw recruits arriving and trained fighters departing either for front lines against the Northern Alliance, the Afghan rebel coalition, or against American interests somewhere else. The US government had whole libraries of images filmed over Tarnak Qila and its sister camp, Garmabat Ghar, 19 miles farther west. Why watch al-Qaeda train several thousand men a year and then chase them around the world when they left?” No retaliation is taken on these camps until after 9/11. [Washington Post, 1/20/2002]
bullet Go forward with new Predator drone reconnaissance missions in the spring and use an armed version when it is ready (see January 10-25, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004]
bullet Step up the fight against terrorist fundraising. [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004]
bullet Be aware that al-Qaeda sleeper cells in the US are not just a potential threat, but are a “major threat in being.” Additionally, more attacks have almost certainly been set in motion (see January 25, 2001). [Washington Post, 1/20/2002] Rice’s response to Clarke’s proposal is that the Cabinet will not address the issue until it has been “framed” at the deputy secretary level. However, this initial deputy meeting is not given high priority and it does not take place until April 2001. [Clarke, 2004, pp. 230-31] Henry Shelton, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman until 9/11, says, “The squeaky wheel was Dick Clarke, but he wasn’t at the top of their priority list, so the lights went out for a few months. Dick did a pretty good job because he’s abrasive as hell, but given the [bureaucratic] level he was at” there was no progress. [Benjamin and Simon, 2002, pp. 335-36; Los Angeles Times, 3/30/2004] Some counterterrorism officials think the new administration responds slowly simply because Clarke’s proposal originally came from the Clinton administration. [Time, 8/12/2002] For instance, Thomas Maertenson, on the National Security Council in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, says, “They really believed their campaign rhetoric about the Clinton administration. So anything [that administration] did was bad, and the Bushies were not going to repeat it.” [New York Times, 3/24/2004; Star-Tribune (Minneapolis), 3/25/2004] The Bush administration will finally address the gist of Clarke’s plan at a cabinet-level meeting on September 4, 2001, just one week before 9/11 (see September 4, 2001). Clarke will later comment that the plan adopted “on Sept. 4 is basically… what I proposed on Jan. 25. And so the time in between was wasted.”

Entity Tags: Henry Hugh Shelton, Northern Alliance, Richard A. Clarke, Condoleezza Rice, Clinton administration, Al-Qaeda, Bush administration (43), Central Intelligence Agency, Thomas Maertenson, Taliban, Ahmed Shah Massoud

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Around this time, intercepts from Afghanistan warn that al-Qaeda could attack an American target in late June or on the July 4 holiday. However, the White House’s Cabinet-level principals group does not meet to discuss this prospect. This group also fails to meet after intelligence analysts overhear conversations from an al-Qaeda cell in Milan suggesting that bin Laden’s agents might be plotting to kill Bush at the European summit in Genoa, Italy, in late July (see July 20-22, 2001). In fact, the group will only hold one meeting on terrorism before 9/11 (see September 4, 2001). [New York Times, 12/30/2001] According to 9/11 Commissioner Tim Roemer, before 9/11 the principals group met 32 times on other issues, such as Iraq, Russia, China, the Middle East, and missile defense. [Editor & Publisher, 10/1/2006] By comparison, the principals group met to discuss terrorism around once a week between 1998 and 2000 under Clinton (see Late August 1998-November 2000). [New York Times, 12/30/2001]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Condoleezza Rice and George Tenet in the White House. This picture is actually taken on October 8, 2001, and President Bush is elsewhere in the room.Condoleezza Rice and George Tenet in the White House. This picture is actually taken on October 8, 2001, and President Bush is elsewhere in the room. [Source: Eric Draper / White House]CIA Director George Tenet finds the briefing that counterterrorism chief Cofer Black gave him earlier in the day (see July 10, 2001) so alarming that he calls National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice from his car as he heads to the White House and says he needs to see her right away, even though he has regular weekly meetings with her. [Washington Post, 10/1/2006] Tenet and Black let a third CIA official, Richard Blee, who is responsible for Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, brief Rice on the latest intelligence. Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke are also present. [McClatchy Newspapers, 10/2/2006]
'Significant Attack' - Blee starts by saying, “There will be a significant terrorist attack in the coming weeks or months!” He argues that it is impossible to pick the specific day, saying Osama bin Laden “will attack when he believes the attack will be successful.” He mentions a range of threat information including:
bullet A warning related to Chechen leader Ibn Khattab (see (July 9, 2001)) and seven pieces of intelligence the CIA recently received indicating there would soon be a terrorist attack (see July 9-10, 2001);
bullet A mid-June statement by bin Laden to trainees that there would be an attack in the near future (see Mid-June 2001);
bullet Information that talks about moving toward decisive acts;
bullet Late-June information saying a “big event” was forthcoming;
bullet Two separate bits of information collected “a few days before the meeting” in which people predicted a “stunning turn of events” in the weeks ahead. This may be a reference to intercepts of calls in Yemen, possibly involving the father-in-law of 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar (see June 30-July 1, 2001).
Multiple, Simultaneous Attacks in US Possible - Blee says that the attacks will be “spectacular,” they will be designed to inflict mass casualties against US facilities and interests, there may be multiple, simultaneous attacks, and they may be in the US itself. He outlines the CIA’s efforts to disrupt al-Qaeda by spreading incorrect word that the attack plans have been compromised, in the hope that this will cause a delay in the attack. But he says this is not enough and that the CIA should go on the attack. Blee also discounts the possibility of disinformation, as bin Laden’s threats are known to the public in the Middle East and there will be a loss of face, funds, and popularity if they are not carried out. Blee urges that the US take a “proactive approach” by using the Northern Alliance. [Tenet, 2007, pp. 151-4] Author Bob Woodward will later write: “Black emphasize[s] that this amount[s] to a strategic warning, meaning the problem [is] so serious that it require[s] an overall plan and strategy. Second, this [is] a major foreign policy problem that need[s] to be addressed immediately. They need […] to take action that moment—covert, military, whatever—to thwart bin Laden. The United States ha[s] human and technical sources, and all the intelligence [is] consistent.” [Woodward, 2006, pp. 80; Washington Post, 10/1/2006] Richard Clarke expresses his agreement with the CIA about the threat’s seriousness, and Black says, “This country needs to go on a war footing now.”
Rice's Response - There are conflicting accounts about the CIA’s reading of Rice’s response. According to Woodward: “Tenet and Black [feel] they [are] not getting through to Rice. She [is] polite, but they [feel] the brush-off.” They leave the meeting frustrated, seeing little prospect for immediate action. Tenet and Black will both later recall the meeting as the starkest warning they gave the White House on al-Qaeda before 9/11 and one that could have potentially stopped the 9/11 attacks if Rice had acted on it (see July 10, 2001) and conveyed their urgency to President Bush. (Tenet is briefing Bush on a daily basis at this time, but he will later say that Rice has a much better rapport with the president.) Black will say, “The only thing we didn’t do was pull the trigger to the gun we were holding to her head.” [Woodward, 2006, pp. 80; Washington Post, 10/1/2006] Rice says that Bush will align his policy with the new realities and grant new authorities. Writing in 2007, Tenet will say that this response is “just the outcome I had expected and hoped for,” and recall that as they leave the meeting, Blee and Black congratulate each other on having got the administration’s attention. Nevertheless, Rice does not take the requested action until after 9/11. [Tenet, 2007, pp. 153-4]
Rice Concerned about Genoa - Clarke will recall in 2006 that Rice focuses on the possible threat to Bush at an upcoming summit meeting in Genoa, Italy (see June 13, 2001 and July 20-22, 2001). Rice and Bush have already been briefed about the Genoa warning by this time (see July 5, 2001). Rice also promises to quickly schedule a high-level White House meeting on al-Qaeda. However, that meeting does not take place until September 4, 2001 (see September 4, 2001). [McClatchy Newspapers, 10/2/2006] Rice also directs that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft be given the same briefing, and they receive it a short time later (see July 11-17, 2001).
Meeting Not Mentioned in 9/11 Commission Report - The meeting will not be mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report (see August 4, 2002), and there will be controversy when it is fully revealed in 2006 (see September 29, 2006, September 30-October 3, 2006, and October 1-2, 2006).

Entity Tags: Richard Blee, Stephen J. Hadley, White House, Osama bin Laden, Richard A. Clarke, George J. Tenet, Al-Qaeda, Central Intelligence Agency, Cofer Black, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, John Ashcroft

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The Bush administration holds no high-level meetings prior to 9/11 to discuss the ‘Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US’ Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) given to President Bush on August 6, 2001 (see August 6, 2001). Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will later suggest that 9/11 might have been stopped “if [National Security Adviser] Rice and the president had acted personally, gotten involved, shaken the trees, gotten the Cabinet members involved when they had ample warning in June and July and August that something was about to happen.… [Rice] said that the president received 40 warnings face to face from the director of central intelligence that a major al-Qaeda attack was going to take place and she admitted that the president did not have a meeting on the subject, did not convene the Cabinet. She admitted that she didn’t convene the Cabinet. And as some of the [9/11 Commissioners] pointed out, this was in marked contrast to the way the government operated in December of 1999, when it had similar information and it successfully thwarted attacks.” [ABC News, 4/8/2004] Former CIA official Larry Johnson will similarly comment, “At a minimum, the details in the 6 August PDB should have motivated Rice to convene a principals’ meeting. Such a meeting would have ensured that all members of the president’s national security team were aware of the information that had been shared with the president. George Bush should have directed the different department heads to report back within one week on any information relevant to the al-Qaeda threat. Had he done this there is a high probability that the FBI field agents concerns about Arabs taking flight training would have rung some bells. There is also a high probability that the operations folks at CIA would have shared the information they had in hand about the presence of al-Qaeda operators in the United States.” [Tom Paine (.com), 4/12/2004] There will be one cabinet-level principals meeting to discuss terrorism on September 4, 2001, but no evidence has been released suggesting the PDB or the possibility of al-Qaeda attacking the US was discussed (see September 4, 2001).

Entity Tags: Condoleezza Rice, Richard A. Clarke, George W. Bush, Larry C. Johnson

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

President Bush’s cabinet-rank advisers discuss terrorism for the second of only two times before 9/11. [Washington Post, 5/17/2002] National Security Adviser Rice chairs the meeting; neither President Bush nor Vice President Cheney attends. Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke later says that in this meeting, he and CIA Director Tenet speak passionately about the al-Qaeda threat. No one disagrees that the threat is serious. Secretary of State Powell outlines a plan to put pressure on Pakistan to stop supporting al-Qaeda. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld appears to be more interested in Iraq. The only debate is over whether to fly the armed Predator drone over Afghanistan to attack al-Qaeda (see September 4, 2001). [Clarke, 2004, pp. 237-38] Clarke’s earlier plans to “roll back” al-Qaeda first submitted on January 25, 2001 (see January 25, 2001) have been discussed and honed in many meetings and are now presented as a formal National Security Presidential Directive. The directive is “apparently” approved, though the process of turning it into official policy is still not done. [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004] There is later disagreement over just how different the directive presented is from Clarke’s earlier plans. For instance, some claim the directive aims not just to “roll back” al-Qaeda, but also to “eliminate” it altogether. [Time, 8/12/2002] However, Clarke notes that even though he wanted to use the word “eliminate,” the approved directive merely aims to “significantly erode” al-Qaeda. The word “eliminate” is only added after 9/11. [Washington Post, 3/25/2004] Clarke will later say that the plan adopted “on Sept. 4 is basically… what I proposed on Jan. 25. And so the time in between was wasted.” [ABC News, 4/8/2004] The Washington Post will similarly note that the directive approved on this day “did not differ substantially from Clinton’s policy.” [Washington Post, 3/27/2004] Time magazine later comments, “The fight against terrorism was one of the casualties of the transition, as Washington spent eight months going over and over a document whose outline had long been clear.” [Time, 8/12/2002] The primary change from Clarke’s original draft is that the approved plan calls for more direct financial and logistical support to the Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban groups. The plan also calls for drafting plans for possible US military involvement, “but those differences were largely theoretical; administration officials told the [9/11 Commission’s] investigators that the plan’s overall timeline was at least three years, and it did not include firm deadlines, military plans, or significant funding at the time of the September 11, 2001, attacks.” [Washington Post, 3/27/2004; Reuters, 4/2/2004]

Entity Tags: Taliban, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Al-Qaeda, Northern Alliance, Donald Rumsfeld, George J. Tenet, Central Intelligence Agency, George W. Bush, Colin Powell, Richard A. Clarke, Condoleezza Rice

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

In an interview, former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke says that the CIA purposefully withheld information from him about two future 9/11 hijackers for over a year before September 11. The interview was taped in October 2009, but is released now by documentary makers Ray Nowosielski and John Duffy ahead of a forthcoming podcast entitled “Who Is Rich Blee?” about the intelligence failures before 9/11. Clarke indicates he found out the CIA failed to pass information on to him not long after 9/11, but assumed the information had been honestly missed by a single junior officer. However, when he later learned at at least 50 officers accessed the information, he began to question this theory. (Note: the news that the information was accessed by at least 50 officers broke in August 2007—see Mid-January-March 2000 and August 21, 2007). According to Clarke, information of the sort the CIA had on two of the hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, was automatically forwarded to him, but he never heard their names before 9/11. Clarke, who admits he cannot prove his allegation that the information was withheld deliberately, says the best explanation he can come up with is that the CIA was attempting to turn the two hijackers into double agents, which is why nobody was told outside the agency. Clarke points out that alleged Saudi intelligence operatives working in the US (see January 15-February 2000 and Spring 2000) who knew the hijackers could have helped with this. Clarke mentions four officials who would have been involved in a decision to withhold information: CIA Director George Tenet, who followed information about al-Qaeda in “microscopic detail,” Counterterrorist Center chief Cofer Black, Alec Station chief Richard Blee, and his deputy Tom Wilshire. Clarke also expresses wonder that the information was not mentioned at a key meeting with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in July 2001 (see July 10, 2001) when Tenet, Black, and Blee were trying to get her to take strong action against al-Qaeda, because what they had on Almihdhar and Alhazmi was the “most persuasive piece of evidence” they had. He also does not understand why the CIA told the FBI in late August 2001 that the two hijackers had entered the country (see August 21-22, 2001). Clarke adds that the CIA presumably did not mention the fact that the two men were in the US at a meeting of high-level officials on September 4, 2001 (see September 4, 2001) because it would have angered Clarke and this would have led to an investigation in CIA “malfeasance and misfeasance” in concealing the information. However, he thinks the US authorities would have caught the hijackers with a “massive sweep” even if he had been told as late as September 4. Clarke also comments that he never asked Tenet and the other CIA officials about what had happened, as the facts became known to him over time. He also says that Tenet, Black, and Blee have got away with what they did, as they were not held to account by the Joint Congressional Inquiry or the 9/11 Commission. [John Duffy and Ray Nowosielski, 8/11/2011; Truthout (.org), 8/11/2011] Tenet, Black, and Blee received an advance copy of the interview and issued a statement in response (see August 3, 2011).

Entity Tags: George J. Tenet, Cofer Black, Tom Wilshire, Richard A. Clarke, Central Intelligence Agency, Ray Nowosielski, John Duffy, Richard Blee

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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