What conclusions may be drawn from the media furor over the question of how much President Bush “knew” prior to September 11th? That is, beyond the obvious. The media love nothing better than a scandal, especially one involving Republicans, and the Democrats thought they saw a chink in the President’s popularity?
Ultimately, President George W. Bush should conclude that he was poorly served by his intelligence and law enforcement team and perhaps even his National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice. With the exception of Rice, it is a sad fact that this team was composed almost entirely of Clinton administration holdovers or career bureaucrats promoted by these holdovers. That story has been completely ignored by the mainstream media and even the conservative media have sought to shift blame back onto Clinton without revealing that it was the Bush administration that kept many of these appointees on board.
The President was evidently asking the right questions of his intelligence chief, Clinton political appointee George Tenet. Tenet’s morning briefings to the President had been focused on terrorist threats to US targets abroad; Bush is said to have explicitly asked Tenet about domestic threats from al Qaeda and others.
From media accounts thus far, it seems that the President was poorly served by those providing “answers” to his questions. Tenet, as the Director of Central Intelligence, had the authority to reach out to all agencies within his domain, including the FBI, to gather information for this briefing. But Tenet jealously guards his turf and has maintained the morning brief as an “in-house” CIA flagship product.
That briefing is said to have included references to bin Laden and domestic hijacking, but provided no specifics and no warning. For months the administration has claimed that no one could have anticipated the events of 9/11. But what about the 1999 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, which did “warn” of hijackers flying airliners into skyscrapers? There is exactly one reference in the report to al Qaeda suicide bombers crashing an airliner “packed with high explosives (C-4 or Semtex) in the Pentagon, the headquarters of CIA, or the White House.” Given its overall content?a “literature review” of the sociology and psychology of terrorism?the report was almost certainly filed and forgotten, even by its sponsors.
And what about Project Bojinka, Ramzi Yousef’s plot to hijack airliners and blow them up or fly them into skyscrapers? Project Bojinka, first uncovered in 1995, was treated as a law enforcement matter, the approach adopted by the Clinton administration to fight international terrorism. When Yousef and his co-conspirators were sentenced to life in prison, the FBI chalked up Bojinka as a win. Forgotten were the other parts of the plan, including those featuring September 11th-like attacks on the World Trade Center. How much CIA actually knew about Bojinka is unknown, but Philippine authorities have said they shared all their information with both the FBI and CIA. Bojinka was discussed in the foreign media, but the CIA is well-known to pay little attention to “open sources.”
FBI Special Agent Kenneth Williams wrote a memo urging the Bureau to look into the presence of Arabs in U.S. civilian aviation schools. The memo was transmitted to FBI Headquarters on July 10, a few days after former Director Louis Freeh resigned, where it came under the jurisdiction of Neil Gallagher, Assistant Director, National Security (NSD) and Dale Watson, Chief of the International Terrorism Section, NSD, both Freeh appointees. The memo was sent to New York, the headquarters of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, but apparently not out to the Counter-Terrorism Center at Langley, an interagency group which includes FBI agents. No action was taken by the Clinton appointees on the memo.
The bottom line of all this is that Bush was poorly served by those he must rely on to get him the very best information and assessments in a timely and useful fashion. Save for Rice, every one of those people is a holdover from the Clinton administration. There was no transition or changes in personnel at CIA when the new administration took office. Likewise at the FBI, where Freeh and his handpicked deputies were kept on with no changes. The President got bad advice from those urging him to keep them on.
The results of that advice were there for all to see on September 11th.