Tenet, Rice met before 9/11

White House records confirm that CIA briefing on al-Qaida threat was held in July 2001

October 03, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A review of White House records has determined that George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, did brief Condoleezza Rice and other top officials July 10, 2001, about the looming threat from al-Qaida, a State Department spokesman said yesterday.

The account by Sean McCormack came hours after Rice, the secretary of state, told reporters aboard her airplane that she did not recall the specific meeting on July 10, 2001, pointing out that she had met repeatedly with Tenet that summer about terrorist threats.

Rice, the national security adviser at the time, said it was "incomprehensible" that she ignored dire terrorist threats two months before the Sept. 11 attacks.

McCormack also said records show that the Sept. 11 commission was informed about the meeting, a fact that former intelligence officials and members of the commission confirmed yesterday.

When details of the meeting emerged last week in a new book by Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, Bush administration officials questioned Woodward's reporting.

Now, after several days, current and former Bush administration officials have confirmed parts of Woodward's account.

Officials now agree that on July 10, 2001, Tenet and his counterterrorism deputy, J. Cofer Black, were so alarmed about an impending al-Qaida attack that they demanded an emergency meeting at the White House with Rice and her National Security Council staff.

According to two former intelligence officials, Tenet told those assembled at the White House about the growing body of intelligence that the Central Intelligence Agency had collected pointing to an impending al-Qaida attack.

But both current and former officials took issue with Woodward's account that Tenet and his aides left the meeting in frustration, feeling as if Rice had ignored them.

Tenet told members of the Sept. 11 commission about the July 10 meeting when they interviewed him in early 2004, but committee members said the former CIA director never indicated he had left the White House with the impression that he had been ignored.

"Tenet never told us that he was brushed off," said Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic member of the commission. "We certainly would have followed that up."

McCormack said the records showed that, far from ignoring Tenet's warnings, Rice acted on the intelligence and requested that Tenet make the same presentation to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

But Ashcroft said by telephone last night that he never received a briefing that summer from Tenet.

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

The dispute that has played out in recent days gives further evidence of an escalating battle between the White House and Tenet over who should take the blame for such mistakes as the failure to stop the Sept. 11 attacks and assertions by Bush administration officials that then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was stockpiling chemical and biological weapons and cultivating ties to al-Qaida.

Tenet resigned as director of central intelligence in the summer of 2004 and was honored that December with a Presidential Medal of Freedom during a White House ceremony. Since leaving the CIA, Tenet has stayed out of the public eye, largely declining to defend his record at the CIA even after several government investigations have assailed the faulty intelligence that helped build the case for the Iraq war.

Tenet is completing work on a memoir that is scheduled to be published early next year.

It is unclear how much Tenet will use the book to settle old scores, although recent books have portrayed Tenet as dubious about the need for the Iraq war and angry that the White House has made the CIA the primary scapegoat for the war.

In his book The One Percent Doctrine, journalist and author Ron Suskind quotes Tenet's former deputy at the CIA, John McLaughlin, saying that Tenet "wishes he could give that damn medal back."

In his book, Woodward wrote that over time Tenet developed a particular dislike for Rice, and that the former CIA director was furious when she publicly blamed the agency for allowing President Bush to make the false claim in the 2003 State of the Union Address that Hussein was pursuing nuclear materials in Niger.

"If the CIA, the director of national intelligence, had said `Take this out of the speech,' it would have been gone, without question," Rice told reporters in July 2003.

In fact, the CIA had told the White House months before that the Niger intelligence was bogus and had managed to keep the claim out of an October 2002 speech that Bush gave in Cincinnati.

More recently, Tenet has told friends that he was particularly angry when, appearing recently on Sunday talk shows, Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney mentioned Tenet by name as the reason that Bush administration officials asserted that Hussein had stockpiles of banned weapons in Iraq and ties to al-Qaida.

Cheney recalled during an appearance on Meet the Press on Sept. 10 of this year: "George Tenet sat in the Oval Office and the president of the United States asked him directly, he said, `George, how good is the case against Saddam on weapons of mass destruction?' the director of the CIA said, `It's a slam dunk, Mr. President, it's a slam dunk.'"

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