“Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” The CIA’s famous Presidential Daily Brief, presented to George W. Bush on August 6, 2001, has always been Exhibit A in the case that his administration shrugged off warnings of an Al Qaeda attack. But months earlier, starting in the spring of 2001, the CIA repeatedly and urgently began to warn the White House that an attack was coming.
By May of 2001, says Cofer Black, then chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, “it was very evident that we were going to be struck, we were gonna be struck hard and lots of Americans were going to die.” “There were real plots being manifested,” Cofer’s former boss, George Tenet, told me in his first interview in eight years. “The world felt like it was on the edge of eruption. In this time period of June and July, the threat continues to rise. Terrorists were disappearing [as if in hiding, in preparation for an attack]. Camps were closing. Threat reportings on the rise.” The crisis came to a head on July 10. The critical meeting that took place that day was first reported by Bob Woodward in 2006. Tenet also wrote about it in general terms in his 2007 memoir At the Center of the Storm.
But neither he nor Black has spoken about it publicly in such detail until now—or been so emphatic about how specific and pressing their warnings really were. Over the past eight months, in more than a hundred hours of interviews, my partners Jules and Gedeon Naudet and I talked with Tenet and the 11 other living former CIA directors for The Spymasters, a documentary set to air this month on Showtime.
The drama of failed warnings began when Tenet and Black pitched a plan, in the spring of 2001, called “the Blue Sky paper” to Bush’s new national security team. It called for a covert CIA and military campaign to end the Al Qaeda threat—“getting into the Afghan sanctuary, launching a paramilitary operation, creating a bridge with Uzbekistan.” “And the word back,” says Tenet, “‘was ‘we’re not quite ready to consider this. We don’t want the clock to start ticking.’” (Translation: they did not want a paper trail to show that they’d been warned.) Black, a charismatic ex-operative who had helped the French arrest the terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal, says the Bush team just didn’t get the new threat: “I think they were mentally stuck back eight years [before]. They were used to terrorists being Euro-lefties—they drink champagne by night, blow things up during the day, how bad can this be? And it was a very difficult sell to communicate the urgency to this.”
That morning of July 10, the head of the agency’s Al Qaeda unit, Richard Blee, burst into Black’s office. “And he says, ‘Chief, this is it. Roof’s fallen in,’” recounts Black. “The information that we had compiled was absolutely compelling. It was multiple-sourced. And it was sort of the last straw.” Black and his deputy rushed to the director’s office to brief Tenet. All agreed an urgent meeting at the White House was needed. Tenet picked up the white phone to Bush’s National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. “I said, ‘Condi, I have to come see you,’” Tenet remembers. “It was one of the rare times in my seven years as director where I said, ‘I have to come see you. We’re comin’ right now. We have to get there.’”
Tenet vividly recalls the White House meeting with Rice and her team. (George W. Bush was on a trip to Boston.) “Rich [Blee] started by saying, ‘There will be significant terrorist attacks against the United States in the coming weeks or months. The attacks will be spectacular. They may be multiple. Al Qaeda’s intention is the destruction of the United States.’” [Condi said:] ‘What do you think we need to do?’ Black responded by slamming his fist on the table, and saying, ‘We need to go on a wartime footing now!’”
“What happened?” I ask Cofer Black. “Yeah. What did happen?” he replies. “To me it remains incomprehensible still. I mean, how is it that you could warn senior people so many times and nothing actually happened? It’s kind of like The Twilight Zone.” Remarkably, in her memoir, Condi Rice writes of the July 10 warnings: “My recollection of the meeting is not very crisp because we were discussing the threat every day.” Having raised threat levels for U.S. personnel overseas, she adds: “I thought we were doing what needed to be done.” (When I asked whether she had any further response to the comments that Tenet, Black and others made to me, her chief of staff said she stands by the account in her memoir.) Inexplicably, although Tenet brought up this meeting in his closed-door testimony before the 9/11 Commission, it was never mentioned in the committee’s final report.
And there was one more chilling warning to come. At the end of July, Tenet and his deputies gathered in the director’s conference room at CIA headquarters. “We were just thinking about all of this and trying to figure out how this attack might occur,” he recalls. “And I’ll never forget this until the day I die. Rich Blee looked at everybody and said, ‘They’re coming here.’ And the silence that followed was deafening. You could feel the oxygen come out of the room. ‘They’re coming here.’”
Tenet, who is perhaps the agency’s most embattled director ever, can barely contain himself when talking about the unheeded warnings he says he gave the White House. Twirling an unlit cigar and fidgeting in his chair at our studio in downtown Washington, D.C., he says with resignation: “I can only tell you what we did and what we said.” And when asked about his own responsibility for the attacks on 9/11, he is visibly distraught. “There was never a moment in all this time when you blamed yourself?” I ask him. He shifts uncomfortably in his chair. “Well, look, there … I still look at the ceiling at night about a lot of things. And I’ll keep them to myself forever. But we’re all human beings.”
See: The Faces of the Spymasters
David Hume Kennerly photographs CIA directors, from the Ford administration to Obama’s.
Only 12 men are alive today who have made the life-and-death decisions that come with running the CIA.
Once a year, the present and former CIA directors—ranging from George H.W. Bush, 91, to the current boss, John Brennan, 60—meet in a conference room at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The ostensible reason: to receive a confidential briefing on the state of the world. (Robert Gates, who hates setting foot inside the Beltway, is a perennial no-show.) “They mostly tell us stuff we already know, and we pretend we’re learning something,” says Tenet, the longest-serving director (lasting seven years, under Presidents Clinton and Bush II). But the real point of their annual pilgrimage is to renew bonds forged in the trenches of the war on terror—and to debate the agency’s purpose in the world.
“And I’ll never forget this until the day I die. Rich Blee looked at everybody and said, ‘They’re coming here.’”
On the burning questions of the day, the directors are profoundly torn: over the CIA’s mission, its brutal interrogation methods after 9/11, and the shifting “rules of engagement” in the battle against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. What is fair game in the fight against terrorism: Torture? Indefinite detention? Setting up “black sites” in foreign countries for interrogation? Should the CIA be in the business of killing people with remotely piloted drones? Was the agency really to blame for 9/11? Or did the White House ignore its repeated warnings?
On these and other questions, the directors were surprisingly candid in the interviews they did with me—even straying into classified territory. (They often disagree about what is actually classified; it’s complicated, as Hillary Clinton is learning.) A controversial case in point: drone strikes. “He can’t talk publicly about that,” protests Gen. David Petraeus when I tell him that one of his counterparts has opened up to me about “signature strikes.” (These are lethal attacks on unidentified targets—a kind of profiling by drone—that several directors find deeply troubling.) Gen. Petraeus might have had good reason to be reticent; only a week before he had accepted a plea bargain to avoid prison time—for sharing classified information with his mistress, Paula Broadwell.
Here are some of the other secrets we learned from the surprisingly outspoken men who have run the world’s most powerful intelligence agency.
Even CIA chiefs can’t agree about “torture”
“In the period right after 9/11, we did some things wrong,” said Barack Obama. “We tortured some folks. We did things that were contrary to our values.” Jose Rodriguez, who oversaw the CIA’s so-called enhanced interrogation program (EIT), has a two-word reply: “That’s bullshit.” Tenet concurs. “People are throwing the word ‘torture’ around—as if we’re torturers,” he complains. “Well, I’m not ever gonna accept the use of the word ‘torture’ for what happened here.” From sleep deprivation to waterboarding, Tenet and his lieutenant Rodriguez insist the techniques were all approved—by everybody.
“The attorney general of the United States told us that these techniques are legal under U.S. law,” says Tenet, “and do not in any way compromise our adherence to international torture statutes.” Contrary to the claim by the SSCI (Senate Select Committee on Intelligence) Majority Report, Tenet insists: “We briefed members of Congress fully on what we were doing at all times. There was never a hint of disapproval.” And Tenet says that George W. Bush was so hands-on, “he read the memo, looked at the techniques, and decided he was gonna take two techniques off the table himself.” Tenet says he does not recall which EITs the president rejected (Rodriguez believes one of them was “mock executions.”)
Tenet and his post-9/11 successors—Porter Goss, Michael Hayden and acting director Michael Morell (sometimes called the “wartime directors”)—say the techniques were a necessary evil, justified by the context of the times. It was an article of faith at the CIA that the United States was about to be struck again in a “second wave” attack. And that “high-value detainees,” beginning with Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah, knew more than they were telling. “Every day,” says Rodriguez, “the president was asking George Tenet, ‘What is Abu Zubaydah saying about the second wave of attacks and about all these other plots?’ Well, he was not saying anything. We had to do something different.” Tenet says they had persuasive intelligence that indicated Osama bin Laden had met with Pakistani nuclear scientists—and was seeking the blueprint for a bomb. There was a credible report, he adds, that a nuke had already been planted in New York City. “People say, ‘didn’t you think about the moral and ethical consequences of your decision?’” says Tenet. “Yeah, we did. We thought that stopping the further loss of American life and protecting a just society was equally important.”
Did the techniques produce intelligence that disrupted plots or saved lives? The SSCI study looked at 20 cases and said no useful evidence was obtained. Tenet insists, “They are wrong in all 20 of the cases. The report is dead wrong on every account, period, end of paragraph.” But Tenet’s fellow spy chiefs are sharply—even passionately—divided about such procedures. “Our Constitution does prohibit ‘cruel and unusual’ treatment and if it’s cruel, we shouldn’t be doing it,” says William Webster, 91, regarded by his fellow spymasters as a voice of reason (and the only DCI who also served as FBI director). “You cross a line at some point in your effort to get the information when you go that route. There have to be limitations and monitoring and they must be observed. Our country stands for something and it loses something when we don’t.” Stansfield Turner, now 91—who as Jimmy Carter’s director authorized the ill-fated attempt to rescue American hostages in Tehran—agrees: “I just don’t think a country like ours should be culpable of conducting torture. I just think it’s beneath our dignity.”
The directors who oppose torture are not just bleeding hearts. “Nobody was responsible for more detainees than I was,” says Gen. Petraeus, who was commander of the multinational forces in Iraq. “We visit violence on our enemies, but we should not mistreat them, even though they have done unspeakable things to our soldiers and to civilians. That does not justify us doing it to them. You will pay a price for what you do, and it will be vastly greater than whatever it is you got out of taking this action.” And Director Brennan sees no circumstance in which the CIA would torture again: “If a president tomorrow asked me to waterboard a terrorist, I would say, ‘Mr. President, sorry—I do not believe that is in our best interest as a country.’” Hayden is even more emphatic. “If some future president is going to decide to waterboard,” he says, “he’d better bring his own bucket—because he’s going to have to do it himself.”
The CIA really does pull the trigger on lethal drone attacks.
Officially, it is a taboo subject. The CIA has never acknowledged publicly that it operates lethal drones. But former Director Leon Panetta gives a riveting account of the ethical dilemma he confronted when the CIA had a top Al Qaeda terrorist in the cross hairs of a drone over Pakistan. (CIA censors forced him to truncate the story in his 2014 memoir.) The target was the Al Qaeda mastermind behind a suicide bombing that killed seven officers at the CIA station in Khost, Afghanistan, in December 2009. “We knew who the individual was,” Panetta says. “This was a bad guy. And he was clearly a leader who had been involved not only in going after our officers, but in killing members of our own forces in Afghanistan.”
Panetta’s dilemma: “Unfortunately, this individual had family and wife and children around him, so one of the tough questions was, What should we do? If there were women and children in the shot, we normally would not take the shot.” Panetta called the White House and spoke with Brennan, then Obama’s counterterrorism adviser. “What does Leon say I said?” Brennan asks me, arching an eyebrow, when I tell him about Panetta’s out-of-school account (which essentially had Brennan bouncing the ball back to him). Brennan wears a tight smile that seems to say, There goes Leon again.
The judgment call fell to the devoutly Catholic Panetta, once an altar boy. “The White House said, ‘Look, you’re going to have to make a judgment here,’” he recalls. “So, I knew at that point it was a decision that I was going to have to make. I’m the one who’s going to have to say Hail Marys here. Suddenly, I found that I was making decisions on life and death as director. And those are never easy, and frankly they shouldn’t be easy. But I felt it was really important in that job to do what I could to protect this country. So I passed on the word. I said, ‘If you can isolate the individual and take the shot without impacting on women or children, then do it. But if you have no alternative and it looks like he might get away, then take the shot.’ And it did involve collateral damage, but we got him.” In the end, says Panetta, “What you do has to be based on what your gut tells you is right. You have to be true to yourself—and hope that ultimately God agrees with you.”
Brennan, the current director, concedes that he is often called upon to make judgments with high stakes. “I’m forced to make decisions every day that have significant risks, that sometimes can result in deaths,” he says. “You try to make sure that you consider all angles. You take into account whatever information, intelligence data that you have available. You weigh the pros and cons. And you then make the best decision you can.” How high is the bar when deciding to pull the trigger on a lethal drone strike? “There needs to be near certainty of what’s called ‘no collateral,’” Brennan says. “No noncombatants who will be affected by it.”
But “near certainty” does not always apply. Last January, a drone attack on an Al Qaeda compound inadvertently killed an American and an Italian hostage, who happened to have been held there. Gen. Hayden, Bush’s third director, cautions: “Near certainty: What does that exactly mean? Because look, the president [Obama] was very candid after those recent strikes in which he talked about the ‘fog of war.’ There is fog even when you think you’ve got ‘near certainty’ and near certainty is never certainty.”
And what if the strike is deliberately aimed at an American citizen overseas? Should the CIA director—or the president, for that matter—have a license to kill? It’s been a controversial question ever since Anwar al-Awlaki, the militant American jihadist and voice of Al Qaeda, was killed by a U.S. drone in Yemen in 2011. Watchdog groups have vilified the practice. It turns out they have an unlikely ally—in ex-Director Gates. “I don’t have a moral problem with it,” says Gates, “but I believe the precedent of an American president being able to kill an American citizen under any circumstances, on just his signature, is dangerous.”
Webster is equally critical. “This was an American citizen and he was ultimately taken out, but it’s not something that should be left to one person, no matter who that person is,” says Webster. “We do harm to the country, damage to the president and others who are exercising legitimate authority by just leaving it up to unprocessed whim to use these instruments for destruction.” Gates argues that strikes on Americans should require approval by outside experts—perhaps a panel of judges: “I just think the idea of no external review beyond people appointed by the president, and who basically are his minions, being able to assess whether the president should kill an American citizen without a judicial process, needs to be looked at.”
Though drone strikes came well after his time as director (1976-1977), George H.W. Bush, says he can live with the practice: “If they’re bad guys and they’re doing us harm, I have no problem with that.” But some of his peers wonder if the otherworldly weapons have made the White House trigger happy. “When you can stare at a target unblinkingly for hours, if not days,” says Gen. Hayden, “and then use a weapon against that target that has a 14-pound warhead in it, with an accuracy measured in inches, this actually makes warfare more precise.
“That’s all to the good. Now the dark side: It does make it easier for a policymaker to make a judgment to engage.” Indeed, the relative simplicity of drone warfare has proved irresistible to the current White House. Under Barack Obama, drone strikes have grown dramatically.
“No, Mr. Deutch, assassination is not prohibited.”
In a war against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, what methods are acceptable? Is assassination fair game? Porter Goss, who resigned in frustration as George W. Bush’s second director, is still waiting for an answer: “We do not know what the rules of engagement are. Are we dealing with enemy combatants? Are we dealing with criminals? Are the rules shoot first? Do we only shoot when we get shot at? Can we ask questions? Do we have to Mirandize people?”
“I remember sitting in the Situation Room in the first Clinton term,” former CIA Director John Deutch reflects, “and discussing a particularly sensitive matter and saying, ‘But of course we can’t consider assassination because that is forbidden by executive order.’ And one of the Justice Department lawyers said, ‘No, Mr. Deutch, only political assassination is forbidden. Assassination for other purposes is not prohibited.’”
So what’s the answer? Is assassination, which was distinctly prohibited by President Gerald Ford’s Executive Order 12333, still off limits? Well, yes and no. In 2008, after a nearly three-decade manhunt, a legendary Hezbollah leader who had orchestrated countless assaults on the U.S. and Israel was killed in a daring covert operation in Damascus, Syria. A lethal “shape charge,” fired by remote control from a parked SUV, blew him to smithereens. The operation, reportedly a joint CIA-Mossad mission, is so sensitive that, to this day, none of the directors has said anything publicly about it. Except, when pressed, the current boss, John Brennan. “Is there anything at all that you can tell us about what happened to Imad Mughniyah?” I ask him. Brennan, who has the lugubrious air of an undertaker—even in his lighter moments—pauses. Then he replies, “He died quickly.”
What’s the CIA’s mission? Is it a spy agency? Or a secret army? “Sometimes I think we get ourselves into a frenzy—into believing that killing is the only answer to a problem,” says Tenet. “And the truth is, it’s not. That’s not what our reason for existence is.” When Petraeus became CIA director, his predecessor, Hayden took him aside. Never before, Hayden warned him, had the agency become so focused on covert military operations at the expense of intelligence gathering. “An awful lot of what we now call analysis in the American intelligence community is really targeting,” Hayden says. “Frankly, that has been at the expense of the broader, more global view. We’re safer because of it, but it has not been cost-free. Some of the things we do to keep us safe for the close fight—for instance, targeted killings—can make it more difficult to resolve the deep fight, the ideological fight. We feed the jihadi recruitment video that these Americans are heartless killers.”
Who’s winning? The CIA—or radical Islam? “The big picture,” says Morell, the two-time acting director, “is a great victory for us and a great victory for them. Our great victory has been the degradation, decimation, near-defeat of the Al Qaeda core that brought tragedy to our shores on 9/11. But their great victory has been the spread of their ideology across a huge geographic area. What we haven’t done a good job of is stopping new terrorists from being created. And until we get our arms around that, this war is not going away.”
“You can’t kill your way out of this,” says Tenet. “It’s not sustainable. The message to Islam itself is they have to create vibrant civil societies that work, that create educational opportunities. But this is something they have to do for themselves.” Panetta agrees that the roots of terrorism must be dealt with: “You’ve got to address what it is that produces this frustration and this anger. It is almost Mission Impossible because, for God’s sake, we’re still trying to figure out how the hell the Baltimores of the world happen; how the hell the Detroits of the world happen; why there are people that are attracted to gangs in this country.” Until we do, Panetta concludes, “we may have to use these kinds of weapons, but in the end, let me tell you something: if we fail to do this and, God forbid, this country faces another 9/11, you know what the first question will be: ‘Why the hell did you let this happen? Why the hell did you let this happen?’”
Chris Whipple is executive producer and writer of The Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs, airing on Showtime Nov. 28, 9pm to 11pm EST. He is writing a book on the White House chiefs of staff. His work can be found at www.chriswhipple.net.
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