9/11 panel members shocked by report of terror meeting

Book says ex-CIA chief unable to get Rice to act on al-Qaida threat

October 02, 2006|By PHILIP SHENON | PHILIP SHENON,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Members of the Sept. 11 commission said yesterday that they were alarmed that they were told nothing about a July 2001 White House meeting at which George J. Tenet, then-director of central intelligence, is reported to have warned Condoleezza Rice, then-national security adviser, about an imminent al-Qaida attack and failed to persuade her to take action.

Details of the meeting on July 10, 2001, two months before the Sept. 11 attacks, were first reported last week in a new book by Bob Woodward. The White House disputes his account.

The final report from the Sept. 11 commission made no mention of the meeting nor did it suggest there had been such an encounter between Tenet and Rice, now secretary of state.

Since release of the book, State of Denial, the White House and Rice have disputed major elements of Woodward's account. Rice has said through spokesmen that there had been no such exchange in a private meeting with Tenet and that he had expressed none of the frustration attributed to him in Woodward's book.

"It really didn't match Secretary Rice's recollection of the meeting at all," said Dan Bartlett, counselor to President Bush, in an interview on Face the Nation on CBS. "It kind of left us scratching our heads because we don't believe that's an accurate account."

Although passages of the book suggest that Tenet was a major source for Woodward, the former intelligence director has refused to comment on the book since its release.

There also has been no comment on the book from J. Cofer Black, who was Tenet's counterterrorism chief, and who, the book says, attended the July 10 meeting and left it frustrated by Rice's "brush-off" of the warnings

Black is quoted as saying, "The only thing we didn't do was pull the trigger to the gun we were holding to her head." He did not return calls left at Blackwater, the security firm he joined last year.

The book says that Tenet hurriedly organized the meeting - calling ahead from his car as it traveled to the White House - because he wanted to "shake Rice" into persuading the president to respond to dire intelligence warnings about a possible strike. Woodward writes that Tenet left the meeting frustrated because "they were not getting through to Rice."

The disclosures took members of the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission by surprise last week. Some questioned whether information about the July 10 meeting was intentionally withheld from the panel, which was known formally as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

In interviews Saturday and yesterday, commission members said they were never told about the meeting despite hours of public and private questioning with Rice, Tenet and Black, much of it focused specifically on how the White House had dealt with threats in the summer of 2001.

"None of this was shared with us in hours of private interviews, including interviews under oath, nor do we have any paper on this," said Tim Roemer, a Democratic member of the commission and a former congressman from Indiana. "I'm deeply disturbed by this. I'm furious."

Another Democratic commissioner, the former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste, said that the staff of the Sept. 11 commission was polled in recent days on the disclosures in Woodward's book and agreed that the meeting "was never mentioned to us."

"This is certainly something we would have wanted to know about," he said, referring to the meeting. "We asked broad questions which should have elicited this information."

He said he had attended the commission's private interviews with Tenet and Rice, and had pressed "very hard for them to provide us with everything they had regarding conversations with the executive branch" about threats before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Philip D. Zelikow, the executive director of the Sept. 11 commission and now a counselor to Rice at the State Department, agreed that no witness before the commission had drawn attention to a July 10 meeting at the White House or described the sort of encounter portrayed in Woodward's book.

Zelikow said that it was "entirely plausible" that a meeting occurred July 10, during a period that summer in which intelligence agencies were being flooded with warnings of an attack against the United States or its allies.

But he said the commissioners and their staff had heard nothing in their private interviews with Tenet and Black to suggest they made such a dire presentation to Rice or that she had rebuffed them.

"If we had heard something that drew our attention to this meeting, it would have been a huge thing," Zelikow said. "Repeatedly, Tenet and Black said they could not remember what had transpired in some of those meetings." Democratic lawmakers have seized on Woodward's book in arguing that the Bush administration bungled the war in Iraq and paid too little attention to threats in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks.

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