Then this spring came the public hearings of the September 11 commission, and the revelations of just how much warning the president and his top aides had. They received briefings by alarmed members of the exiting Clinton administration; detailed memos from counter-terrorism officials requesting immediate action against al Qaeda; “hair on fire” alerts delivered personally to the president by CIA director George Tenet; and a now-famous Aug. 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) titled “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in the US.”
And yet none of these warnings seemed to have made much of an impression on the Bush team. While Clinton cabinet members had met at least monthly to discuss the terror threat, the Bush administration held only one such “principals meeting” specifically devoted to al Qaeda before September 11. Instead of following the previous administration’s policy recommendations on al Qaeda, they spent seven months coming up with their own (not very different) plan, one that was completed just days before September 11. President Bush took no discernable action after receiving the Aug. 6 PDB, and uttered no public words about al Qaeda until after the attacks.
What explains the gulf between the warnings the Bush team received about al Qaeda and the scant attention they paid to the threat? That’s one of the mysteries that one might hope the September 11 commission will solve in its final report, scheduled for release this summer. But there are reasons to think the mystery will endure. First, it will be hard to get Republican and Democratic commissioners to agree on an answer. More importantly, the commission has been given a narrow mandate to look only at events and actions in the period leading up to 9/11. The truth is, one cannot begin to solve the mystery of the White House’s inaction without first understanding its larger aims and worldview. And for that, there is no better place to begin than the two fascinating and much-discussed recent insider accounts of the administration’s security policies before and after September 11: Former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies, and journalist Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack.
There is a philosophical distinction between belief and knowledge. Often we can “know” all sorts of facts without quite believing them to be true. The U.S. government had comprehensive evidence that the Nazis were carrying out the Holocaust before the end of World War II, but few really believed the evidence until the liberation of the death camps. In much the same way, the fact that al Qaeda intended to attack the United States was hardly a secret. The Aug. 6 PDB warning of al Qaeda’s focus on the United States was simply stating the blindingly obvious: Beginning in 1997, bin Laden had repeatedly said he was going to attack the United States in interviews with CNN, ABC News, and Time. Moreover, the al Qaeda network had already attacked the World Trade Center in 1993 and had tried to blow up Los Angeles International airport in 1999. Rarely have our enemies warned us so often of their plans.
Yet al Qaeda was clearly not on the minds of Bush’s chief foreign policy advisers. As The Washington Post reported, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was scheduled to give a speech on Sept. 11, 2001, about the administration’s national security priorities. The speech was “designed to promote missile defense as the cornerstone of a new national security strategy, and contained no mention of al Qaeda, bin Laden or Islamic extremist groups.”
I did a database search of all of Rice’s statements and writings between the mid-90s and September 11. She never mentioned al Qaeda publicly and referred to bin Laden only once on a Detroit radio in 2000.
Perhaps sensitive to this history, Rice testified during the September 11 inquiry that al Qaeda “was on the radar screen of any person who studied or worked in the international security field” and that in 1999, she herself “had written for an introduction to a volume on bioterrorism done at Stanford that I thought that we wanted not to wake up one day and find that Osama bin Laden had succeeded on our soil.” But I could find no mention of al Qaeda or bin Laden in the book she referred to–The New Terror: Facing the Threat of Biological and Chemical Weapons–either by Rice or any of the other contributors. Likewise, a search of Deputy Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz’s pre-September 11 statements and writings shows he never mentioned al Qaeda, referred to bin Laden only once, and then in the context of the Saudi exile’s supposed links to Saddam. A similar search for pre-September 11 statements by Vice President Dick Cheney regarding either al Qaeda or bin Laden came up empty.
The fact that the Bush team was strangely somnambulant about the al Qaeda threat is puzzling. It is not as if they were uninterested in national security, were ill-informed or inexperienced, or did not care about the safety of their countrymen; quite the contrary. Nor did they lack enough information to act; indeed, the Bush team likes to highlight the fact that the president was being constantly briefed about al Qaeda as evidence that he was engaged on the issue. Bush administration officials deny that they failed to take the threat urgently enough, but there is no debating the record that in their public utterances and private meetings, the al Qaeda threat barely registered. The real question then, is why, in the face of all this information about the threat, did the most experienced national security team in memory downgrade the problem?
The short answer is: They were in denial. Bush administration officials entered office believing that the great threats facing the country were a remilitarized China and a few, festering rogue states, especially Iraq–states that might try to challenge American hegemony with long-range missiles or, secondarily, by supporting terrorists. Al Qaeda not only didn’t fit into this worldview, it also posed a direct challenge to it. If a network of stateless terrorists using truck bombs and other low-tech weapons represented the top threat to America’s physical security, it would have been hard to argue that our chief security strategy should be to thwart states by building a missile defense–a goal to which Republican hawks had been committed for nearly two decades.
In other words, bin Laden and al Qaeda were politically and ideologically inconvenient and impossible to square with the Bush worldview–a textbook case of cognitive dissonance. In his book, Clarke recounts an acrimonious exchange he had with Wolfowitz during an April 2001 meeting. “I just don’t understand why we are beginning by talking about this one man bin Laden,” Wolfowitz said. “You give bin Laden too much credit. He could not do all these things like the 1993 attack in New York, not without a state sponsor. Just because FBI and CIA have failed to find the linkages doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.” Clarke recalls, “I could hardly believe it but Wolfowitz was actually spouting the totally discredited [theory] that Iraq was behind the 1993 truck bomb at the World Trade Center, a theory that had been investigated for years and found to be totally untrue.”
Prior to the attacks of September 11, this cognitive dissonance was comprehensible if not forgivable: The Bush team had been out of power for nearly a decade, and their fixed ideas had not caught up with a changing world. But after the World Trade Center towers came down, thousands were dead in New York and Washington, and evidence of al Qaeda’s guilt was obvious, Bush officials still refused to alter their basic vision, revealing themselves to be not just stubborn but pathologically so.
Almost from the beginning, Clarke writes, the Bush administration was oddly preoccupied with trying to finger Saddam Hussein for the 9/11 attacks. The day after the attacks, the testy president told Clarke to “look into Iraq [and] Saddam.” That same day, Clarke wrote, “I walked into a series of meetings about Iraq. At first I was incredulous that we were talking about something other than getting al Qaeda. Then I realized with almost a sharp physical pain that [they] were going to try and take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq.”
Woodward’s reporting reveals the same pattern. On the afternoon of September 11, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld scribbled a note to his staff: “hit S.H. @ same time–not only UBL.” (The initials referred to Saddam and bin Laden, respectively.) Rumsfeld also “asked the Pentagon lawyer to talk to Wolfowitz about the Iraq connection with UBL.” Shortly afterwards, according to Woodward, Wolfowitz told the cabinet that “there was a 10 to 50 per cent chance Saddam was involved.” Two months after the 9/11 attacks, in the midst of the ground war in Afghanistan, President Bush drew Rumsfeld aside to ask him to revamp the Iraq war plan, an 800-page document known as Op Plan 1003. Rumsfeld passed the order down to Gen. Tommy Franks, who, Woodward writes, “was incredulous. They were in the midst of one war in Afghanistan and now they wanted detailed planning for another in Iraq? ‘Goddam,’ Franks said, ‘what the fuck are they talking about?’ ” Ironically, the order to redo the Iraq war plan came on Nov. 21, just as the battle of Tora Bora was beginning in eastern Afghanistan. That battle would turn out to be the critical failure of the war on terrorism to date, because it was at Tora Bora that bin Laden and hundreds of al Qaeda foot soldiers managed to slip away and lived to fight another day.
Just as they had ignored the warnings about al Qaeda prior to September 11, so too did the Bush team ignore the doubts of experts about their plans for the Iraqi invasion–and, indeed, the war’s very premise. Woodward reveals that during a National Security Council meeting in early September 2002, Franks pressed the president: “We’ve been looking for Scud missiles and other weapons of mass destruction for ten years and haven’t found any yet.” Woodward generally steers clear of editorializing–indeed in some of his books he has acted almost as an amanuensis–yet here he points out that “if the intelligence was not good enough to make bombing decisions it probably was not good enough to make the broad assertion that there was ‘no doubt’ Saddam had WMD.”
Nor was there much doubt among key players that Saddam and al Qaeda were acting in concert, despite the overwhelming consensus of the intelligence community that they weren’t. Woodward illustrates one case in point, a January 2003 briefing in the White House Situation Room given by Scooter Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff. Libby told Rice, Wolfowitz, and Bush political advisor Karen Hughes that Saddam was producing and concealing biological and chemical weapons and that he had “numerous and strong” connections to the al Qaeda network. Libby also said that Mohammad Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker, had met with an Iraqi intelligence agent as many as four times in the Czech Republic. Wolfowitz “thought Libby presented a strong case.” Indeed, Woodward writes, Wolfowitz “had been pushing the CIA to investigate whether the East German security services were involved” in training al Qaeda. At this point you begin to wonder if you have strayed into a bad John le Carr novel. By the time of Libby’s briefing the FBI and CIA had already concluded that Atta was in the United States at the time of his supposed meetings with the Iraqi intelligence agent. And George Smiley, in his inimitably patient manner, is going to have to tell Wolfowitz that the East German intelligence service went out of business with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
The administration harbored no more incomprehensible ide fixe than its belief that Ahmed Chalabi, who had left his native Iraq while Eisenhower was president, would be greeted as the Garibaldi of a free Mesopotamia. (Polls taken inside Iraq today shows that Chalabi is trusted less than Saddam.) Given the key role Chalabi played in the Bush administration’s plans for Iraq, he is a largely absent figure in Plan of Attack. But Woodward does have one absolutely wonderful anecdote about Chalabi’s Free Iraqi Force that was supposed to fight Northern Alliance-style alongside American forces in Iraq. The plan was to send 5,000 Iraqi exiles into battle in Iraq. Eight hundred U.S. military personnel worked for months to train the exiles, spending millions of dollars on the program, but in the end only 70 Iraqi exiles were trained. You may have seen television pictures of the Free Iraqi Force doing their stuff on CNN, a group of what appeared to be overweight used car salesmen bursting out of their orange uniforms.
Part of the price the Bush administration paid for its fixation on Iraq and its WMD stockpiles, which would prove to be non-existent, was that it misread what would turn out to be the most important source of WMD proliferation in the past decade: Pakistan. Woodward reports that in late November 2001, British intelligence stumbled across a Pakistani nuclear weapons designer willing to sell nuclear weapons designs as well as information about radiological bombs to Islamist extremists. While this discovery did provoke consternation within the Bush administration, and Tenet was sent to Pakistan to warn Gen. Pervez Musharraf of the leakiness of his country’s nuclear program, it would still take another three years before the full dimension of the secret sales of Pakistani nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea would be revealed. The father of the “Islamic bomb,” A.Q. Khan, was handing over WMD to the enemies of the United States, and Pakistani nuclear scientists were meeting with bin Laden in Afghanistan. And so it was our Pakistani allies who were handing over nuclear know-how and material to terrorist groups and terrorist sponsor states, rather than Saddam, the doomsday scenario that was constantly invoked by the administration as the justification for the preemptive war against Iraq.
Indeed, all the arguments for the war–save the fact that Saddam was a monster–have proven to be false: that Iraq had WMD; that Iraq was in cahoots with al Qaeda; that Iraq had something to do with September 11; that the road to peace in Jerusalem ran through Baghdad; and that the war in Iraq would create a democratic domino effect in the region. Yet the Bush administration believed in these ideas fervently and continues, at least publicly, to do so. That is why Bush officials have been particularly infuriated by Clarke’s charge in Against All Enemies that the Iraq war was not only fought under false premises, but has also been disastrously counterproductive. Clarke writes that that the “unnecessary and costly war in Iraq [has] strengthened the fundamentalist, radical terrorist movement worldwide.” Sadly, this incendiary charge is all too true, as recent terrorist attacks in Turkey, Pakistan, Spain, and Iraq all demonstrate. Opinion polls conducted in Muslim countries traditionally allied with the United States, such as Indonesia, Jordan, and Morocco, show that people in those countries have more “confidence” in bin Laden than Bush, demonstrating that the war on Iraq has damaged the United States’ efforts in the vital arena of winning the war of ideas. Al Qaeda the organization has morphed into al Qaeda the ideological movement, while the situation in Iraq goes from bad to worse.
According to Clarke, the Iraq war has also damaged the hunt for members of al Qaeda. He writes of the early months of the invasion of Iraq, “the US Special Forces who were trained to speak Arabic, the language of al Qaeda, had been pulled out of Afghanistan and sent to Iraq … Intelligence platforms [satellites] supporting the military were also redirected.” It is only in the past couple of months that some of those resources have been sent back to where they should have been all along; hunting for bin Laden and the rest of his crew. In March, CNN’s Barbara Starr reported that the United States had for the first time begun to deploy U-2 spy planes and Predator drones to take pictures and intercept communications in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan on a 24/7 basis. What was the schedule for these spy planes in the two years before this welcome development–Monday to Friday 9-5?
Indeed, Bush administration officials continue to this day to be exercised by the idea that state sponsored terrorism is the central national security concern of the United States. As Rice testified before the 9/11 inquiry, terrorists are “much more effective when they can count on a state either to sponsor them or to protect them or to acquiesce in their activities. That’s why the policy that we developed was so insistent on sanctuaries being taken away from them.” That may be true. But consider the most spectacular acts of terrorism of the past decade: the first Trade Center attack in 1993; the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995; the destruction of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1996; the two simultaneous bombings on U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998; the USS Cole attack in 2000; 9/11 itself; the 2002 assault in Bali that killed 202; and the commuter train bombings in Madrid this year that killed 191. All were carried out by groups or individuals that did not have state sponsorship.
But the Bush administration remains undaunted in its suppression of facts that threaten its agenda. While the eyes of the nation have been focused on the troubles in Iraq, the Pentagon continues to spend billions to put into operation a missile-defense system that has yet to show it will ever work. The system is scheduled to go live at the end of the year, despite two important operational tests scheduled for this summer. “If they both fail, we’ve got big problems,” the Air Force general in charge of the program said last month. But he also made clear, reported The Washington Post, “that successful outcomes are not necessary for proceeding with deployment.” The Bush administration is nothing if not resolute.
Peter Bergen, a fellow of the New America Foundation and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, is the author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden.