Condi Rice vs. Bob Woodward: Let the Battle Begin
Sunday 01 October 2006
Why are we only learning now about meeting, two months before 9/11, in which Condoleezza Rice was warned, in no uncertain terms, that a terrorist attack on the US was near at hand? Now she disputes the account in the Woodward book. If it's accurate, will she resign?
While it was overlooked at first in the torrent of revelations related to Iraq in the new Bob Woodward book, "State of Denial," his bombshell account of a previously unknown warning about terror attacks on the U.S. just before 9/11, delivered to Condoleezza Rice in a meeting, seems equally significant. Now Rice is disputing the account.
Woodward stuck to his guns on the Today show on Monday, stating, "I did the interviewing on it," and pointing to a key on-the-record quote by the chief CIA counter-terrorism official. Now, if his story holds up, will she resign?
Late Monday, the State Department announced that a review of White House records had determined that, indeed, George Tenet, then CIA director, did brief Rice on July 10, 2001 about the looming threat from al-Qaeda. Rice has said she does not recall such a meeting, or as she put it, "the emergency so-called meeting."
Also on Monday, The New York Times reported that some 9/11 Commission members are alarmed that they were never told about this warning. Timothy J. Roemer, a member of the commission, told the Times, "I'm deeply disturbed by this. I'm furious." NBC reports that Tenet was privately questioned about the meeting by two members of the 9/11 Commission panel but some commissioners, the Times noted, question "whether information about the July 10 meeting was intentionally withheld from the panel." It did not show up in the official report.
Finally, late Monday, McClatchy's Washington bureau reported that a week after the July 10, 2001, meeting, other top officials, including Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, got the same briefing.
A few years ago, President Bush, refering to Osama bin Laden, told Woodward for one of his previous books: "I have no hesitancy about going after him, but I didn't feel that sense of urgency and my blood was not nearly as boiling. Whose blood was nearly as boiling prior to September 11?" We now know, thanks to the new Woodward book, that two months before 9/11, Tenet and his counter-terrorism chief, J. Cofer Black, did feel their "blood boiling," but Rice, in an urgent meeting they called, brushed them off - about a coming attack on U.S. soil.
Responding to the Woodward book, Rice (who was en route to Saudi Arabia) told The Washington Post for Monday's edition that she did not recall the meeting but added, "What I am quite certain of, however, is that I would remember if I was told-as this account apparently says-that there was about to be an attack in the United States. The idea that I would somehow have ignored that I find incomprehensible."
According to an AP account, she also said, "It kind of doesn't ring true that you have to shock me into something I was very involved in."
So, if the story is confirmed - Woodward's track record is strong - Rice should quit. But let's see what Tenet and Black and any documents say in the days ahead.
My check of her testimony before the 9/11 Commission in 2004 reveals that not only did Rice not disclose this meeting with the two men - she also gave misleading information about the level of threats to the homeland that she learned about that summer.
How do we square Black's account (in the Woodward book) of that July 10, 2001, meeting - "The only thing we didn't do was pull the trigger to the gun we were holding to her head" - and Rice's statement to the 9/11 Commission, "There was no threat reporting of any substance about an attack coming in the United States"?
The Woodward book describes how, on that July day, Tenet met with Black at CIA headquarters. Black laid out the case, consisting of intercepts and other top-secret intelligence showing the increasing likelihood that al-Qaeda would soon attack the United States: "The mass of fragments made a compelling case, so compelling to Tenet that he decided he and Black should go to the White House immediately."
Tenet urgently called Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser. "Tenet and Black hoped to convey the depth of their anxiety and get Rice to kick-start the government into immediate action," Woodward writes. "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."
Woodward describes the meeting, and the two officials' plea that the U.S. "needed to take action that moment - covert, military, whatever - to thwart bin Laden." The result? "Tenet and Black felt they were not getting through to Rice. She was polite, but they felt the brush-off .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....
"Afterward, Tenet looked back on the meeting with Rice as a lost opportunity to prevent or disrupt the attacks. Rice could have gotten through to Bush on the threat, Tenet thought, but she just didn't get it in time. Black later said, 'The only thing we didn't do was pull the trigger to the gun we were holding to her head.'"
In a story yesterday, the Post's Peter Baker revealed: "The July 10 meeting of Rice, Tenet and Black went unmentioned in various investigations into the Sept. 11 attacks .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 . 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."
Now, what about Rice's testimony to the 9/11 Commission? Rice not only did not mention the July 10 meeting, but insisted that all or nearly all warnings about impending terrorist activity concerned attacks outside the country, not within our borders. She said this multiple times.
Her other main defense was that there was a 'structural' problem that prevented direct and clear communication between agencies and up the chain of command. Yet nothing could have been more clear and direct than the July 10, 2001, meeting.
"We had a structural problem in the United States," Rice testified, "and that structural problem was that we did not share domestic and foreign intelligence in a way to make a product for policymakers, for good reasons - for legal reasons, for cultural reasons - a product that people could depend upon."
Rice also said, "I've asked myself a thousand times what more we could have done." She said if she knew an attack was coming, "we would have moved heaven and earth to try and stop it. And I know that there was no single thing that might have prevented that attack .
"In hindsight, if anything might have helped stop 9/11, it would have been better information about threats inside the United States." Of course, to get that started, she might have let Richard Clarke brief the president, or - something.
Instead, Rice declared, "I think it is really quite unfair to suggest that something that was a threat spike in June or July gave you the kind of opportunity to make the changes in air security that could have been - that needed to be made."
Some of the most revealing passages in her 2004 public testimony before the 9/11 Commission came in exchanges with Roemer. Here are some highlights.
Roemer: I don't understand, given the big threat, why the big principals don't get together. The principals meet 33 times in seven months, on Iraq, on the Middle East, on missile defense, China, on Russia. Not once do the principals ever sit down - you, in your job description as the national security advisor, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the president of the United States - and meet solely on terrorism to discuss in the spring and the summer, when these threats are coming in, when you've known since the transition that al Qaeda cells are in the United States, when, as the PDB said on August 6, bin Laden determined to attack the United States.
Why don't the principals at that point say, "Let's all talk about this, let's get the biggest people together in our government and discuss what this threat is and try to get our bureaucracies responding to it"?
Rice: Once again, on the August 6 memorandum to the president, this was not threat-reporting about what was about to happen. This was an analytic piece Mr. Roemer, threat reporting is: "We believe that something is going to happen here and at this time, under these circumstances." This was not threat reporting.
Roemer: Well, actionable intelligence, Dr. Rice, is when you have the place, time and date. The threat reporting saying the United States is going to be attacked should trigger the principals getting together to say we're going to do something about this, I would think.
Rice: Mr. Roemer, let's be very clear. The PDB does not say the United States is going to be attacked. It says bin Laden would like to attack the United States. I don't think you, frankly, had to have that report to know that bin Laden would like to attack the United States.
Roemer: So why aren't you doing something about that earlier than August 6?
Rice: The threat reporting to which we could respond was in June and July about threats abroad. What we tried to do for - just because people said you cannot rule out an attack on the United States, was to have the domestic agencies and the FBI together to just pulse them and have them be on alert .
Roemer: So, Dr. Rice, let's say that the FBI is the key here. You say that the FBI was tasked with trying to find out what the domestic threat was. We have done thousands of interviews here at the 9/11 Commission. We've gone through literally millions of pieces of paper. To date, we have found nobody - nobody at the FBI who knows anything about a tasking of field offices.
We have talked to the director at the time of the FBI during this threat period, Mr. Pickard. He says he did not tell the field offices to do this.
And we have talked to the special agents in charge. They don't have any recollection of receiving a notice of threat.
Nothing went down the chain to the FBI field offices on spiking of information, on knowledge of al Qaeda in the country, and still, the FBI doesn't do anything.
Isn't that some of the responsibility of the national security advisor?
Rice: The responsibility for the FBI to do what it was asked was the FBI's responsibility. Now, I...
Roemer: You don't think there's any responsibility back to the advisor to the president...
Rice: I believe that the responsibility - again, the crisis management here was done by the CSG. They tasked these things. If there was any reason to believe that I needed to do something or that Andy Card needed to do something, I would have been expected to be asked to do it. We were not asked to do it. In fact, as I've...
Roemer: But don't you ask somebody to do it? You're not asking somebody to do it. Why wouldn't you initiate that?
Rice: Mr. Roemer, I was responding to the threat spike and to where the information was. The information was about what might happen in the Persian Gulf, what might happen in Israel, what might happen in North Africa. We responded to that, and we responded vigorously.