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9/11 Behind Closed Doors: Part 3-The Bush White House

Updated on April 30, 2016

Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.”

- Freidrich Nietzsche

The White House
The White House

Once the Bush Administration took over the White House, it was strange how the bin Laden threat seemed to disappear. The focus on Middle-Eastern Muslim radicals connected to known terrorist bombings in the late 1990’s no longer seemed critical. In fact, in documents before 9/11, Attorney General John Ashcroft did not give terrorism top billing in his strategy for the Justice Department, which includes the FBI. A draft from John Ashcroft’s strategic plan from August 9, 2001 does not have fighting terrorism as one of the Department’s top seven goals. It was ranked as a sub-goal beneath gun violence and drugs. In comparison his predecessor, Janet Reno, called terrorism the most challenging threat in our criminal justice area. Meantime the Bush administration decided to terminate a highly classified program to monitor all al Qaeda suspects in the U.S. (Note 1) National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, admitted that Bush did not feel the urgency of terrorism as a direct threat before 9/11. (Note 2)

Richard Clarke, the top counter-terrorism czar, kept his title under the new Administration, but the position no longer gave him Cabinet-level access. He was no longer able to get memos directly to the President. Instead, they had to pass through a chain of command of the National Security Advisor or her Deputy, Stephen Hadley, who bounced them all back. (Note 3)

John O’Neill, the FBI terrorism expert, and Richard Clarke were being blocked from getting information to the top level decision makers. In Richard Clarke’s book, Against All Enemies, he wrote that in the summer of 2001 the intelligence community was convinced of an imminent attack by al Qaeda but could not get the attention of the highest levels of the Bush Administration. The television documentary, Spymasters, released in November of 2015, detailed the extreme efforts of George Tenet, the CIA Director, and his subordinates to create a sense of urgency at the top levels of the Administration – without success.

At the beginning of July, journalist Judith Miller of the New York Times received information from a “top White House source” that an anonymous NSA operative provided information about intercepted dialogue between two al Qaeda operatives. These operatives were talking about the attack on the USS Cole. They expressed disappointment that the U.S. did not retaliate more seriously over what had happened. One terrorist said, “Don’t worry; we are planning something so big that the U.S. will have to respond.” (Our intelligence community believed it might happen on the upcoming 4th of July.) Miller’s editor, Stephen Engelberg, said she had a couple of great paragraphs, but wanted more. So the story was never run. It seems the intelligence community wanted to get the press involved because top White House officials did not want to hear about any terrorist threats to the U.S. (Note 8)

President Bush
President Bush

On July 5th, President Bush asked for reports on the domestic terrorist threat. For the first time, he was beginning to worry about the stream of terror warnings he had been hearing about that summer. He then directed Condoleezza Rice to figure out what was going on domestically. (Note 7, from Newsweek, May 27, 2002)

In reality, though, he was primarily concerned about the G-8 conference that he would be attending on July 21st and 22nd in Genoa, Italy. There had been lots of intelligence “buzz” that Osama bin Laden had a plot to fly a remote control airplane with explosives into the conference building. (Note 10, quoting from Time, June 20, 2001) Because of all the chatter, the airspace in that area was closed down and the plot did not materialize. During the G-8 summit the Italian military prepared against an attack from the sky. Acting on warnings that al Qaeda would attempt to kill President Bush and other leaders, Italian authorities surrounded the summit building with anti-aircraft guns, they kept fighter jets in the air, and closed off local airspace. (Note 7, LA Times Sept, 27, 2001) The threat was taken so seriously by U. S. planners, that President Bush chose to spend the night prior to the summit on a U. S. Navy aircraft carrier. There was no attack. This was the only reported time that Condoleezza Rice looked into an al Qaeda threat. But this apparently was not enough to convince Bush and his senior advisors that an al Qaeda attack was possible within U.S. borders.

July 10th, before Bush left for Genoa, Cofer Black, CIA counter-terrorism chief, and George Tenet, the Director of the CIA, made a phone call to Condoleezza Rice that they needed to come over for an emergency meeting. This was one of the meetings she could not remember well when asked about it in the 9/11 Commission hearings. (Note 8) Not only were the top CIA guys in attendance, but so were Richard Clarke, White House terrorism czar, and Rice’s Deputy Hadley. For some unexplained reason, this meeting was viewed as just another meeting by Rice, despite the emphasis on extreme threats and red flags from CIA leaders. Condoleezza Rice stated she thought the briefing was merely a presentation of historical facts. So here are some of the historical facts that were in the July 10th briefing in 2001:

  1. There will be significant terrorist attacks in the comings weeks and months. Information from seven different sources says it will be soon.
  2. Richard Blee, the chief of Alec Station – the CIA’s bin Laden unit – briefed Ms. Rice with intercepted information which says “multiple simultaneous attacks will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against U.S. facilities and interests.”
  3. Blee continued that the information must be correct because bin Laden’s threats were being made public in the Middle East on television.

Richard Clarke, the White House terrorism czar; Cofer Black and George Tenet, the top level of the CIA; and Richard Blee all asked Condoleezza Rice to please brief the President about the threat before he leaves town. She said she would, BUT DOESN’T. If she had, would the August 6th Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) at the Crawford, TX ranch, have made a greater impression on President Bush? We will never know. What we do know is that between August 6th and September 11th, there were no high level meetings with the President on the subject of terrorism. (Note 13)

Bush and his senior staff had received numerous warning about the growing al Qaeda threat. Condoleezza Rice said in the 9/11 hearings that Bush had received 40 warnings from CIA Director Tenet that a major al Qaeda attack was going to take place. She also admitted he (Bush) did not have any meetings on the subject with his cabinet, nor did she. This was a major contrast from the Clinton Administration which had terrorism as its top priority. President Bush must have felt that we were not vulnerable to an attack, as he often traveled away from the Washington hustle and bustle. Between his inauguration on January 20th and prior to 9/11, he spent 54 days at his Crawford, TX ranch; 38 days at Camp David, MD; and 4 days at the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, ME. (Note 16)

What was wrong with the Bush Administration? Did they have too many deep connections with the Saudis to think that one of them, especially a bin Laden family member, would want to harm our nation? The FBI and the CIA knew there were terrorist cells living in the U.S., just as there were Nazi cells in America during WW II. But no one in this new Administration seemed to feel their intense hatred and determination. Could it have been because both George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush had business ties to the bin Laden family and, in particular, to two half brothers of Osama bin Laden. George H. W. Bush (the 41st president) personally knew Osama’s half brother Shafig who was a big investor in the Carlyle Group – a private equity firm associated with officials of the Bush and Reagan administrations. In fact on Sept 10th, 2001, (the day before the attacks) the Carlyle Group met in New York at the Ritz Carleton, and both George H.W. Bush and Shafig bin Laden were in attendance and had their picture taken together. (Note 4) The oldest half brother of Osama bin Laden, Salem, invested in George W. Bush’s first oil company, Arbusto Energy, in 1977 in Texas. They continued to be financially connected until Salem’s accidental death in an airplane crash in May 1988 in San Antonio, TX. (Note 5)

In the 2004 book, House of Bush, House of Saud, Craig Unger traces millions of dollars in investments and contracts from the Saudis over the past 20 years to companies in which the Bushes and their allies have had prominent positions – Harken Energy, Halliburton, and the Carlyle Group to name just a few. (Note 6) Unger estimates that the relationship with the Bush family and the Saudi royal family is complicated, but centers around Houston oil and branches out to both the public and private sectors. Unger writes, “it could safely be said that never before in history has a presidential candidate – much less a presidential candidate and his father, a former president – been so closely tied financially and personally to the ruling family of a foreign power. Never before had a president’s fortunes and public policies been so deeply entwined with another nation.” (Note 14) Could that be the main contributor to the drastic change of policy when Bush took office or was it a blatant “in your face” statement to the Clinton Administration that your priorities are not our priorities?

Top White House officials seemed truly “deaf” that summer because whatever briefings they did receive from the CIA and other intelligence agencies in July and August of 2001 seemed to fall on deaf ears. This must have been the reason they could not remember the meetings when asked about them well after the 9/11 attacks. Remember President Bush did ask Condoleezza Rice to figure out what was going on domestically with terrorism. (Note 8) But after his non-eventful G-8 meeting, he must have felt safe once again.

Condoleezza Rice
Condoleezza Rice

On the same day that Tenet and Black were briefing Condoleezza Rice about all the red flags, FBI agent Ken Williams from Phoenix was sending his memo to headquarters telling the center about the Islamic extremists learning to fly in the U.S. He sends it to 8 specific agents, but not all receive it. And the memo was not uploaded into the FBI computer system until late July -- over two weeks after its arrival. (Note 17) This information first went to Elizabeth Matson with the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) on July 30th. A week later, she sent it to Jennifer Maitner, an agent in the FBI bin Laden unit. By the time Maitner got the memo and read it, it was August 7th.

Prior to this, the CIA had asked FBI people if they had any information on bin Laden to go into an upcoming PDB on August 6th. Even though Maitner had read some of the CIA information that was to be in the upcoming PDB, it was unclear if bin Laden’s threat to hijack an airliner or that there was suspicious activity going on in the U.S. that would be consistent with a hijacking was in there. If this information was part of what Maitner read, it was not sufficient to trigger an alarm when she read the Williams memo on Aug 7th about the suspicious flying lessons. It seems shameful that our top law enforcement agency was so disjointed. Just think, the Williams memo was sent out on July 10th and was finally read in the bin Laden unit almost one month later. Could this lack of urgency and connection have been due to the atmosphere, priorities and staffing Ashcroft had established in the FBI headquarters by making terrorism a low priority and severely cutting staff.

On August 3rd through Sept 3rd, President Bush spent a month vacationing at his ranch in Texas. He was in Crawford only a few days when he was given the now famous August 6th PDB entitled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” These daily briefings were normally only a paragraph or two, but this briefing was a page and half long. According to the British paper, The Guardian, it obtained a leaked version of this briefing in May of 2002, which revealed the possibility of hijacked airliners and that targets may be inside the U.S. After receiving the briefing, President Bush was reported to have looked at the briefer and said “Alright, you have covered your ass now.” (Note 15) (This briefing had been classified, but somehow it got leaked to the press in May 2002. It was finally declassified in 2004.)

In fairness to President Bush, the August 6th PDB did lack a certain amount of detail. It talked about comments made by bin Laden back in 1997 and 1998 and how he wanted to attack targets within the United States. If only the FBI Ken Williams memo about Middle Eastern men taking flying lessons had made it into the briefing and Minnesota agent Harry Samit had gotten his request for a search warrant on Zacharis Moussaoui approved, then maybe Bush would have been given more concrete facts and would have been more concerned about the level and nature of the threat. But instead, he got general things about bin Laden getting ready to use operatives already within the United States to mount domestic terrorist attacks. Also mentioned in the brief was that there were some indications that preparations were being made for hijackings, but nothing specific. The most noteworthy content was a statement that there were “70 full field investigations of bin Laden related individuals underway by the FBI.” This was probably very comforting to President Bush and Condoleezza Rice. After the briefing, Bush went fishing, and Ms. Rice took no further action. But as it turned out, the 70 referenced investigations were not all related to al Qaeda. Many were fundraising investigations, many had to do with each individual connected to a larger case. One was about a dead person, four were about people already in long term custody and eight were cases that were already closed before the August 6th briefing. Somehow, somewhere, someone in the FBI had added the number 70 in front of the information about al Qaeda investigations. Bush later said at the 9/11 hearings that the large number of on going investigations gave him confidence things were being handled properly. (Note 18)

Also in the 9/11 hearings, Bush said “If I had only known that 19 Islamic men would come into the United States of America and on the morning of 11 September hijack four American airplanes and fly two into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and one into [the Pennsylvania countryside near Shanksville] (wording revised for understanding), I would have moved heaven and earth!!” (Note 20) But in reality, leaders are never given that kind of clear picture about upcoming events and happenings. Good leaders hear the information and ask questions and then give directions to more fully examine what is happening. But in truth, no matter what he was told from the beginning of his presidency, Bush treated the bin Laden threat as nonexistent. The only time he seemed concerned was when he went to the G-8 conference in Genoa, Italy. But did he return home and gather his intelligence people and ask them about the domestic threat? No! So why would anyone believe he would act any different. The information in the August 6th briefing did not have great detail, but it did talk about the threat and the intent, and that it was coming. Did that make any difference when he got back to Washington after his month long vacation? Did he even go to his first and only Principals Committee meeting on September 4, 2001 which was supposed to talk about terrorism? No! There is your answer. It seems nothing could make him believe -- even after the attack actually happened he seemed to be in a daze, like he had never been warned it was coming. To this writer, Bush’s lack of awareness and recognition seems to be the main puzzle part in the question of how could 9/11 have happened in our nation.

Going back to Ashcroft’s August 9th strategic plan, he had highlighted in yellow his priorities. Domestic violence and drug trafficking prevention were highlighted, but the combat terrorist activity line item was not. One month and two days later, after 9/11, he quickly amended his plan.

The day before the attacks, September 10, 2001, the official FY 2003 Department of Justice Budget Request presented to the Office of Management Budget (OMB) Director Mitch Daniels showed that Ashcroft ignored the FBI’s anti-terrorism request which was detailed in other internal documents. He did not want to aid the FBI’s counter terrorism group with their request for more foreign translators, more counter terrorism agents and foreign intelligence researchers. In fact, he was trying to cut back on funding for those programs. Before 9-11, the FBI’s budget request for $1.499B for counter terrorism was cut by two/thirds. Yes, two/thirds! They received just $530M. (Notes 11 & 19) It was now clearer why the Radical Fundamentalist Unit at the FBI had to be such stone walls to the field agents who were sending in crucial information about what was happening. The very top level of the law enforcement community -- the Attorney General -- was the true brick wall, having no empathy, or understanding, and no concern that there was a real threat to the U.S. By his actions, he was almost daring al Qaeda and bin Laden to go ahead with their threats. JOHN ASHCROFT was definitely a big part of the September 11th puzzle question “How could this have happened here?” (Notes 11 & 19)

John Ashcroft
John Ashcroft

It seems incomprehensible why the Bush Administration acted as they did in early 2001 prior to 9/11. What is quite clear is that because of the disinterest and undercutting the funding for counter terrorism and down playing the threat placed pressure on the staff at the FBI headquarters. Choices were made and actions were taken not to protect our nation and its people. The choices made were to protect their jobs and the FBI as an institution. This is simply called “bureaucratic careerism.”

So the people who were the most vulnerable – the ones working in the airline industry and specifically the flight crews – had no warning despite the threat information given time and time again to our highly placed elected officials. Our 33 crew members were like lambs being thrown into the lions den with thousands of others to follow.

We know Bush and his senior staff received numerous warnings about the al Qaeda threat. However, these warnings could not specify time, place or method to the satisfaction of the decisions makers. They were either incapable of connecting the dots or unwilling to do so. So they did nothing – NOTHING! But when the attack did happen, they immediately pointed their fingers at the previous Administration saying they should have done more. According to the Bush people, Clinton failed by not getting bin Laden. And that’s The Incredible and Predictable Washington Way (TIPWW).


  1. (quoting the Washington Post, March 22, 2004 and Newsweek, March 2, 2004.)
  2. Woodward, Robert. Bush at War. (Quoted in Washington Post, January 20, 2002.)
  4. Observer, 6/16/2002. London Times
  9. Newsweek, May 27, 2002.
  10. Time, June 20, 2001.
  12. Washington Post, Aug 7, 2001
  15. Suskind, Ron. The One Percent Doctrine. 2006.
  20. 20., March 25, 2004: Bush says he would have done everything to Prevent 9/11, if he had known plot involved aircraft.


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