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Jason Leopold: Ashcroft Warned Pre-9/11

Ashcroft Warned Pre-9/11

By Jason Leopold
t r u t h o u t | Report

Wednesday 04 October 2006

In an interview with the New York Times Monday, former Attorney General John Ashcroft said he was never briefed in early July 2001 by then-CIA Director George Tenet about a purported terrorist threat against the United States by al-Qaeda the spy agency had received.

"Frankly, I'm disappointed that I didn't get that kind of briefing," Ashcroft told the Times. "I'm surprised he didn't think it was important enough to come by and tell me."

But Ashcroft was not being forthcoming. He was in fact warned about the possibility of a terrorist attack two months before 9/11 and told by his top officials in July 2001 to avoid traveling aboard commercial airliners because the FBI had received a credible "threat assessment" against the United States.

Indeed, on July 26, 2001, sixteen days after Tenet met with then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to brief her about intelligence the CIA had obtained involving al-Qaeda's determination to strike the United States, CBS News reported that Ashcroft was traveling aboard a chartered government jet - which was considered highly unusual - to spend a weekend in Missouri fishing.

"In response to inquiries from CBS News over why Ashcroft was traveling exclusively by leased jet aircraft instead of commercial airlines, the Justice Department cited what it called a 'threat assessment' by the FBI, and said Ashcroft has been advised to travel only by private jet for the remainder of his term," CBS reported.

"There was a threat assessment and there are guidelines. He is acting under the guidelines," an FBI spokesman told CBS. "Neither the FBI nor the Justice Department, however, would identify what the threat was, when it was detected or who made it."

Moreover, on Tuesday, the State Department confirmed that in addition to Rice, Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had also been briefed by Tenet about al-Qaeda's efforts to attack the US within a week of the July 10, 2001, meeting between Tenet and Rice.

Neither the Justice Department nor the CIA provided further comment on the five-year-old CBS report, specifically whether the FBI's threat assessment at the time involved Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network al-Qaeda. A spokesman for Ashcroft would not return a call Tuesday for comment.

The issue about whether Bush administration officials received advance notice of a pending attack against the United States prior to 9/11 has resurfaced over the past week in light of the publication of the book State of Denial, by veteran Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.

In the book, Woodward wrote that two months before 9/11, Tenet briefed Rice about a looming attack against the US by al-Qaeda - which according to Woodward is the first known instance that an administration official was provided with specific details about the terrorist organization's intentions.

Prior to Woodward's report, the earliest known warning Bush administration officials were given involving al-Qaeda's plans to strike American targets was in an August 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike US"

Woodward wrote that Rice did not take Tenet's July briefing seriously when Tenet and Cofer Black, then the CIA's chief of counterterrorism met with her at the White House.

Woodward wrote that Tenet and Black considered the briefing the "starkest warning they had given the White House" on the threat posed by Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. But, Woodward wrote, Tenet and believed Rice gave them "the brush-off."

That's exactly how the Bush administration's former counterterrorism official, Richard Clarke, described Rice's response to the PDB when he testified before the 9/11 Commission about the briefings he gave her. The 9/11 Commission was also briefed about the Tenet and Rice briefing but for reasons unknown, the commission did not include this important detail in their final report. Individual members of the commission did not return calls for comment.

Rice vehemently denied the allegations made by Clarke and Woodward. Other Bush administration officials also went into defense mode.

As early as Monday, Rice told reporters that she did not recall the "supposed" meeting with Tenet, in a display that illustrates the continuing deep division between the White House and the CIA over who is responsible for intelligence failures surrounding 9/11 and the Iraq war.

"What I'm quite certain of, is that it was not a meeting in which I was told that there was an impending attack and I refused to respond," she said.

However, late Monday, the State Department confirmed the meeting took place and that Rice was briefed by Tenet about a pending attack by al-Qaeda.

Clarke, along with former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, has said publicly that the al-Qaeda threat did not receive the proper attention by the White House in the months leading up to 9/11 because senior administration officials were planning a pre-emptive strike against Iraq.

While Woodward does break new ground in his book regarding the behind-the-scenes jockeying between the CIA and the White House, numerous media reports in the months prior to 9/11 show that intelligence officials from the FBI and the CIA were publicly stating that an attack was imminent, but the administration was wrapped up in planning for a war against Iraq.

A story reported by Reuters and published in Orlando Sentinel on July 12, 2001 - two days after Tenet briefed Rice - said the had FBI tracked 257 terrorist related threats in 2001.

"The No. 1 threat was from exiled Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, accused by the United States of masterminding the 1998 bombing of two US embassies in eastern Africa and other attacks on US interests," Reuters reported.

The FBI said at the time, according to the Reuters story, that it had gathered intelligence showing terrorists would launch a major attack on American interests using a weapon of mass destruction.

"I'm not a gloom-and-doom type person," said Dale Watson, assistant director of the FBI Counterterrorism Division, according to the July 12, 2001, report. "But I will tell you this ... [We are] headed for an incident inside the United States."


Jason Leopold is a former Los Angeles bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswire. He has written over 2,000 stories on the California energy crisis and received the Dow Jones Journalist of the Year Award in 2001 for his coverage on the issue as well as a Project Censored award in 2004. Leopold also reported extensively on Enron's downfall and was the first journalist to land an interview with former Enron president Jeffrey Skilling following Enron's bankruptcy filing in December 2001. Leopold has appeared on CNBC and National Public Radio as an expert on energy policy and has also been the keynote speaker at more than two dozen energy industry conferences around the country.

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