September 11 attacks: What did Bush know?

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The Independent US

One of the most tumultuous weeks in recent Washington history ended yesterday with the same over-arching, monumental question with which it began. Could the Bush administration have prevented the attacks of 11 September 2001? Upon the answer hangs a Presidency.

One of the most tumultuous weeks in recent Washington history ended yesterday with the same over-arching, monumental question with which it began. Could the Bush administration have prevented the attacks of 11 September 2001? Upon the answer hangs a Presidency.

Before that terrible Tuesday in New York and Washington, Mr Bush had faced the threat of al-Qa'ida for eight months, compared to the six years of the Clinton administration, who first formally acknowledged the existence of the organisation in 1995, and designated Osama bin Laden, as a terrorist financier. This President and his closest advisers are being held to account for their actions between January and September 2001. In the aftermath of the attacks, such questions were first swamped by collective grief, then overshadowed by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now ­ above all because of the explosive memoirs of Richard Clarke, the White House counter-terrorism chief under both Mr Bush and Mr Clinton ­ they are being asked. And the answers provided by the book and the first findings of the federal commission examining the attacks, are anything but flattering ­ so unflattering that the Bush campaign is leaving no stone unturned to discredit Mr Clarke, denouncing his testimony as "lies".

In counter-terrorism, as in everything else, the Bush team came to office determined to be "Anything But Clinton". The charitable explanation for its new approach to al-Qa'ida is that, as the national security adviser Condoleezza Rice insists, the President wanted to stop "swatting flies" and have a new strategy to destroy, not merely contain, the terrorist threat.

That grand plan was finally approved just seven days before 11 September, when it was too late to have made any difference. According to Mr Clarke and others such as the former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, the real reason was antipathy to Mr Clinton and his works, and a conviction Saddam Hussein and Iraq were at the root of all evil.

Mr Clarke, one of the few holdover officials from the Clinton administration, says he gave Ms Rice a detailed memo on dealing with al-Qa'ida on 25 January, five days after the inauguration. This document built on the briefings given by the CIA and departing Clinton officials to the incoming administration.

But, according to Mr Clarke, he was, in effect, demoted, instructed to report to deputy-level cabinet officials.

That, Mr Clarke charges, delayed action "by months". He adds that during that first briefing on 25 January "her facial expression gave me the impression she had never heard the term [al-Qa'ida] before".

Thus the increasingly dark forebodings of the intelligence community failed to resonate. The preliminary report of the commission notes the "tension" felt by John McLaughlin, the deputy director of the CIA, between the understandable wish of a new administration to get its own take on an issue, and the urgency of the situation on the ground. The sudden spike in intercepted "chatter" suggesting one or more impending terrorist strikes went unheeded or was downplayed because of the assumption they would be abroad. In May, according to private testimony from Ms Rice, Mr Bush expressed frustration as George Tenet, the CIA director, warned again of terrorist threats in his daily briefing.

By July, so nervous were intelligence specialists that two unidentified CIA officers dealing with al-Qa'ida contemplated resignation in order to go public with their fears. But, by the end of July, the "chatter" had subsided. Wrongly, Mr Tenet concluded that any attacks had been postponed.

Mr Clarke was so upset his advice was not being followed that he prepared to ask for a new post. In June, a new presidential draft on ambitious covert action against al-Qa'ida was circulating. But nothing happened.

The next, and penultimate, key date is 6 August 2001. That day Mr Bush, on holiday at his Texas ranch, received his top-secret "President's Daily Briefing", or PDB. The document contained the CIA's latest assessment of the terrorist threat, including renewed intelligence that hijacked aircraft might be used in an attack. Calls for its release have been resisted.

On 4 September ­ the day the new blueprint for action against al-Qa'ida was approved ­ Mr Clarke wrote to Ms Rice asking how she would feel if hundreds of Americans were killed in a terrorist attack. A week later, the Eastern seaboard was attacked.

By then, clues of what was about to happen had been gathered. The CIA knew that two al-Qa'ida terrorists, who would take part in the attacks, were in the country. The FBI had discovered strange goings-on at pilot schools, of Middle Eastern men wanting to learn how to fly airliners, but not to land or take off. But the agencies would not share the information. Had he been in possession of them, Mr Clarke said, "I like to think I would have connected the dots". But that probably was wishful thinking ­ as wishful as Mr Bush's belief that Saddam was involved with 11 September. Meanwhile requests for Ms Rice to appear before the federal commission have been turned down.

Hindsight, famously, is perfect. Or as Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton's last Secretary of State put it when she testified on Tuesday: "History happens forward, but is written backwards."