States of Denial

by , October 07, 2006

Bob Woodward’s revelation that Condoleezza Rice was warned by George Tenet and two other top CIA officials, on July 10, 2001, that a terrorist attack on the U.S. was imminent continues to reverberate – auguring potentially devastating consequences for the Bush White House. While Rice initially denied it, her spokesman confirmed that a meeting took place on that date, although Rice continues to plead a memory lapse. And as the news that Rice wasn’t the only one privy to this briefing leaks out, a veritable epidemic of amnesia seems to be breaking out in Washington.

Less than two months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft stopped taking commercial domestic flights, and started chartering government jets for all his travels. Now why was that? In the wake of the attacks, so-called “conspiracy theorists” immediately glommed on to this information and hailed it as evidence that 9/11 was “an inside job.” Now we know that the conspiracy theorists were on to something, although not exactly what they imagined.

According to a report in the McClatchy newspapers, within a week of Rice’s brushoff of the CIA’s alarum,

“Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and former Attorney General John Ashcroft received the same CIA briefing about an imminent al-Qaeda strike on an American target that was given to the White House two months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.”

Although Ashcroft is telling the media “that it was ‘disappointing’ that he never received the briefing, either,” Rice’s office, besides confirming she’d been briefed “on or around July 10,” also confirmed passing it on to Ashcroft and Rumsfeld. Both were presented with an explicit warning – described by one CIA officer present as “a 10 on a scale of 1-to-10″ – “by July 17.” A week or so later, as CBS reported at the time, Ashcroft’s office announced that he would henceforth abjure traveling on commercial airlines. A week earlier his office had leased a jet, and the authorities were explaining his decision in terms of a “threat” that went unspecified:

“‘There was a threat assessment and there are guidelines. He is acting under the guidelines,’ an FBI spokesman said. Neither the FBI nor the Justice Department, however, would identify what the threat was, when it was detected, or who made it.”

Ashcroft himself explicitly denied any knowledge of imminent danger:

“‘I don’t do threat assessments myself and I rely on those whose responsibility it is in the law enforcement community, particularly the FBI. And I try to stay within the guidelines that they’ve suggested I should stay within for those purposes,’ Ashcroft said.

“Asked if he knew anything about the threat or who might have made it, the attorney general replied, ‘Frankly, I don’t. That’s the answer.’”

Ashcroft was lying then, and he’s lying now when he denies receiving Tenet’s warning. He knew everything about the threat and who had made it. The McClatchy report describes the Tenet briefing as a PowerPoint presentation that “connected the dots” and urgently predicted al-Qaeda would strike soon. Woodward writes that Tenet and Black tried to impress upon Rice that “al-Qaeda was going to attack American interests, possibly within the United States itself.”

Tenet and Black were given “the brush-off,” as Woodward puts it, but as the CIA duo’s dire premonition of what Tenet called “the big one” was communicated to Bush’s inner circle, one doubts that only Ashcroft took precautions. While the rest of us peons went about our lives in ignorant bliss, the warlords of Washington ducked and covered.

What is illuminating about this developing story is that it reveals the essential context in which 9/11 occurred, and how it contradicts the “it-came-out-of-the-sheer-blue-sky” explanation that frames the official narrative. The Tenet briefing, of course, never made it into the report of the 9/11 Commission. Both Richard Ben-Veniste, a top Democratic member of the bipartisan Commission, and Philip Zelikow, the author of the Commission’s report, met with Tenet and saw the same PowerPoint presentation viewed by Rice, Ashcroft, and Rumsfeld. According to the McClatchy report,

“Tenet outlined to commission members Ben-Veniste and Zelikow in secret testimony at CIA headquarters. The State Department confirmed that the briefing materials were ‘made available to the 9/11 Commission, and Director Tenet was asked about this meeting when interviewed by the 9/11 Commission.’”

Tenet, however, tells a different story. Citing multiple sources within the intelligence community, the McClatchy piece avers that

“Tenet raised the matter with the panel himself, displayed slides from the PowerPoint presentation, and offered to testify on the matter in public.

“Ben-Veniste confirmed to McClatchy Newspapers that Tenet outlined for the 9/11 commission the July 10 briefing to Rice in secret testimony in January 2004. He referred questions about why the commission omitted any mention of the briefing in its report to Zelikow, the report’s main author. Zelikow didn’t respond to e-mail and telephone queries from McClatchy Newspapers.”

Surely Zelikow has some explaining to do, but this yawning gap in the official narrative isn’t so inexplicable given his ideological background. A strong supporter of the neoconservative foreign policy agenda, Zelikow is very close to Rice, having co-authored a book with her. She had him rewrite the original National Security Strategy authored by Richard Haass, to emphasize the neocon commitment to the principle of brazen aggression, otherwise known as “preemption.”

Zelikow’s closeness to the administration was immediately seized on by the families of 9/11 victims as a gigantic conflict of interest. A serious academic, he is also a bit of an odd duck who has been unusually candid about what he calls the real “unspoken” agenda behind the Bush’s administration’s rush to war with Iraq: the “defense” of Israel. Unlike others who have made this same observation, however, he has not been accused of hatching “conspiracy theories” or smeared as “anti-Semitic.” In a piece he co-authored for Foreign Affairs in the winter of 1998, Zelikow wrote of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center that, if it had succeeded on a larger scale,

“The resulting horror and chaos would have exceeded our ability to describe it. Such an act of catastrophic terrorism would be a watershed event in American history. It could involve loss of life and property unprecedented in peacetime and undermine America’s fundamental sense of security, as did the Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949. Like Pearl Harbor, the event would divide our past and future into a before and after. The United States might respond with draconian measures scaling back civil liberties, allowing wider surveillance of citizens, detention of suspects, and use of deadly force. More violence could follow, either future terrorist attacks or U.S. counterattacks. Belatedly, Americans would judge their leaders negligent for not addressing terrorism more urgently.”

Having anticipated well in advance the judgment of negligence, incompetence, and worse pronounced on this administration, Zelikow did his best to cover up the evidence. It wasn’t good enough, however, and the official story is rapidly unraveling. The question now is, what did they know, who knew, and when did they know it?

The level of “chatter” picked up by our intelligence agencies prior to 9/11 kept Tenet up at night and energized him enough to go charging into Condi Rice’s office, without notice, with a warning so urgent it couldn’t wait a moment longer. Yet he and his fellow CIA officers ran up against a brick wall of, at best, indifference on the part of Condi, as well as Rumsfeld’s outright obstructionism. Rumsfeld is said to have disdained the idea that a serious plot was afoot. Woodward writes:

“Tenet has been having difficulty getting traction on an immediate bin Laden action plan, in part because Rumsfeld has questioned all the NSA intercepts and other intelligence. Could all this be a grand deception? Rumsfeld had asked. Perhaps it was a plan to measure U.S. reactions and defenses. Tenet had the NSA review all the intercepts. They concluded they were genuine al-Qaeda communications. On June 30 a TOP SECRET senior executive intelligence brief contained an article headlined, ‘Bin Laden Threats Are Real.’”

Incompetence on this scale is hard to imagine. Aside from the pigheadedness we have come to know and loathe in Rumsfeld and our commander in chief, and the tendency of government officials – and any sort of bureaucracy – to move slowly and uncertainly, preoccupied by questions of turf and intramural politics, there is perhaps another and more troubling explanation for why we didn’t catch on to what was happening.

Yes, the administration was indeed distracted from real threats, focused as they were on the nonexistent “threat” from Iraq. However, these factors alone do not fully explain how, with all the “noise” emanating from intelligence sources – relayed directly and urgently to the White House by Tenet and others – they managed to miss the rising flood tide of indications that something wicked this way comes. The long trail of “errors” and “intelligence failures” smacks just as much of willful blindness as it does of monumental incompetence. An element of deliberate obstruction, on some level, of Tenet’s lonely crusade to get the administration to do something, makes a certain amount of sense: after all, the sheer mass of evidence that something was afoot suggests a considerable effort to downplay or suppress it. There were forces working against Tenet, Black, and the CIA – but who were they, and what were their motives?

What all this suggests is that the U.S. government had been successfully infiltrated on some level. And it wasn’t some obscure “conspiracy theorist” but New York Times columnist William Safire, who, two days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, first reported al-Qaeda’s success in penetrating the most closely-guarded secrets of the U.S. government:

“A threatening message received by the Secret Service was relayed to the agents with the president that ‘Air Force One is next.’ According to the high official, American code words were used showing a knowledge of procedures that made the threat credible.

“(I have a second, on-the-record source about that: Karl Rove, the president’s senior adviser, tells me: ‘When the president said “I don’t want some tinhorn terrorists keeping me out of Washington,” the Secret Service informed him that the threat contained language that was evidence that the terrorists had knowledge of his procedures and whereabouts. In light of the specific and credible threat, it was decided to get airborne with a fighter escort.’)”

Although the White House later backtracked and tried to claim that no such threat was made, I’d go with the first story simply because such an elaborate lie seems unlikely – especially one that makes them look bad. And if al-Qaeda could gain access to super-secret code words and acquire specific knowledge of the security procedures attending the president as well as his exact whereabouts, then surely they had penetrated the U.S. government in some way, shape, or form – perhaps with the aid of a cooperative foreign intelligence agency. At any rate, in this context it is not unreasonable to posit a fifth column operating inside the U.S. government, feeding vital information to the terrorists – and fiercely obstructing Tenet and the CIA from gaining the favorable attention of our addled president and his inner circle.

In this sense, then, it could be said that 9/11 was an “inside job,” not because the WTC was felled by “controlled demolition,” as the wackos assert, and not because we bombed ourselves on 9/11, but because the plot couldn’t have succeeded without some form of outside assistance. Whether this was from a foreign intelligence agency, al-Qaeda spies placed deep inside the national security bureaucracy, or perhaps both, is a matter of pure speculation, but it seems to me that, when it comes to 9/11, the whole question of foreknowledge is now becoming a vitally important question.

This opens up a fascinating investigative trail that leads directly to all sorts of interesting reports – in particular this four-part report from Carl Cameron of Fox News – just as credible as Woodward’s journalism, that bear some looking into. Antiwar.com has been in the lead on this issue from Day One, and I have even written a short book on the subject of which intelligence agencies were likely to have stumbled across the 9/11 terrorist plot in the making – and might have been sympathetic to the conspirators’ aims, if not their motives. This is the great unexplored aspect of the biggest terrorist attack in our history. When the report by the joint Senate and House Intelligence Committees on intelligence-gathering efforts was released in highly redacted form, Sen. Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Select Committee, told PBS’ Gwen Ifill:

Yes, going back to your question about what was the greatest surprise. I agree with what Senator Shelby said the degree to which agencies were not communicating was certainly a surprise but also I was surprised at the evidence that there were foreign governments involved in facilitating the activities of at least some of the terrorists in the United States.”

Sure, the Bush administration was in a state of denial when it came to realistically assessing the terrorist threat, and they are in a similar state when it comes to the effect our foreign policy – specifically the Iraq war – has on our fight to eradicate that threat. The real problem, however, is that we are all enmeshed in multiple states of denial, blocked from going down certain paths of investigation by taboos against “conspiracism” and “revisionism” that preclude all but a highly sanitized – and unsatisfactory – version of the 9/11 story.

Yet “revisionism” is inherent in the study of history, or, indeed, the study of anything: as we do not have perfect knowledge, we are constantly revising and updating our views in light of new information. Revisionism is the opposite of dogmatism, which carves the “accepted” version in stone even before all the facts are in.

In any event, the cause of 9/11 revisionism, which I have touted in the past, has been given a major boost by Woodward’s chronicle of the pre-attack struggle between the intelligence professionals who tried to prevent disaster and those politicians and apparatchiks who stood in their way. He has given us plenty of fresh clues as to where the bodies are buried, and the debunking of the “official” story proceeds apace.

Read more by Justin Raimondo