Based on new interviews with Cofer Black, the former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, and George Tenet, the former director of the CIA, Chris Whipple reported in Politico that the George W. Bush administration ignored CIA warnings in the months before 9/11. Noting that neither Black nor Tenet has spoken about the warnings “in such detail until now—or have been so emphatic about how specific and pressing their warnings were,” Whipple wrote that, starting in spring 2001, the CIA “repeatedly and urgently” warned the White House that an attack was imminent. (Whipple distinguished Tenet’s detailed interview remarks from the “general terms” in which Tenet had described these events in his 2007 memoir, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA.)
In Spring 2001, Tenet and Black proposed to Bush administration officials a plan aimed at ending the threat of al-Qaeda. Known as the “Blue Sky paper,” the plan called for covert CIA and military operations against al-Qaeda, “getting into the Afghan sanctuary, launching a paramilitary operation, creating a bridge with Uzbekistan.” Tenet told Whipple that the White House responded, “We’re not quite ready to consider this. We don’t want to start the clock ticking.” Whipple interpreted Tenet’s account to imply that, in Whipple’s words, the White House “did not want a paper trail, to show that they’d been warned.” According to Black, Bush’s staff was “mentally stuck” in an outdated conception of terrorism. “They were used to terrorists being Euro-lefties,” Black told Whipple, making it “very difficult” to communicate the urgency of the CIA’s warnings regarding al-Qaeda.
Black recounted for Whipple how, on the morning of July 10, 2001, Richard Blee, who led the CIA’s al-Qaeda unit, told Black, “Chief, this is it. Roof’s fallen in.” According to Black the information was “absolutely compelling,” “multiple-sourced,” and “the last straw.” Black and Blee briefed Tenet, who then called Bush’s National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice. According to Tenet he told Rice, “I have to come see you.”
Whipple reported that Tenet “vividly recalls” the meeting with Rice and her team. (At the time President Bush was on a trip in Boston.) Tenet told Whipple that Blee began by reporting, “There will be significant terrorist attacks against the United States in the coming weeks or months. The attacks will be spectacular. They may be multiple.” According to Tenet, Rice asked what should be done, and Black, slamming his fist on the table, told her, “We need to go on wartime footing now!”
In her 2011 book, No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington, Rice wrote that her recollection of the meeting was “not very crisp because we were discussing the threat everyday … I thought we were doing what needed to be done.” Whipple wrote that, in response to an inquiry about her response to the claims by Black and Tenet, Rice’s chief of staff told Whipple that she stands by the account in her memoir. Tenet told Whipple he testified about the July 10 meeting with Rice and her team before the 9/11 Commission, but this was not included in the Commission’s final report. Black told Whipple that the White House’s inaction “remains incomprehensible.”
At the end of July, Tenet told Whipple, he and his deputies gathered in his conference room at CIA headquarters. According to Tenet, Blee told them, “They’re coming here.” Tenet described the ensuing silence as “deafening.” “You could feel the oxygen come out of the room.”
Whipple conducted interviews with George Tenet and Cofer Black for a documentary, The Spymasters, about Tenet and the eleven other living former CIA directors. Showtime broadcast the program in November 2015.
Chris Whipple, “The Attacks Will be Spectacular,” Politico, November 12, 2015, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/11/cia-directors-documentary-911-bush-213353.
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