By Robbyn Swann, FloridaBulldog.org
(*Second of a two-part series)
A carefully choreographed 2004 meeting among President George W. Bush, Vice President DIck Cheney, and 9/11 Commission members left critical questions about the 2001 attacks unresolved and further muddied the historical record, an analysis by the Florida Bulldog shows. At one point, an otherwise affable Bush turned his back on a Commission member to avoid a difficult series of questions.
As Florida Bulldog reported last Sunday, survivors and family members reacted with outrage to what one described as the Commission’s “incompetent” handling of the Bush and Cheney encounter.
Especially egregious to the families’ was the Commission’s seeming willingness to fall into line with the President’s belief that there was not “much point in assigning personal blame for 9/11.” Such accountability had, by contrast, been an essential element of the 9/11 families mandate to the Commission from the outset.
The issue was at the forefront of Commission members minds when they trooped into the Oval Office on April 29. One of their own, Jamie Gorelick, had herself come under intense scrutiny.
Ten days earlier, in public testimony to the Commission, Bush’s Attorney General, John Ashcroft, had brandished a classified memo Gorelick had written when she served as Deputy Attorney General in the Clinton administration. Gorelick, Ashcroft had alleged, was responsible for building “the wall” between the CIA and the FBI that kept them from sharing intelligence, and was “the single greatest structural cause” for the failure to prevent 9/11.
A TOUGH MONTH FOR BUSH
April 2004 had been a tough month for the Bush administration. Early in the month, the President reversed a claim of “executive privilege” and allowed his National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify publicly under oath to the Commission. The White House had also been forced to release the President’s Daily Brief [PDB] for August 6, 2001, a key intelligence document that had warned of al Qaeda’s intent to attack the U.S. And finally, after long resistance, the White House had agreed to the informal Q & A with the full Commission.
Bush had spent much of the week in private briefing sessions with his staff. The Ashcroft/Gorelick imbroglio gave him a chance to control the meeting from its outset.
In a private briefing session beforehand, Bush told Commission Chairman Tom Kean and his deputy Lee Hamilton that he had not approved the attacks on Gorelick and offered an effusive apology.
A few minutes later, as the notes released last week reflect, a smiling Bush reiterated his “disappointment” in Ashcroft’s conduct to the rest of the Commission’s members. “They knew exactly how to do this,“ former Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA) would later tell the New York Times’s Philip Shenon, “they really pulled the talons and the teeth out” of the Commissioners’ questioning. So little of value was gained that the Commission’s report cites the meeting only twenty-seven times in its thousands of notes.
Chairman Kean raised the first matter of substance, the PDB of August 6, 2001. The briefing had haunted Bush since its contents had been leaked to the press two years earlier. Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11 had pressed in vain for access to the PDB. The 9/11 Commission had kept the pressure on – not the least so as to be seen to have resolved the celebrated question that had once been asked about President Nixon during Watergate: “What did the President know and when did he know it?” The holy grail of accountability.
In early April 2002, on the day after the PDB had finally been released, President Bush told reporters that the document had “said nothing about an attack on America. It talked about intentions, about somebody who hated America. Well, we knew that…and as the President, I wanted to know if there was anything, any actionable intelligence. And I looked at the August 6th briefing. I was satisfied that some of the matters were being looked into.” This particular PDB, he said, had been produced for him by the CIA at his own request.
‘BIN LADEN DETERMINED TO STRIKE IN U.S.’
Sitting in the Oval Office before the full 9/11 Commission, Bush repeated these claims. Intelligence, he said, had been about attacks “overseas”. Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, politely pointed out that the PDB had actually been entitled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”
The headline alone had been a clarion message to President Bush that Osama bin Laden intended to attack on the U.S. mainland. Had the President received information before on the potential for an attack inside the United States, Ben-Veniste asked. “None,” Bush replied.
This was patently false. The very first sentence of the PDB had told the President – in italicized type – that secret reports, friendly governments, and media coverage had indicated for the past four years that bin Laden wanted to attack within the United States. He had even said, according to an intelligence source cited in the PDB – identity redacted – that he wanted to attack “in Washington.”
Prior to the August 6 PDB, the President said no one had told him al Qaeda cells were present in the United States. “How was this possible?” Ben-Veniste wrote later. “[National Security Council chief counter-terrorism advisor] Richard Clarke had provided this information to Condoleezza Rice, and he had put it in writing.” Indeed he had, analysis shows, on two occasions.
As for the reference in the PDB to recent surveillance of buildings in New York – known to relate to the arrest of two Yemenis who had been picked up after taking photographs – the President told the Commissioners the matter had been cleared up. On this matter, Ben-Veniste pushed back. The FBI had not done so. Agents tried in vain to find the man who, using an alias, had asked that the photographs be taken.
In choreographing their meeting with the Commission, the White House had clearly been mindful of the perception that the Vice President was the Administration’s puppet master. Bush and Cheney had agreed to the session only on the condition that they would be interviewed together. The President took the lead, with Cheney chiming in only on occasion. The process, any good prosecutor would have suggested, was designed to prevent those being questioned from telling different stories.
WHO ISSUED SHOOTDOWN ORDER?
On no issue addressed in the meeting was that concern more obvious than it was on the matter of the authorization given during the morning of September 11 for the U.S. military to shoot down any commercial airline deemed to be a threat. Who issued that momentous order, and when? Questioning about the order occupies more space in the notes of the meeting than any other single subject.
Only the President could grant the permission required for an American pilot to shoot down a commercial airliner. In the days after the attacks, however, military leaders tripped over themselves with contradictions about the day’s events, and whether Bush had given such permission. Then, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” on September 16, 2001 Cheney said that Bush had indeed made the “toughest decision” – to shoot down a civilian airliner if necessary.
Bush himself, speaking with The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, said Cheney had suggested that he issue the order. His response, as he remembered it, had been monosyllabic. Just, “You bet…”
It would have been unthinkable for the U.S. military to down a civilian airliner without a clear order from the President, as Commander-in-Chief. In his absence, the authority belonged to the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. “The operational chain of command,” relevant law decreed, ran “from the President to the Secretary of Defense,” and on through the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to individual commanders. The Vice President was not in the chain of command.
On September 11, however, after the Pentagon was hit at 9:37 a.m., Rumsfeld had become uncontactable. The Defense Secretary, a key figure in the chain of command, headed off to view the damage.
Staff at the National Military Command Center, whose task it was to connect the President and the Defense Secretary to those charged with carrying out their orders, looked for Rumsfeld in vain. It was “outrageous”, an unnamed senior White House official would later complain, for the man responsible for the nation’s defense to have been “out of touch” at such a time.
In the end, Rumsfeld played no role in the decision, and learned of it from Cheney long minutes after it had been given.
PAPER TRAIL CHALLENGES BUSH RECOLLECTION
The Commissioners’ questions on the issue were geared toward clarifying the complicated chronology of the morning. Chairman Kean kicked off early in the meeting, but the issue was returned to at the midway point by Gorelick and again at the end of the session by Gorton.
Bush recalled the conversation about a shootdown order taking place after the Vice President had reached the safety of the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) under the East Wing of the White House. “Yes, engage the enemy,” Bush says he told him, “You have the authority to shoot down an airplane.” Cheney, too, agreed the relevant call had taken place in the PEOC.
Gorelick, to her credit, pushed to clarify the timings, even telling Cheney that the “literal tick-tock” he had was different from what the Commission had been given. They needed, she said, to have what he had.
“Look,” the President interjected at this point, “he didn’t give orders without my permission.”
Faced with the contradictory recollections, the Commission team concentrated on the paper trail. The White House famously keeps track of all high-level communications, maintains records of phone calls, logs of Secret Service operations, logs kept by military officers, a Situation Room log, a log of activity in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center – or PEOC – the bunker in the bowels of the White House where Cheney spent much of the day on September 11, and logs kept aboard Air Force One. For the day of 9/11, there were also notes kept by individuals: Bush’s press secretary, Cheney’s chief of staff, and his wife, Lynne Cheney.
George Bush and Dick Cheney’s “recollection is challenged by the primary source material,” Commission Senior Counsel John Farmer told Florida Bulldog this week. “None of the contemporaneous notes from that morning reflect the President’s recollection that he gave the shootdown order.”
Using as many data points as were publicly available, I recreated the Commission’s work for my 2011 book, The Eleventh Day, and agree with Farmer’s assessment. (Several important items – the notes of Mrs. Cheney, press secretary Ari Fleischer and Cheney’s aide Scooter Libby – remain classified.) There was no documentary evidence, for either the timing or content of the call during which Bush and Cheney claimed authorization was given.
Did Cheney give the shootdown order on his own initiative then, before consulting the President? The best evidence says it is likely he did.
ACCOUNTABILITY SLIPPED AWAY
If he did so, many might think that Cheney, on the spot and capable, would have been justified in short-circuiting the system. If he did so, and then persistently told a false story, however – and if the eventual release of all the records were to prove it – history will be less generous.
Why fabricate a phony scenario? “The administration version,” Farmer has written, implied “that the chain of command had been functioning on 9/11, and that the critical decisions had been made by the appropriate top officials…None of this captures how things actually unfolded on the day.”
Once again, accountability slipped away.
By the time Bush and Cheney sat down with the Commission, the possible role of the Saudi government in the attacks had long been a matter of intense public interest and debate. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers – and Osama bin Laden himself – were Saudis.
In response to a question from Vice Chair Hamilton, the President attempted to describe how the administration had worked to improve cooperation with Saudi Arabia in the summer of 2001. But, he admitted, Saudi de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah had been “disgruntled” over the US approach to the Palestinian conflict.
Later in the session, under questioning by Ben-Veniste, the Vice President explained that in July he had spoken to the Crown Prince about threat reports that had been coming in about al Qaeda attacks on US facilities in Saudi Arabia. He recalled telling Abdullah that the US wanted to send a team to work with the Saudis on that, and that CIA Director George Tenet had been discussing it with Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal.
Though both men’s recollections begged to be expanded, no follow up questions were asked.
U.S.-SAUDI RELATIONS SOUR BEFORE 9/11
In August 2001, U.S.-Saudi relations had in fact been at breaking point. In the spring, the Crown Prince had pointedly declined an invitation to the White House. Three weeks before 9/11, enraged by television footage of an Israeli soldier putting his boot on the head of a Palestinian woman, Abdullah had snapped. Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar had been told to deliver this uncompromising message to President Bush:
“I reject this extraordinary, un-American bias whereby the blood of an Israeli child is more expensive and holy than the blood of a Palestinian child…” the Crown Prince wrote. “A time comes when peoples and nations part…Starting today, you go your way and we will go our way…”
That was the truth of the situation in which the U.S. was trying – apparently through Prince Turki – to stiffen Saudi resolve to cooperate in thwarting the al Qaeda menace. The Commission’s report, though, would minimize the severity of the breakdown in relations in one tepid line: “US-Saudi relations in the summer of 2001 were marked by sometimes heated disagreements about on-going Israeli-Palestinian violence, not about bin Laden.”
What, if anything, the former head of Saudi intelligence may have told the Commission about these matters or anything else is not known. For many years after 9/11, under a rare security ruling, the National Archives could neither confirm nor deny that the Commission had interviewed the Prince. Although the Archives finally acknowledged that a Turki interview does exist, it remains withheld in full. In 2019, I filed an Appeal for the release of the interview with the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) – the same body that released the notes of the Bush-Cheney meeting this month. That appeal is still under review.
The Report of the Congressional Joint Inquiry into the attacks, the Commission’s predecessor, had highlighted serious concerns about the Kingdom: funds that might have flowed from the bank account of the Saudi Ambassador’s wife to two of the hijackers, Saudi officials who appear to have acted as part of a support network for those same hijackers, money flows that suggested funds from Saudi royals was passing through Saudi charities and on to the coffers of al Qaeda.
SAUDIS THE ‘BIG ISSUE’
It was left to John Lehman, the Commission member who had served as Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, to carry the ball on what he described as “the big issue” of the Saudi role in supporting and funding terror.
As summarized in the newly released Memorandum for the Record (MFR), the exchanges between Lehman and Bush lack precision, seem almost perfunctory when Bush replied that dealing with the Saudis was a “fundamental policy question” for any President and assured the Commission that it was something he was working on “on a daily basis.”
“What had happened to the hard questions?” outraged survivors asked when the notes were released last week.
Several years ago, Lehman had told the New York Times’s Shenon that he had asked such questions, including one about checks from the account of Prince Bandar’s wife winding up in the hands of one of the hijackers’ possible Saudi accomplices. The President, Lehman told Shenon, “had dodged the questions”.
Contacted by Florida Bulldog this week, Lehman confirmed what he had told Shenon. “The Saudi role in financing Jihadist institutions around the world and the fact that no President had ever raised this with the Saudis, the role of employees of Saudi institutions who had actively aided and abetted some of the Saudi hijackers, the contributions of Prince Bandar’s wife to two of the hijackers, and other related issues with the Saudis,” Lehman stressed, were among the questions he’d put to the President.
EX-COMMISSIONER CHALLENGES ACCURACY OF MFR
Lehman expressed bewilderment that his questions were not mentioned in the declassified summary, which he said he had not seen before. “The fact that he did not answer my questions, but turned his back on me,” he wrote, “is something I shall never forget.”
Philip Zelikow, who as the Commission’s Executive Director sat in on the meeting, wrote the MFR. “Three commissioners (all Democrats) reviewed my MFR to check that it was accurate.” Zelikow responded when told of Lehman’s remarks. “John could have done that too, if he had wished.”
President Bush’s office did not respond to Florida Bulldog’s request for comment. A letter from Prince Bandar to the Commission, mentioned by Lehman in the newly released notes and apparently addressing these issues, remains classified. We have filed a formal request for its release.
The President’s “rebuff” [Lehman’s words] makes sense of a sharply worded comment he made to the President. “The President,” Lehman reportedly said, “should expect the Commission report on this subject to be harsh.”
“The report was not as harsh as many of us thought it should be,” Lehman wrote when asked what had happened to the criticism he had signalled, but it “certainly did not exonerate the Saudis.”
“We were frustrated that we had been shut down before we could run to ground the Saudi government officials that had actively helped the hijackers, or many of the other issues that were raised during our investigation that involved Saudi Arabia,” Lehman said.
In the careful diplomatic dance with the Saudis, as in other aspects of the Commission’s investigation, there was no blame to be cast, no accountability either.