The System Was Blinking Red

After spending only an hour or two with the report so far, Chapter 8 has become my favorite chapter. That’s because it seems to offer the most insight into whether and how the attacks might have been prevented. Chapter 8 describes the state of US intelligence reporting and government responses during the summer of 2001. During the first summer of Bush’s presidency (nearly half of which he spent on vacation in Texas) this is what was happening in Washington:

On June 25, Clarke warned Rice and Hadley that six separate intelligence reports showed al Qaeda personnel warning of a pending attack.

…On June 28, Clarke wrote Rice that the pattern of al Qaeda activity indicating attach planning over the past six weeks “had reached a crescendo.” …One al Qaeda intelligence report warned that something “very, very, very, very” big was about to happen, and most of Bin Laden’s network was reportedly anticipating the attack.

…The headline of a June 30 briefing to top officials was stark: “Bin Ladin Planning High-Profile Attacks.” The report stated that Bin Laden operatives expected near-term attacks to have dramatic consequences of catastrophic proportions.

…On July 5, representatives from the INS, FAA, Coast Guard, Secret Service, Customs, CIA, and FBI met with Clarke to discuss the current threat… That same day the CIA briefed Attorney General Ashcroft on the Al Qaeda threat, warning that a significant terrorist attack was imminent.

…The next day, the CIA representative told the CSG that al Qaeda members believed the upcoming attack would be “spectacular,” qualitatively different from anything they had done to date.

…In mid-July, reporting started to indicate that Bin Ladin’s plans had been delayed, maybe for as long as two months, but not abandoned… Tenet [said] that in his world “the system was blinking red.” By late July, Tenet said, it could not “get any worse”… On June 30, the SEIB contained an article titled “Bin Ladin Threats Are Real.” Yet Hadley told Tenet in July that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz questioned the reporting. Tenet replied that he had already addressed… questions on this point; the report was convincing. To give a sense of his anxiety at the time, one senior official in the Counterterrorist Center told us that he and a colleague were considering resigning in order to go public with their concerns.

…[T]he CIA decided to write a briefing article summarizing its understanding of this danger. Two CIA analysts involved in preparing this briefing article believed it represented an opportunity to communicate their view that the threat of a Bin Ladin attack in the United States remained both current and serious. The result was an article in the August 6 Presidential Daily Brief titled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US.” It was the 36th PDB item briefed so far that year that related to Bin Ladin or al Qaeda, and the first devoted to the possibility of an attack in the United States.

…Most of the intelligence community recognized in the summer of 2001 that the number and severity of threat reports were unprecedented. Many officials told us that they knew something terrible was planned, and they were desperate to stop it.

What was the Bush administration’s response? As we know, President Bush’s response was to spend a month on vacation in Texas. How about Attorney General Ashcroft, the man ultimately in charge of the FBI, INS, and numerous other law enforcement agencies?

Attorney General Ashcroft was briefed by the CIA in May and by [Acting FBI Director] Pickard in early July about the danger. Pickard said he met with Ashcroft once a week in late June, through July, and twice in August. There is a dispute regarding Ashcroft’s interest in Pickard’s briefings about the terrorist threat situation. Pickard told us that after two such briefings Ashcroft told him that he did not want to hear about the threats anymore. Ashcroft denies Pickard’s charge.

…The Attorney General told us he asked Pickard whether there was intelligence about attacks in the United States and that Pickard said no. Pickard said he replied that he could not assure Ashcroft that there would be no attacks in the United States, although the reports of threats were related to overseas targets. Ashcroft said he therefore assumed the FBI was doing what it needed to do. He acknowledged that in retrospect, this was a dangerous assumption. He did not ask the FBI what it was doing in response to the threats and did not task it to take any specific action.

Ashcroft may have actually been incompetent, not just making assumptions. On page 209 of Chapter 6 the commission gratuitously notes that Ashcroft faced a “steep learning curve” — which I interpret as a way for the Commission to say “Ashcroft was in over his head as Attorney General.” The depths of his ineptness are revealed on page 208 of the commission report, however. All of the information presented all summer long about the impending terrorist attack was apparently falling of deaf ears:

The Justice Department prepared a draft fiscal year 2003 budget that maintained but did not increase the funding level for counterterrorism in its pending fiscal year 2002 proposal. [Acting FBI director] Pickard appealed for more counterterrorism enhancements, an appeal the attorney general denied on September 10.

This is not new information. But the context that the commission report provides, with the long string of increasingly strident warnings about an impending attack, highlights how shocking Ashcroft’s indifference toward anti-terrorism efforts was. As far as I can tell so far, if there’s a single character in the report that looks culpably negligent, it’s Ashcroft.