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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 building.
Cofer Black, the head of the CTC, looked on this order with skepticism, almost shaking his head. At 52, Black was a veteran covert operator and one of the agency's legends. He had helped in the 1994 capture of Carlos the Jackal, perhaps the most notorious pre-bin Laden international terrorist. Black had thinning hair and wore prominent eyeglasses, and bore a striking resemblance to Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political strategist. He was a throwback to the era when the agency was filled with colorful and eccentric figures. While most everyone in the CIA called Tenet by his first name, Black observed old-school protocol, calling him "Mr. Director" or simply "Sir."
"Sir," Black said, "we're going to have to exempt CTC from this because we need to have our people working the computers."
"Well," Tenet said, "the Global Response Center..." He was referring to the eight people on watch on the sixth floor, near the top of the building, who monitored the latest intelligence on terrorism throughout the world. "They're going to be at risk."
"This is an element -- we're going to have to keep them in place."
"Well, we have to get those people out," Tenet insisted.
"No, sir, we're going to have to leave them there because they have a key function to play in a crisis like this. This is exactly why we have the Global Response Center."
"Well, they could die."
"Sir, then they're just going to have to die."
The CIA director was a sort of father protector to the thousands who worked there. In the popular culture and to many in Washington, the CIA was a broken, even unnecessary institution; at best, it was an endangered species of sorts. A director protected.
"You're absolutely right," Tenet finally told Black. The rules, maybe all of them, had changed that morning. Thousands were already dead in New York City and at the Pentagon.
Black sensed an important shift. People, including the director, were maturing before his eyes in a very short period of time, moving from the bureaucratic mode to acceptance of risk, even death. Black was not at all surprised by the attack, but even he was shocked at the level of carnage.
In his three years as counterterrorism chief, he had concluded that if the CTC chief was not more aggressive than his superiors, then they had the wrong person in the job. He had operated against al Qaeda when he was station chief in Khartoum, Sudan, and had been the target of a failed ambush and assassination attempt in 1994. He had made some aggressive, lethal covert action proposals to get bin Laden, but they had been rejected. He figured given the climate, it was probably inevitable.
Now all that had changed.
Tenet ordered the building evacuated, except for those in the Global Response Center.
In Lima, Peru, that morning, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had just sat down to breakfast with the new president, Alejandro Toledo. Powell was attending an Organization of American States meeting. He anticipated a pleasant series of events with the foreign ministers or leaders of 34 of the 35 countries in the region. Cuba had not been invited.
Toledo was going on and on about U.S. textile quotas. He wanted an exemption for high-quality cotton which he maintained would not compete with lower-quality cotton produced in certain Southern states of the U.S. which of course insisted on the quotas.
Suddenly, the door opened and Craig Kelly, Powell's executive assistant, rushed in with a note written on a piece of paper that had been ripped out of a spiral wire notepad: Two airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center.
Two is not an accident, Powell realized. The next note said it was two jets. Powell thought, I've got to go home. No matter what it was, it was too big for him to be sitting around at a conference of foreign ministers in Peru. The plane, get the plane, he told Kelly. Go tell them we're leaving.
It would take about an hour to get the plane ready, so Powell stopped by the conference. Other foreign ministers made speeches of sympathy. Powell spoke briefly, thanking the assembly members for their condolences and vowing that the U.S. would respond and ultimately prevail. "A terrible, terrible tragedy has befallen my nation," he said, "but...you can be sure that America will deal with this tragedy in a way that brings those responsible to justice. You can be sure that as terrible a day as this is for us, we will get through it because we are a strong nation, a nation that believes in itself."
The others stood and applauded. Powell then raced to the airport for the seven-hour flight. Once the plane took off, Powell found that he couldn't talk to anybody because his communications were connected to the system in the U.S., which was swamped. Without a phone or his e-mail, he was like a man without a country.
After a few minutes, he went to the front of the plane to call over the radio. That meant over-and-out, nonsecure communications. He reached Richard L. Armitage, the deputy secretary of state and his best friend. They spoke several times, but real talk was hopeless. Armitage, a 1967 Naval Academy graduate, had served four tours in Vietnam, and later as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. He was an outspoken, muscular, barrel-chested man who deplored fancy-pants, pin-striped diplomatic talk. Even before they took over the State Department, Powell and Armitage talked several times each day. "I would trust him with my life, my children, my reputation, everything I have," Powell said of Armitage.
Of all the things Powell hated, being out of the action was at the top of the list. A central part of national security policymaking was crisis management. No matter what structure a president, a White House or a national security team might try to impose on the process of policymaking, there was a random quality to some of the big moments. Crisis provided the greatest danger and the greatest opportunity.
At 64, Powell had already sat in three of the seats in the White House Situation Room -- national security adviser to President Reagan for a year, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the first President Bush during the Gulf War and now secretary of state to the new Bush for the last nine months.
A report came that another airliner had hit the Pentagon, and there were vague reports and rumors flying around about all kinds of other planes all over the place.
Powell started to scribble notes to himself. Ever the soldier, he wrote, What are my people going to be responsible for? How is the world, the United States going to respond to this? What about the United Nations? What about NATO? How do I start calling people together?
The seven hours of isolation seemed an eternity for the man who could have been commander in chief.
In 1995, Powell, two years retired from the Army, had considered running for president. He wrote an autobiography, My American Journey, which became a No. 1 national best-seller. He was poised at the epicenter of American politics, with stratospheric poll ratings, the Republican nomination nearly his for the asking, and the presidency within reach.
Armitage had been passionately against it. "It's not worth it. Don't do it," he advised, finally telling his friend, "I don't think you're ready for this." The process of campaigning would be everything Powell hated, "every bad thing you could imagine." Powell liked well-laid plans, order, predictability, a level of certainty that was not part of the hurly-burly of American politics.
It was well known his wife, Alma, was opposed to his running. What was secret was that Alma had flatly told him that if he ran for president she would leave him. "If you run, I'm gone," she said. She feared he would be attacked or shot. Running for president, becoming president, making her first lady was not what she wanted for her life. "You will have to do it alone," she said.
After Bush won the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, Powell signed on to help, but Karl Rove found that the campaign had to move heaven and earth to get him to appear at an event with Bush. Nearly every other important Republican fell in line, not Powell. His people always wanted to know who else would be at an event, what would be said, who the audience was, what was the political purpose. All this seemed designed to determine the political fallout -- on Powell, not Bush. Rove detected a subtle, subversive tendency, as if Powell were protecting his centrist credentials and his own political future at Bush's expense.
Nevertheless, he was an available vehicle to move Bush toward the center, and he became the almost certain choice for secretary of state if Bush were elected. Powell let it be known this was a post he would accept. Within his inner circle, there was a strong sense that voters knew they were choosing a team -- not just Bush and his vice presidential running mate, former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, but also Powell.
When the Supreme Court declared Bush the winner by 537 votes in the Florida saga, Powell's advisers were convinced that their boss had clearly provided the margin of victory many, many times over.
• • •
In his first months as secretary of state, Powell had never really closed the personal loop with Bush, never established a comfort level -- the natural, at-ease state of closeness that both had with others. There existed a distance between these two affable men -- a wariness -- as if they were stalking each other from afar, never sitting down and having it out, whatever the "it" was. Both Bush and Powell used barracks-room humor freely with others, but rarely with each other.
Rove was disturbed and felt Powell was beyond political control and operating out of a sense of entitlement. "It's constantly, you know, 'I'm in charge, and this is all politics and I'm going to win the internecine political game,' " Rove said privately.
Whenever Powell was too out in front on an issue and became the public face of the administration, the political and communications operations at the White House reined him in, kept him out of the limelight. Rove and Karen P. Hughes, Bush's longtime communications director, now White House counselor, decided who from the administration would appear on the Sunday talk shows, the major television evening news and the morning programs. If the White House didn't call to suggest that he accept the numerous invitations to appear, Powell knew the rules. He told the shows no.
In April 2001, when an American EP-3E military spy plane off the coast of China was intercepted, forced down and taken hostage along with its 24 crew members by the Chinese government, the White House determined to keep Bush away from the issue, so that the president would not appear to be emotionally involved or the negotiator. It was important to behave as if there was no hostage crisis, mindful of how the Iranian hostage crisis had paralyzed President Carter and how the Lebanon hostage situation had become a consuming obsession for President Reagan in the mid-1980s.
The issue was turned over to Powell, who successfully won their release after 11 days. It was a big win, but even then the White House didn't want him on television to take credit.
Powell and Armitage would joke that Powell had been put in the "icebox" or the "refrigerator" -- to be used only when needed.
Just the week before September 11, Time magazine had done a cover story on Powell with the headline, "Where Have You Gone, Colin Powell?" The story said he was leaving "shallow footprints" on policy and losing out to administration hard-liners. It was a very effective hit by the White House, where certain officials had cooperated with the writers to prove that Powell was operating, sometimes desperately, often in isolation, at the edges of the new administration.
Rove, for one, was saying privately that he thought Powell had somehow lost a step and that it was odd to see him uncomfortable in the presence of the president.
Powell and others in his circle had spent hours with the Time reporters unsuccessfully trying to talk them down from the story line. But Powell and Armitage knew the overwhelming power of perception in Washington where charting rise and fall is more than a parlor game. The problem was that the vivid story line would be seen as the truth, even if it wasn't. The larger problem was that it was in part true. Powell was not formulating a foreign policy. He was getting assignments and reacting to one minor crisis after another. But as he once said in private, "Survival at the top is pragmatics."
When he had been chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he had written out some of his favorite sayings and slipped them underneath the glass on his desk in the Pentagon. One said, "Never let them see you sweat."