Tuesday, September 11, 2001, began as one of those spectacular pre-fall days on the East Coast, sunny, temperatures in the 70s, light winds, the sky a vivid light blue. With President George W. Bush traveling in Florida that morning promoting his education agenda, his intelligence chief, CIA Director George J. Tenet, didn't have to observe the 8 A.M. ritual of personally briefing the president at the White House on the latest and most important top secret information flowing into America's vast spy empire.
Instead Tenet, 48, a hefty, outgoing son of Greek immigrants, was having a leisurely breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel, three blocks north of the White House, with the man who was most responsible for his rise in the world of secret intelligence - former Oklahoma Democratic Senator David L. Boren. The two had struck up an unusually close friendship going back 13 years when Tenet was a mid-level staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which Boren chaired. Boren had found Tenet to be a gifted briefer and had jumped him over others with more seniority to make him staff director, a post which granted him access to virtually all the nation's intelligence secrets.
Boren then recommended Tenet to President-elect Bill Clinton in 1992, urging that he be appointed to head the administration's transition team on intelligence. The following year, Tenet was named National Security Council staff director for intelligence, responsible for coordinating all intelligence matters for the White House, including covert action. In 1995, Clinton named him deputy CIA director, and two years after that, he appointed him director of central intelligence (DCI), charged with heading the CIA and the vast U.S. intelligence community.
High-strung and a workaholic, Tenet had a heart attack while he was NSC intelligence staff director. He could be volatile. During President Clinton's second term, when he was CIA director, he stormed out of a principals' committee meeting that included the secretaries of state and defense but not the president. He thought the meeting, which was keeping him from attending his son's school Christmas play, was droning on too long. "Fuck you, I'm leaving" had been his parting comment. But Tenet had since learned how to control his temper.
In early 2001, Boren called President-elect Bush, praising Tenet as nonpartisan and urging him to keep him on as CIA director. Ask your father, he suggested. When the younger Bush did, the former President George H.W. Bush said, "From what I hear, he's a good fellow," one of the highest accolades in the Bush family lexicon. Tenet, who has a keen nose for cultivating political alliances, had helped the senior Bush push through the controversial nomination of Robert Gates as CIA director in 1991, and later led the effort to rename CIA headquarters for Bush, himself a former DCI.
The former president also told his son, the most important thing you'll do as president every day is get your intelligence briefing.
Beginning with his time heading the Senate Intelligence Committee staff, Tenet had developed an understanding of the importance of human intelligence, HUMINT in spycraft. In an era of dazzling breakthroughs in signals intelligence, SIGINT - phone, teletype and communications intercepts and code breaking - and overhead satellite photography and radar imagery, the CIA had downgraded the role of HUMINT. But Tenet earmarked more money for human intelligence and the training of case officers, the clandestine service operatives who work undercover recruiting and paying spies and agents in foreign governments - called "sources" or "assets."
Without case officers, Tenet knew, there would be no human sources to provide intelligence, no access to governments, opposition groups or other organizations abroad, little inside information, little opportunity for covert action. And covert action to effect change in foreign countries was part of the agency's charter, however controversial, misguided or bungled it may have been over the years.
The case officers were the critical first step. At one point in the 1990s, only 12 were being trained for the future in the year-long intensive program at the CIA facility called "the Farm" in the Virginia countryside. In 2001, Tenet had 10 times as many in training, an incredible jump. It was designed to increase HUMINT and make covert action, if authorized by the president, possible. All this had been done during the Clinton years.
"What are you worried about these days?" Boren asked Tenet that morning.
"Bin Laden," Tenet replied, referring to terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, an exiled Saudi who was living in Afghanistan and had developed the worldwide network al Qaeda, Arabic for "the Base." He was convinced that bin Laden was going to do something big, he said.
"Oh, George!" Boren said. For the last two years he had been listening to his friend's concerns about bin Laden. How could one private person without the resources of a foreign government be such a threat? he asked.
"You don't understand the capabilities and the reach of what they're putting together," Tenet said.
Boren was worried that his friend had developed an unhealthy obsession about bin Laden. Nearly two years earlier, just before the 2000 millennium celebration, Tenet had taken the highly unusual and risky step of personally warning Boren not to travel or appear at big public events over New Year's Eve or New Year's Day because he anticipated major attacks.
More recently, Tenet had worried that there would be attacks during the July 4, 2001, celebration. Though he didn't disclose it to Boren, there had been 34 specific communications intercepts among various bin Laden associates that summer making declarations such as "Zero hour is tomorrow" or "Something spectacular is coming." There had been so many of these intercepts - often called chatter - picked up in the intelligence system and so many reports of threats that Tenet had gone to maximum alert. It seemed like an attack of some sort was imminent against U.S. embassies abroad or concentrations of American tourists, but the intelligence never pinpointed when or where or by what method.
Nothing had happened, but Tenet said it was the issue he was losing sleep over.
Suddenly, several of Tenet's security guards approached. They were not strolling. They were bolting toward the table.
Uh-oh, Boren thought.
"Mr. Director," one of them said, "there's a serious problem."
"What is it?" Tenet asked, indicating that it was okay to speak freely.
"The World Trade tower has been attacked."
One of them handed Tenet a cell phone and he called headquarters.
"So they put the plane into the building itself?" Tenet asked incredulously.
He ordered his key people to gather in his conference room at CIA headquarters. He would be there in about 15-20 minutes.
"This has bin Laden all over it," Tenet told Boren. "I've got to go." He also had another reaction, one that raised the real possibility that the CIA and the FBI had not done all that could have been done to prevent the terrorist attack. "I wonder," Tenet said, "if it has anything to do with this guy taking pilot training." He was referring to Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent whom the FBI had detained in Minnesota the previous month after he had acted suspiciously at a local flight training school.
Moussaoui's case was very much on his mind. In August, the FBI had asked the CIA and the National Security Agency to run phone traces on any calls Moussaoui had made abroad. He was already the subject of a five-inch-thick file in the bureau. As Tenet hopped in his car to go to the 258-acre CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the past, present and future of his counterterrorism efforts were swirling in his head.
The CIA had been after bin Laden for more than five years, and increasingly so after the devastating 1998 bin Laden-sponsored terrorist bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that had left more than 200 people dead. At that time, President Clinton directed the U.S. military to launch 66 cruise missiles into terrorist training camps in Afghanistan where bin Laden was believed to be in a high-level meeting. But he had apparently left a few hours before the missiles arrived.
In 1999, the CIA commenced a covert operation to train 60 commandos from the Pakistani intelligence agency to enter Afghanistan to capture bin Laden. But the operation was aborted because of a military coup in Pakistan. More ambitious and riskier options had been weighed in seemingly endless meetings with the top Clinton national security officials.
One option that had been considered was a clandestine helicopter-borne night assault on bin Laden with a small, elite U.S. military Special Forces unit of roughly 40 men. It would require aerial refueling, as the helicopters would have to fly some 900 miles. But they were spooked by the 1980 Desert One operation President Carter had ordered to rescue the American hostages held in Iran when several aircraft had crashed in the desert, and the downing of two Blackhawk helicopters in Somalia during a 1993 mission, which had led to 18 American deaths. The military said a raid on bin Laden might fail and could involve substantial U.S. casualties. Intelligence reports also showed that bin Laden had his key lieutenants keep their families with the entourage, and Clinton was opposed to any operation that might kill women and children.
A U.S. Special Forces unit and U.S. submarines capable of firing cruise missiles were put on alert, but they required six to ten hours advance warning about bin Laden's future location.
One of the most guarded secrets in the CIA was the existence of 30 recruited Afghan agents, operating under the codeword GE/SENIORS, who had been paid to track bin Laden around Afghanistan for the last three years. The group, which was paid $10,000 a month, could move together or break into smaller tracking teams of five men.
The CIA had daily secure communications with the "Seniors" as they were called, and had bought them vehicles and motorcycles. But tracking bin Laden grew increasingly difficult. He moved at irregular times, often departing suddenly at night.
Incredibly, the Seniors seemed to have him located most of the time, but they were never able to provide "actionable" intelligence - to say with any confidence that he would remain there for the time needed to shoot cruise missiles at the location. And the CIA failed to recruit a reliable human spy in bin Laden's circle who could tip them to his plans.
There were those in the Clinton White House and national security apparatus who were skeptical of the Seniors, because at times there was contradictory intelligence about bin Laden's location. And in Afghanistan people, especially intelligence assets, were regularly bought off.
Neither Clinton, nor Bush to this moment, had given the CIA lethal authority to send the Seniors or other paid CIA assets to kill or assassinate bin Laden. The presidential ban on assassination, first signed by President Gerald Ford, had the force of law.
During one period, the leader of the Afghan Seniors had met several times with the CIA station chief from Islamabad, Pakistan, who controlled and paid them. The Senior leader maintained that they had shot at bin Laden's convoy on two occasions in self-defense, which was permissible, but he wanted to go after the convoy in a concerted way, proposing an ambush - shoot everything up, kill everyone and then run.
The CIA station chief kept saying, "No, you can't, you can't do that." It would violate U.S. law.
Given the money that was available, the covert action resources and the atmosphere, Tenet figured the CIA had done everything they knew how to do. But he had never requested a change in the rules, had never asked Clinton for an intelligence order that would have permitted the Seniors to ambush bin Laden.
The lawyers at the Justice Department or the White House, he believed, would have said no, that it would have violated the assassination ban. He felt bound by the dovish attitude of Clinton and his advisers. Everything was "lawyered to death," he would say. But he too had contributed to that atmosphere during his five and a half years as Clinton's DCI and deputy DCI.
What the rules did permit was for the CIA to seize bin Laden and turn him over to law enforcement, an operation legally known as a "rendering." A big operation to do this was put on the covert action drawing boards. Tenet was convinced that bin Laden would never allow himself to be taken alive, so such an operation, if successful, would lead to his demise.
But all the CIA experts in the Directorate of Operations thought it would not work - that it would lead to a lot of people getting killed, and not necessarily bin Laden. And Tenet agreed. The plan never went further. A proposal by the Saudis that the CIA place a homing device in the luggage of bin Laden's mother, who was traveling from Saudi Arabia to visit her son in Afghanistan, was also rejected as risky and unlikely to work.
By 9:50 A.M., Tenet was in his seventh floor office. Two commercial passenger airliners had already struck both World Trade Center towers and a third had hit the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked plane was over Pennsylvania apparently heading for the Washington area.
Reports were swamping the system saying that future targets included the White House, the Capitol and the State Department. CIA headquarters, a highly visible and recognizable landmark near the Potomac River, was a possible target. Investigators knew that Ramzi Yousef, an al Qaeda terrorist who was responsible for the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, had had plans to fly a plane packed with explosives into the CIA buildings.
"We have to save our people," Tenet told his senior leadership. "We have to
evacuate the building." He wanted everyone out, even the core staff of hundreds
from the Counterterrorism Center (CTC) down in the windowless bowels of the
Excerpted from Bush At War by Bob Woodward Copyright © 2002 by Bob Woodward
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Copyright © 2002 Bob Woodward
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