September 11.

A year ago when I wrote about the 10th anniversary of the attacks, I said this:

Ten years later I am still processing the events of that day, and the catastrophic events of the last decade that unfolded in its aftermath.  So much murder, mayhem, opportunistic power grabs and unconscionable greed unleashed — all of it a direct result of a small, determined group of religious nuts, armed only with box cutters and that stubborn certainty that conservative religion provides.

I do not have any answers or insights that have not been explored and expounded by many others.  My personal experience on the morning of September 11, 2001 in New York City was nothing extraordinary, either:  I was in midtown, and could see the towers burn and then fall.  The day had profound consequences for me, as a person, as a New Yorker, and as an American citizen, many of which I have yet to untangle much less understand with any sort of clarity.

In short, I had nothing to say, and so I said nothing.  But I do realize that on those occasions when I direct my rage and mockery toward politicians or clergy, wingnuts or fundamentalist Christians, Rupert Murdoch or David Brooks, I am saying something about September 11, 2001, too.

A year later, I have nothing to add to that.

But Kurt Eichenwald does.  Writing in the New York Times today, he reminds us of the infamous daily brief that President George W. Bush received on the morning of August 6, 2001 entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,” in response to which the administration did precisely nothing.  That daily brief—and only that daily brief—was declassified by the Bush administration on April 10, 2004 in connection with the 9/11 Commission’s investigation into the attacks.

Eichenwald gained access to presidential daily briefs that precede August 6, and says this:

While those documents are still not public, I have read excerpts from many of them, along with other recently declassified records, and come to an inescapable conclusion: the administration’s reaction to what Mr. Bush was told in the weeks before that infamous briefing reflected significantly more negligence than has been disclosed. In other words, the Aug. 6 document, for all of the controversy it provoked, is not nearly as shocking as the briefs that came before it.

As early as the spring of 2001, the CIA’s warnings to the president were explicit:

By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible.

What happened next is a textbook case of Conservative Personality Disorder:

But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster. An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat. Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives’ suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day.

The “neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon” were two swaggering doucheweasels, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Assistant Doucheweasel Paul Wolfowitz, the genius behind the invasion of Iraq.  So these two clowns are telling the president and Condi Rice that the CIA had been fooled (!), and that al-Qaeda was actually running a false flag operation at the behest of one of its own enemies, Saddam Hussein.  Some smart people whose job it was to know these things pointed out that this idea was completely ridiculous on its face, because logic.  But manifestations of CPD would preclude the neocons from understanding any of that.  In particular we can identify these symptom clusters (at least):

-willful ignorance: incurious; refusal to consider or integrate new knowledge, information or facts which contradict existing, self-serving opinions; dogmatic;

-irrationality: …anti-intellectualism; illogical;…

-seeks constant reinforcement of unexamined privilege or bias: …steadfastly avoids contradictory facts, opinions or information…

-rigidity: …refusal to change opinion in light of compelling contradictory facts; …

-poor facility with native language: …selectively biased reading comprehension; …

-limited dimensionality of thought: poor critical thinking ability; …

Of course the Bush administration’s reaction (or, technically, non-reaction) drove the CIA nuts:

In response, the C.I.A. prepared an analysis that all but pleaded with the White House to accept that the danger from Bin Laden was real.

“The U.S. is not the target of a disinformation campaign by Usama Bin Laden,” the daily brief of June 29 read…the document recited much of the evidence, including an interview that month with a Middle Eastern journalist in which Bin Laden aides warned of a coming attack, as well as competitive pressures that the terrorist leader was feeling, given the number of Islamists being recruited for the separatist Russian region of Chechnya.

CIA to White House:  “WTF is wrong with you people?”

White House to CIA:  [*crickets*]

And the C.I.A. repeated the warnings in the briefs that followed. Operatives connected to Bin Laden, one reported on June 29, expected the planned near-term attacks to have “dramatic consequences,” including major casualties. On July 1, the brief stated that the operation had been delayed, but “will occur soon.” Some of the briefs again reminded Mr. Bush that the attack timing was flexible, and that, despite any perceived delay, the planned assault was on track.

Yet, the White House failed to take significant action.

CIA to White House:  “No, seriously.  WTF is wrong with you people?”

White House to CIA:  [*crickets*]

At this point, CIA goes into C.Y.A. mode:

Officials at the Counterterrorism Center of the C.I.A. grew apoplectic. On July 9, at a meeting of the counterterrorism group, one official suggested that the staff put in for a transfer so that somebody else would be responsible when the attack took place… The suggestion was batted down, they said, because there would be no time to train anyone else.

By July 11 CIA had provided even more evidence to the White House, and again on July 24.  Still, nada.

[T]he president did not feel the briefings on potential attacks were sufficient, one intelligence official told me, and instead asked for a broader analysis on Al Qaeda, its aspirations and its history. In response, the C.I.A. set to work on the Aug. 6 brief.

The rest, as they say, is history.

I am not blaming the September 11 attacks on the Bush administration.  I am not even asserting that had they heeded CIA’s warnings the attacks would have been prevented.  I am saying that putting people with Conservative Personality Disorder in power will inevitably result in stories just like this one.

4 thoughts on “September 11.

  1. While this is pretty unsettling, I’d really like to see the false positive rate – how many other days of the year did the CIA say an attack was imminent, and by whom? As you note, they were mostly in CYA mode, instead of trying to find something useful they could do. Even correctly fingering Osama was pretty useless. It’s not like he was an active participant.

    This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to work out – if I had been President, and I had received that briefing, what could I have done? (Well, I could illegally wiretap tens of thousands of people in the hope the terrorists were among them, or illegally detain them, but I was hoping for a humane and legal option.)

  2. That’s a good point about the false positive rate. It would need to be looked at in the context of the evidence supporting the false warnings, of course. At least according to Eichenwald, the evidence spelled out by CIA in the briefings on the al Qaeda attacks was consistent and overwhelming, with more and more corroboration coming in throughout the summer of 2001. I would love to see the “evidence” that bin Laden was conspiring on a false flag operation with the Iraqi government, but I suspect it doesn’t exist outside of the fevered imaginings of Wolfowitz. Perhaps at some point the daily briefings may all be declassified and questions such as yours can be investigated. (After the revolution? More likely after we’re all long dead, hopefully from natural causes and not because some CPD case in the White House ignored intelligence that a bunch of godbags are bringing a nuclear bomb into Grand Central Station.)

    As to what could/would/should have been done had the Bushies (or President Anthill Inside) heeded CIA’s warnings, even if they deployed every (legal) tool available we will never know whether the attacks would have been stopped. But there were opportunities to do so. Here’s Eichenwald on this point:

    Throughout that summer, there were events that might have exposed the plans, had the government been on high alert. Indeed, even as the Aug. 6 brief was being prepared, Mohamed al-Kahtani, a Saudi believed to have been assigned a role in the 9/11 attacks, was stopped at an airport in Orlando, Fla., by a suspicious customs agent and sent back overseas on Aug. 4. Two weeks later, another co-conspirator, Zacarias Moussaoui, was arrested on immigration charges in Minnesota after arousing suspicions at a flight school. But the dots were not connected, and Washington did not react.

    There is something to be said about the value of putting federal law enforcement (FBI, ICE, airport security, Secret Service, etc.) on high alert, and providing them with as much detail as possible about the plot. They already knew (or at least suspected) that it involved airliners, so airport security would have been a good place to start ramping up. It certainly couldn’t have hurt.

    • Yes, I did overstate the problem, when some of the hijackers had been detected within the US. Even without that, if the use of airliners as missiles had been known, airline pilots could have been advised that cooperating with hijackers is no longer possible. (I get really cheesed when people blame the airlines, pilots or passengers. Until September 11th, the best way to survive a hijacking was to cooperate in every possible way. Any other action was not heroic, just stupid.)

      Information sharing would also be a good start. If the CIA acquired one tenth as much information, but shared it with the people who needed it… they might not have prevented September 11th, but they might solve a whole lot of missing person, smuggling and forgery cases.

      That’s just one of the problems with illegal wiretaps. You can’t share them with the judge when you ask for a warrant, or when you prosecute. Hey, I hope ECHELON flags this blog comment for further study, so some poor sap at Langley has to read the whole thing. Boring job, isn’t it?

      Or, dissolve the CIA and see if people still hate the US so much… but that’s crazy talk.

  3. They had intel about the airliners for years:

    In fact, intelligence analysts had been warning for some time that terrorists could hijack planes. On December 4, 1998, for example, the Clinton administration received a President’s Daily Brief entitled “Bin Ladin Preparing to Hijack US Aircraft and Other Attacks.” The Clinton administration responded by convening its top counterterrorism experts and heightening security at airports around the nation.

    Convening top counterterrorism experts and heightening airport security?! What an idiot! Obviously, he should have just immediately invaded Iraq. ;)

    The infamous August 6, 2001 daily brief entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike U.S.” said this:

    FBI information since [1998] indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.

    The Federal Aviation Administration was not made aware of the intelligence being reported in the daily briefings, but acting on its own the FAA:

    “had indeed considered the possibility that terrorists would hijack a plane and use it as a weapon,” and in 2001 it distributed a CD-ROM presentation to airlines and airports that cited the possibility of a suicide hijacking.

    Not sure what steps the airlines and airports took in response, if any.

    I just came across this:

    In his memoir, “Against All Enemies”, [National Coordinator for Counterterrorism Richard] Clarke wrote that when he first briefed [Condi] Rice on Al-Qaeda, in a January 2001 meeting, “her facial expression gave me the impression she had never heard the term before.” He also stated that Rice made a decision that the position of National Coordinator for Counterterrorism should be downgraded. By demoting the office, the Administration sent a signal through the national security bureaucracy about the salience they assigned to terrorism. No longer would Clarke’s memos go to the President; instead they had to pass though a chain of command of National Security Advisor Rice and her deputy Stephen Hadley, who bounced every one of them back.

    That kind of arrogance and incompetence at the highest levels of government should be an impeachable offense.

    Hey, I hope ECHELON flags this blog comment for further study, so some poor sap at Langley has to read the whole thing.

    Great way to up my hit count. Probably wouldn’t be the first time, either.

    Boring job, isn’t it?

    Not to me, it isn’t. : )

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