WASHINGTON -- ACCORDING to Condoleezza Rice, the pre-9/11 United States suffered from an intelligence and criminal investigation culture that precluded the effective sharing of sensitive information about terrorism among and even within frontline agencies like the CIA and the FBI. Oh really?
So how come just after the first airplane hit the World Trade Center's North Tower, CIA Director George Tenet told a breakfast date at a Washington hotel that he sure hoped the fellow who had been taking flying lessons in Minnesota wasn't involved. Tenet's remark to former Senator David Boren of Oklahoma
was a piece of a larger picture. His reference to Zacarias Moussaoui stemmed from a request made outside channels by FBI officials in Minnesota who were off the wall because they couldn't get attention back here about their ominous arrrest of the guy on Aug. 16. The request was that the CIA seek information about him from the intelligence service in France, where Moussaoui had lived. The check revealed that he had Al Qaeda connections.
In other words, despite this allegedly noncommunicative culture Rice described to deflect responsibility onto the system and off people like herself, the CIA had some important information and had it courtesy of the FBI. It remains for the 9/11 Commission to discover what precisely was done with that information in Washington, where it should have set off an alarm or two.
According to Richard Clarke -- no longer the subject of all-out attack by George Bush's fabled White House machine because his facts and narrative keep checking out -- senior FBI and CIA officials talked shop all the time in the White House working group he ran in the Clinton and Bush administrations . Of course there were severe problems with both agencies, as witness the fact that Clarke was never told about Moussaoui. But Tenet knew he was in the clink, and he got his information from the FBI.
Further illustrating what a factual disaster Rice's testimony was, the intense concern about Moussaoui was generated by diligent officials within the FBI field office. Their inability to get attention up the FBI command chain clearly reflected the absence of any directive putting special priority on probing for Al Qaeda operatives inside the United States.
That's interesting because in her opening statement to the commission last week, Rice claimed there were fully 70 "full-field" (jargon for all-out) investigations going on in 2001 into actual Al Qaeda cells in this country and that she had "tasked" the bureau to press hard, given the explosion of intelligence about an impending attack. She cited this as evidence of her diligence.
That's also interesting, because any reporter with a telephone and a contact in the counterterrorism community can report confidently that people on the line say she vastly overstated the case, including her use of the number 70. More important, the 9/11 Commission's exhaustive investigation has yet to turn up a single document or piece of testimony from any FBI official that supports her claim. Rice prefers to blame the FBI or even Clarke for not following up instead of sharing the responsibility for not riding herd on the matter -- a central part of a national security adviser's portfolio.
With an important hearing on CIA and FBI conduct ahead, it's clear that the real conflict over the pre-9/11 period is not between Rice and Clarke, it is between Rice's public statements over two years and the documentary and testimonial record.
It turns out the intelligence warnings were not just about dangers to US interests abroad; they also concerned dangers of an attack here. There is still no evidence of a major difference between the policies against Al Qaeda favored by Clarke as Bush took office and the policy agreed on just before the attacks 233 days later. The claim that Clarke never gave Rice a "plan" to attack Al Qaeda has become a statement that he gave her a "series of actionable items." Instead of being put on "battle stations" by the vigilant President, there is no evidence of more than boilerplate, rear end-covering circulars throughout the entire government. The famous August 2001 CIA briefing paper for Bush on domestic dangers was not a "historical document" but a review of several current matters that included a description of a classic pattern of activity that typically precedes airplane hijackings.
The clashes between Rice and the record even occur on less major points. My favorite is her statement that Clarke's early recommendation of fresh money for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan was shelved because experts also wanted to fund Pashtun tribes in the south. All you have to do is read the commission staff's narrative of 2001 to learn Clarke fully agreed, but was trying to get the money to the Alliance quickly because it was in danger of collapsing. With a big White House PR build-up, Rice was supposed to finish off Clarke on "60 Minutes"; she didn't. With another big build-up, she was supposed to firmly establish Bush's case last week; she couldn't. These are self-inflicted wounds by a White House that cannot accept accountability and prefers the stone wall to the open door.
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