For months, Tenet had been pressing Rice to set a clear counterterrorism policy, including specific presidential orders called “findings” that would give the CIA stronger authority to conduct covert action against bin Laden. Perhaps a dramatic appearance — Black called it an “out of cycle” session, beyond Tenet’s regular weekly meeting with Rice — would get her attention. …
Tenet and Black felt they were not getting through to Rice. She was polite, but they felt the brush-off. President Bush had said he didn’t want to swat at flies.
As they all knew, a coherent plan for covert action against bin Laden was in the pipeline, but it would take some time. In recent closed-door meetings the entire National Security Council apparatus had been considering action against bin Laden, including using a new secret weapon: the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, that could fire Hellfire missiles to kill him or his lieutenants. It looked like a possible solution, but there was a raging debate between the CIA and the Pentagon about who would pay for it and who would have authority to shoot.
Besides, Rice seemed focused on other administration priorities, especially the ballistic missile defense system that Bush had campaigned on. She was in a different place.
Tenet left the meeting feeling frustrated. Though Rice had given them a fair hearing, no immediate action meant great risk. Black felt the decision to just keep planning was a sustained policy failure. Rice and the Bush team had been in hibernation too long. “Adults should not have a system like this,” he said later. …
… Afterward, Tenet looked back on the meeting with Rice as a tremendous lost opportunity to prevent or disrupt the Sept. 11 attacks. Rice could have gotten through to Bush on the threat, but she just didn’t get it in time, Tenet thought. He felt that he had done his job and had been very direct about the threat, but that Rice had not moved quickly. He felt she was not organized and did not push people, as he tried to do at the CIA.
Black later said, “The only thing we didn’t do was pull the trigger to the gun we were holding to her head.”
Editor’s Note: How much effort the Bush administration made in going after Osama bin Laden before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, became an issue last week after former president Bill Clinton accused President Bush’s “neocons” and other Republicans of ignoring bin Laden until the attacks. Rice responded in an interview that “what we did in the eight months was at least as aggressive as what the Clinton administration did in the preceding years.”
Right now I need to take a time out and, I don’t know, throw some plates at the wall, or smash pumpkins, or something.
This morning the fine point under discussion is what did the 9/11 Commission and other investigators know about this meeting, and when did they know it? Another paragraph from Woodward:
The July 10 meeting between Tenet, Black and Rice went unmentioned in the various reports of investigations into the Sept. 11 attacks, but it stood out in the minds of Tenet and Black as the starkest warning they had given the White House on bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Though the investigators had access to all the paperwork on the meeting, Black felt there were things the commissions wanted to know about and things they didn’t want to know about.
The July 10 meeting of Rice, Tenet and Black went unmentioned in various investigations into the Sept. 11 attacks, and Woodward wrote that Black “felt there were things the commissions wanted to know about and things they didn’t want to know about.”
Jamie S. Gorelick, a member of the Sept. 11 commission, said she checked with commission staff members who told her investigators were never told about a July 10 meeting. “We didn’t know about the meeting itself,” she said. “I can assure you it would have been in our report if we had known to ask about it.”
White House and State Department officials yesterday confirmed that the July 10 meeting took place, although they took issue with Woodward’s portrayal of its results. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, responding on behalf of Rice, said Tenet and Black had never publicly expressed any frustration with her response.
“This is the first time these thoughts and feelings associated with that meeting have been expressed,” McCormack said. “People are free to revise and extend their remarks, but that is certainly not the story that was told to the 9/11 commission.”
Tenet and Black did not respond to messages yesterday.
Yesterday Greg Mitchell at Editor & Publisher reported on Peter Baker’s story. This rightie blogger accuses Mitchell of a cover up because he left out the part about “Though the investigators had access to all the paperwork on the meeting, Black felt there were things the commissions wanted to know about and things they didn’t want to know about.”
Reading the excerpt and the Peter Baker story together, my impression is that because no one spoke of the July 10 meeting in testimony before the commission, the commissioners overlooked it. There may be nothing remarkable in the paperwork, nothing that calls out Tenet and Black’s concerns, and such paperwork would have been part of several truckloads of paperwork the commissioners were given.
Or, maybe Tenet and Black are exaggerating the significance of the meeting now because they’re trying to cover their own butts for the record.
Or, maybe the commissioners were doing their best to be “fair” to the White House, meaning they didn’t follow up information that made Bush and his team look bad unless it got into public record.
Many things are possible. Certainly there are a lot of questions that remain unanswered about 9/11. I strongly suspect that if we were to wade through all the little details in all the documentation given the 9/11 commission, we would find lots more interesting stuff.