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We Were Warned

April 9th, 2004

As I mentioned before, one thing that was clear in Rice’s testimony was that she wanted to bring the point home on a set of talking points, repeating them several times so that they were certain to make the sound-bite reel. Ones that stood out included that Bush met with CIA chief and other principles almost every day; there was no “silver bullet” that would have stopped 9/11; there were “structural problems” that were the real cause of the problem (she mentioned this a few dozen times); the August 6th PDB was “historical” in nature, not a warning; that Clarke was responsible for a lot (implying that he was more to blame), and the like.

But the one point that stuck out to me was the idea that the Bush administration was not at fault because there was no specific warning about 9/11, that we did not get the specific date, time, location and method of the attack. Commission member James R. Thompson (R) repeated that, saying that we didn’t know “when where and how” the attacks would come. The attacks were too vague, Rice pounded home.

I mean, come on. If we can only stop attacks if we have the exact plans telegraphed to us, then we are in huge trouble. It’s a shameless red herring, saying that we didn’t have good enough intel.

Let’s review what we did know.

  • On January 25th, Clarke told Rice that there were al Qaeda sleeper cells in the U.S., and gave warnings that al Qaeda was the greatest terrorist threat facing the U.S.
  • In the summer of 2001, the FBI uncovered the fact that al Qaeda operatives were in the U.S., and were planning an attack using airplanes, according to Sibel Edmonds.
  • On July 6th, the CIA warned of a terrorist attack that would be “catastrophic,” and that would be quantitatively different from anything that had been done to date.
  • On July 10th, Phoenix, AZ FBI agent Kenneth Williams reported that individuals connected to Osama bin Laden were studying at flight schools in the area, and there was “the possibility of a coordinated effort by Osama bin Laden to send students to the United States to attend civil aviation universities and colleges,” and “[t]he individuals will be in a position in the future to conduct terror activity against civil aviation targets.” [this point added in edit]
  • On July 20-22, Rice and Bush were both at an economic summit in Genoa, Italy, where there was specific intelligence about bin Laden using jet liners to attack the summit; the threat was taken so seriously that there were anti-aircraft batteries deployed in the city, and Bush spent the night on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.
  • On August 6th, the PDB was titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.”
  • On August 16th, Zacarias Moussaoui was arrested in Minnesota on immigration charges, a man who had jihadist connections, who had been in a flight school in Minnesota trying to learn how to fly a commercial jetliner despite having no prior training, had no explanation for the funds in his bank account, and no explanation for why he was in the United States. The Minnesota FBI was trying to pursue the matter, pushing a reluctant Washington FBI bureau.
  • And on September 4, Richard Clarke sent Rice a memo warning Rice “to imagine a day after hundreds of Americans lay dead at home and abroad after a terrorist attack.”

And that’s just the warnings that we’ve been told about. Clearly, there could be and probably are warnings that are still classified and hidden by the Bush administration (like the August 6th PDB, the title of which was classified until yesterday).

Knowing all of this, it becomes all but impossible to imagine that the September 11 attacks were not preventable. It is a fact that from the start, the Bush administration did not take the terrorism threat very seriously, put major emphasis on missile defense, and—just before 9/11—they cut counter-terrorism funding.

However, if Rice and Bush had taken the threat seriously from the start, alerts could have been put out to intelligence agencies to be alert for anything possibly related to this (as commission member Gorelick pointed out, they were not given any such warnings or instructions). In July, Rice had sufficient warnings that something was coming along, such that if she had “shaken the tree” in earnest, if she had told the FBI and CIA to go on high alert and pass on all warnings, they would have learned about the Edmonds tapes, and would have known something big was coming–and then Zacarias Moussaoui would have stuck out like a gigantic sore thumb. With him, they would have had a potential terrorist training for jet piloting; that would have led them to check pilot training schools across the U.S. for others like him, they would have found most of the other hijackers, and could have rolled up the entire operation with weeks to spare.

This is not pie-in-the-sky or pure hindsight, this is real information that could have been passed on, and probably would have been under Gore because he would have carried on with Clinton policies that called for this kind of thing.

We were warned. We did have information specific enough to lead us to find the terrorists. This was not an inevitable attack. Rice screwed up. Bush blew it. It’s as simple as that.

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  1. Pat
    April 10th, 2004 at 02:23 | #1

    I liked Slate’s takedown of Rice:

    “Why did she need a recommendation to do something? Couldn’t she make recommendations herself? Wasn’t that her job?”

  2. April 11th, 2004 at 06:21 | #2

    You left out the plane-crashing-into-the-Pentagon emergency drills, held in semi-public and reported on in an unclass military organization news service. We are not kidding. See Atrios.

  3. September 7th, 2006 at 07:31 | #3

    I’m beginning to think that the bin Laden PDB itself was a red herring, in addition to some of the supporting intelligence.

    In other words, to make it look like 9/11 was a result of government incompetence as opposed to government complicity.

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