In his 60 Minutes interview and in his new book, former director of central intelligence George Tenet prompts one to pause and wonder just what he talked to President Bush about during those daily morning get-togethers that were known as intelligence briefings.
According to Tenet, when he learned in July 2001 that Osama bin Laden was planning multiple attacks on the United States, he met with the then national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and told her, “there are gonna be multiple attacks against the United States. We believe these attacks are imminent. Mass casualties are a likelihood.”
And what did Rice do with his request to launch preemptive action against bin Laden in Afghanistan? She delegated it to what he called “third tier officials.”
But Tenet was meeting every morning with the nation’s number one first tier official, wasn’t he? Didn’t he tell Bush? Good question, incomprehensible answer, as we will see …
In 2004, there was an earlier book on the threats before 9/11 and another 60 Minutes interview with the author, Richard Clarke, who was supposed to be the president’s chief adviser on terrorism, only he never saw the president.
In January 2001, six months before Tenet’s warning, Clarke sent a memo to Rice “asking for urgently — underlined urgently — a Cabinet meeting to deal with the impending al Qaeda attack.” Clarke said his memo wasn’t acted on but three months later, it was arranged for him to meet with some lower level officials.
The Pentagon representative at the meeting was — Paul Wolfowitz.
“I said to him, ‘Paul, we have to deal with bin Laden, we have to deal with al Qaeda.’ “Wolfowitz said, ‘No, no, no, no, we don’t have to deal with al Qaeda. Why are we talking about that little guy (bin Laden)? We have to talk about Iraqi terrorism against the United States.”
Even though he was getting nowhere, Clarke figured the CIA might be. “George Tenet was saying to the president — because he briefed him every morning — a major al Qaeda attack is going to happen against the United States somewhere in the world in the weeks and months ahead. He said that in June, July, August.”
Or did he?
On Sunday, Scott Pelley, the 60 Minutes questioner, wondered about it.
“You’re meeting with the president every morning,” said Pelley. “Why aren’t you telling the president, ‘Mr. President, this is terrifying. We have to do this now. Forget about the bureaucracy. I need this authority this afternoon.”
This was Tenet’s incredible response: “Right. Because the United States government doesn’t work that way. The president is not the action officer. You bring the action to the national security adviser and people who set the table for the president to decide on policies they’re gonna implement.”
Pelley didn’t follow that up so we’re left to assume that if the morning intelligence briefings did include an occasional mention of al Qaeda planning to murder thousands of our people, the president would tell him, “You know I’m not the action officer, George. Let the table setters know and we’ll see what they decide to tell me.”
Sounds about right for this president.