Ex-CIA director says Bush White House ignored 9/11 warnings to avoid ‘paper trail’ of responsibility

Did George W. Bush’s administration have any major warnings about 9/11, or were they buried in briefings?

According to POLITICO, the CIA director of counterterrorism, Cofer Black, and his boss George Tenet, both repeatedly and urgently told the Bush administration that Al Qaeda was gearing up for an attack. They offered solutions like “The Blue Sky Paper,” where they would insert CIA and military operatives into Al Qaeda sanctuaries in Afghanistan. The response? “Not ready.” But Tenet and Black knew what that really meant — Bush’s national security team didn’t want a paper trail that showed the administration knew about the attacks and didn’t act.

The big issue, Black argued, was the mental disconnect. Terrorists, in the mind of the Bush administration, were “Euro-lefties [who] drink champagne by night [and] blow things up during the day.” They simply did not see the urgency as Black and Tenet saw it.

The CIA gathered all the evidence it had – training camps closing, terrorists going silent as though in hiding, more threats — and on July 10, for the first time in his seven years at the job, Tenet phoned the White House and insisted on an emergency meeting to brief Condoleezza Rice, at the time Bush’s National Security Adviser, on the magnitude of the terrorist threat they were facing.


Tenet vividly recalls the White House meeting with Rice and her team. (George W. Bush was on a trip to Boston.) “Rich [Blee] started by saying, ‘There will be significant terrorist attacks against the United States in the coming weeks or months. The attacks will be spectacular. They may be multiple. Al Qaeda’s intention is the destruction of the United States.’” [Condi said:] ‘What do you think we need to do?’ Black responded by slamming his fist on the table, and saying, ‘We need to go on a wartime footing now!’”

“What happened?” I ask Cofer Black. “Yeah. What did happen?” he replies. “To me it remains incomprehensible still. I mean, how is it that you could warn senior people so many times and nothing actually happened? It’s kind of like The Twilight Zone.” Remarkably, in her memoir, Condi Rice writes of the July 10 warnings: “My recollection of the meeting is not very crisp because we were discussing the threat every day.” Having raised threat levels for U.S. personnel overseas, she adds: “I thought we were doing what needed to be done.” (When I asked whether she had any further response to the comments that Tenet, Black and others made to me, her chief of staff said she stands by the account in her memoir.) Inexplicably, although Tenet brought up this meeting in his closed-door testimony before the 9/11 Commission, it was never mentioned in the committee’s final report.

Still the administration did nothing. At the end of July, the top CIA operatives had a meeting to discuss how they thought Al Qaeda would attack. Blee simply said, “they’re coming here.”

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Tenet watches the September 11, 2001 attacks unfold on live TV (Flickr)

Black compares to the Bush administration’s lack of response to The Twilight Zone. He still can’t understand how a warning from so many senior people could get absolutely nothing accomplished.

Tenet, who is perhaps the agency’s most embattled director ever, can barely contain himself when talking about the unheeded warnings he says he gave the White House. Twirling an unlit cigar and fidgeting in his chair at our studio in downtown Washington, D.C., he says with resignation: “I can only tell you what we did and what we said.” And when asked about his own responsibility for the attacks on 9/11, he is visibly distraught. “There was never a moment in all this time when you blamed yourself?” I ask him. He shifts uncomfortably in his chair. “Well, look, there … I still look at the ceiling at night about a lot of things. And I’ll keep them to myself forever. But we’re all human beings.”

The fact that the Bush administration did nothing in the face of the greatest terrorist attack, costing thousands of lives and thousands more in their wrongheaded response, is already being subjected to historical revisionism by certain conservative camps.

For a more in depth look in this story, check out the documentary The Spymastersdue to air on Showtime later this month:

Featured image via Flickr

Caitlin Cohen

Caitlin Cohen graduated from Boston University with a degree in History. She has written for DeadState for three and a half years. She technically speaks French. She lives in Los Angeles with her boyfriend and has big plans to one day get a dog.

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