State of Denial: Two months before 9/11, Rice gave the 'brush-off' to 'impending terrorist attack' warning

Ron Brynaert
Published: Saturday September 30, 2006

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(Update: Former Counsel to the 9/11 Commission suggests that "[v]ery possibly, someone committed a crime" by engaging in a "cover-up" of the warning)

According to a new book written by Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward, two months before the September 11 attacks, then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice gave the "brush-off" to an "impending terrorist attack" warning by former C.I.A. director George J. Tenet and his counterterrorism coordinator.

An article in Friday's New York Times first mentioned the warning, and a front page book review of Woodward's State of Denial in Saturday's edition provides more details.

"On July 10, 2001, the book says, Mr. Tenet and his counterterrorism chief, J. Cofer Black, met with Ms. Rice at the White House to impress upon her the seriousness of the intelligence the agency was collecting about an impending attack," David E. Sanger reported on Friday. "But both men came away from the meeting feeling that Ms. Rice had not taken the warnings seriously."

Sanger also reported that Tenet told Woodward that before 9/11, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was "impeding" efforts to catch Osama bin Laden.

"Mr. Woodward writes that in the weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Tenet believed that Mr. Rumsfeld was impeding the effort to develop a coherent strategy to capture or kill Osama bin Laden," wrote Sanger. "Mr. Rumsfeld questioned the electronic signals from terrorism suspects that the National Security Agency had been intercepting, wondering whether they might be part of an elaborate deception plan by Al Qaeda."

Saturday's New York Times review claims that in Woodward's book, Rice "is depicted as a presidential enabler, ineffectual at her job of coordinating interagency strategy and planning."

"For instance, Mr. Woodward writes that on July 10, 2001, Mr. Tenet and his counterterrorism coordinator, J. Cofer Black, met with Ms. Rice to warn her of mounting intelligence about an impending terrorist attack, but came away feeling they’d been given 'the brush-off' — a revealing encounter, given Ms. Rice’s recent comments, rebutting former President Bill Clinton’s allegations that the Bush administration had failed to pursue counterterrorism measures aggressively before 9/11," writes Michiko Kakutani.

Saturday's Washington Post has more details regarding the meeting.

"The book also reports that then-CIA Director George J. Tenet and his counterterrorism chief, J. Cofer Black, grew so concerned in the summer of 2001 about a possible al-Qaeda attack that they drove straight to the White House to get high-level attention," Peter Baker reports for the Post.

"Tenet called Rice, then the national security adviser, from his car to ask to see her, in hopes that the surprise appearance would make an impression. But the meeting on July 10, 2001, left Tenet and Black frustrated and feeling brushed off, Woodward reported," the article continues. "Rice, they thought, did not seem to feel the same sense of urgency about the threat and was content to wait for an ongoing policy review."

Excerpts from Post article:


The report of such a meeting takes on heightened importance after former president Bill Clinton said this week that the Bush team did not do enough to try to kill Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said her husband would have paid more attention to warnings of a possible attack than Bush did. Rice fired back on behalf of the current president, saying the Bush administration "was at least as aggressive" in eight months as President Clinton had been in eight years.

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."



'This is going to be the big one'

Another Post article slated for Sunday's edition provides even more details.

"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," the uncredited Post article reports. "Perhaps a dramatic appearance -- Black called it an 'out of cycle' session, beyond Tenet's regular weekly meeting with Rice -- would get her attention."

J. Cofer Black later said that "[t]he only thing we didn't do was pull the trigger to the gun we were holding to her head."

Excerpts from Sunday's Post article:


Tenet had been losing sleep over the recent intelligence. There was no conclusive, smoking-gun intelligence, but there was such a huge volume of data that an intelligence officer's instinct strongly suggested that something was coming.

He did not know when, where or how, but Tenet felt there was too much noise in the intelligence systems. Two weeks earlier, he had told Richard A. Clarke, the National Security Council's counterterrorism director: "It's my sixth sense, but I feel it coming. This is going to be the big one."

But Tenet had been having difficulty getting traction on an immediate bin Laden action plan, in part because Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had questioned all the intelligence, asking: Could it all be a grand deception? Perhaps, he said, it was a plan to measure U.S. reactions and defenses.

Tenet had the National Security Agency review all the intercepts, and the agency concluded they were of genuine al-Qaeda communications. On June 30, a top-secret senior executive intelligence brief contained an article headlined "Bin Laden Threats Are Real."


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.


An "editor's note" appended to the end of the article notes that "[h]ow 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,'" the editor's note continues.


'Very possibly, someone committed a crime'

Saturday night at Think Progress, former Counsel to the 9/11 Commission Peter Rundlet guest-blogged a post called "Bush Officials May Have Covered Up Rice-Tenet Meeting From 9/11 Commission."

"Most of the world has now seen the infamous picture of President Bush tending to his ranch on August 6, 2001, the day he received the ultra-classified Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) that included a report entitled 'Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US,'" Rundlet blogs. "And most Americans have also heard of the so-called 'Phoenix Memo' that an FBI agent in Phoenix sent to FBI headquarters on July 10, 2001, which advised of the 'possibility of a coordinated effort' by bin Laden to send students to the United States to attend civil aviation schools."

But Rundlet writes that a "mixture of shock, anger, and sadness overcame" him when he read about Tenet's "special surprise visit" to see Rice in July of 2001.

"If true, it is shocking that the administration failed to heed such an overwhelming alert from the two officials in the best position to know," writes Rundlet.

"Many, many questions need to be asked and answered about this revelation — questions that the 9/11 Commission would have asked, had the Commission been told about this significant meeting," adds Rundlet. "Suspiciously, the Commissioners and the staff investigating the administration’s actions prior to 9/11 were never informed of the meeting."

Rundlet suggests that the "withholding of information" from the Commission may constitute a crime, and scoffs at Cofer's excuse in Woodward's book.

"Was it covered up?" asks Rundlet. "It is hard to come to a different conclusion."

"If one could suspend disbelief to accept that all three officials forgot about the meeting when they were interviewed, then one possibility is that the memory of one of them was later jogged by notes or documents that describe the meeting," Rundlet continues. "If such documents exist, the 9/11 Commission should have seen them."

Rundlet quotes a line from Woodward's book which he says shows how "Black exonerates them all."

"Though the investigators had access to all the paperwork about the meeting, Black felt there were things the commissions wanted to know about and things they didn’t want to know about," wrote Woodward in the third volume of Bush at War.

"The notion that both the 9/11 Commission and the Congressional Joint Inquiry that investigated the intelligence prior to 9/11 did not want to know about such essential information is simply absurd," writes Rundlet. "At a minimum, the withholding of information about this meeting is an outrage."

"Very possibly, someone committed a crime," Rundlet concludes. "And worst of all, they failed to stop the plot."


White House: Five Key Myths in Book

On Saturday, the White House "went on the offensive," Caren Bohan reported for Reuters.

In the latest edition in its "Setting the Record Straight" series which uses official statements and media accounts it favors to counter articles in the press or Democratic arguments, the White House lists "Five Key Myths in Woodward's Book." The first "Setting the Record Straight" posted in February of 2005 took on a Washington Post article which reported that a Bush plan would result in participants forfeiting part of their retirement account profits, an assertion the White House blasted as "flat wrong."

To counter the third "myth," the White House presents the "fact" that "according to State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack, the recollections portrayed by Woodward do not reflect Tenet and Black's 9/11 Commission Testimony," then quotes from another Times article written by Sanger.

"But Rice and other State Department officials denied [Woodward's claim], noting that the report of the Sept. 11 commission, which had sworn testimony from Tenet and others at the meeting, made no mention of the July 10 encounter," wrote Sanger. "'The recollections as portrayed in the Woodward book in no way reflect the public and private testimony under oath of those individuals to the 9/11 commission,' said Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman."

The full list of "five myths" can be read at