June 11, 2008—President George W. Bush used to complain that being president was “hard work,” but he has gotten over that. Now he says it “has been a fabulous experience.”
Why fabulous? Well, a good part of it has to do with his past.
When Bush screwed up royally – whether in his personal or business affairs – he had to suffer the humiliation of asking his father or his father’s friends (sometimes Arab friends) to bail him out.
But now? Wow! As president, young George has found he can escape accountability altogether.
Now when he screws up royally, he need not call Dad; George W. Bush is himself in control of all the levers he needs to pull in order to bail himself out. Is this a great country or what?
An invertebrate Congress has been a big help. But his greatest asset limiting his liability has been the kind of folk he has gotten to work for him. The kind like Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, whom he has no problem asking to lie for him, when required.
For Bush’s powers are formidable – as he showed when Libby, convicted perjurer and obstructer of justice, was about to go off to prison. The president commuted Libby’s sentence, sending a message to others who might be called on to lie for him to hang tough and count on commutation or pardon.
A president’s unlimited power to pardon serves as the ultimate trump card to keep friends and associates out of jail.
Even so, one key aide, former CIA Director and Medal of Freedom winner, George Tenet, can be forgiven for being somewhat apprehensive these days. For he has lied under oath regarding what Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks and how early Bush knew it.
Concealing pre-9/11 warnings that Bush received might have seemed like the smart play during the president’s first term when his popularity was high and few in Washington dared to stand up to him.
However, if the American voters choose to send vertebrates to the next Congress – or if the Justice Department starts taking seriously its duty to require honest testimony from senior government officials – Tenet may be looking at some jail time.
With the possibility of large changes in the political landscape early next year, all bets might be off.
As for Tenet’s potential legal jeopardy, let’s leave aside for now the obviously heinous – like running George W. Bush’s global Gestapo complete with secret prisons and torture chambers, a criminal enterprise that Tenet carved out of the operations directorate of the CIA.
Let’s pick a case of simpler, more familiar white-collar crimes – Libby-style perjury and obstruction of justice.
Credit to Rep. Dennis Kucinich, whose 35 Articles of Impeachment against Bush – specifically Articles 33 and 34 relating to the catastrophe of 9/11 – have freshened memories, stirred additional research and demonstrate why Tenet may be looking at some prison time.
Article 33 charges that the president “REPEATEDLY IGNORED AND FAILED TO RESPOND TO HIGH-LEVEL INTELLIGENCE WARNINGS OF PLANNED TERRORIST ATTACKS IN THE US, PRIOR TO 9/11.”
The text contains a devastating run-down of the many times President Bush was warned that an attack was coming and did nothing.
George Tenet did sound the alarm often and loudly. But as a retroactive glance at August 2001 shows, the president, literally, could not be bothered.
Tenet’s own performance was hardly blameless. The 9/11 Commission found numerous screw-ups within the CIA, and Tenet’s discharge of his statutory duty to coordinate the work of the entire intelligence community was abysmal.
It was his responsibility to ensure that the FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies were sharing information freely on this priority issue. Sadly, Tenet preferred backslapping to holding the intelligence community to professional standards of work and conduct.
Article 33 of Impeachment shows that President Bush’s inaction in the face of myriad warnings prior to 9/11 constitutes utter failure with respect to his Constitutional duties to take proper steps to protect the nation.
Those who remember Watergate and other misadventures will be aware, too, that the cover-up of wrongdoing constitutes an additional – and often more provable – crime, especially when it involves perjury and obstruction of justice.
That’s where George Tenet comes in. Until now, Bush has managed to escape blame for his outrageous inactivity before 9/11 because his subordinates – first and foremost, Tenet – have covered up for him.
This is what is dealt with in Article 34 of Impeachment: OBSTRUCTION OF INVESTIGATION INTO THE ATTACKS OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001.
What did the president know, and when did he know it?
This double question, with Watergate antecedents, is the one that Bush and Cheney had to guard most carefully against.
By all appearances, they had little trouble enlisting a malleable-cum-guilty-conscience George Tenet in this effort at denial and obfuscation. And this helps to explain some of the more bizarre episodes of that time.
Faustian bargain? Call it mutual blackmail, if you prefer the vernacular.
Yes, Tenet gave the president enough warning to warrant, to compel some sort of action on his part. But Tenet’s lackadaisical management of the CIA and intelligence community was at least as important a factor in the success of the attacks of 9/11.
The raison d’etre of the CIA had been to prevent another Pearl Harbor. Yet, 9/11 took more lives than the Japanese attack in 1941.
As before Pearl Harbor, significant pieces of intelligence lay around but analysts failed to put them all together.
It was long since clear to many in Washington that, had George Tenet stayed home long enough to tend to his knitting – his management responsibilities – instead of eternally hobnobbing abroad with kings and other potentates, 9/11 might well have been avoided, even with an indolent president.
Of course, Tenet should have been fired after 9/11. But President Bush needed Tenet, or at least Tenet’s silence, as much as Tenet needed Bush, or at least Bush's forgiveness.
What developed might be described as a case of mutual blackmail disguised as bonhomie. Bush was keenly aware that Tenet had the wherewithal to let the world know how many warnings he had given the president – reducing Bush to a criminally negligent, blundering fool.
Were that to happen, Bush would have to kiss goodbye the role of cheerleader/war president – and so much else. Thus, Tenet had become critical to Bush's political survival.
And Tenet? All he needed was not to be blamed – not to be fired. The bargain: I, George Bush, will keep you on and even praise your performance; you, George Tenet, will keep your mouth shut about all the warnings you gave me during the spring and summer of 2001. Tenet, it seems clear, agreed.
The bargain was no secret to insiders. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, still very much of the Washington scene, commented publicly that Tenet was so grateful that the president let him stay on as CIA director, that he would do anything for him.
Events proved Gingrich right. And there was even a Medal of Freedom in it for Tenet – but, alas, eventual criminal liability as well.
On Sept. 26, 2001, the president motored out to CIA headquarters, puts his arm around Tenet and told the cameras, “We’ve got the best intelligence we can possibly have thanks to the men and women of the CIA.”
Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, as was so often the case, had not been clued in.
On Sept. 23, Powell had promised a “White Paper” that would make a “persuasive case” that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. His announcement met immediate resistance from the White House, however, and, less than two weeks later, Powell actually apologized for his “unfortunate choice of words.”
There would be no White Paper, he said; rather, the American people would have to rely on “information coming out in the press and other ways.”
It became gradually clear why Powell reneged. The evidence against bin Laden could not be disclosed because there was simply too much of it available for the reading well before 9/11.
To reveal this would bring extreme political embarrassment and vitiate the Faustian bargain with Tenet.
Small wonder that the White House preferred a whitewash to a White Paper.
And this has been a constant since the fall of 2001. Administration obstructionism and intransigence has succeeded in hindering all subsequent investigations into what Bush and Cheney had been told prior to 9/11. Until now, at least.
In his sworn testimony of April 14, 2004, before the 9/11 Commission, Tenet outdid himself trying to honor his bargain with Bush. The commissioners were interested in what the president had been told during the critical month of August 2001.
Answering a question from Commissioner Timothy Roemer, Tenet referred to the president’s long vacation (July 29-Aug. 30) in Crawford and insisted that he did not see the president at all in August.
“You never talked with him?” Roemer asked.
“No,” Tenet replied, explaining that for much of August he, too, was “on leave.”
That same evening, a CIA spokesman called reporters to say that Tenet had misspoken, and that he had briefed Bush on Aug. 17 and 31, 2001. The spokesman played down the Aug. 17 briefing as uneventful and indicated that the second briefing took place after Bush had returned to Washington.
Funny how Tenet could have forgotten his first visit to Crawford, whereas in his memoir, At the Center of the Storm, Tenet waxed eloquent about the “president graciously driving me around the spread in his pickup and me trying to make small talk about the flora and the fauna.”
But the visit was not limited to small talk.
In his book Tenet writes: “A few weeks after the August 6 PDB was delivered, I followed it to Crawford to make sure the president stayed current on events.”
The Aug. 6, 2001 President’s Daily Brief contained the article “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the US.” According to Ron Suskind’s The One-Percent Doctrine, the president reacted by telling the CIA briefer, “All right, you’ve covered your ass now.”
Clearly, Tenet needed to follow up on that.
Was Tenet again in Crawford just one week later? According to a White House press release, President Bush on Aug. 25 told visitors to Crawford, “George Tenet and I” drove up the canyon “yesterday.”
If, as Tenet says in his memoir, it was the Aug. 6, 2001, PDB that prompted his visit on Aug. 17, what might have brought him back on Aug. 24?
I believe the answer is to be found in court documents released at the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the fledgling pilot in Minnesota interested in learning to steer a plane but indifferent as to how to land it.
Those documents show that on Aug. 23, 2001, Tenet was given an alarming briefing, focusing on Moussaoui, titled “Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly.” Tenet was told that Moussaoui was training to fly a 747 and, among other suspicion-arousing data, had paid for the training in cash.
The FBI arrested him on Aug. 16 on grounds he had overstayed his 90-day visa and the CIA was working on the case with the FBI. This might well have been what led Tenet to go back to Crawford on the 24th.
There is no indication that the president or Tenet ever followed up with senior FBI officials. Then-Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard has testified that he did not learn of it until the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001.
Things proceeded more quickly at the working level, at least for this discrete part of the problem. Tenet’s analysts had learned about Moussaoui in a back-door message from the FBI Field Office in Minneapolis enlisting CIA’s help in obtaining information on Moussaoui from French intelligence.
The Minneapolis case agent had already telephoned the FBI legal attaché office in Paris, which contacted the French government on Aug. 16 or 17.
With unusual speed, on Aug. 22 and 27, the French provided information that made a connection between Moussaoui and a rebel leader in Chechnya, Ibn al Khattab, and indicated that Khattab had a connection with Osama bin Laden.
Court documents from the Moussaoui case also show that on Aug. 30, 2001, CIA analysts were able to confirm to Tenet that Moussaoui had ties with radical fundamentalist groups and Osama bin Laden. This would have been good grist for Tenet’s briefing of the president on Aug. 31 in Washington.
Nevertheless, in Tenet’s sworn testimony before the 9/11 Commission on April 14, 2004, he said he had not mentioned Moussaoui to the president during August 2001. Tenet further testified that he did not report on Moussaoui at the cabinet-level meeting convened on Sept. 4 to discuss terrorism.
On May 6, 2007, when Tim Russert asked Tenet what the president knew and when he knew it, Tenet replied that “everything went silent” in August 2001.
Russert asked Tenet why he did not go directly to the president in July 2001 after he had warned then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice of the possibility of “spectacular, multiple, simultaneous attacks against US targets with little or no warning” and gotten the brush-off.
Tenet replied lamely “the president is not the action officer.”
Tenet not only was, by statute, the president’s principal foreign intelligence adviser but – by all accounts – enjoyed a backslapping rapport with him. Tenet also briefed the president six mornings a week.
It strains credulity to suggest that Tenet was afraid to go directly to George Bush for fear of appearing to be making some sort of end-run around his national security adviser on a terrorist threat about which Tenet’s hair was said to be “on fire?”
No one wants to believe that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, could have been prevented, but we do a disservice to our country, and to one another, if we stay in denial.
No one wants to believe that President Bush had considerably more forewarning than he acknowledges, but it is very clear that he did. It is equally clear that George Tenet has been a prime mover in hiding the amount of intelligence available to Bush to act on.
Reviewing the evidence on May 26, 2002, Michael Getler, then-ombudsman for the Washington Post, alluded to one very telling sign leaping out of a conversation between George Tenet and former Sen. David Boren over breakfast on 9/11.
When an aide rushed up to tell Tenet of the attacks, Tenet’s immediate reaction was “This has bin Laden all over it...I wonder if it has anything to do with this guy taking pilot training.”
Getler notes for his readers that the reference is to Zacarias Moussaoui.
A few months after 9/11, the Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI did not tell the White House about Moussaoui until after Sept. 11. That may be true, particularly if, as noted above, then-Acting Director Thomas Pickard did not learn about Moussaoui until 9/11.
But the evidence is very strong that Tenet told Bush chapter and verse.
The extraordinary lengths to which Tenet has gone to disguise that has the former CIA director skating very close to perjury – if not over the line.
Plus, if Tenet is held accountable after Bush leaves town to go back to Texas for good, there may be no one in the White House willing to pardon him.
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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This story was published on June 12, 2008.