By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
(*First of a two-part series)
Nearly two decades after President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney answered questions for the 9/11 Commission in a closed gathering in the Oval Office, a 31-page “summary” of what they had to say finally has been made public.
Neither Bush nor Cheney was under oath during the three-hour meeting on April 29, 2004. And the summary shows it was a generally relaxed, non-adversarial and largely superficial get-together during which no significant new insights were gleaned.
Yet the summary does yield Bush’s forceful, nonpublic opinion that he “didn’t see much point in assigning personal blame for 9/11.”
The president’s admonition, uttered as he was running for re-election, would not have played well with thousands of 9/11 survivors and the families of the murdered – who were then near top of mind with many American voters, Republicans and Democrats alike.
“It would have been pure outrage,” 9/11 widow and activist Kristen Breitweiser told Florida Bulldog. “We felt that in the face of nearly 3,000 dead bodies in lower Manhattan that people would have been held accountable.”
“This document makes my blood boil,” said Sharon Premoli, who was in her office on the 80th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center when the first plane struck on September 11, 2001 and was later pulled from the wreckage. “That our lives were in the hands of these incompetents is chilling and [explains] why 3,000 were murdered, 6,000 injured.”
A LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY
The lack of accountability, Breitweiser said, is exemplified by Bush’s decision to retain then-CIA boss George Tenet amid significant public criticism. “Why leave the director of the Central Intelligence Agency in place when he had utterly failed to synthesize information in the pipeline about the attacks? Is anyone surprised there was [later] bad intelligence in the war on Iraq?”
Tenet retired in July 2004. Five months later, Bush awarded Tenet the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Said Breitweiser, “Tenet is a very good example of why it was important to hold people accountable, not for political reasons, but to make the nation safe. You can’t fix problems and make sure it doesn’t happen again if you don’t have accountability. That was the families’ mandate to the commission.”
Breitweiser was a leader of the 9/11 Family Steering Committee, an organization that had pushed a reluctant Bush to create the 9/11 Commission. The steering committee urged 9/11 Commission Chair Thomas Kean and Vice Chair Lee Hamilton to ask Bush, alone and in sworn public testimony, a list of tough, probing questions, including: “Why was our nation so utterly unprepared for an attack on our own soil?” and “Why no one in any level of our government has yet been held accountable for the countless failures leading up to and on 9/11?”
TOWING TO BUSH’S LINE
Those suggested questions, and many others, were not asked, according to the summary prepared by 9/11 Commission Executive Director Philip Zelikow.
The summary, titled a “Memorandum for the Record” (MFR), does offer glimpses that might explain the ostensibly independent 9/11 Commission’s decision to tow the president’s line regarding the central question of accountability, as it declared in the preface to the 9/11 Commission report: “Our aim has not been to assign individual blame.”
For example, the summary says commission member Richard Ben-Veniste, who gained fame in the 1970s as a leading Watergate prosecutor, declared reassuringly during the Oval Office meeting that “the President and the Commission were on the same team.”
An enlightening compilation of film clips of President Bush’s less-than-illuminating remarks to reporters immediately after the meeting, interspersed with C-SPAN coverage of the contemporary reaction to the meeting, can be viewed here. It was compiled by longtime Philadelphia-based 9/11 activist Jon Gold, and includes several of Gold’s opinions at the end.
The summary discloses that Bush’s public slipperiness followed a meeting of the minds at the conclusion of the Oval Office gathering.
“The President quickly reviewed what he intended to say about the meeting to the press. Chairman Kean described the similar, and equally non-substantive, plan for Commission comments. The meeting then concluded,” Zelikow wrote.
The meeting summary, classified as “secret/sensitive,” was released Wednesday by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), an obscure body comprised of various government entities that – like the Freedom of Information process – can be used by the public to obtain a review of national security-classified records.
Except for 16 small portions, the summary was declassified after ISCAP’s slow-motion Mandatory Declassification Review. The MDR was sought by Erik Larson, a Washington, D.C. area 9/11 researcher. Larson made the request 10 years ago, in 2012.
OTHER KEY COMMISSION RECORDS STILL HIDDEN
Thousands of additional 9/11 Commission records stored at the National Archives, including interviews with FBI and CIA agents, remain classified in whole or in part. The Public Interest Declassification Board, an advisory committee established by Congress to promote public access, last year urged President Joe Biden to prioritize the release of certain Commission records, including the Bush/Cheney Oval Office interview:
- A 7,000-word report created by Zelikow and Commissioner Jamie Gorelick, “which provides a summary and analysis of information contained in the President’s Daily Briefs from the Clinton and Bush administrations pertaining to al Qaida’s efforts to conduct terrorist attacks leading up to 9/11.”
- Interviews with President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
- Interviews with various National Security Advisors and government terrorism experts, Condoleezza Rice, Sandy Berger, Richard Clarke and former CIA officer Michael Scheuer.
Zelikow’s drafting of the summary of the Bush/Cheney interview included several literary flourishes to set the scene.
“The President and Vice President were seated in chairs in front of the fireplace. The President’s demeanor throughout was relaxed. He answered questions without notes,” Zelikow wrote. “The portrait of Washington was over the fireplace, which was flanked by busts of Lincoln and Churchill. Paintings of southwestern landscapes are on the wall. It was a beautiful spring day.”
The commissioners and the president’s counsel, future Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, were on sofas and chairs. Zelikow and a couple of White House underlings sat against a wall.
Kean began the questioning with an inquiry about how Bush viewed his role as he was receiving ominous threat reports in the spring and summer of 2001. Bush explained his White House routine: meeting every day with Tenet, Cheney, then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and staff chief Andrew Card. “They talked about the threats of the day. They assessed them … then (took) up what was being done,” the summary says.
BUSH: I WAS TOLD THREAT WAS OVERSEAS
Kean asked about the now-notorious Aug. 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Bush said the briefing followed his request to an analyst for information about Bin Laden and al Qaeda.
“There was only one reference to threats in America during my presidency to that point – and he had asked for it! Not one arrived at his desk,” the summary says awkwardly. Bush added that he and his national security staff saw no “actionable intelligence” in the PDB, which among other things discussed FBI information about “suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.”
Several times during the meeting, Bush insisted he was never otherwise warned about any domestic threats. “The threat was overseas – that was what George said,” the summary says the president stated.
Bush’s assertion that he wasn’t given any advance information to act upon is galling to 9/11 family members.
“’No actionable intelligence’? Probably because Bush can’t read and refused to heed any of the flashing lights about Saudi officials’ funding of Islamic extremists plotting to murder us,” said survivor Premoli. “The interviewees alternate between the disingenuous, utter incompetence and profound dereliction of duty, Kean and Hamilton included. Notwithstanding the Commission’s investigation into Saudi Arabia’s complicity in 9/11, the report avoided assigning any responsibility to them. And the Bush administration wanted it just that way by time-constraining [the commission’s tenure]. Failure was written into the Commission’s outcome before it began.”
Said Breitweiser, “Bush clearly didn’t pay attention to the warning signs. There’s no plausible reason that people [like future hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar] weren’t arrested and deported.”
BUSH’S KILL ‘EM ALL STRATEGY
Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, also asked the president why he stayed at a Sarasota elementary school he was visiting on the morning of Sept. 11th after getting word of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center.
“He was collecting his thoughts,” the summary says. “The country was under attack. He was trying to understand what that means.”
Bush apparently hit on a simple approach to protect the country. In response to a question from Vice Chair Hamilton, a former Democratic Indiana congressman, he said, “Killing the terrorists was the best strategy. It was the only way to do it. Kill them before they kill us,” the summary says. “There would be no negotiations, no peace treaty with these people.”
No commissioner sought to explore the ramifications of Bush’s kill-’em-all approach.
Prior to 9/11 there clearly was no urgency to take out Osama bin Laden – despite a string of terrorist attacks including: the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1996 Khobar Towers truck bomb attack in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 American soldiers and wounded hundreds of others; the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam that killed 224, including 12 Americans; the Oct. 12, 2000 suicide bombing of the U.S. guided missile cruiser USS Cole in Aden, Yemen that killed 17 sailors and injured dozens more.
POOR COMMUNICATIONS, CONFUSION, RUMORS
In response to a question from 9/11 Commissioner Jamie Gorelick about whether the CIA had the authority to kill bin Laden, Bush replied that he’d asked Tenet about that during the transition. “When he asked George…can you kill him, his answer was that killing bin Laden wouldn’t disrupt al Qaeda. It was not that he didn’t have the authority to do it,” the summary says.
None of the commission members asked Bush whether bin Laden’s death would have disrupted the 9/11 plot.
Bin Laden lived on until May 2, 2011 when Navy Seals tracked him down and shot him at his hideout in Pakistan. Between 9/11 and that date, al Qaeda or its affiliates carried out more than a dozen terrorist attacks overseas that left hundreds dead.
In the Oval Office meeting, Bush and Cheney both talked about what they saw and heard on Sept. 11, 2001 – the poor communications aboard Air Force One, the confusion and false rumors, including alleged terrorist threats to Bush’s ranch in Crawford, TX and to Air Force One.
From Zelikow’s summary: “The President remembered the confusion when he arrived that afternoon in Nebraska [at Offutt Air Force Base]. He remembered coming into a room full of officers. He spoke briefly to them, that this was a tough day for America. Next, they told him about a flight coming from Madrid and asked for authorization to shoot it down. This was about two minutes after he arrived there. He told them to follow their rules of engagement. Then a few minutes later they told him the plane had landed in Madrid! A lot of confusion. It was troubling to him. It dawned on him – there was an alert, a shoot down order, then the plane is landing in Spain? Had to look into this, a communications problem.”
BUSH ON SAUDI ARABIA
At one point, 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman told Bush the “big issue was the role of the Saudis.”
“The President replied that a fundamental political question for any President was how to deal with the Saudis. There was a sort of split personality there. Some found favor with al Qaeda and the extremists, supporting their radical policies. The U.S. had to have a process to push them to change their ways,” the summary says. But “The last [to change] will be Saudi Arabia.”
Little else was said about Saudi Arabia, which is today the principal defendant in a federal multi-billion-dollar lawsuit filed by the 9/11 families who have accused the kingdom of aiding and abetting al Qaeda terrorists. Commissioners never asked Bush and Cheney about their discussions with Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan just days after the attacks in a meeting at the White House on the Truman Balcony.
Bush sought to portray himself as being in full command, with a deferential Cheney at his side. His answers, however, often suggested he was not. On a number of occasions he was unable to provide answers to direct questions, like when he was asked by Kean if he was aware that on 9/11 the Secret Service instructed Andrews Air Force Base to scramble jets outside of the chain of command of NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command).
“The President, surprised, asked the chairman to repeat ‘ordered by the Secret Service?’ The chairman affirmed that. The President said he did not know about that,” the summary says.
BUSH TOUTS IMPROVEMENTS SINCE 9/11
In discussing his administration’s approach to protecting the homeland, he said things had improved since 9/11. “The FBI and CIA were communicating regularly. He met constantly with [FBI] Director [Robert] Mueller. Why didn’t this happen before? There was a fear of looking like they were politicizing the FBI through such meetings. This was a ‘Hoover hangover.’ Presidents and the FBI also feared that they might jeopardize cases through such discussions. After 9/11, he just put that aside,” the summary says.
Yet Bush’s more measurable assessment of his Department of Homeland Security – that it was “doing a good job” – seems negligently naïve. “The response mechanisms were pretty darn good,” the summary says, again citing Bush. “FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] was a good indicator, looking at their responses to storms, where they have displayed good communications. This had become much better.”
One year later, Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, killing more than 1,800 people. FEMA was roundly criticized for its slow response and lack of coordination with other relief agencies.
Bush is long gone from the White House. But the national emergency he invoked drags on. In September, President Biden formally notified Congress he was extending it for another year.
“The terrorist threat that led to the declaration on September 14, 2001 of a national emergency continues,” Biden wrote in his notification letter. He did not elaborate.
(*Part 2 by Robbyn Swan later this week will focus on the Commission’s failure to follow through on what one commissioner told the President would be a “harsh” critique of the Saudi government’s role in the attacks, or to push Bush and Cheney on points where their version of events contradicted the testimony of other witnesses or contemporary records.)