Meetings and Battle Stations

I’m beginning to better understand what Richard Clarke meant when he talked about the importance of high level meetings during high threat periods. The latest piece of this unforunate puzzle comes in today’s NYT:

George J. Tenet and his deputies at the Central Intelligence Agency were presented in August 2001 with a briefing paper labeled “Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly” about the arrest days earlier of Zacarias Moussaoui, but did not act on the information, the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks said on Wednesday.

An interim report by the panel’s staff offered a stinging assessment of the C.I.A. under Mr. Tenet’s leadership and was made public during a hearing at which Mr. Tenet disclosed that he had little contact with President Bush during much of the summer of 2001, a period when intelligence agencies were warning of a dire terrorist threat.

Let’s suppose that Bush and Tenet actually had a meeting in August, particularly on August 6th. Here’s how it might have played out:

BUSH: George, today’s PDB is titled “Bin Laden determined to strike in US.” It mentions “bring the fighting to America,” Al Qaeda members who “have resided in or traveled to the U.S. for years,” hijackings, “recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York,” and “attacks with explosives.” What’s your assessment of the risk we’re facing?

TENET: Did you say hijackings?

BUSH: Yes.

TENET: That’s an interesting coincidence. A briefing just crossed my desk the other day warning that an Islamic extremist is taking flying lessons. I wonder if the two are related? And why would a hijacker need flying lessons?

Now, there’s a lot of speculation in this. For example, the NYT only reports that the “Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly” memo was presented in August, not whether it was presented before or after August 6th. Still, if Tenet had seen the Aug. 6th PDB and received the flying lessons memo shortly thereafter, it still seems likely that he would have made a connection. It’s also unclear whether Tenet personally read the flying lessons memo; still, the NYT story makes it seem nearly certain that at least one of his deputies did. Would those deputies be included in a “Principals Meeting”? I’m not sure, but if so, there’s yet another chance for a connection to be made.

What if a connection had been made? At that point we would hope for some “shaking of the trees,” including disseminating warnings throughout the intelligence bureacracy to watch for and report all instances of potential extremists taking flying lessons (ideally, to Clarke, Tenet, and acting FBI Director Pickard.) The extremist in question was Zacarias Moussaoui, who had raised the suspicions of the FBI’s Minneapolis field office. As FBI agent Collen Rowley recounts in detail, her field office was unable to get FBI headquarters to act:

The fact is that key FBIHQ personnel whose job it was to assist and coordinate with field division agents on terrorism investigations and the obtaining and use of FISA searches (and who theoretically were privy to many more sources of intelligence information than field division agents), continued to, almost inexplicably5 throw up roadblocks and undermine Minneapolis’ by-now desperate efforts to obtain a FISA search warrant, long after the French intelligence service provided its information and probable cause became clear. HQ personnel brought up almost ridiculous questions in their apparent efforts to undermine the probable cause. In all of their conversations and correspondence, HQ personnel never disclosed to the Minneapolis agents that the Phoenix Division had, only approximately three weeks earlier, warned of Al Qaeda operatives in flight schools seeking flight training for terrorist purposes!

Moreover, were the trees being shaken, somewhat might have recalled the 7/10/2001 memo from FBI agent Kenneth Williams:

The purpose of this communication is to advise the Bureau and New York of the posssibility of a coordinated effort by USAMA BIN LADEN (UBL) to send students to the United States to attend civil aviation universites and colleges.

… these individuals will be in a position in the future to conduct terror activity against civil aviation targets.

Would regular meetings between Tenet and Bush in August of 2001 have lead to someone connecting the dots? It’s impossible to say with any certainty. But it would have been substantially more likely.

And in his testimony, Clarke even explained what went wrong and how it could have gone otherwise:

BEN-VENISTE: Well, the FBI was a principal agency upon which you had to rely, is that not the case?

CLARKE: It is.

BEN-VENISTE: Now, with respect to what you were told — you were the principal coordinator for counterterrorism for the chief executive flowing up and down through you, correct?

CLARKE: Yes, sir.

BEN-VENISTE: Did you know that the two individuals who had been identified as Al Qaida had entered the United States and were presently thought to be in the country?

CLARKE: I was not informed of that, nor were senior levels of the FBI.

BEN-VENISTE: Had you known that these individuals were in the country, what steps, with the benefit of hindsight, but informed hindsight, would you have taken, given the level of threat?

CLARKE: To put the answer in context, I had been saying to the FBI and to the other federal law enforcement agencies and to the CIA that because of this intelligence that something was about to happen that they should lower their threshold of reporting, that they should tell us anything that looked the slightest bit unusual.

In retrospect, having said that over and over again to them, for them to have had this information somewhere in the FBI and not told to me, I still find absolutely incomprehensible.

BEN-VENISTE: And I will have to end it here although I’d like to go further. Was the information with respect to Moussaoui and his erratic behavior in flight school ever communicated to you?

CLARKE: Not to me.

BEN-VENISTE: Given the fact that there was a body of information with respect to the use of planes as weapons within the intelligence community’s knowledge, had you received information about Moussaoui training to fly a commercial airplane? Would that have had some impact on the kind of efforts which might be made to protect commercial aviation?

CLARKE: I don’t know. The information to which you refer, information in the intelligence community’s knowledge about Al Qaida having thought of using aircraft as weapons, that information was old relatively speaking — five years, six years old — hadn’t reoccurred to my knowledge during those five or six years — and has to be placed — to give the intelligence community a break — it has to be placed in the context of the other intelligence reports.

CLARKE: The volume of intelligence reports on this kind of thing, on Al Qaida threats and other terrorist threats, was in the tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands over the course of the five or six years.

Now, in retrospect, to go back and find a report six years earlier that said perhaps they were going to use aircraft as weapons, it’s easy to do now. But I think the intelligence community analysts can be forgiven for not thinking about it given the fact that they hadn’t seen a lot in the five or six years intervening about it and that there were so many reports about so many other things.

BEN-VENISTE: And yet — with your indulgence, Mr. Chairman…

KEAN: Short indulgence.

BEN-VENISTE: And yet, an FAA advisory went out. The FAA advised on the potential for domestic hijackings.

CLARKE: I asked them to.

BEN-VENISTE: And had you known on top of that that there was a jihadist who was identified, apprehended in the United States before 9/11 who was in flight school acting erratically…

CLARKE: I would like to think, sir, that even without the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I could have connected those dots.

Once again, it’s speculative to say that 9/11 could have been prevented, but regular top-level meetings would have made it much more likely. Rice may have been right when she said that “there was no silver bullet that could have prevented” the 9/11 attack; instead it looks increasingly like a clip full of regular lead bullets might have done the job.