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Bush before September 11: the awful truth

Revelations last week by Richard Clarke - Bush's counter-terrorism guru until just before the Iraq invasion - could destroy the Bush presidency. I asked Webdiarist Kerryn Higgs, a Australian living in New York who's been glued to live TV coverage of Clarke's evidence to the Sepetmber 11 inquiry, to report the controversy.

Her first report is on what Bush did and didn't do before September 11. She's working on a report on Clarke's revelations of what happened on September 11 and immediately afterwards.

The failure to prevent 9/11: Clarke's story

by Kerryn Higgs

Richard Clarke, the U.S. counterterror co-ordinator under every administration since Reagan, began his session in front of the 9/11 Commission on Wednesday with the only apology anyone has yet offered to the families of those who died:

"To the loved ones of the victims of 9/11… here in the room… watching on television, your government failed you. Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn't matter, because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask, once all the facts are out, for your understanding and for your forgiveness."

Though critics of Clarke have charged him with self-serving theatricality, he looked and sounded absolutely sincere to me. Dozens of the family members who sat behind him applauded, and gathered at the end of his testimony to hug him.


It’s been quite a week in the USA, as a whole lot more evidence came into focus about the role of Iraq in George W Bush’s agenda. Clarke has raised yet more questions about the failure to prevent the catastrophic events of 9/11 and the push for war on Iraq.

Clarke’s book, Against all Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, hit the bookshops on Monday, March 22. The night before, most of 60 Minutes was devoted to Clarke.

On Wednesday afternoon, he appeared before the Commission of inquiry into the September 11 attacks. A dedicated career public servant and a registered Republican who was appointed by Reagan and served all governments up to his resignation last year, Richard Clarke is not easily brushed aside – though there’s been a sustained government effort to undermine his credibility.

Daniel Shaw, commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), was asked at the end of the week whether Bush’s neglect of Al Qaeda had anything to do with a reflexive rejection of Clinton’s foreign policy priorities. Shaw thought maybe more than reflexive, and told this story. When the two Presidents met, as is traditional, just hours before Bush’s inauguration, Clinton gave Bush his five top priorities:1. Israel-Palestine; 2. Terrorist threat from al Qaeda; 3. North Korea; 4. India-Pakistan; 5. Iraq. “I would take the fifth one first,” Bush answered, according to Shaw.

The thrust of Clarke’s criticism of the Bush people is that they were living in the past. He told 60 Minutes:

"I blame the entire Bush leadership for continuing to work on Cold War issues when they got back in power in 2001. It was as though they were preserved in amber from when they left office eight years earlier. They came back. They wanted to work on the same issues right away: Iraq, Star Wars. Not new issues, the new threats that had developed over the preceding eight years.”

When it came to al Qaeda, Clarke was without doubt the most worried of Clinton’s staff and when he was retained by the new administration, soon discovered that his sense of urgency was marginalised:

“On January 24th of 2001, I wrote a memo to Condoleezza Rice asking for, urgently – underlined urgently – a cabinet level meeting to deal with the impending al Qaeda attack and that urgent memo wasn't acted on.”

Instead he was asked to attend a meeting of the deputies, rather than the chiefs; and even that was put off until April:

“I began saying, 'We have to deal with bin Laden. We have to deal with al Qaeda.' Paul Wolfowitz the Deputy Sec'y of Defense said, 'No, no, no. We don't have to deal with al Qaeda. Why are we talking about that little guy? We have to talk about Iraqi terrorism against the United States.' And I said, 'Paul, there hasn't been any Iraqi terrorism against the United States in eight years,' and I turned to the Deputy Director of [the] CIA and said, 'Isn't that right?' and he said, 'Yeah, that's right.’”

The cabinet meeting on terrorism did not occur until September 4th. Meanwhile, in months of meetings with Wolfowitz and other deputies covering a range of issues related to terrorism, he could find no-one interested in addressing al Qaeda as a specific high-priority threat. In an interview with Terry Gross on National Public Radio program Fresh Air, Clarke said the administration was instead engrossed in a plan to “reshape the Middle East, by knocking off Saddam Hussein, going in and building democracy”.

“They had this sort of messianic view of the US as a great superpower that could just put its hand [in]… and rip out a regime and remould a country and then that would have ripple effects.”

When the policy Rice claims she had spent seven months “developing” was tabled on September 4th, it was virtually identical to the plan Clarke had handed her in January. He sent her a desperate memo on September 4th urging policy-makers to “imagine a day after hundreds of Americans lay dead at home or abroad after a terrorist attack and ask themselves what else they could have done”. The attacks were seven days away.

September 11 Commissioner Roemer asked Clarke whether things could have been different. Clarke replied:

“All of the things we recommended back in January were those things on the table in September…They were done after September 11th. They were all done. I didn't really understand why they couldn't have been done in February.”

But like everyone else appearing here, he conceded that doing those things was not likely to have prevented the attacks - Clarke’s plan had to do with obliterating the al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, supporting the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, getting the Predator drones armed and ready to strike or going after al Qaeda funding. By February 2001, the 9/11 plot was most likely finalised, and weakening bin Laden or the camps unlikely to affect the outcome.

A more likely avenue of action against the hijackers’ plans lay in tightening the flawed domestic security system. This aspect was not really covered by last week’s hearings (there will be more), though Chairman Kean told CBS TV on Wednesday evening, that “a whole number of circumstances, had they been different, might have prevented 9/11… they involve everything from how people got into the country to failures in the intelligence system.”

These failures include demarcation issues between the CIA and the FBI and simple communications failure between and within the agencies. Newsweek of June 10th, 2002 recounted an unhappy series of errors and oversights that allowed two hijackers to function unimpeded.

In January 2000, the CIA tracked Alhazmi and Almihdhar (who flew with Atta on Flight 77) from a Malaysian meeting of terrorism suspects back to California. But the CIA did not pass this on to the FBI – which is solely responsible for security matters at home. The two men lived openly while they went to flight school, had driver’s licences and phone connections under their own names, travelled abroad, got new visas and periodically met up with other plotters.

In August, with the “chatter” spiking, CIA chief Tenet ordered a review of files and the FBI was finally told about them. They were not located, though it’s unclear whether the FBI tried the phone book, which might have done the trick. But it is clear that the suspects’ names were not placed on intercept lists at domestic airports. Richard Clarke too, ostensible counterterror chief, was not informed.

Clarke had already told the Commission during many hours of closed testimony that he wished he had known. Asked by Commissioner Roemer what he would have done, he conceded he couldn’t say for sure but hoped he would have launched a manhunt using front-page pictures, World’s Most Wanted, whatever it took, to track them down.

That same summer, two separate FBI agencies tried to pass warnings up the line to their bosses. An agent in Phoenix warned his headquarters in July 2001 that Osama bin Laden's followers might be studying at flight schools in preparation for terrorist attacks (see New York Times at http://www.nytimes.com/auth/login?URI=http://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/03/national/03TERR.html - registration required). The FBI didn’t yet know about Almihdhar and Alhazmi doing flight training and the report was shelved.

FBI agents in Minnesota also arrested Zacarias Moussaoui in mid-August 2001. His lack of interest in taking off and landing and a preference for steering big jets in the flight simulator alerted instructors, who were aware that an airliner could be used as a missile. The FBI interviewed an associate, who revealed that Moussaoui was deeply anti-American and had links to extremist groups. One agent described him as the kind of guy who could “fly something into the World Trade Centre”. His colleague, Coleen Rowley, attempted to get search warrants to follow up the lead, but her submissions were rejected by superiors. The Minneapolis office became so frustrated with the obstacles put up by supervisors in Washington that they began to joke that FBI headquarters was in league with bin Laden.

Although these particular clues were buried, top officials did know in the summer of 2001 that something horrific was about to happen. The President’s Daily Brief (PDB) of August 6th was delivered to the Crawford ranch, where Bush was on holidays. Presumably he read it – but he did not interrupt his vacation. He has resisted disclosure of its contents ever since. Only two members of the Commission were finally allowed to see it and make notes – and the notes have been the subject of attempted suppression by Bush. There have, however, been various leaks, starting with the Los Angeles Times back in May 2002, which said the August 6th memo warned that al Qaeda might contemplate hijacking U.S. aircraft and that bin Laden wanted to conduct attacks in the United States, where al Qaeda members had been residing and travelling for years.

According to David Corn in the Nation, quoting House and Senate intelligence committees an intelligence warning in early July 2001, had noted:

"We believe that [bin Laden] will launch a significant terrorist attack against the U.S. and/or Israeli interests in coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against U.S. facilities or interests. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning."

On July 26, 2001, cbsnews.com reported that John Ashcroft had stopped flying on commercial airlines. A coincidence? He was apparently advised to do so by the FBI, but the American public was not warned of any threat and airport security was not upgraded.

Almost everyone maintains that the attack was expected to occur overseas, though Clarke testified that Tenet did not rule out a strike at home. Condoleezza Rice has denied that the PDB of August 6th was specific, claiming it contained only a general warning about al Qaeda.

As for the July warning, Bush has never allowed the intelligence committees to reveal whether he and Rice saw it, only that “senior government officials” did. Rice said, in May 2002:

"I don't think anybody could have predicted that those people could have taken an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center . . . that they would try to use an airplane as a missile."

The Washington Post, however, now writes that Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste has revealed that Rice has been having second thoughts. She apparently wants to revise this 2-year-old statement, confessing that she “misspoke”. So far, she refuses to testify in public on oath and, as the administration’s attack on Clarke proceeds, there is a sense of something akin to panic, with officials contradicting each other on many aspects.

It’s clear that the administration remains anxious to suppress information on what they knew in the lead-up to 9/11. There are numerous signs that they had a lot more information about the nature of the threat than has been openly shared with the public. It was only concerted pressure from the families that forced Bush to convene the independent Commission, which he tried hard to avoid and has hindered whenever he could.

So if vital clues were buried in the system, and the CIA, knowing an attack was imminent, was issuing hair-raising warnings, it’s fair to ask: what could have stirred the system up in time and did the government do it?

Clarke contrasts Clinton’s handling of the spike in intelligence “chatter” of December 1999 in the lead-up to the millenium with how Bush handled the even bigger spike in the summer of 2001. Clinton chaired near-daily meetings with Justice, CIA, FBI, Defence and all relevant principals, including Clarke. Every day, they had to go back to their departments, “shake the trees” and return with whatever they could find.

During December 1999, the FBI shared its intelligence fully – rare for the FBI and something that ceased straight afterwards. Clarke believes that the successful interception of the LA international airport bomber was due in part to the extraordinary level of alert that Clinton put in place through this pressure on his agencies.

In the summer of 2001, when the “spectacular” attack was expected and CIA chief Tenet was described as “running around with his hair on fire”, this kind of process did not occur. Bush met with Tenet most days, but did not chair meetings of all chiefs as Clinton had done – or order Rice to do so.

Clarke also mentions that “there was a hiatus” in August – presumably because that’s when people go on holiday. Bush spent August at the ranch. Clues already existed and Clarke believes that intense pressure like Clinton’s might have brought some of the evidence to light.

It seems possible that the Bush people understood neither the source nor the nature of the threat. On April 30, 2001, CNN reported that the government's annual terrorism report lacked the extensive coverage of bin Laden seen in previous years. Asked why the Administration had reduced the focus, "a senior Bush State Department official” told CNN the U.S. government made a mistake in focusing so much energy on bin Laden".

The Detroit News reported that only 2 of about 100 national security meetings had dealt with terrorism in the months before 9/11 – and one of these was that of September 4th, impatiently awaited by Clarke.

Two veteran CIA counter-terrorism experts were so frustrated that summer that they considered resigning and making public their fears about an imminent terrorist strike against US targets. Whether or not determined attention and aggressive “tree-shaking” could have prevented the attacks, we will never know, but it’s pretty clear that Bush and his team were otherwise occupied.

* Transcripts of both days’ public hearings plus links to video and audio coverage can be found at the Washington Post.

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