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“Our major near-term concern is the possibility that Saddam might gain access to fissile material,… [and] with substantial foreign assistance, [Iraq] could flight-test a longer-range ballistic missile within the next five years.” [Chicago Tribune, 2/7/2002]
Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, CIA Director George Tenet says, “There is no doubt that there have been (Iraqi) contacts and linkages to the al-Qaeda organization. As to where we are on September 11, the jury is still out. As I said carefully in my statement it would be a mistake to dismiss the possibility of state sponsorship whether Iranian or Iraqi and we’ll see where the evidence takes us…. There is nothing new in the last several months that changes our analysis in any way…. There’s no doubt there have been contacts or linkages to the al-Qaeda organization…. I want you to think about al-Qaeda as a front company that mixes and matches its capabilities.… The distinction between Sunni and Shia that have traditionally divided terrorists groups are not distinctions we should make any more, because there are common interests against the United States and its allies in this region, and they will seek capabilities wherever they can get it…. Their ties may be limited by divergent ideologies, but the two sides mutual antipathies toward the United States and the Saudi royal family suggests that tactical cooperation between them is possible.” [PBS, 3/19/2002; Agence France-Presse, 3/20/2002]
In the mid-1990s, the CIA suffers “brain drain,” as budget restrictions cause the agency to get rid of many of its most experienced officials. CIA official Michael Scheuer will later explain: “They called it a buyout program through the whole federal government, and they thought they were going to get rid of the deadwood. What happened was they lost the age-40-to-48 group of very strong potential senior officers, those people who couldn’t stand the bureaucracy anymore. They couldn’t stand the crap, so they retired, and we lost a whole generation.” In 1997, George Tenet becomes the new CIA director (see July 11, 1997) and he attempts to stop the loss of talent. He even initiates a massive recruitment drive for the CIA’s Directorate of Operations’ clandestine service. But according to a Vanity Fair article, “unfortunately, the training of these new spies remained very much old-school: they were taught how to operate undercover in European embassies, but not how to infiltrate Islamic terrorist cells.” Tenet’s choice for the latest deputy director of operations typifies the problem. His pick is Jack Downing, a 57-year-old veteran CIA officer who served as station chief in Moscow and Beijing during the Cold War. Scheuer will comment, “Downing was a Marine, and then he was a very, very successful officer during the Cold War, but he didn’t have a clue about transnational targets, and he didn’t like analysts.” (Zeman et al. 11/2004)
In 2007, former CIA Director George Tenet will write, “As early as 1993, [the CIA] had declared bin Laden to be a significant financier backer of Islamic terrorist movements. We knew he was funding paramilitary training of Arab religious militants in such far-flung places as Bosnia, Egypt, Kashmir, Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, and Yemen” (see July-August 1993). (Tenet 2007, pp. 100)
Of all the 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar have the longest records of involvement with al-Qaeda. CIA Director Tenet calls them al-Qaeda veterans. According to the CIA, Alhazmi first travels to Afghanistan in 1993 as a teenager, then fights in Bosnia with Alhazmi (see 1995). Almihdhar makes his first visit to Afghanistan training camps in 1996, and then fights in Chechnya in 1997. Both swear loyalty to bin Laden around 1998. Alhazmi fights in Afghanistan against the Northern Alliance with his brother, Salem Alhazmi. He fights in Chechnya, probably in 1998. (Observer 9/23/2001; ABC News 1/9/2002; US Congress 6/18/2002; McDermott 9/1/2002; US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 131 ) He then returns to Saudi Arabia in early 1999 where he shares information about the 1998 US embassy bombings. However it is not clear what information he disclosed to whom or where he obtained this information. (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 131 ) It is possible that some or all of this information came from the NSA, which is intercepting some of Alhazmi’s phone calls at this time (see Early 1999).
The CIA sets up a number of front companies with the intention of penetrating the nuclear proliferation ring founded by Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan. One of the companies is Brewster Jennings & Associates (see Before May 22, 1994), which will be used as cover by Valerie Plame Wilson, a CIA officer outed in 2003. The precise way in which the CIA attempts to penetrate the network is not known. (Gourlay, Calvert, and Lauria 1/27/2008) Former CIA Director George Tenet will hint at the methods used in a 2007 book: “The small unit working this effort recognized that it would be impossible to penetrate proliferation networks using conventional intelligence gathering tactics. Security considerations do not permit me to describe the techniques we used. Patiently, we put ourselves in a position to come in contact with individuals and organizations that we believed were part of the overall proliferation problem.” (Tenet 2007, pp. 283)
US demands for Sudan to hand over its extensive files about bin Laden (see March 8, 1996-April 1996) escalate into demands to hand over bin Laden himself. Bin Laden has been living in Sudan since 1991, at a time when the Sudanese government’s ideology was similar to his. But after the US put Sudan on its list of terrorism sponsors and began economic sanctions in 1993, Sudan began to change. In 1994, it handed the notorious terrorist “Carlos the Jackal” to France. In March 1996, Sudan’s defense minister goes to Washington and engages in secret negotiations over bin Laden. Sudan offers to extradite bin Laden to anywhere he might stand trial. Some accounts claim that Sudan offers to hand bin Laden directly to the US, but the US decides not to take him because they do not have enough evidence at the time to charge him with a crime. (Gellman 10/3/2001; Gould 10/31/2001; Rose 1/2002) Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke later will call this story a “fable” invented by the Sudanese and Americans friendly to Sudan. He will point out that bin Laden “was an ideological blood brother, family friend, and benefactor” to Sudanese leader Hassan al-Turabi, so any offers to hand him over may have been disingenuous. (Clarke 2004, pp. 142-43) CIA Director George Tenet later will deny that Sudan made any offers to hand over bin Laden directly to the US. (US Congress 10/17/2002) The US reportedly asks Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan to accept bin Laden into custody, but is refused by all three governments. (Coll 2004, pp. 323) The 9/11 Commission later will claim it finds no evidence that Sudan offers bin Laden directly to the US, but it does find evidence that Saudi Arabia was discussed as an option. (9/11 Commission 3/23/2004) US officials insist that bin Laden leave Sudan for anywhere but Somalia. One US intelligence source in the region later will state: “We kidnap minor drug czars and bring them back in burlap bags. Somebody didn’t want this to happen.” (Gellman 10/3/2001; Gould 10/31/2001) On May 18, 1996, bin Laden flies to Afghanistan, and the US does not try to stop him (see May 18, 1996).
By late 1996, the CIA definitively confirms that Osama bin Laden is more of a leader of militants worldwide than just a financier of them. (US Congress 7/24/2003) CIA Director George Tenet will later comment, “By 1996 we knew that bin Laden was more than a financier. An al-Qaeda defector [Jamal al-Fadl] told us that [bin Laden] was the head of a worldwide terrorist organization with a board of directors that would include the likes of Ayman al-Zawahiri and that he wanted to strike the United States on our soil” (see June 1996-April 1997). (Tenet 2007, pp. 102) Yet the US will not take “bin Laden or al-Qaeda all that seriously” until after the bombing of US embassies in Africa in 1998. (Miller, Stone, and Mitchell 2002, pp. 213) Dan Coleman, the FBI’s top al-Qaeda expert, helps interrogate al-Fadl in 1996 and 1997 (see June 1996-April 1997), and Coleman comes to the conclusion that the US is facing a profound new threat. But according to journalist Robert Wright, Coleman’s reports “met with little response outside a small circle of prosecutors and a few people in the [CIA and FBI] who took an interest…” Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, is interested, as is John O’Neill, who heads the New York FBI office that specializes in bin Laden cases. But O’Neill and Scheuer hate each other and do not cooperate. (Wright 2006) Al-Fadl’s information will not turn into the first US indictment of bin Laden until June 1998 (see June 8, 1998).
CIA agent Valerie Plame leaves Europe after a long and distinguished career as a nonofficial cover (NOC) agent (see Fall 1992 - 1996 and July 21, 2003) in Greece and Brussels. The New York Times will report in 2003 that Plame may have been forced to return to the US after her name was given to the Russians by double agent Aldrich Ames in 1994 (Ward 1/2004) , though that possibility remains unconfirmed. Plame takes a position as a case officer with a new bureau in the agency, the counterproliferation division (CPD), a part of the covert Directorate of Operations. She is hand-picked by the division chief of CPD, James Pavitt, for the slot. The CPD is an unconventional entity, the first bureau without a geographical affiliation; Plame will affectionately refer to it as “the island of misfit toys.” CPD and its counterpart, the Counterterrorism Center (CTC), are tasked to deal with emerging unconventional threats from rogue nations, stateless terrorist, and extremist groups. “The older divisions eyed CPD with deep suspicion and distrust,” Plame will later recall. Pavitt’s decision to include former NOCs such as Plame is controversial, and creates something of a turf war between CPD and the Office of External Development, which generally deals with NOCs. Pavitt wins out because of his close relationship with CIA Director George Tenet. (Wilson 2007, pp. 349-350)
A Renditions Branch is established at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. Its job is to find militant leaders and then assist their abduction. The US government has been rendering suspects for four years (see 1993), and the CIA has had a dedicated program for this since the summer of 1995 (see Summer 1995). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 276) Although some specific rendition operations are known (see Summer 1998, July 1998-February 2000, and Late August 1998), the total before 9/11 is not. Estimates vary, but generally fall into a similar range:
Citing a public statement by CIA Director George Tenet, 9/11 commission deputy executive director Chris Kojm will say “70 terrorists were rendered and brought to justice before 9/11;”
Shortly after this, Tenet himself will confirm there were “over 70” renditions; (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004)
Tenet will also say “many dozen” suspects were rendered before 9/11; (Central Intelligence Agency 3/24/2004)
The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry will say that the Branch is involved in “several dozen” renditions before 9/11; (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 728 )
Michael Scheuer, a CIA manager responsible for operations against Osama bin Laden, will say that between 1995 and May 1999 “[t]he operations that I was in charge of concerned approximately 40 people…” (Scheuer 7/1/2006)
The CIA’s bin Laden unit Alec Station sends a memo to CIA Director George Tenet warning him that the Saudi intelligence service should be considered a “hostile service” with regard to al-Qaeda. This means that, at the very least, they could not be trusted. In subsequent years leading up to 9/11, US intelligence will gather intelligence confirming this assessment and even suggesting direct ties between some in Saudi intelligence and al-Qaeda. For instance, according to a top Jordanian official, at some point before 9/11 the Saudis ask Jordan intelligence to conduct a review of the Saudi intelligence agency and then provide it with a set of recommendations for improvement. Jordanians are shocked to find Osama bin Laden screen savers on some of the office computers. Additionally, the CIA will note that in some instances after sharing communications intercepts of al-Qaeda operatives with the Saudis, the suspects would sometimes change communication methods, suggesting the possibility that they had been tipped off by Saudi intelligence. (Risen 2006, pp. 183-184)
In 1997 and early 1998, the US develops a plan to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. A CIA-owned aircraft is stationed in a nearby country, ready to land on a remote landing strip long enough to pick him up. However, problems with having to hold bin Laden too long in Afghanistan make the operation unlikely. The plan morphs into using a team of Afghan informants to kidnap bin Laden from inside his heavily defended Tarnak Farm complex. Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, calls the plan “the perfect operation.” Gary Schroen, the lead CIA officer in the field, agrees, and gives it about a 40 percent chance of succeeding. (Clarke 2004, pp. 220-221; Coll 2/22/2004; Zeman et al. 11/2004) The Pentagon also reviews the plan, finding it well crafted. In addition, there is “plausible denialability,” as the US could easily distance itself from the raid. Scheuer will comment, “It was the perfect capture operation becauase even if it went completely wrong and people got killed, there was no evidence of a US hand.” (Shenon 2008, pp. 192) However, higher-ups at the CIA are skeptical of the plan and worry that innocent civilians might die. The plan is given to CIA Director George Tenet for approval, but he rejects it without showing it to President Clinton. He considers it unlikely to succeed and decides the Afghan allies are too unreliable. (Clarke 2004, pp. 220-221; Coll 2/22/2004; Zeman et al. 11/2004) Additionally, earlier in May 1998, the Saudis promised to try to bribe the Taliban and try bin Laden themselves, and apparently Tenet preferred this plan (see May 1998). Scheuer is furious. After 9/11 he will complain, “We had more intelligence against this man and organization than we ever had on any other group we ever called a terrorist group, and definitive and widely varied [intelligence] across all the ends, and I could not understand why they didn’t take the chance.” (Zeman et al. 11/2004) There will be later speculation that the airstrip used for these purposes is occupied and will be used as a base of operations early in the post-9/11 Afghan war. (Gellman 12/19/2001)
George J. Tenet becomes the new director of the CIA. He will remain in the position well after 9/11. Tenet was never a CIA field agent, but started his government career as a Congressional aide. From 1993 to 1995 he was a senior intelligence staffer on the National Security Council. He was a CIA deputy director from 1995. In December 1996, John Deutch abruptly resigned as CIA director and Tenet was made acting director until he is confirmed as the new director in July 1997. (Diamond 10/9/2002)
Some time after he is appointed CIA Director (see July 11, 1997), but before 9/11, George Tenet negotiates a series of agreements with telecommunications and financial institutions “to get access to certain telephone, Internet, and financial records related to ‘black’ intelligence operations.” The arrangements are made personally by the companies’ CEOs and Tenet, who plays “the patriot card” to get the information. The arrangement involves the CIA’s National Resources Division, which has at least a dozen offices in the US. The Division’s main aim is to recruit people in the US to spy abroad. However, in this case the Division makes arrangements so that other intelligence agencies, such as the NSA, can access the information and records the CEOs agree to provide. (Woodward 2006, pp. 323-5) There is a history of co-operation between the CIA’s National Resources Division and the NSA. For example, Monte Overacre, a CIA officer assigned to the Division’s San Diego office in the early 1990s, said that he worked with the NSA there, obtaining information about foreign telecommunications programs and passing it on to the Technology Management Office, a joint venture between the two agencies. (Dreyfuss 1/1998) One US official will say that the arrangements only give the CIA access to the companies’ passive databanks. However, reporter Bob Woodward will say that the programme raises “serious civil liberties questions and also demonstrate[d] that the laws had not kept pace with the technology.” (Woodward 2006, pp. 324-5) There will be an interagency argument about the program after 9/11 (see (2003 and After)).
The CIA celebrates its 50th anniversary with a ceremony at its headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Director George Tenet awards special medallions to 50 past and present staff for their outstanding contributions to postwar American intelligence. One of the 50 is David Blee, a former head of the agency’s Soviet division (see 1971) and counterintelligence (see 1978), whose citation says the award is for “creating a professional counterintelligence discipline.” (Jackson 8/22/2000) In total, Blee earns two CIA Distinguished Intelligence Medals, the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Security Medal for his work at the agency. (Los Angeles Times 8/18/2000)
George Tenet, appointed as CIA director in 1997 (see July 11, 1997), develops close personal relationships with top Saudi officials, especially Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the US. Tenet develops a habit of meeting with Bandar at his home near Washington about once a month. But CIA officers handling Saudi issues complain that Tenet doesn’t tell them what he discusses with Bandar. Often they are only able to learn about Tenet’s deals with the Saudis later and through Saudi contacts, not from their own boss. Tenet also makes one of his closest aides the chief of the CIA station in Saudi Arabia. This aide often communicates directly with Tenet, avoiding the usual chain of command. Apparently as a favor to the Saudis, CIA analysts are discouraged from writing reports raising questions about the Saudi relationship to Islamic extremists. (Risen 2006, pp. 185)
The CIA’s bin Laden unit, first created in early 1996 (see February 1996), is ordered disbanded. It is unclear who gave the order. The unit appears to have been the most vocal section of the US government pushing for action against bin Laden. Apparently CIA Director George Tenet is unaware of the plans to disband the unit. He intervenes in mid-May and preserves the unit. Michael Scheuer, the head of the unit, later will comment that by doing so, Tenet “dodged the bullet of having to explain to the American people why the [CIA] thought bin Laden was so little of a threat that it had destroyed the bin Laden unit weeks before two US embassies were demolished.” Scheuer also will comment, “the on-again, off-again signals about the unit’s future status made for confusion, distraction, and much job-hunting in the last few weeks” before the embassy attacks. (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004)
When Saudi authorities foil a plot by al-Qaeda manager Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri to smuggle missiles into the kingdom (see 1997), CIA director George Tenet becomes so concerned they are withholding information about the plot from the US that he flies to Saudi Arabia to meet Interior Minister Prince Nayef. Tenet is concerned because he believes that the four antitank missiles smuggled in from Yemen by al-Nashiri, head of al-Qaeda operations in the Arabian peninsula, may be intended for an assassination attempt on Vice President Albert Gore, who is to visit Saudi Arabia shortly. Tenet and another CIA manager are unhappy about the information being withheld and Tenet flies to Riyadh “to underscore the importance of sharing such information.” Tenet obtains “a comprehensive report on the entire Sagger missile episode” from Interior Minister Prince Nayef by making a not-so-veiled threat about negative publicity for Saudi Arabia in the US press. (Tenet 2007, pp. 105-6) It will later be reported that the militants’ plan is apparently to use the armor-piercing missiles to attack the armored limousines of members of the Saudi royal family. (Tyler 12/23/2002) There are no reports of the planned attack being carried out, so it appears to fail due to the confiscation of the missiles. However, al-Nashiri will later be identified as a facilitator of the East African embassy bombings (see August 22-25 1998) and will attend a summit of al-Qaeda operatives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is monitored by local authorities and the CIA (see January 5-8, 2000).
According to author James Risen, CIA Director George Tenet and other top CIA officials travel to Saudi Arabia to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of the country. Tenet wants Abdullah to address the problem of bin Laden. He requests that bin Laden not be given to the US to be put on trial but that he be given to the Saudis instead. Abdullah agrees as long as it can be a secret arrangement. Tenet sends a memo to National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, recommending that the CIA allow the Saudis to essentially bribe the Taliban to turn him over. Around the same time, Tenet cancels the CIA’s own operation to get bin Laden (see 1997-May 29, 1998). (Risen 2006, pp. 183-184) That same month, Wyche Fowler, the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, tells Berger to let the Saudis take the lead against bin Laden. (Scheuer 2008, pp. 274) Prince Turki al-Faisal, the head of Saudi intelligence, does go to Afghanistan in June and/or July of 1998 to make a secret deal, though with whom he meets and what is agreed upon is highly disputed (see June 1998 and July 1998). But it becomes clear after the failed US missile attack on bin Laden in August 1998 (see August 20, 1998) that the Taliban has no intention of turning bin Laden over to anyone. Risen later comments, “By then, the CIA’s capture plan was dead, and the CIA had no other serious alternatives in the works.… It is possible that the crown prince’s offer of assistance simply provided Tenet and other top CIA officials an easy way out of a covert action plan that they had come to believe represented far too big of a gamble.” (Risen 2006, pp. 183-184)
Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999, later will claim that in a one-year period starting in May 1998, the CIA gives the US government “about ten chances to capture bin Laden or kill him with military means. In all instances, the decision was made that the ‘intelligence was not good enough.’ This assertion cannot be debated publicly without compromising sources and methods. What can be said, however, is that in all these cases there was more concern expressed by senior bureaucrats and policymakers about how international opinion would react to a US action than there was concern about what might happen to Americans if they failed to act. Indeed, on one occasion these senior leaders decided it was more important to avoid hitting a structure near bin Laden’s location with shrapnel, than it was to protect Americans.” He will later list six of the attempts in a book:
May 1998: a plan to capture bin Laden at his compound south of Kandahar, canceled at the last minute (see 1997-May 29, 1998).
September 1998: a capture opportunity north of Kandahar, presumably by Afghan tribals working for the CIA (see September-October 1998).
December 1998: canceled US missile strike on the governor’s palace in Kandahar (see December 18-20, 1998).
February 1999: Military attack opportunity on governor’s residence in Herat (see February 1999).
February 1999: Multiple military attack opportunities at a hunting camp near Kandahar attended by United Arab Emirates royals (see February 11, 1999).
May 1999: Military attack opportunities on five consecutive nights in Kandahar (see May 1999).
Also in late August 1998, there is one failed attempt to kill bin Laden.(see August 20, 1998) (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004; Scheuer 2008, pp. 284)
Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke later will strongly disagree with Scheuer’s assessment, claiming that the intelligence needed for such an attack on bin Laden was never very good. But he will also point out that the National Security Council and White House never killed any of the operations Scheuer wanted. It was always CIA Director George Tenet and other top CIA leaders who rejected the proposals. Scheuer will agree that it was always Tenet who turned down the operations. (Zeman et al. 11/2004)
In February 2000, CIA Director George Tenet testifies to Congress, “Since July 1998, working with foreign governments worldwide, we have helped to render more than two dozen terrorists to justice. More than half were associates of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization.” Renditions are a policy of grabbing a suspect off the street of one country and taken the person to another where he was wanted for a crime or questioning without going through the normal legal and diplomatic procedures. (Associated Press 12/27/2005) The CIA had a policy of rendering Islamic Jihad suspects to Egypt since 1995 (see Summer 1995). In July 1998, the CIA discovered a laptop containing organizational charts and locations of al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad operatives, so presumably these renditions are a direct result of that intelligence find (see Late August 1998).
Within days of the US African embassy bombings, the US permanently stations two submarines, reportedly in the Indian Ocean, ready to hit al-Qaeda with cruise missiles on short notice. Missiles are fired from these subs later in the month in a failed attempt to assassinate bin Laden. Six to ten hours’ advance warning is now needed to review the decision, program the cruise missiles, and have them reach their target. However, in every rare opportunity when the possibility of attacking bin Laden occurs, CIA Director Tenet says the information is not reliable enough and the attack cannot go forward. (Gellman 12/19/2001; Miller, Gerth, and van Natta 12/30/2001) At some point in 2000, the submarines are withdrawn, apparently because the Navy wants to use them for other purposes. Therefore, when the unmanned Predator spy plane flies over Afghanistan in late 2000 and identifies bin Laden, there is no way to capitalize on that opportunity. (Clarke 2004, pp. 220-21) The Bush administration fails to resume the submarine patrol. Lacking any means to attack bin Laden, military plans to strike at him are no longer updated after March 2001. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004)
The US publicly indicts bin Laden, Mohammed Atef, and others for the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Bin Laden had been secretly indicted on different charges earlier in the year in June (see June 8, 1998). Record $5 million rewards are announced for information leading to his arrest and the arrest of Mohammed Atef. (PBS Frontline 2001) Shortly thereafter, bin Laden allocates $9 million in reward money for the assassinations of four US government officials in response to the reward on him. A year later, it is learned that the secretary of state, defense secretary, FBI director, and CIA director are the targets. (US Congress 9/18/2002; Miklaszewski 9/18/2002; US Congress 7/24/2003 )
CIA Director George Tenet issues a “declaration of war” on al-Qaeda, in a memorandum circulated in the intelligence community. This is ten months after bin Laden’s fatwa on the US (see February 22, 1998), which is called a “de facto declaration of war” by a senior US official in 1999. Tenet says, “We must now enter a new phase in our effort against bin Laden.… each day we all acknowledge that retaliation is inevitable and that its scope may be far larger than we have previously experienced.… We are at war.… I want no resources or people spared in this efforts [sic], either inside CIA or the [larger intelligence] community.” Yet a Congressional joint committee later finds that few FBI agents ever hear of the declaration. Tenet’s fervor does not “reach the level in the field that is critical so [FBI agents] know what their priorities are.” In addition, even as the counterterrorism budget continues to grow generally, there is no massive shift in budget or personnel until after 9/11. For example, the number of CIA personnel assigned to the Counterterrorist Center (CTC) stays roughly constant until 9/11, then nearly doubles from approximately 400 to approximately 800 in the wake of 9/11. The number of CTC analysts focusing on al-Qaeda rises from three in 1999 to five by 9/11. (Risen 9/18/2002; US Congress 9/18/2002) Perhaps not coincidentally, on the same day Tenet issues his declaration, President Clinton is given a briefing entitled “Bin Laden Preparing to Hijack US Aircraft and Other Attacks” and US intelligence scrambles to respond to this threat (see December 4, 1998).
Following a declaration of war on al-Qaeda issued by CIA Director George Tenet (see December 4, 1998), little happens at the CIA. The CIA’s inspector general will later find that “neither [Tenet] nor [his deputy John McLaughlin] followed up these warnings and admonitions by creating a documented, comprehensive plan to guide the counterterrorism effort at the Intelligence Community level.” However, McLaughlin does chair a single meeting in response to the declaration of war. Although the meetings continue, McLaughlin stops attending, leaving them to the CIA’s No. 3. The meetings are attended by “few if any officers” from other agencies and soon stop discussing strategic aspects of the fight against al-Qaeda. There is no other effort, at the CIA or elsewhere in the intelligence community, to create a strategic plan to combat al-Qaeda at this time or at any other time before 9/11. (Central Intelligence Agency 6/2005, pp. viii )
CIA already has a network of local agents in Afghanistan by this time (see 1997). However, in this year there is a serious effort to increase the network throughout Afghanistan and other countries for the purpose of capturing bin Laden and his deputies. (Lake 10/17/2002) Many are put on the CIA’s payroll, including some Taliban military leaders. Many veterans of the Soviet war in the 1980s who worked with the CIA then are recruited again. All of these recuitments are kept secret from Pakistani intelligence because of their support of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. (Coll 2004, pp. 491-492) CIA Director George Tenet will later state that by 9/11, “a map would show that these collection programs and human networks were in place in such numbers to nearly cover Afghanistan. This array means that, when the military campaign to topple the Taliban and destroy al-Qaeda [begins in October 2001], we [are] able to support it with an enormous body of information and a large stable of assets.” (US Congress 10/17/2002) However, apparently none of these sources are close enough to bin Laden to know about his movements in advance. (Coll 2004, pp. 491-492)
Richard Barlow, a former intelligence analyst who was repeatedly fired for correctly claiming that Pakistan had a nuclear weapons program (see 1981-1982, August 1987-1988 and August 4, 1989), is awarded a total of $1 million by President Bill Clinton in compensation for the treatment he received. However, Barlow does not receive the money, as the settlement has to be ratified by Congress. When it runs into procedural problems, it is moved to the Court of Federal Claims to be reviewed. After Clinton is replaced by George W. Bush, CIA Director George Tenet and NSA Director Michael Hayden assert the government’s “state secrets privilege” (see March 9, 1953) over Barlow’s entire legal claim, causing it to collapse due to lack of evidence. (Levy and Scott-Clark 10/13/2007)
German intelligence gives the CIA the first name of 9/11 hijacker Marwan Alshehhi and his telephone number of a phone registered in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Germans learned the information from the surveillance of al-Qaeda Hamburg cell member Mohammed Haydar Zammar (see March 1997-Early 2000). They tell the CIA that Alshehhi, who is living in Bonn, Germany, at the time, may be connected to al-Qaeda. He is described as a UAE student who has spent some time studying in Germany. The conversation is short, but a known alias of Mamoun Darkazanli is mentioned. The CIA is very interested in Darkazanli and will try to recruit him as an informant later in the year (see Late 1998 and December 1999). (US Congress 7/24/2003 ; Deutsche Presse-Agentur (Hamburg) 8/13/2003; Risen and Lichtblau 2/24/2004; McDermott 2005, pp. 73, 278-279)
No Response from CIA - The Germans consider this information “particularly valuable” and ask the CIA to track Alshehhi, but the CIA never responds until after the 9/11 attacks. The CIA decides at the time that this “Marwan” is probably an associate of bin Laden but never track him down. It is not clear why the CIA fails to act, or if they learn his last name before 9/11. (Risen and Lichtblau 2/24/2004) The Germans monitor other calls between Alshehhi and Zammar, but it isn’t clear if the CIA is also told of these or not (see September 21, 1999).
Could the Number Be Traced? - CIA Director George Tenet will later dismiss the importance of this information in a statement to the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry. He will say that all the CIA had to go on was a first name and an impossible to trace unlisted number. But author Terry McDermott will later comment, “At least a portion of that statement is preposterous. The UAE mobile telephone business was, until 2004, a state monopoly. The UAE number could have been traced in five minutes, according to senior security officials there. The United States never asked.” McDermott will add, “Further, the CIA told the [9/11 Congressional Inquiry] it had a long-standing interest in Zammar that pre-dated these recordings. In other words, the CIA appears to have been investigating the man who recruited the hijackers at the time he was recruiting them.” (McDermott 2005, pp. 73, 278-279)
US intelligence obtains detailed reporting on where bin Laden is located for five consecutive nights. CIA Director Tenet decides against acting three times, because of concerns about collateral damage and worries about the veracity of the single source of information. Frustration mounts. Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit, writes to a colleague in the field, “having a chance to get [bin Laden] three times in 36 hours and foregoing the chance each time has made me a bit angry…” (Coll 2004, pp. 450; 9/11 Commission 3/24/2004; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 140) An unnamed senior military officer later complains, “This was in our strike zone. It was a fat pitch, a home run.” However, that month, the US mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, due to outdated intelligence. It is speculated Tenet was wary of making another mistake. (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004) There is one more opportunity to strike bin Laden in July 1999, but after that there is apparently no intelligence good enough to justify considering a strike. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004)
CIA Director George Tenet removes Michael Scheuer as head of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit. Scheuer had headed the unit since its inception in 1996 (see February 1996), and was known as a strong advocate for more government action against bin Laden. The full name of the new head of the unit has not been released and little is known about his performance. (Zeman et al. 11/2004) Deputy Director of Operations Jack Downing tells Scheuer he is being fired because he is “mentally burned out” and because of a recent disagreement with the FBI over whether the deputy chief of Alex Station, who was detailed to the CIA from the FBI, could release information to the FBI without Scheuer’s approval. Downing tells Scheuer he was in the right, but that the criticism of his subordinate “should not have been put on paper”, and the FBI’s management is angry with him. Downing says he will get a medal and a monetary award, but should tell his subordinates he has resigned. Scheuer refuses to lie to his officers, signs a memo saying he will not accept a monetary award, and tells Downing “where he should store the medal.” (Scheuer 2005, pp. 263-4; Wright 2006, pp. 313) According to author Steve Coll, Scheuer’s CIA colleagues “could not be sure exactly [why Scheuer left] but among at least a few of them a believe settled in that [he] had been exiled, in effect, for becoming too passionate about the bin Laden threat…” In particular, he was angry about two recent missed opportunities (see 1997-May 29, 1998 and February 11, 1999) to assassinate bin Laden. (Coll 2004, pp. 449-450) Scheuer will write in 2004 that, “On moving to a new position, I forwarded a long memorandum to the Agency’s senior-most officers—some are still serving—describing an array of fixable problems that were plaguing America’s attack on bin Laden, ones that the bin Laden unit had encountered but failed to remedy between and among [US intelligence agencies]… The problems outlined in the memorandum stood in the way of attacking bin Laden to the most effective extent possible; many remain today.” Problems include poor cooperation between agencies and a lack of experienced staff working on the bin Laden issue. Scheuer never receives a response to his memo. (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004)
CIA Director George Tenet tells a closed session of Congress, “We have seen numerous reports that bin Laden and his associates are planning terrorist attacks against US officials and facilities in a variety of locations, including in the US.” (Coll 2004, pp. 454) However, six months later and after a well-publicized attempted al-Qaeda attack on the Los Angeles airport (see December 14, 1999), he will not mention in an open session that bin Laden has the capability to stage attacks inside the US (see February 2, 2000).
Capt. Scott Phillpott, head of the Able Danger program, asks Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer to talk to a representative of CIA Director George Tenet and attempt to convince him that the new Able Danger program is not competing with the CIA. Shaffer later recalls the CIA representative replying, “I clearly understand the difference. I clearly understand. We’re going after the leadership. You guys are going after the body. But, it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is, CIA will never give you the best information from ‘Alex Base’ [the CIA’s covert action element targeting bin Laden] or anywhere else. CIA will never provide that to you because if you were successful in your effort to target al-Qaeda, you will steal our thunder. Therefore, we will not support this.” Shaffer claims that for the duration of Able Danger’s existence, “To my knowledge, and my other colleagues’ knowledge, there was no information ever released to us because CIA chose not to participate in Able Danger.” (Goodwin 9/2005)
The CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center concludes in a classified report that bin Laden wants to inflict maximum casualties, cause massive panic, and score a psychological victory. He may be seeking to attack between five and 15 targets on the Millennium. “Because the US is bin Laden’s ultimate goal… we must assume that several of these targets will be in the US.” (Elliott 8/12/2002; US Congress 7/24/2003) CIA Director George Tenet delivers this warning to President Clinton. Author Steve Coll later comments that Tenet also “grabbed the National Security Council’s attention with that prediction.” (Coll 2004, pp. 482) The US takes action in a variety of ways (see Early December 1999). It will turn out that bin Laden did plan many attacks to be timed for the millennium celebrations, including ones inside the US, but all failed (see December 31, 1999-January 1, 2000).
The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center sends a cable reminding all its personnel about various reporting obligations. The cable clearly states that it is important to share information so suspected members of US-designated terrorist groups can be placed on watch lists. The US keeps a number of watch lists; the most important one, TIPOFF, contains about 61,000 names of suspected terrorists by 9/11. (Meyer 9/22/2002; McCaffrey 1/27/2004) The list is checked whenever someone enters or leaves the US. “The threshold for adding a name to TIPOFF is low,” and even a “reasonable suspicion” that a person is connected with a US-designated terrorist group warrants being added to the database. (US Congress 9/20/2002) Within a month, two future hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, will be identified as al-Qaeda operatives (see December 29, 1999), but the cable’s instructions will not be followed for them. The CIA will initially tell the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry that no such guidelines existed, and CIA Director Tenet will fail to mention the cable in his testimony to the Inquiry. (Gerth 5/15/2003; US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 157 )
Al-Qaeda operative Luai Sakra apparently begins working as an informant for the CIA, Syrian intelligence, and Turkish intelligence. Sakra, a young Syrian whose parents were Turkish, attended the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan in 1997. He developed a bond with Abu Zubaida, the al-Qaeda leader who was logistics manager for the camp. Zubaida will later be captured and interrogated by the CIA and will reportedly confirm a link with Sakra. Zubaida tasked Sakra with building up an al-Qaeda network in Turkey. In 1999, the Syrian government began hunting him for his role in a revolt in a Lebanon refugee camp. (Stark 8/24/2005) The Turkish newspaper Zaman will report shortly after his capture in 2005, “Sakra has been sought by the secret services since 2000.” The CIA interrogated him twice in 2000. “Following the interrogation, the CIA offered him employment. He also received a large sum of money by the CIA. However the CIA eventually lost contact with him. Following this development, in 2000 the CIA passed intelligence about Sakra through a classified notice to Turkey, calling for the Turkish (intelligence) to capture him. [They] caught Sakra in Turkey and interrogated him.” (Gun 8/14/2005) Sakra was then apparently let go again. He will then move Germany and assist some of the 9/11 hijackers (see September 2000-July 24, 2001), then reveal details about the 9/11 attacks to Syrian intelligence the day before 9/11 (see September 10, 2001). He also will later claim to have trained some 9/11 hijackers in Turkey starting in late 1999 (see Late 1999-2000). In 2007, former CIA Director George Tenet will write in his book “At the Center of the Storm” that “a source we were jointly running with a Middle Eastern country went to see his foreign handler and basically told him something big was about to go down.” (Tenet 2007, pp. 160) This is very likely a reference to Sakra, since no one else comes close to matching the description of telling a Middle Eastern government about the 9/11 attacks one day in advance, not to mention working as an informant for the CIA at the same time. Tenet’s revelation strongly supports the notion that Sakra in fact accepted the CIA’s offers in 2000 and had been working with the CIA and other intelligence agencies at least through 9/11.
On January 6, 2000, the CIA station in Malaysia begins passing details from the Malaysian government’s surveillance of the al-Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to the CIA Counterterrorist Center (CTC) (see January 5-8, 2000 and January 5-8, 2000 and Shortly After). Cofer Black, head of the CTC, orders that he be continually informed about the meeting. CIA Director George Tenet is frequently informed as well. They are given continual updates until the meeting ends on January 8. (Laabs 8/13/2003) National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, FBI Director Louis Freeh, and other top officials are briefed, but apparently President Clinton is not. (Bamford 2004, pp. 225-26) However, it appears that the CIA deliberately and repeatedly fails to tell the FBI that one attendee, future 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, has an active visa to visit the US (see Mid-July 2004, January 6, 2000, and January 5-6, 2000). No evidence will be presented suggesting anyone else outside the CIA is told this crucial fact either. The Malaysia summit ends on January 8. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 237) Officially, the CIA will later claim to have lost future hijackers Alhazmi and Almihdhar as they left the meeting (see January 8, 2000). However, Almihdhar will later report back to al-Qaeda that he thought he was followed to the US (see Mid-July 2000). It will not be reported whether any of the other attendees are monitored after leaving the meeting.
CIA Director George Tenet tells a Senate committee in open session that bin Laden “wants to strike further blows against America.” He points out the close links between al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad and says this is part of an “intricate web of alliances among Sunni extremists worldwide, including North Africans, radical Palestinians, Pakistanis, and Central Asians.” He points out ties between drug traffickers and the Taliban and says, “There is ample evidence that Islamic extremists such as Osama bin Laden use profits from the drug trade to support their terror campaign.” But there is no mention of Pakistan’s support for al-Qaeda and the Taliban, despite CIA knowledge of this (see Autumn 1998). Instead, he claims Iran is “the most active state sponsor” of terrorism. Additionally, he does not mention that bin Laden is capable of planning attacks inside the US, even though he told that to Congress in a closed session six months earlier (see June 24, 1999). (Senate 2/2/2000)
CIA Director George Tenet forms a national security advisory panel that comprises a team of security analysts and is chaired by Admiral David Jeremiah. The panel is, in the words of authors Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, “asked to think the unthinkable.” The State Department’s WMD specialist Robert Gallucci is the official responsible for nuclear issues. Galluccci will comment: “It was all sources, all clearances.… I was the nuclear freak and got briefings set up on the nuclear terrorist thing. Every single scenario was extremely scary and entirely believable. There was lots and lots of intelligence. Put it this way, the US number one enemy was looking more and more like Pakistan.” (Levy and Scott-Clark 2007, pp. 293)
CIA official Gary Berntsen and a US Army Special Forces major known as Brock (an apparent reference to Maj. Brock Gaston) lead a six-person team with the mission to enter Afghanistan and capture one of bin Laden’s top aides. The exact target is not specified; the team is expected to take advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves. The team passes through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, then meets up with Northern Alliance forces in the part of Afghanistan still under their control. But from the very beginning they encounter resistance from a CIA superior officer who is based in a nearby country and is in charge of CIA relations with the Northern Alliance. Known publicly only by his first name Lawrence, he apparently had a minor role in the Iran-Contra affair and has a personal dispute with Gaston. The team stays at Ahmad Shad Massoud’s Northern Alliance headquarters high in the Afghan mountains for about two weeks. However, they never have a chance to cross into Taliban territory for their mission because Lawrence is sending back a stream of negative messages to CIA headquarters about the risks of their mission. A debate ensues back at headquarters. Cofer Black, head of the CIA’s Counter Terrorist Center, and his assistant Hank Crumpton support continuing the mission. But CIA Director George Tenet and his assistant Jim Pavitt cancel the mission on March 25. Upon returning to the US, Berntsen, Gaston, Black, and Crumpton formally call for Lawrence’s dismissal, but to no effect. Berntsen will later comment that Black and Crumpton “had shown a willingness to plan and execute risky missions. But neither CIA Director George Tenet nor President Bill Clinton had the will to wage a real fight against terrorists who were killing US citizens.” (CNN 12/15/2001; Berntsen and Pezzullo 2005, pp. 43-64)
CIA Director George Tenet makes a secret trip to Pakistan to complain about funds being moved through Islamic charities to al-Qaeda. This is part of an effort coordinated by the National Security Council to cut off the vast sums of money that intelligence officials believe flow to bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist network through Islamic charities and wealthy donors from across the Middle East. The US campaign prompts the Pakistani government in early 2001 to make some efforts to ban raising funds explicitly designated for holy war. Former US officials will later claim the trip is part of a larger effort to disrupt bin Laden’s financial network following the 1998 US embassy bombings. (Trofimov et al. 10/1/2001)
An unmanned spy plane called the Predator begins flying over Afghanistan, showing incomparably detailed real-time video and photographs of the movements of what appears to be bin Laden and his aides. It flies successfully over Afghanistan 16 times. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004) President Clinton is impressed by a two-minute video of bin Laden crossing a street heading toward a mosque inside his Tarnak Farms complex. Bin Laden is surrounded by a team of a dozen armed men creating a professional forward security perimeter as he moves. The Predator has been used since 1996, in the Balkans and Iraq. One Predator crashes on takeoff and another is chased by a fighter, but it apparently identifies bin Laden on three occasions. Its use is stopped in Afghanistan after a few trials, mostly because seasonal winds are picking up. It is agreed to resume the flights in the spring, but the Predator fails to fly over Afghanistan again until after 9/11. (Gellman 12/19/2001; Clarke 2004, pp. 220-21) On September 15, 2001, CIA Director Tenet apparently inaccurately tells President Bush, “The unmanned Predator surveillance aircraft that was now armed with Hellfire missiles had been operating for more than a year out of Uzbekistan to provide real-time video of Afghanistan.” (Balz, Woodward, and Himmelman 1/29/2002)
Following the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen (see October 12, 2000), the Clinton administration discusses what standard of evidence it needs to launch a counter-strike against al-Qaeda, which it suspects of the bombing. Following the bombing of the US embassies in East Africa (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), the administration fired a number of cruise missiles at suspected al-Qaeda targets (see August 20, 1998). However, the administration decides it must have evidence that bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s leadership has authority, direction, and control of the attack before initiating a response. CIA Director George Tenet will comment: “This is a high threshold to cross.” Tenet will also say that this threshold was not set by the CIA, but by “policy makers.” (Tenet 2007, pp. 128) Although the bombing is tied to three known leading al-Qaeda operatives, Khallad bin Attash (see November 11, 2000), Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri (see November-December 2000), and Ahmed al-Hada (see November 2000 or After), early on in the investigation, no counterstrike is initiated (see Shortly After October 12, 2000 and Late October 2000). Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will express his frustration with the inaction: “[I]n Washington neither CIA nor FBI would state the obvious: al-Qaeda did it. We knew there was a large al-Qaeda cell in Yemen There was also a large cell of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, but that group had now announced its complete merger into al-Qaeda, so what difference did it make which group did the attack? [Counterterrorism staff] had worked around the clock piecing together the evidence and had made a very credible case against al-Qaeda. CIA would agree only months later.” (Clarke 2004, pp. 223) The authors of the 2002 book The Cell will later write: “The links to bin Laden were everywhere. Each of the suspects being held in Yemen had admitted training in the Afghan camps run by bin Laden… neither the FBI nor the CIA was ever able to tell the president that they had direct proof that the Cole was a bin Laden-ordered job, though now, in retrospect, it seems terribly obvious. In any case, even if there had been compelling proof that bin Laden was behind the Cole bombing, there was little chance that the Clinton administration would have launched an attack on any Islamic country while he was trying to get the Israelis and Palestinians to the peace table.” (Miller, Stone, and Mitchell 2002, pp. 238)
In the wake of the USS Cole bombing (see October 12, 2000), Clinton administration officials hold a high level meeting to discuss what the US response should be. The meeting attendees include: Counterterrorism “Tsar” Richard Clarke, Defense Secretary William Cohen, CIA Director George Tenet, Attorney General Janet Reno, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Deputy National Security Adviser Jim Steinberg, and State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Michael Sheehan.
Clarke suggests that al-Qaeda was behind the attacks. There is no hard evidence of this yet but he argues that the attack matches their profile and capabilities. He presents a detailed plan, which he’d been working on before the bombing, to level all the al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan as well as key Taliban buildings in such towns as Kandahar and Kabul.
Reno argues there’s no clear evidence yet who was behind the bombing. If there is such evidence, any US actions should not be for retaliation but only for self-protection against future attacks.
Tenet says that he suspects al-Qaeda is behind the bombing but also wants to wait until an investigation determines that before acting.
Cohen is against any counterattack. Clarke will later recall Cohen saying at the meeting that the Cole bombing “was not sufficient provocation.” Sheehan will later say that the “entire Pentagon” was generally against a counterattack.
Albright is against a counterattack for diplomatic reasons. The Clinton administration is involved in trying to create a peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians and bombing Afghanistan could ruin such talks.
Many also argue that if Afghanistan is attacked and bin Laden is not killed, he could emerge a greater hero in the Muslim world, just as he did after a 1998 US missile strike (see Late 1998). Clarke argues that the continual creation of new trained militants in Afghanistan needs to stop, and if bin Laden is killed, that would merely be a “bonus.” At the end of the meeting, the highest-ranking officials cast votes, and seven vote against Clarke’s counterstrike plan, while only Clarke votes in favor of it. After the meeting, Sheehan will meet with Clarke and express frustration with the outcome, saying, “What’s it going to take to get them to hit al-Qaeda in Afghanistan? Does al-Qaeda have to hit the Pentagon?” (Miniter 2003, pp. 222-227)
Shortly after the USS Cole bombing (see October 12, 2000), the US supposedly obtains intelligence that prompts President Clinton to consider another missile strike on bin Laden. The US presidential election is in early November. Author Lawrence Wright will later write, “Clinton maintains that, despite the awkward political timing, his administration came close to launching another missile attack… but at the last minute the CIA recommended calling it off because [bin Laden’s] presence at the site was not completely certain.” (Wright 2006, pp. 244) Additionally, the tie between the Cole bombing and al-Qaeda had not yet been confirmed. The first strong evidence of such a tie will come in late November 2000 when details of an al-Qaeda operative’s confession are given to the FBI (see Late October-Late November 2000). The 9/11 Commission will make no mention of any planned strikes around this time in their final report while discussing the missed opportunities to strike at bin Laden. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 237) However, the Washington Post will detail the opportunity, saying the target was a “stone compound, built around a central courtyard full of al-Qaeda operatives.” But the strike is canceled when CIA Director George Tenet calls National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and says about the quality of intelligence, “We just don’t have it.” (Gellman 12/19/2001) Ironically, it appears bin Laden was actually hoping to be attacked, anticipating that it would boost his reputation in the Muslim world. In the summer of 2001, the NSA will monitor two al-Qaeda operatives discussing how disappointed they are that the US did not retaliate after the Cole bombing (see June 30-July 1, 2001).
The US intelligence community considers creating a strategic analysis about terrorism, but none is done before 9/11. The last National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on terrorism was released in 1997 (see 1997). The 9/11 Commission will later say that assessments such as NIEs can “provoke widespread thought and debate [and ] have a major impact on their recipients, often in a wider circle of decision makers.” By late 2000, CIA Director George Tenet recognizes the lack of any recent strategic analysis about al-Qaeda or Islamic militancy in general. He appoints a senior manager, who briefs him in March 2001 about “creating a strategic assessment capability.” The CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC) establishes a new strategic assessments branch in July 2001 and about ten analysts are slated to work for it. But it takes time to hire the new staff and the first head of this branch reports for work just one day before 9/11. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 342-343) Not only is there no NIE or any other sweeping strategic assessment on al-Qaeda between 1997 and 9/11, but one still will not be completed five years after 9/11. Apparently the US military opposes such an assessment for fear it would reduce the military’s role in counterterrorism efforts (see September 12, 2006).
CIA Director Tenet and other top CIA officials brief President-elect Bush, Vice President-elect Cheney, future National Security Adviser Rice, and other incoming national security officials on al-Qaeda and covert action programs in Afghanistan. Deputy Director for Operations James Pavitt recalls conveying that bin Laden is one of the gravest threats to the country. Bush asks whether killing bin Laden would end the problem. Pavitt says he answers that killing bin Laden would have an impact but not stop the threat. The CIA recommends the most important action to combat al-Qaeda is to arm the Predator drone and use it over Afghanistan. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004; Zakaria 3/24/2004) However, while the drone is soon armed, Bush never gives the order to use it in Afghanistan until after 9/11 (see September 4, 2001).
In a memo to President Clinton that is also widely distributed in the US intelligence community, CIA Director George Tenet warns: “The next several weeks will bring an increased risk of attacks on our country’s interests from one or more Middle Eastern terrorist groups… The volume of credible threat reporting has grown significantly in the past few months, particularly concerning plans by Osama bin Laden’s organization for new attacks in Europe and the Middle East.… Our most credible information on bin Laden activity suggests his organization is looking at US facilities in the Middle East, especially the Arabian peninsula, in Turkey and Western Europe. Bin Laden’s network is global however and capable of attacks in other regions, including the United States.” (Tenet 2007, pp. 128-129) Just one day later, Clinton will brief incoming President Bush on the al-Qaeda threat (see December 19, 2000).
National Security Adviser Sandy Berger asks CIA Director how he would go after al-Qaeda if he were unconstrained by resources and policies. He assigns Cofer Black and the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center to develops a plan for the incoming Bush administration. It is dubbed the “Blue Sky Memo.” The CIA presents it to counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke on December 29, 2000. It recommends increased support to anti-Taliban groups and especially a major effort to back Ahmed Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance, to tie down al-Qaeda personnel before they leave Afghanistan. No action is taken on it in the last few weeks of the Clinton administration; and the new Bush administration does not appear interested in it either. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004; Tenet 2007, pp. 130-131) The National Security Council counterterrorism staff also prepares a strategy paper, incorporating ideas from the Blue Sky Memo. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004)
With Donald Rumsfeld in as Defense Secretary (see December 28, 2000), Vice President Cheney is moving closer to getting a team in place that will allow him to fulfill his dream of the “unitary executive”—the gathering of power into the executive branch at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches. One key piece to Cheney’s plan is to place neoconservative academic Paul Wolfowitz as the head of the CIA. However, Wolfowitz’s personal life is proving troublesome for Cheney’s plans. Wolfowitz’s marriage is crumbling. His wife of over 30 years, Clare, is threatening to go public with her husband’s infidelities. Wolfowitz is having one affair with a staffer at the School of International Studies, and is openly romancing another woman, Shaha Ali Riza, a secular Muslim neoconservative with close ties to Iraqi oppositions groups, including Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. Smitten with the idea of a secular Muslim and a secular Jew forming a romantc liaison, Wolfowitz frequently escorts Riza, and not his wife, to neoconservative social events. Many insiders joke about Wolfowitz’s “neoconcubine.” His dalliances, particularly with a Muslim foreign national, raise questions about his ability to obtain the necessary national security clearance he will need to head the CIA. Cheney does not intend to allow questions of security clearances or wronged and vengeful wives to stop him from placing Wolfowitz at the head of the agency, but this time he does not succeed. After Clare Wolfowitz writes a letter to President-elect Bush detailing her husband’s sexual infidelities and possible security vulnerabilities, Wolfowitz is quietly dropped from consideration for the post. Current CIA Director George Tenet, after reassuring Bush that he can work with the new regime, is allowed to keep his position. Author Craig Unger later writes, “If Cheney and the neocons were to have control over the national security apparatus, it would not come from the CIA.” (Unger 2007, pp. 187-189)
In addition to briefings about Able Danger with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (see Early 2001) and other military leaders (see March 2001), Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer claims that there are other briefings about the project in the same early 2001 time frame. In one briefing, Shaffer says CIA Director George Tenet approves “our conduct of this special project—I did specifically mention the Able Danger effort to him regarding the use of its methodology to separate out US Person issues.” Shaffer also claims that the National Security Counsel (NSC) is briefed twice on Able Danger around this time. He says, “I cannot recall the specific dates of, or individuals present at, the briefing.” (US Congress 2/15/2006 )
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. (Semple 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.” (Zeman et al. 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)
George W. Bush is inaugurated as the 43rd US President, replacing Bill Clinton. The only Cabinet-level figure to remain permanently in office is CIA Director Tenet, appointed in 1997 and reputedly a long-time friend of George H. W. Bush. FBI Director Louis Freeh stays on until June 2001. Numerous figures in Bush’s administration have been directly employed in the oil industry, including Bush, Vice President Cheney, and National Security Adviser Rice. Rice had been on Chevron’s Board of Directors since 1991, and even had a Chevron oil tanker named after her. (Cave 11/19/2001) It is later revealed that Cheney is still being paid up to $1 million a year in “deferred payments” from Halliburton, the oil company he headed. (Bryce and Borger 3/12/2003) Enron’s ties also reach deep into the administration. (Milbank and Kessler 1/18/2002)
The Bush White House holds its first National Security Council meeting. The focus is on Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Bamford 2004, pp. 261) This meeting sets the tone for how President Bush intends to handle foreign affairs. Counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke wants to focus on the threat from al-Qaeda and Islamist terrorism, especially in light of the recent attack on the USS Cole (see October 12, 2000). But Bush isn’t interested in terrorism. (Unger 2007, pp. 201)
Israeli-Palestinian Conflict to be 'Tilted Back Towards Israel' - Instead, Bush channels his neoconservative advisers, particularly incoming Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (see February 18, 1992 and April-May 1999), in taking a new approach to Middle East affairs, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Referring to President Clinton’s efforts to make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Bush declares: “Clinton overreached, and it all fell apart. That’s why we’re in trouble. If the two sides don’t want peace, there’s no way we can force them. I don’t see much we can do over there at this point. I think it’s time to pull out of the situation.… We’re going to correct the imbalance of the previous administration on the Mideast conflict. We’re going to tilt it back towards Israel.” His view is that the Israeli government, currently headed by Ariel Sharon, should be left alone to deal as it sees fit with the Palestinians. “I’m not going to go by past reputations when it comes to Sharon. I’m going to take him at face value. We’ll work on a relationship based on how things go.” Justifying his position, he recalls a recent trip he took to Israel with the Republican Jewish Coalition. “We flew over the Palestinian camps. Looked real bad down there.… I don’t see much we can do over there at this point.” Secretary of State Colin Powell, surprised by Bush’s intended policy towards the 50-year old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, objects. According to Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neil, Powell “stresse[s] that a pullback by the United States would unleash Sharon and the Israeli army.” When Powell warns the president that the “consequences of that [policy] could be dire, especially for the Palestinians,” Bush shrugs. “Sometimes a show of strength by one side can really clarify things,” he suggests. (Bamford 2004, pp. 265-266; Lang 6/2004) In this and subsequent meetings, Bush’s National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, “parrot[s]… the neocon line,” in author Craig Unger’s words, by discussing Iraq. “Iraq might be the key to reshaping the entire region,” she says, clearly alluding to regime change and overthrow in that nation (see March 8, 1992, Autumn 1992, July 8, 1996, Late Summer 1996, Late Summer 1996, 1997-1998, January 26, 1998, February 19, 1998, September 2000, Late December 2000 and Early January 2001, and Shortly after January 20, 2001). (Unger 2007, pp. 201)
Possible WMD Sites in Iraq Spark Bush to Order Plans for Ground Assaults - The meeting then moves on to the subject of Iraq. Rice begins noting “that Iraq might be the key to reshaping the entire region.” She turns the meeting over to CIA Director George Tenet who summarizes current intelligence on Iraq. He mentions a factory that “might” be producing “either chemical or biological materials for weapons manufacture.” The evidence he provides is a picture of the factory with some truck activity, a water tower, and railroad tracks going into a building. He admits that there is “no confirming intelligence” on just what is going on at these sites. Bush orders Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Hugh Shelton to begin preparing options for the use of US ground forces in Iraq’s northern and southern no-fly zones in support of a native-based insurgency against the Hussein regime. (Bamford 2004, pp. 267; Lang 6/2004) Author Ron Suskind later sums up the discussion: “Meeting adjourned. Ten days in, and it was about Iraq. Rumsfeld had said little, Cheney nothing at all, though both men clearly had long entertained the idea of overthrowing Saddam.” Defense Intelligence Agency official Patrick Lang later writes: “If this was a decision meeting, it was strange. It ended in a presidential order to prepare contingency plans for war in Iraq.” (Lang 6/2004)
Regime Change Intended from the Outset - US Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill, later recalls: “From the very beginning, there was a conviction, that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go.… From the very first instance, it was about Iraq. It was about what we can do to change this regime. Day one, these things were laid and sealed.” O’Neill will say officials never questioned the logic behind this policy. No one ever asked, “Why Saddam?” and “Why now?” Instead, the issue that needed to be resolved was how this could be accomplished. “It was all about finding a way to do it,” O’Neill will explain. “That was the tone of it. The president saying ‘Go find me a way to do this.’” (CBS News 1/10/2004; Stevenson 1/12/2004; Borger 1/12/2004; Burrough et al. 5/2004, pp. 234) Another official who attends the meeting will later say that the tone of the meeting implied a policy much more aggressive than that of the previous administration. “The president told his Pentagon officials to explore the military options, including use of ground forces,” the official will tell ABC News. “That went beyond the Clinton administration’s halfhearted attempts to overthrow Hussein without force.” (Cochran 1/13/2004) Unger later writes, “These were the policies that even the Israeli right had not dared to implement.” One senior administration official says after the meeting, “The Likudniks are really in charge now.” (Unger 2007, pp. 201)
Funding the Iraqi National Congress - The council does more than just discuss Iraq. It makes a decision to allow the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an Iraqi opposition group, to use $4 million to fund efforts inside Iraq to compile information relating to Baghdad’s war crimes, military operations, and other internal developments. The money had been authorized by Congress in late 2004. The US has not directly funded Iraqi opposition activities inside Iraq itself since 1996. (Kettle 2/3/2005)
White House Downplays Significance - After Paul O’Neill first provides his account of this meeting in 2004, the White House will attempt to downplay its significance. “The stated policy of my administration toward Saddam Hussein was very clear,” Bush will tell reporters during a visit to Mexico In January 2004. “Like the previous administration, we were for regime change.… And in the initial stages of the administration, as you might remember, we were dealing with desert badger or fly-overs and fly-betweens and looks, and so we were fashioning policy along those lines.” (Stevenson 1/12/2004)
The Bush White House holds its second National Security Council meeting. Like the first meeting (see January 30, 2001), the issue of regime change in Iraq is a central topic. (CBS News 1/10/2004; Stevenson 1/12/2004) Officials discuss a memo titled “Plan for post-Saddam Iraq,” which talks about troop requirements, establishing war crimes tribunals, and divvying up Iraq’s oil wealth. ( [Sources: Paul O’Neill) Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld interrupts Colin Powell’s discussion of UN-based sanctions against Iraq, saying, “Sanctions are fine. But what we really want to discuss is going after Saddam.” He continues, “Imagine what the region would look like without Saddam and with a regime that’s aligned with US interests. It would change everything in the region and beyond it. It would demonstrate what US policy is all about.” (Suskind 2004, pp. 85-86 Sources: Paul O’Neill) According to Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, Rumsfeld talks at the meeting “in general terms about post-Saddam Iraq, dealing with the Kurds in the north, the oil fields, the reconstruction of the country’s economy, and the ‘freeing of the Iraqi people.’” (Stevenson 1/12/2004 Sources: Paul O’Neill) Other people, in addition to O’Neill, Bush, and Rumsfeld, who are likely in attendance include Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard B. Myers. (US President 2/13/2001)
CIA director George Tenet testifies to Congress that Iraq possesses no weapons of mass destruction and poses no threat to the United State. He says, “We do not have any direct evidence that Iraq has used the period since [Operation] Desert Fox to reconstitute its WMD programs, although given its past behavior, this type of activity must be regarded as likely.… We assess that since the suspension of [UN] inspections in December of 1998, Baghdad has had the capability to reinitiate both its [chemical and biological weapons] programs… without an inspection monitoring program, however, it is more difficult to determine if Iraq has done so.” He continues, “Moreover, the automated video monitoring systems installed by the UN at known and suspect WMD facilities in Iraq are still not operating. Having lost this on-the-ground access, it is more difficult for the UN or the US to accurately assess the current state of Iraq’s WMD programs.” Rumsfeld also discusses al-Qaeda, calling it "the most immediate and serious threat" to US interests (see February 7, 2001). (Leopold 6/27/2003)
CIA Director Tenet warns Congress in open testimony that the “threat from terrorism is real, it is immediate, and it is evolving.” He says Osama bin Laden and his global network remains “the most immediate and serious threat” to US interests. “Since 1998 bin Laden has declared that all US citizens are legitimate targets,” he says, adding that bin Laden “is capable of planning multiple attacks with little or no warning.” (Burns 2/7/2001; McKeone 9/23/2001)
CIA Director George Tenet testifies before Congress, saying, “I consider it likely that over the next year or so there will be an attempted terrorist attack against US interests.” He also says, “We will generally not have specific time and place warning of terrorist attacks.” (Tenet 2007, pp. 145) Apparently this is in private Congressional session because a search of the Lexis Nexus article database turns up no media mentions of these quotes until they are mentioned in Tenet’s 2007 book.
According to a later account by CIA Director George Tenet, Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin expresses frustration at the lack of action about Osama bin Laden during a meeting of deputy cabinet officials. McLaughlin reportedly says, “I think we should deliver an ultimatum to the Taliban. They either hand bin Laden over or we rain hell on them.” According to Tenet, “An odd silence followed. No one seemed to like the idea. Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, called John after the meeting and offered a friendly word of advice: ‘You are going to get your suspenders snapped if you keep making policy recommendations. That is not your role.’” (Tenet 2007, pp. 145)
Taliban envoy Rahmatullah Hashimi meets with reporters, middle-ranking State Department bureaucrats, and private Afghanistan experts in Washington. He carries a gift carpet and a letter from Afghan leader Mullah Omar for President Bush. He discusses turning bin Laden over, but the US wants to be handed bin Laden and the Taliban want to turn him over to some third country. A CIA official later says, “We never heard what they were trying to say. We had no common language. Ours was, ‘Give up bin Laden.’ They were saying, ‘Do something to help us give him up.’… I have no doubts they wanted to get rid of him. He was a pain in the neck.” Others claim the Taliban were never sincere. About 20 more meetings on giving up bin Laden take place up until 9/11, all fruitless. (Washington Post 10/29/2001) Allegedly, Hashimi also proposes that the Taliban would hold bin Laden in one location long enough for the US to locate and kill him. However, this offer is refused. This report, however, comes from Laila Helms, daughter of former CIA director Richard Helms. While it’s interesting that this information came out before 9/11, one must be skeptical, since Helms’ job was public relations for the Taliban. (Fard and Ridgeway 6/6/2001) Hashimi will mention to a reporter in June 2001 that he was in the US for a total of six weeks. (de Borchgrave 6/14/2001) According to one article at the time, Hashimi meets with “several senior officials from the State Department, CIA and National Security Council but also from the non-governmental organization Council on Foreign Relations.” Secretary of State Colin Powell is reportedly irate at the meetings because he had not been informed that high level officials would be meeting with Hashimi in the US. He blames CIA Director George Tenet “having laid on a red carpet for [Mullah] Omar’s adviser.” (Intelligence Newsletter 4/19/2001) Hashimi reportedly directly meets with Tenet. (Marlow 11/19/2001)
CIA Director George Tenet will claim in his 2007 book that he attempts to get new covert action authorities to fight bin Laden at this time. He says he wants to move from a defensive to offensive posture, but needs policy backing at a higher level to do it. He meets with Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and gives him a list of expanded authorities the CIA is seeking to go after bin Laden. The authorities would permit the CIA or its partners to kill bin Laden without trying to capture him first. Tenet claims that he tells Hadley, “I’m giving you this draft now, but first, you guys need to figure out what your policy is.” The next day, Mary McCarthy, a CIA officer serving as National Security Council (NSC) senior director, calls Tenet’s chief of staff and asks the CIA to take the draft back. She says something to the effect, “If you formally transmit these to the NSC, the clock will be ticking (to take action), and we don’t want the clock to tick just now.” Tenet withdraws the draft. (Tenet 2007, pp. 143-144) A deputy cabinet level meeting in July 2001 discusses the idea, but no action results (see July 13, 2001). The authorities will be granted a few days after 9/11. (Tenet 2007, pp. 154)
Senior Bush administration officials begin to meet once a month to discuss Pakistan’s nuclear program. The officials are CIA Director George Tenet, his deputy John McLaughlin, Secretary of State Colin Powell, his deputy Richard Armitage, Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke, and Robert Joseph, the National Security Council non-proliferation director. The participants at the meetings discuss what Pakistan is doing, including the fact that North Korea is a client of Pakistan, Pakistan is still doing nuclear business with Iran, it has offered to sell nuclear weapons to Iraq, and there are rumors of a deal between it and Libya. The meetings are arranged by Tenet and, according to Assistant Secretary of State for Non-Proliferation Robert Einhorn: “A very small number of people got involved. Any names added to the list had to be sanctioned personally by Tenet.” The group receives intelligence about Khan’s network derived from tracking flights and meetings, as well as intercepting letters and phone calls. “The CIA guys would grudgingly come over to share anything new with us policy types,” Einhorn will say. “State was always making the case to roll up the network now, to stop it doing more damage. The CIA would make a plausible case to keep watching, let the network run so eventually we could pick it up by the roots, not just lop off the tentacles. We’d debate and always decide to continue following. The policy people were nervous about leaving it too long.” Some of Einhorn’s colleagues accuse the CIA of being “addicted” to collecting information, although senior CIA analysts think they have a better understanding of the issues and should be allowed to decide. Einhorn will add that he goes to Armitage for get support for rolling up the network, but Armitage simply refers him to Joseph and nothing is done before Einhorn leaves the administration in September 2001. Authors Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark will comment: “The Bush administration was not interested in acting on Pakistan, or had no idea of how to act. They were far more interested in eliminating Pakistan’s clients: Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea.” (Levy and Scott-Clark 2007, pp. 303-304)
The 13 hijackers commonly known as the “muscle” allegedly first arrive in the US. The muscle provides the brute force meant to control the hijacked passengers and protect the pilots. (Goldstein 9/30/2001) Yet, according to the 9/11 Commission, these men “were not physically imposing,” with the majority of them between 5 feet 5 and 5 feet 7 tall, “and slender in build.” (9/11 Commission 6/16/2004, pp. 8) According to FBI Director Mueller, they all pass through Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and their travel was probably coordinated from abroad by Khalid Almihdhar. (US Congress 9/26/2002) However, some information contradicts their official arrival dates:
April 23: Waleed Alshehri and Satam Al Suqami arrive in Orlando, Florida. Suqami in fact arrived before February 2001. A man named Waleed Alshehri lived with a man named Ahmed Alghamdi in Virginia and Florida between 1997 and 2000. However, it is not clear whether they were the hijackers or just people with the same name (see 1999). (Telegraph 9/20/2001) Alshehri appears quite Americanized in the summer of 2001, frequently talking with an apartment mate about football and baseball, even identifying himself a fan of the Florida Marlins baseball team. (Associated Press 9/21/2001)
May 2: Majed Moqed and Ahmed Alghamdi arrive in Washington. Both actually arrived by mid-March 2001. A man named Ahmed Alghamdi lived with a man named Waleed Alshehri in Florida and Virginia between 1997 and 2000. However, it is not clear whether they were the hijackers or just people with the same name (see 1999). (Telegraph 9/20/2001) Alghamdi apparently praises Osama bin Laden to Customs officials while entering the country and Moqed uses an alias (see May 2, 2001).
May 28: Mohand Alshehri, Hamza Alghamdi, and Ahmed Alnami allegedly arrive in Miami, Florida. Alnami may have a suspicious indicator of terrorist affiliation in his passport (see April 21, 2001), but this is apparently not noticed by US authorities. The precise state of US knowledge about the indicator at this time is not known (see Around February 1993). The CIA will learn of it no later than 2003, but will still not inform immigration officials then (see February 14, 2003). According to other reports, however, both Mohand Alshehri and Hamza Alghamdi may have arrived by January 2001 (see January or July 28, 2001).
June 8: Ahmed Alhaznawi and Wail Alshehri arrive in Miami, Florida. Alhaznawi may have a suspicious indicator of terrorist affiliation in his passport (see Before November 12, 2000), but this is apparently not noticed by US authorities.
June 27: Fayez Banihammad and Saeed Alghamdi arrive in Orlando, Florida.
June 29: Salem Alhazmi and Abdulaziz Alomari allegedly arrive in New York. According to other reports, however, Alhazmi arrived before February 2001. Alhazmi has a suspicious indicator of terrorist affiliation in his passport (see June 16, 2001), but this is apparently not noticed by US authorities.
After entering the US (or, perhaps, reentering), the hijackers arriving at Miami and Orlando airports settle in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, area along with Mohamed Atta, Marwan Alshehhi, and Ziad Jarrah. The hijackers, arriving in New York and Virginia, settle in the Paterson, New Jersey, area along with Nawaf Alhazmi and Hani Hanjour. (US Congress 9/26/2002) Note the FBI’s early conclusion that 11 of these muscle men “did not know they were on a suicide mission.” (Rose 10/14/2001) CIA Director Tenet’s later claim that they “probably were told little more than that they were headed for a suicide mission inside the United States” (US Congress 6/18/2002) and reports that they did not know the exact details of the 9/11 plot until shortly before the attack (CBS News 10/9/2002) are contradicted by video confessions made by all of them in March 2001 (see (December 2000-March 2001)).
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, a former covert operative and Navy Seal, travels to India on a publicized tour while CIA Director Tenet makes a quiet visit to Pakistan to meet with President Pervez Musharraf. Armitage has long and deep Pakistani intelligence connections (as well as a role in the Iran-Contra affair). While in Pakistan, Tenet, in what was described as “an unusually long meeting,” also secretly meets with his Pakistani counterpart, ISI Director Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmed. (Raman 5/22/2001) According to a senior ISI officer in 2006, Tenet urges Mahmood to trade information on Osama bin Laden. However, Mahmood does not cooperate. (Levy and Scott-Clark 2007, pp. 309, 520)
It is claimed that after a routine briefing by CIA Director Tenet to President Bush regarding the hunt for al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida, Bush complains to National Security Adviser Rice that he is tired of “swatting at flies” and wants a comprehensive plan for attacking terrorism. Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke already has such a plan, but it has been mired in bureaucratic deadlock since January. After this, progress remains slow. (Elliott 8/12/2002; 9/11 Commission 3/24/2004) According to Vanity Fair, when 9/11 commissioner Bob Kerrey asked Rice in 2004 exactly what flies Bush swatted before 9/11, “she fumbled embarrassingly for an answer.” (Zeman et al. 11/2004)
Based on concerns that the US is unprepared for a terrorist attack on its soil, the Republican chairmen of three Senate committees—appropriations, armed services and intelligence—arrange three days of hearings to explore how to better coordinate efforts at preventing and responding to terrorist attacks within the United States. Eighteen government officials testify, including CIA Director George Tenet, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Before the hearings commence, Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kan) tells reporters, “The United States is very likely to suffer, on our soil, an attack by a weapon of mass destruction, by a terrorist group or cell. It should come as no surprise this nation is not prepared for such an attack.” (Loeb 5/9/2001; Kriner 5/10/2001) In his testimony at the hearings, John Ashcroft warns, “It is clear that American citizens are the target of choice of international terrorists. Americans comprise only about 5 percent of the world’s population. However, according to State Department statistics, during the decade of the 1990s, 36 percent of all worldwide terrorist acts were directed against US interests. Although most of these attacks occurred overseas, international terrorists have shown themselves willing to reach within our borders to carry out their cowardly acts.” (US Congress. Senate. Appropriations Committee 5/9/2001) Yet in a letter describing the agenda of the new administration that he sends to department heads the day after giving this testimony, Ashcroft does not mention terrorism (see May 10, 2001). (Clymer 2/28/2002) Also testifying at the hearings, FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh announces he will soon be establishing an Office of National Preparedness to coordinate efforts at responding to terrorist attacks. (Loeb 5/9/2001) On the day the hearings start, President Bush announces that he is putting Vice President Dick Cheney in charge of overseeing a coordinated effort to address the threat posed to the United States by chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons (see May 8, 2001). (White House 5/8/2001)
Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke suggests to National Security Adviser Rice that she ask CIA Director George Tenet what more the US can do to stop al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida from launching “a series of major terrorist attacks.” It is believed these attacks will probably be directed at Israeli targets, but possibly on US facilities. Clarke writes to Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, “When these attacks occur, as they likely will, we will wonder what more we could have done to stop them.” (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 256)
During a regularly scheduled weekly meeting between National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and CIA Director George Tenet, CIA official Richard Blee describes a “truly frightening” list of warning signs of an upcoming terrorist attack. He says that al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida is working on attack plans. CIA leaders John McLaughlin and Cofer Black are also present at this meeting, as is counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke and Mary McCarthy, a CIA officer serving as National Security Council senior director. (Tenet 2007, pp. 145) Just the day before, Clarke suggested that Tenet and Rice discuss what could be done to stop Zubaida from launching “a series of major terrorist attacks,” so presumably this discussion is in response to that (see May 29, 2001). Tenet will later recall: “Some intelligence suggested that [Zubaida’s] plans were ready to be executed; others suggested they would not be ready for six months. The primary target appeared to be in Israel, but other US assets around the world were at risk.” Rice asks about taking the offensive against al-Qaeda and asks how bad the threat is. Black estimates it to be a seven on a one-to-10 scale, with the millennium threat at the start of 2000 ranking an eight in comparison. Clarke tells her that adequate warning notices have been issued to the appropriate US entities. (Tenet 2007, pp. 145-146)
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage later will claim that at this time, CIA Director “Tenet [is] around town literally pounding on desks saying, something is happening, this is an unprecedented level of threat information. He didn’t know where it was going to happen, but he knew that it was coming.” (US Congress 7/24/2003 )
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. (Sanger 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).
In June 2001, the CIA learns that key al-Qaeda operatives are disappearing, while others are preparing for martyrdom. (US Congress 9/18/2002) CIA Director George Tenet will later elaborate in a 2007 book that during the month of June, the CIA learns:
Several training camps in Afghanistan are closing, a sign that al-Qaeda is anticipating a retaliatory strike.
Bin Laden is leaving Afghanistan in fear of a US strike (this later turns out to be erroneous).
Al-Qaeda operatives are leaving Saudi Arabia and returning to Afghanistan, which fits a pattern of movement just before attacks.
Ayman al-Zawahiri is warning associates in Yemen to flee in anticipation of a crackdown.
Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, one of the masterminds of the USS ‘Cole’ bombing, has disappeared.
Other important operatives are disappearing or preparing for martyrdom.
A key Afghan training camp commander was reportedly weeping for joy because he believed he could see his trainees in heaven. (Tenet 2007, pp. 148-149) The CIA also heard in May that operatives are disappearing and preparing for martyrdom (see May 2001).
CIA Director George Tenet will later write that in June 2001, the CIA learns that Arabs in Afghanistan are said to be anticipating as many as eight celebrations. Additionally, al-Qaeda operatives are being told to await important news within days. (Tenet 2007, pp. 148-149) This is just one of many indications word of the upcoming 9/11 attacks is spreading widely in the Afghanistan training camps in the summer of 2001 (see Summer 2001).
During this time, President Bush and other top White House officials are given a series of Presidential Daily Briefings relating to an al-Qaeda attack (see January 20-September 10, 2001). The exact contents of these briefings remain classified, but according to the 9/11 Commission they consistently predict upcoming attacks that will occur “on a catastrophic level, indicating that they would cause the world to be in turmoil, consisting of possible multiple—but not necessarily simultaneous—attacks.” CIA Director Tenet later will recall that he feels President Bush and other officials grasp the urgency of what they are being told. (9/11 Commission 4/13/2004) But Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin later states that he feels a great tension, peaking these months, between the Bush administration’s apparent misunderstanding of terrorism issues and his sense of great urgency. McLaughlin and others are frustrated when inexperienced Bush officials question the validity of certain intelligence findings. Two CIA officials even consider resigning in protest (see Summer 2001). (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004) Dale Watson, head of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, wishes he had “500 analysts looking at Osama bin Laden threat information instead of two.” (9/11 Commission 4/13/2004)
The CIA notifies its station chiefs about intelligence suggesting a possible al-Qaeda suicide attack on a US target over the next few days. CIA Director George Tenet asks that all US ambassadors be briefed on the warning. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 256)
CIA official Richard Blee gives a briefing on the state of the terrorism threat to CIA Director George Tenet and Counterterrorist Center Director Cofer Black. According to an account by Tenet in his 2007 book, Blee identifies more than 10 specific pieces of intelligence about impending attacks. Tenet claims that experienced analysts call this intelligence “both unprecedented and virtually 100 percent reliable.” Blee specifically mentions:
A key Afghanistan training camp commander was seen weeping with joy because he believed he could see his trainees in heaven, implying a successful suicide attack to come.
For the last three to five months, al-Qaeda’s number two leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is believed to have been involved in an unprecedented effort to prepare terrorist operations.
Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, one of the USS Cole bombing masterminds, has disappeared. (Tenet 2007, pp. 149) Leaders of the Cole bombing are believed to be planning new attacks against the US. (Tenet 2007, pp. 147)
Other important operatives around the world are disappearing or preparing for martyrdom. (Tenet 2007, pp. 149)
Blee concludes by saying: “Based on a review of all source reporting over the last five months, we believe that [Osama bin Laden] will launch a significant terrorist attack against US and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against US facilities or interests. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning.” (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 322; Tenet 2007, pp. 149) This warning, including the concluding quote, is shared with “senior Bush administration officials” in early July. (US Congress 9/18/2002)
CIA Director Tenet writes an intelligence summary for National Security Adviser Rice: “It is highly likely that a significant al-Qaeda attack is in the near future, within several weeks.” A highly classified analysis at this time adds, “Most of the al-Qaeda network is anticipating an attack. Al-Qaeda’s overt publicity has also raised expectations among its rank and file, and its donors.” (Gellman 5/17/2002) The same day, Tenet is briefed by another CIA official that bin Laden “will launch a significant terrorist attack against US and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against US facilities or interests” (see June 28, 2001). (US Congress 7/24/2003) Apparently, these warnings are partly based on a warning given by al-Qaeda leaders to a reporter a few days earlier (see June 21, 2001). Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke also later asserts that Tenet tells him around this time, “It’s my sixth sense, but I feel it coming. This is going to be the big one.” (Clarke 2004, pp. 235)
This is one of only two dates that Bush’s national security leadership discusses terrorism. (The other discussion occurs on September 4.) Apparently, the topic is only mentioned in passing and is not the focus of the meeting. This group, made up of the national security adviser, CIA director, defense secretary, secretary of state, Joint Chiefs of staff chairman and others, met around 100 times before 9/11 to discuss a variety of topics, but apparently rarely terrorism. The White House “aggressively defended the level of attention [to terrorism], given only scattered hints of al-Qaeda activity.” This lack of discussion stands in sharp contrast to the Clinton administration and public comments by the Bush administration. (Elliott 8/12/2002) Bush said in February 2001, “I will put a high priority on detecting and responding to terrorism on our soil.” A few months earlier, Tenet told Congress, “The threat from terrorism is real, it is immediate, and it is evolving” (see February 7, 2001). (Bridis 6/28/2002)
CIA Director Tenet makes an urgent special request to 20 friendly foreign intelligence services, asking for the arrests of anyone on a list of known al-Qaeda operatives. (Gellman 5/17/2002) Also in late June, the CIA orders all its station chiefs overseas to share information on al-Qaeda with their host governments and to push for immediate disruptions of al-Qaeda cells. Vice President Cheney asks Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah for help on July 5, and counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke makes appeals to other foreign officials. As a result, several terrorist operatives are detained by foreign governments. According to a later analysis by the 9/11 Commission, this possibly disrupts operations in the Persian Gulf and Italy (see June 13, 2001) and perhaps averts attacks against two or three US embassies. For instance, al-Qaeda operative Djamel Beghal is detained by the French government in July and gives up information about a plot to attack the US embassy in France (see July 24 or 28, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 258, 534) Perhaps as part of Tenet’s request for help, Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a member of the al-Qaeda cell in Hamburg, Germany, is detained in Jordan in July 2001 and then let go (see July 2001).
The CIA briefs Attorney General Ashcroft on the al-Qaeda threat. Several senior CIA Counterterrorist Center officials warn him that a significant attack is imminent, preparations for multiple attacks are in the late stages or already complete, and that little additional warning can be expected. He is told the attack is more likely to occur overseas than in the US. He was also briefed by the CIA on the al-Qaeda threat on May 15, 2001. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 258-259, 534; Tenet 2007, pp. 150) CIA Director Tenet will later claim in a book that at the end of the briefing, Ashcroft turned to some FBI personnel and asked them, “Why are they telling me this? Why am I not hearing this from you?” (Tenet 2007, pp. 150) However, in fact, the FBI did brief Ashcroft for an hour an the al-Qaeda threat one week earlier (see June 28, 2001). One week later, the FBI will brief him again about the al-Qaeada threat and he will reportedly reply, “I do not want to hear about this anymore” (see July 12, 2001). By the end of July, he will stop flying commercial aircraft in the US (see July 26, 2001).
On July 5, 2001, counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke gave a dramatic briefing to representatives from several domestic agencies on the urgent al-Qaeda threat (see July 5, 2001). However, the warnings given generally are not passed on by the attendees back to their respective agencies. The domestic agencies were not questioned about how they planned to address the threat and were not told what was expected of them. According to the 9/11 Commission, attendees later “report that they were told not to disseminate the threat information they received at the meeting. They interpreted this direction to mean that although they could brief their superiors, they could not send out advisories to the field.” One National Security Council official has a different recollection of what happened, recalling that attendees were asked to take the information back to their agencies and “do what you can” with it, subject to classification and distribution restrictions. But, for whatever reason, none of the involved agencies post internal warnings based on the meeting, except for Customs which puts out a general warning based entirely on publicly known historical facts. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 258, 264) The FAA issues general and routine threat advisories that don’t reflect the level of urgency expressed by Clarke and others (see January-August 2001). FAA Administrator Jane Garvey later claims she was unaware of a heightened threat level, but in 2005 it will be revealed that about half of the FAA’s daily briefings during this time period referred to bin Laden or al-Qaeda (see April 1, 2001-September 10, 2001). (Johnston and Dwyer 4/18/2004) Clarke said rhetorically in the meeting that he wants to know if a sparrow has fallen from a tree. A senior FBI official attended the meeting and promised a redoubling of the FBI’s efforts. However, just five days after Clarke’s meeting, FBI agent Ken Williams sends off his memo speculating that al-Qaeda may be training operatives as pilots in the US (see July 10, 2001), yet the FBI fails to share this information with Clarke or any other agency. (Gellman 5/17/2002; Clarke 2004, pp. 236-37) The FBI will also fail to tell Clarke about the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui (see August 16, 2001), or what they know about Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar (see August 23, 2001).
On this date, CIA Director George Tenet and CIA counterterrorism chief Cofer Black give the White House an urgent al-Qaeda briefing that, if heeded, Black later believes could have stopped bin Laden. Tenet and Black strongly suggest that both an overall strategy and immediate covert or military action against bin Laden are needed (see July 10, 2001). According to a 2006 book by journalist Bob Woodward that is likely paraphrasing Black, one of Woodward’s sources for his book, “Black calculated that if [the White House] had given him $500 million of covert action funds right then and reasonable authorizations from the president to go kill bin Laden, he would have been able to make great strides if not do away with him.… Over the last two years—and as recently as March 2001—the CIA had deployed paramilitary teams five times into Afghanistan to work with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, a loose federation of militias and tribes in the north. The CIA had about 100 sources and subsources operating throughout Afghanistan. Just give him the money and the authority and he might be able to bring bin Laden’s head back in a box.” (Woodward 2006, pp. 77-78; Hutchinson 9/29/2006)
CIA counterterrorism chief Cofer Black and Richard Blee, a manager responsible for the CIA’s bin Laden unit, meet with CIA Director George Tenet and review the latest intelligence about al-Qaeda. Black lays out a case based on communications intercepts and other intelligence suggesting a growing chance that al-Qaeda will attack the US soon. There is no smoking gun per se, but there is a huge volume of data indicating an attack is coming (see July 9-10, 2001). The case is so compelling—Tenet will later say it “literally made my hair stand on end”—that Tenet decides to brief the White House on it this same day (see July 10, 2001). (Woodward 10/1/2006; Tenet 2007, pp. 151)
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. (Woodward 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. (Landay, Strobel, and Walcott 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:
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);
A mid-June statement by bin Laden to trainees that there would be an attack in the near future (see Mid-June 2001);
Information that talks about moving toward decisive acts;
Late-June information saying a “big event” was forthcoming;
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; Woodward 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; Woodward 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). (Landay, Strobel, and Walcott 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).
The Bush administration again denies the CIA expanded authorities to go on the offensive against bin Laden. These authorities would include permission to assassinate bin Laden without making an attempt to capture him alive first. In March 2001, the CIA wanted to give a draft request about this to the Bush administration, but officials weren’t ready so the draft was withdrawn (see Early March 2001). On July 13, three days after a dramatic CIA presentation about a likely upcoming al-Qaeda attack (see July 10, 2001), a meeting of deputy cabinet officials is held to discuss the CIA’s expanded authorities request. However, no decisions are made. Tenet will later comment, “the bureaucracy moved slowly.” The Bush administration will grant these authorities a few days after 9/11. (Tenet 2007, pp. 154)
CIA Director Tenet has a special meeting with National Security Adviser Rice and her aides about al-Qaeda. Says one official at the meeting, “[Tenet] briefed [Rice] that there was going to be a major attack.” Another at the meeting says Tenet displays a huge wall chart showing dozens of threats. Tenet does not rule out a domestic attack but says an overseas attack is more likely. (Elliott 8/12/2002)
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).
Shortly after a pivotal al-Qaeda warning given by the CIA to top officials (see July 10, 2001), Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Steve Cambone expresses doubts. He speaks to CIA Director George Tenet, and, as Tenet will later recall, he “asked if I had considered the possibility that al-Qaeda threats were just a grand deception, a clever ploy to tie up our resources and expend our energies on a phantom enemy that lacked both the power and the will to carry the battle to us.” Tenet claims he replied, “No, this is not a deception, and, no, I do not need a second opinion.… We are going to get hit. It’s only a matter of time.” After 9/11, Cambone will reportedly apologize to Tenet for being wrong. (Tenet 2007, pp. 154) Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz raises similar doubts around the same time (see Mid-July 2001), and Tenet believes Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is blocking efforts to develop a strategy to fight bin Laden (see Summer 2001).
CIA Director George Tenet will later reveal that on this day, he learns in a briefing that King Abdullah II of Jordan is offering to help the US with troops to defeat bin Laden in a decisive military manner. He offers to send two battalions (roughly between 1,000 and 2,000 soldiers) of “Jordanian Special Forces to go door to door in Afghanistan, if necessary, to deal with al-Qaeda. The offer was a wonderful gesture but would have to have been part of a larger overall strategy in order to succeed. To King Abdullah, bin Laden was the greatest threat in the world to his nation’s security….” (Tenet 2007, pp. 156) There is a claim that al-Qaeda plotted an assassination of King Abdullah II, which was aborted when he learned of the plot in the summer of 2000. (Gunaratna 2003, pp. 133) After 9/11, it will be reported that in July 2001, Jordan warned the US that al-Qaeda was planning an attack inside the US (see July 2001). It will also be reported that in the late summer of 2001, Jordan warned the US of a major al-Qaeda attack inside the US using aircraft. They say it is codenamed “The Big Wedding,” which is al-Qaeda’s codename for the 9/11 attacks (see Late Summer 2001).
High-level al-Qaeda operative Djamel Beghal is arrested in Dubai on his way back from Afghanistan. Earlier in the month the CIA sent friendly intelligence agencies a list of al-Qaeda agents they wanted to be immediately apprehended, and Beghal was on the list (see July 3, 2001).
Information Obtained - Beghal quickly starts to talk, and tells French investigators about a plot to attack the American embassy in Paris. Crucially, he provides new details about the international-operations role of top al-Qaeda deputy Abu Zubaida, whom he had been with a short time before. (Erlanger and Hedges 12/28/2001; Elliott 8/12/2002) One European official says Beghal talks about “very important figures in the al-Qaeda structure, right up to bin Laden’s inner circle. [He] mention[s] names, responsibilities and functions—people we weren’t even aware of before. This is important stuff.” (Elliott 11/12/2001) One French official says of Beghal’s interrogations, “We shared everything we knew with the Americans.” (Elliott 5/19/2002)
Link to 9/11 - The New York Times later will report, “Enough time and work could have led investigators from Mr. Beghal to an address in Hamburg where Mohamed Atta and his cohorts had developed and planned the Sept. 11 attacks.” Beghal had frequently associated with Zacarias Moussaoui. However, although Moussaoui is arrested (see August 16, 2001) around the same time that Beghal is revealing the names and details of all his fellow operatives, Beghal is apparently not asked about Moussaoui. (Erlanger and Hedges 12/28/2001; Elliott 8/12/2002)
Timing of Arrest - Most media accounts place the arrest on July 28. However, in a 2007 book CIA Director George Tenet will say he received a briefing about the arrest on July 24. (Tenet 2007, pp. 156-157)
Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke reports to National Security Adviser Rice and her deputy Steve Hadley that the spike in intelligence indicating a near-term attack appears to have ceased, but he urges them to keep readiness high. Intelligence indicates that an attack has been postponed for a few months. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004) In early August, CIA Director Tenet also reports that intelligence suggests that whatever terrorist activity might have been originally planned has been delayed. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004)
In his 2007 book, CIA Director George Tenet will write that on this day, “From Afghanistan came word that the Taliban intelligence chief, Qari Amadullah, was interested in establishing secret contact, outside the country and without Mullah Omar’s knowledge, “to save Afghanistan.” (Tenet 2007, pp. 156) However, it is unclear if the offer was acted upon because Tenet has nothing more to say about it. The 9/11 Commission will later report that in July a deep schism developed in the Taliban and even al-Qaeda leadership over the wisdom of going through with the 9/11 attacks. Apparently, even top Taliban leader Mullah Omar was ideologically opposed to the attacks at this time, though he may have changed his mind before 9/11. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 251-252)
CIA Director George Tenet will recall in his 2007 book that “during one of my updates in late July when, as we speculated about the kind of [al-Qaeda] attacks we could face, Rich B. suddenly said, with complete conviction, ‘They’re coming here.’ I’ll never forget the silence that followed.” Rich B. is the alias Tenet uses for Richard Blee, the official who oversees Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, at this time (see June 1999 and Between Mid-January and July 2000). It is not known who else is at the meeting. (Tenet 2007, pp. 158)
CIA Director George Tenet has been alarmed all summer about the rise in attack warnings (see Summer 2001). As Tenet later tells the 9/11 Commission, in his world “the system was blinking red.” By late July, Tenet believes that the level of alarm could not “get any worse.” (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 259)
The US receives intelligence that bin Laden’s right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is receiving medical treatment at a clinic in Sana’a, Yemen. However, the Bush administration rejects a plan to capture him, as officials are not 100 percent sure the patient is al-Zawahiri. Officials later regret the missed opportunity. (ABC News 2/20/2002) In another account, an anonymous CIA source claims that the “Egyptian intelligence service briefed us that he was in a hospital in Sana’a. We sent a few people over there, and they made a colossal screwup. While our guys were conducting a surveillance of the hospital, the guards caught them with their videocameras.” (Wright 9/9/2002) CIA Director Tenet will touch on this incident in his 2007 book, saying that only that on July 24, 2001, “we had reporting that al-Zawahiri was in Yemen and we were pursuing confirmation and a plan to exfiltrate him to the United States. Although we doubted this information, it was out intention to play this hand out.” He doesn’t mention what happened after that. (Tenet 2007) Al-Zawahiri also appears to have spent time in Yemen in 1998 (see Spring-Summer 1998).
The FBI fails to inform its own head of the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui. It is unclear how this failure occurs. The highest FBI official to be informed of Moussaoui’s arrest is apparently Michael Rolince, head of the FBI’s International Terrorism Operations Section (see Late August 2001), but it seems he fails to pass the information on. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 275) Thomas Pickard, who is acting FBI director at this time, will later blame CIA director George Tenet, who was briefed repeatedly on the case (see August 23, 2001), for not informing him of Moussaoui’s arrest, but Tenet will comment: “I was stunned to hear [Pickard’s comments] suggesting that I had somehow failed to notify him about Moussaoui. Failed to tell him? Hell, it was the FBI’s case, their arrest. I had no idea that the Bureau wasn’t aware of what its own people were doing.” (Tenet 2007, pp. 200-201)
Following the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui, the FBI fails to brief the Counterterrorism and Security Group (CSG) chaired by counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke at the National Security Council (NSC) on the case. CIA director George Tenet will later say that briefing the CSG on such an arrest is “standard practice.” (Tenet 2007, pp. 200) In July 2001, Clarke had told the FBI he wanted to be informed of anything unusual, even if a sparrow fell from a tree (see Shortly After July 5, 2001).
A team of centrifuge physicists at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and other similar institutions publish a detailed Technical Intelligence Note concerning the aluminum tubes that Iraq recently attempted to import from China (see July 2001). (Gellman and Pincus 8/10/2003; Jackson 10/27/2003; Barstow, Broad, and Gerth 10/3/2004) The team includes Dr. Jon A. Kreykes, head of Oak Ridge’s national security advanced technology group; Dr. Duane F. Starr, an expert on nuclear proliferation threats; and Dr. Edward Von Halle, a retired Oak Ridge nuclear expert. They are advised by Dr. Houston G. Wood III, a retired Oak Ridge physicist considered to be “among the most eminent living experts” on centrifuges, and Dr. Gernot Zippe, one of the German scientists who developed an early uranium centrifuge in the 1950s (see 1950s). The 8-page report, titled “Iraq’s Gas Centrifuge Program: Is Reconstitution Underway?” provides a detailed explanation of why the team believes the 7075-T6 aluminum tubes sought by Iraq were not intended for use in a gas centrifuge. (US Congress 7/7/2004; Barstow, Broad, and Gerth 10/3/2004)
The tubes sought by Iraq are very different from tubes Iraq used previously in its centrifuge prototypes before the first Gulf War. The intercepted aluminum tubes are significantly longer and narrower. (Gellman and Pincus 8/10/2003; Barstow, Broad, and Gerth 10/3/2004)
Aluminum has not been used in gas centrifuges since the 1950s (see After the 1950s). Furthermore, Iraq is known to have had the blueprints for a more efficient centrifuge, which used maraging steel and carbon fiber, not aluminum (see (Late 1980s)). (Gellman and Pincus 8/10/2003) Aluminum “provides performance roughly half that of” maraging steel and carbon fiber composites. Constructing rotors from 7075-T6 aluminum would require the Iraqis to make twice as many rotors, as well as twice as many other centrifuge components, such as end caps, bearings, and outer casings. (US Congress 7/7/2004) “Aluminum would represent a huge step backwards,” according to Wood. (Barstow, Broad, and Gerth 10/3/2004)
There are no known centrifuge machines “deployed in a production environment” that use tubes with such a small diameter. (Barstow, Broad, and Gerth 10/3/2004) Using tubes of this diameter, would have created “various design and operational problems that veteran engineers of Iraq’s prior program should readily understand.” (US Congress 7/7/2004)
The report says that the “various tolerances specified in contract documents… are looser than the expected precision call-outs for an aluminum rotor tube by factors of two to five.” (US Congress 7/7/2004)
The tubes’ walls, measuring 3.3 millimeters, are three times too thick for “favorable use” in a “Zippe-type” centrifuge, which requires tubes with a thickness of no more than 1.1 millimeter. (Gellman and Pincus 8/10/2003; Barstow, Broad, and Gerth 10/3/2004)
The tubes are anodized, which is “not consistent” with a uranium centrifuge because the anodized coating can react with uranium gas. (US Congress 7/7/2004; Barstow, Broad, and Gerth 10/3/2004) Houston G. Wood later tells the Washington Post in mid-2003 that “it would have been extremely difficult to make these tubes into centrifuges,” adding that such a theory stretched “the imagination to come up with a way.” (Gellman and Pincus 8/10/2003) The scientists conclude that using the tubes in centrifuges “is credible but unlikely, and a rocket production is the much more likely end use for these tubes.” (Barstow, Broad, and Gerth 10/3/2004) They also note that the Iraqis previously declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that since at least 1989, Iraq’s Nasser State Establishment had used large numbers of high strength aluminum tubes to manufacture 81-mm rockets. “The tubes were declared to be made of 7075-T6 aluminum with an 81 mm outer diameter, 74.4 mm inner diameter, and 900 mm length—the same specifications of the tubes Iraq was trying to acquire in 2001,” a later Senate Intelligence report will say summarizing the nuclear scientists’ report. The scientists also say that IAEA inspectors had seen these tubes stored in various locations at the Nasser site. (US Congress 7/7/2004)
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. (Priest 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. (Priest 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. (Jehl 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). (Priest 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).
In an interview with Al Jazeera journalist Yosri Fouda in 2002 (see April, June, or August 2002), would-be hijacker Ramzi bin al-Shibh will claim that, roughly around this day, he receives a coded chat room message about the 9/11 plot from future hijacker Mohamed Atta in the US. Fouda will later co-write a book, and in it he will allege that bin al-Shibh gave him a computer disc containing the exact message. The message, as translated by Fouda, reads:
“The first semester commences in three weeks. There are no changes. All is well. There are good signs and encouraging ideas. Two high schools and two universities. Everything is going according to plan. This summer will surely be hot. I want to talk to you about some details. Nineteen certificates for private education and four exams. Regards to the Professor. Goodbye.”
Fouda will claim that the message is in code, and that bin al-Shibh discussed with him what the real meaning was. In his book, Fouda says the real meaning is this:
“The zero hour is going to be in three weeks’ time. There are no changes. All is well. The brothers have been seeing encouraging visions and dreams. The Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and Capitol Hill. Everything is going according to plan. This summer will surely be hot. I want to talk to you about some details. Nineteen hijackers and four targets. Regards to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed or Osama bin Laden [Fouda isn’t sure which one is the ‘Professor’]. I will call you nearer the time.”
Bin al-Shibh also tells Fouda that “This summer will surely be hot” is a reference to the damage the attacks will cause. (Tremlett 9/9/2002; Fouda and Fielding 2003, pp. 138-139, 146)
When Were the Exact Date and Targets Chosen? - Future hijacker Hani Hanjour makes surveillance test flights near the Pentagon and World Trade Center around this time, suggesting the targets for the 9/11 attacks have now been confirmed (see July 20, 2001 and Mid-August 2001). (CBS News 10/9/2002) The FBI will later notice spikes in cell phone use between the hijackers just after the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui and just before the hijackers begin to buy tickets for the flights they will hijack. (Bernstein et al. 9/10/2002) CIA Director George Tenet will hint that Moussaoui’s arrest a few days earlier (on August 15 (see August 16, 2001)) may be connected to when the date of the attacks is picked. (US Congress 6/18/2002) On the other hand, some terrorists appear to have made plans to flee Germany in advance of the 9/11 attacks on August 14, one day before Moussaoui’s arrest (see August 14, 2001).
It is unclear if Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, briefs CIA leaders on information that 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar is in the US. Margaret Gillespie, an FBI analyst detailed to the station, discovers that Almihdhar is in the US on August 21, immediately informs the FBI (see August 21-22, 2001), and places Almihdhar, hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi, and two more associates on the TIPOFF watch list the next day (see August 23, 2001). The CIA also forwards information about al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash to the FBI on August 30 (see August 30, 2001).
No Information on Briefings - There is no indication that Richard Blee, the CIA manager responsible for Alec Station, or anyone at Alec Station informs the CIA’s leadership, the White House, or Richard Clarke’s Counterterrorism Security Group (see August 23, 2001) of Almihdhar’s presence in the US and the clear implications of this presence. For example, no such briefing will be mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report, although the report will mention that CIA Director George Tenet is briefed about Zacarias Moussaoui around the same time, and it does discuss the circulation of the information about Almihdhar at the FBI in detail. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 268-277) The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry will not mention any such briefing, although it will discuss how the FBI handles the information. (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 151-4 ) No such briefing will be mentioned in a 2007 book by Tenet, although the book will mention a briefing Tenet receives about Moussaoui. (Tenet 2007, pp. 158-160, 200) The Justice Department inspector general’s report will discuss the FBI’s handling of the information in detail. (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 297-313 ) However, the full CIA inspector general’s report about 9/11 will not be made public, and its executive summary will not mention any such briefing. (Central Intelligence Agency 6/2005, pp. 15-16 )
Alec Station Aware of Threat and Almihdhar - Alec Station, the CIA, and the US intelligence community in general are highly aware that preparations for a large al-Qaeda attack are in the final stages (see Shortly After July 5, 2001, June 28, 2001, and June 28, 2001). Blee is, in fact, the lead briefer within the government about the threats, and has briefed not only his superiors at the CIA, but also National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (see May 30, 2001 and June 28, 2001). He has also recently expressed the belief that the attack will be in the US (see Late July 2001) and has apparently received a series of e-mails in which his former deputy told him Almihdhar may well be involved in the forthcoming attack (see July 5, 2001, July 13, 2001, and July 23, 2001). The information that Almihdhar is in the US therefore confirms Blee’s belief that the attack will be in the US, but it appears Alec Station fails to pass this information on.
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 ) 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 ; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division 7/31/2006 ; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division 7/31/2006 ; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division 7/31/2006 ; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division 7/31/2006 )
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.” (Eggen 4/17/2004; US District Court of Eastern Virginia 5/4/2006, pp. 6 )
'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)
A CIA officer involved in the Moussaoui case contacts a fellow CIA officer assigned to the FBI and complains about the FBI’s inability to obtain a warrant to search Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings, which contain enough information to potentially prevent 9/11 (see August 16, 2001). The officer writes: “Please excuse my obvious frustration in this case. I am highly concerned that this is not paid the amount of attention it deserves. I do not want to be responsible when [Moussaoui and his associate Hussein al-Attas] surface again as members of a suicide terrorist op… I want an answer from a named FBI group chief [note: presumably Dave Frasca, head of the FBI’s Radical Fundamentalist Unit] for the record on these questions… several of which I have been asking since a week and a half ago. It is critical that the paper trail is established and clear. If this guy is let go, two years from now he will be talking to a control tower while aiming a 747 at the White House.” One of these two CIA officers may be Tom Wilshire, who is involved in the Moussaoui case (see August 24, 2001). CIA director George Tenet will write, “This comment was particularly prescient because we later learned after 9/11 that Moussaoui had in fact asked Osama bin Laden for permission to be able to attack the White House.” (Tenet 2007, pp. 203) Greg Jones, an FBI agent involved in the case, makes a similar prediction, but guesses that the target will be the World Trade Center, not the White House (see August 27, 2001).
CIA Director George Tenet will claim in his 2007 book that “a group of assets from a Middle Eastern service” is unknowingly working for the CIA by this time. Out of the more than twenty people in this group, one third are working against al-Qaeda. By September 2001, two assets have successfully penetrated al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. (Tenet 2007, pp. 145) The name of the Middle Eastern country is not known. It is also not known when this group first started working for the CIA nor when the assets first penetrated the camps. Nor has it been reported what information these assets may have shared with the CIA before 9/11. It is known that bin Laden was dropping hints about the upcoming 9/11 attacks to training camp trainees in the summer of 2001 (see Summer 2001). Further, US citizen John Walker Lindh was told details of the 9/11 attacks within weeks of joining a training camp that summer (see May-June 2001).
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