Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Before 9/11, CIA knew 'we were gonna be struck hard and lots of Americans were going to die'

George Tenet was CIA director at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. Cofer Black was head of the agency's counter-terrorism unit. In a startling piece published this morning in Politico, they are much more candid than in the past about the warning signs that our intelligence community was picking up about impending major attacks on our soil, and the lack of action that was taken in response:

"By May of 2001, (Black told the interviewer), 'it was very evident that we were going to be struck, we were gonna be struck hard and lots of Americans were going to die.' 'There were real plots being manifested,” Tenet told me in his first interview in eight years. 'The world felt like it was on the edge of eruption. In this time period of June and July, the threat continues to rise. Terrorists were disappearing [as if in hiding, in preparation for an attack]. Camps were closing. Threat reportings on the rise.'

Tenet recalls what happened:

“Rich [Blee] started by saying, ‘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. Al Qaeda's intention is the destruction of the United States.’" [Condi said:] ‘What do you think we need to do?’ Black responded by slamming his fist on the table, and saying, ‘We need to go on a wartime footing now!’”

“What happened (afterward)?” I ask Cofer Black.

“Yeah. What did happen?” he replies. “To me it remains incomprehensible still. I mean, how is it that you could warn senior people so many times and nothing actually happened? It’s kind of like The Twilight Zone.”

... there was one more chilling warning to come. At the end of July, Tenet and his deputies gathered in the director’s conference room at CIA headquarters. “We were just thinking about all of this and trying to figure out how this attack might occur,” he recalls. “And I'll never forget this until the day I die. Rich Blee looked at everybody and said, ‘They're coming here.’ And the silence that followed was deafening. You could feel the oxygen come out of the room. ‘They're coming here.’”

Six weeks later, they did come here

That's a damning, troubling and even infuriating account from actual participants in those events, indicating that our leaders had far more evidence of an impending major attack than we had previously understood, yet did nothing to prepare or investigate. But because it shifts historic culpability for the deaths of thousands of Americans away from Tenet, Black and others to those in the White House, we also have to acknowledge that their account is self-serving. Good historians will know to treat their words with caution.

But again, I cannot help contrasting the scale of the September 11 attack, the lack of effective response to apparently strong warnings, its history-altering consequences and the extremely nonpartisan way in which we handled its aftermath with the way the Republican Party has grotesquely politicized the much more minor attack on our consulate in Benghazi, where four Americans died. It has frankly been disgusting.

Even now, with this new information, I don't believe that we as a nation would have been well-served by turning the attacks of Sept. 11 into a witchhunt against our own people or into a political bludgeon. It's a matter for history, not politics. But imagine the circus we could have had, with high-profile congressional investigations not just into who was to blame for the attacks but also into the fact that the Bush administration misled the American people and withheld information about how much warning they actually had. Imagine the televised interrogation of Rice, with congressmen hectoring her about how the failure to respond had left the blood of thousands on her hands.

We wisely chose a different course.

Instead, we as a nation turned our attention to finding out what happened, preventing a recurrence and locating and destroying the enemies who had attacked us. We recognized that our mutual enemies abroad were much more dangerous than our political enemies here at home. That was the right response, the patriotic response, the moral response.

The response to the Benghazi attacks -- justified by sanctimonious garbage about "honoring the victims" -- has been none of those things.

Reader Comments ...

About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.