What we learned from the Report of the 911 Commission XVI.

The new administration of President George W. Bush recognized that al Qaeda posed a real terrorist threat to the United States. How much of a threat? So far, al Qaeda had truck-bombed two embassies and boat-bombed a warship, all on the margins of the Indian Ocean. So, ambitious, but with a short-reach. Moreover, al Qaeda operated from Afghanistan, a client regime of Pakistan. So, no simple solution.

In February 2001 President Bush warned President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan that al Qaeda posed “a direct threat to the United States and its interests that must be addressed.” (Quoted, p. 298.) On 7 March 2001 the Deputies Committee took up the al Qaeda issue for the first time. The Deputies seem to have concluded that policy on al Qaeda terrorism would have to depend upon the development of a policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan. They began this process and Rice deferred any reference of the issue to the Principals Committee until they had finished; this deeply frustrated Clarke. (p. 293.)

In March 2001 Rice asked the CIA to come up with new guidance documents for implementation in Afghanistan. (p. 303.) These were ready by the end of the month. On 28 March 2001 Tenet sent Hadley two new draft guidance documents. One authorized the CIA to provide covert aid to opponents of the Taliban. The other authorized the CIA to kill Bin Laden. (pp. 303-304.) In March and April 2001 the CIA began pressing for giving a lot of covert assistance to the opponents of the Taliban. Cofer Black particularly favored aiding the Northern Alliance (a move supported by Clarke). (p. 297.)

From late March through April 2001 the CIA issued warnings of looming terrorist attacks by “Sunni extremists” and/or by Abu Zubaydah. On 30 April 2001 the CIA briefed the Deputies, warning that al Qaeda was the “most dangerous group we face.” (p. 293.) The Deputies discussed reports of planned attacks by Bin Laden as part of this review of policy toward al Qaeda.

Reports predicting terrorist attacks continued to come in during May 2001 and formed part of a backdrop of concern. On 29 May 2001 the weekly meeting between Rice and Tenet was devoted to al Qaeda, with Tenet emphasizing the need to devote expanded resources to counterterrorism. Rice told Clarke to write up a new plan for action against al Qaeda.

The flood of reports about terrorist plans to act in the near future actually increased during June and July 2001. However, they always referred to action overseas, mostly in the Middle East, but also in Europe. (p. 369.) There were a number of key dates or places that might serve as the occasion for terrorist attacks: the Fourth of July, the G-8 summit in Genoa, Italy (which President Bush was to attend). (pp. 370-371.)

Only in June 2001 did American intelligence begin to receive reports hinting at the 9/11 attacks. On 12 June 2001 a CIA report stated that KSM was recruiting people on behalf of OBL to come to the US in order to carry out attacks in partnership with people already in the US. On 22 June 2001 a CIA report warned of a possible suicide attack on an American target in the near future.

On 30 June 2001 the CIA intelligence brief to top officials warned that “Bin Laden [is] Planning High-Profile Attacks.” Ultimately, dealing with Bin Laden would require overthrowing the Taliban. This seemed a very complicated undertaking. During June and July 2001 people in the Administration argued over whether the US should engage in regime change in Afghanistan. (p. 297.)

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