Bush Officials and 9/11: They Had a Plan

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PAUL J. RICHARDS / AFP / Getty Images

President George W. Bush is informed by chief of staff Andrew Card of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City during an early-morning event at a school in Sarasota, Fla., on Sept. 11, 2001

Reporter Kurt Eichenwald has new details in the New York Times today about the blindness and inaction of the George W. Bush Administration in the run-up to 9/11. In addition to the well-known Aug. 6 presidential daily brief titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,” Eichenwald reports on previously unknown CIA warnings given to the President and his top advisers based on confirmed intelligence from the field.

There has been a lot of reporting over the years about then CIA chief George Tenet running around Washington with his hair on fire during the summer of 2001 trying to express just how dangerous he thought the situation was. The response from Bush Administration officials has been that there was not much new information by which they could do anything about the impending attack. Then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and others have said that repeated warnings came with no actionable intelligence the White House could use to diminish the threat and that eventually the White House became inured to Tenet’s warnings.

Eichenwald shows that there were in fact a few details emerging from the field during the summer of 2001 that could have spurred action. More important, while no single piece of information by itself was actionable, there was plenty the Administration could have been doing to disrupt the plot without knowing the specifics of time and place. We first detailed the plan available to the Bush Administration back in 2002.

(PHOTOS: Eleven Years Later, New York Reflects on the Tragedy of 9/11)

As she took control of the National Security Council in the first week of January 2001, Rice received a lengthy and carefully crafted plan from then NSC senior counterterrorism director Richard Clarke designed to “roll back” al-Qaeda worldwide. Clarke had been working on the plan since the brazen al-Qaeda attack against the U.S.S. Cole, and made his pitch with a lengthy PowerPoint presentation, according to TIME’s Aug. 12, 2002, cover story:

Clarke’s proposals called for the “breakup” of al-Qaeda cells and the arrest of their personnel. The financial support for its terrorist activities would be systematically attacked, its assets frozen, its funding from fake charities stopped. Nations where al-Qaeda was causing trouble — Uzbekistan, the Philippines, Yemen — would be given aid to fight the terrorists. Most important, Clarke wanted to see a dramatic increase in covert action in Afghanistan to “eliminate the sanctuary” where al-Qaeda had its terrorist training camps and bin Laden was being protected by the radical Islamic Taliban regime … Clarke supported a substantial increase in American support for the Northern Alliance, the last remaining resistance to the Taliban. That way, terrorists graduating from the training camps would have been forced to stay in Afghanistan, fighting (and dying) for the Taliban on the front lines. At the same time, the U.S. military would start planning for air strikes on the camps and for the introduction of special-operations forces into Afghanistan. The plan was estimated to cost “several hundreds of millions of dollars.” In the words of a senior Bush Administration official, the proposals amounted to “everything we’ve done since 9/11.”

Throughout the spring and summer of 2001, the NSC leadership, including Rice and her deputy Stephen Hadley, slow-walked the plan through the interagency, which is shorthand for the NSC-chaired process through which different agencies clarify potential policies before setting up decisions by the principles, including in some cases the President. The Clarke plan didn’t receive its first dedicated meeting until April 2001. It was eventually approved by the Bush NSC the day before 9/11 and became the post-9/11 battle plan that has been followed to this day.

Eichenwald suggests that an early focus on Iraq contributed to the Bush Administration’s disregard for the terrorist threat. In fact, of the other agenda items that crowded out counterterrorism in the first nine months of 2001, abrogating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia was much more of a factor than Saddam Hussein and Iraq. The top strategic priority of Bush’s national-security team, many of whose members had come of age during Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars push, was focused on developing and deploying missile defense.

That said, the ludicrous, bizarre and discredited neo-conservative theory that Osama bin Laden and Saddam were inextricably linked did have credence in the White House and did shade its thinking and priorities: near his desk, Hadley had a copy of Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein’s Unfinished War Against America by Laurie Mylroie, which served as the urtext for Iraq–al-Qaeda conspiracy theorists at the time.