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2006-10-04

"Classic Washington Pushoff"–Fmr. Counterrorism Advisor Rand Beers on Rice’s Reported Dismissal of Pre-9/11 CIA Warnings

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In his new book, "State of Denial," Bob Woodward reveals that then-CIA director George Tenet had warned of an imminent threat from al-Qaeda in a July 2001 meeting with Condoleezza Rice. We speak with former counterterrorism advisor Rand Beers. He served on the National Security Council under four consecutive presidents before resigning on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

The Bush administration is coming under renewed scrutiny over its actions in the months prior to the Sept. 11th attacks.

In his new book, State of Denial, Bob Woodward reveals that on July 10, 2001 then CIA director George Tenet called President Bush’s National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to hold an emergency meeting to review the latest on Osama Bin Laden. Intelligence was showing an increasing likelihood that al-Qaeda would soon attack the United States.

According to the Tenet and his counterterrorism chief Cofer Black told Rice that al-Qaeda was going to attack American interests, possibly in the United States itself. They also said that they needed to immediately take covert or military action to thwart bin Laden.

Woodward reports that Tenet hoped his abrupt request for an immediate meeting would shake Rice but he left feeling that Rice had brushed off the warnings. Two months later the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked.

After the publication of Woodward’s book, Rice initially suggested such a meeting in July 2001 did not even take place. On Sunday, Rice told reporters said, "The idea that I would have ignored that, I find incomprehensible. I am quite certain that it was not a meeting in which I was told that there was an impending attack, and refused to respond." But on Monday the State Department confirmed that Rice did meet with Tenet and Black on July 10th and that after the meeting Rice was compelled enough to ask the CIA to give the same briefing to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and to then Attorney General John Ashcroft.

  • Rand Beers, served in the Bush administration as Senior Director for Combating Terrorism on the National Security Council. He also served on the National Security Council during the Reagan, first Bush and Clinton administrations. He resigned in protest from the Bush administration in March 2003, five days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He is currently president of the National Security Network.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Rand Beers joins us now from Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush administration as senior director for combating terrorism on the National Security Council. He also served on the National Security Council during the Reagan, first Bush and Clinton administrations. He resigned in protest from the Bush administration in March 2003, five days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He is currently president of the National Security Network. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Rand Beers.

RAND BEERS: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about this July meeting?

RAND BEERS: Well, I think it’s pretty straightforward, and the facts are on the table now. There was a meeting. It was a surprise or emergency or unscheduled meeting. Rice was there. Richard Clarke and Roger Cressey, his deputy, were there, in addition to Tenet and his assistant, Cofer Black. They did present information, which said that there was a huge amount of intelligence coming indicating that an attack was imminent. The United States was either the target in an overseas environment or possibly within the United States. So the information was all clearly put on the table, based on the information that was particularly new when they went into the room.

What Dr. Rice appears to have done is a classic Washington pushoff, which is to say, "Go brief somebody else." She did not, as the National Security Advisor, do what previous national security advisors had done with this kind of a meeting, which was to herself call a meeting of senior levels in the government to discuss the serious information that was available. And so, as I have said before, the issue here is, what did she do about it? And what she did about it was basically nothing.

JUAN GONZALEZ: There has been, though, since the Woodward book focused attention on this meeting, apparently some conflict over to what degree George Tenet believed that she was taking the information seriously. In fact, I think the Washington Post has even written an article questioning their own Bob Woodward’s account of it. Your sense of the degree to — as the facts are being sorted out now?

RAND BEERS: As I said, I think the issue is not what did she specifically do in the room. The issue is, was there any evidence of the administration of the National Security Council at the highest level taking this kind of threat information seriously enough that they were prepared to shake up the government in order to make sure that we were as ready as possible? If seniors don’t communicate to their junior officers that they take an issue seriously, then business as usual prevails. And I’m afraid that’s what happened here.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the degree to which the 9/11 Commission dealt with whatever failures might have occurred here in terms of the response by Rice or the top government officials?

RAND BEERS: Well, it appears that the information that the 9/11 Commission had didn’t give them enough of a sense of how significant this meeting may have been, but they certainly did report that during that time frame, there was a lot of intelligence, and Tenet and Dick Clarke were very much concerned that we weren’t doing enough.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Rand Beers, former counterterrorism advisor, who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush. Can you talk about those days before the invasion of Iraq, what was going on, what you understood in 2001, and what happened between that time when you were still serving under George W. Bush and the time that you quit?

RAND BEERS: Well, I was, during that period, both at the State Department and then at the National Security Council staff. And what was basically happening after 9/11 and up to the invasion was that it became more and more clear wherever you were sitting in government that what we were doing in Afghanistan after the expulsion of the Taliban and al-Qaeda was shifting all of our assets and all of our attention in the direction of Iraq.

I became increasingly concerned that the level of attention to Afghanistan was putting us in a more perilous situation there. The amount of violence was increasing. Even only a year after the expulsion of the Taliban, they were already beginning to reconstitute, they were already beginning to attack. And we’re seeing today, I think, the real clear picture of that shift, because the amount of violence in Afghanistan has increased significantly. The instability across the country is now greater than it was, and the individuals who live in Afghanistan, I think, are more fearful of their own security than they have been for some time. So, what we have is the reason that we began this war on terrorism in Afghanistan turning out to be a situation that is getting perilously close to the instability in Iraq.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you about the Afghanistan situation. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist made a stunning recommendation, I thought, this week, when he suggested that maybe it was time to bring some of the former Taliban leaders into the Afghan government as a means of quelling the growing rebellion there. To hear that kind of recommendation from a key Republican leader was, to me, quite astonishing. Your response?

RAND BEERS: Well, I agree with you. I think it was astonishing. It is true, however, that there have been a couple of former Taliban officials who have publicly recanted their association with the Taliban, who have been taken by President Karzai into some formal or informal roles in the government. But what Senator Frist appeared to be saying went far beyond those simple measures that Karzai has taken, suggesting perhaps that he drank something while he was in Afghanistan that may have affected his mental acuity.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the whole controversy about the ABC so-called docudrama that very much blamed the lead-up to 9/11 on the Clinton administration, about President Clinton being distracted by Monica Lewinsky, about — what was it? — in 1998, Sandy Berger seen refusing to authorize the raid designed to capture bin Laden. You were there all during this time. What is your reaction to this?

RAND BEERS: Well, my reaction is that this clearly was a drama and not a documentary. Those kinds of insinuations don’t really square with the reality of the picture. Richard Clarke and Sandy Berger and Bill Clinton all understood how serious the situation had become, and they sought to take action within the boundaries of what the events were showing at that particular time. As Clinton himself has said, no, he didn’t catch bin Laden, and that’s a failure in the long run of history. But I think they took a country that was paying no attention to these kinds of issues and put it in a position that we were, in fact, capable of taking significant action and that, after the bombing of the USS Cole, we had a plan that Richard Clarke put forward with the National Security Advisor and the President, which they then passed on to the incoming administration. So I think they were poised to do something, and it wasn’t done.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I would like to ask you about the big picture in Iraq. You are a career civil servant and focusing on national security issues. What has the war in Iraq accomplished, in terms of security for the United States and in terms of generally fighting terrorism around the world?

RAND BEERS: Well, I’m sorry to say that the reason that I resigned from the National Security Council staff and the government has turned out to be true, and that is that I was concerned then, and we see now, that our entry into Iraq, the way in which we entered with a small, rather than a large, coalition, without UN approval, without Arab support, has ended up making Iraq a recruiting poster for al-Qaeda. It has made our job more difficult around the world.

There’s a civil war going on there now. It’s not a terrorist activity, although there are some small number of international terrorists who are present there. But that doesn’t matter, because we are present in a Muslim country in the region. We are now viewed as occupiers, and that has made our ability to deal with terrorists, to reduce the ability of terrorists to recruit, to reduce the support of terrorists in the Muslim world, has made that all more difficult. And as the National Intelligence Estimate has said, Iraq is now one of the four principal reasons that they came to the judgment that al-Qaeda and its movement has more advantages than vulnerabilities, and that situation is expected to prevail for the next five years.

AMY GOODMAN: Rand Beers, Michael Scheuer said yesterday on FOX that there’s a document to prove that there were at least eight opportunities to kill or capture bin Laden, and that it’s a lie that it couldn’t have been done before 9/11, and that goes back to President Clinton. Your response?

RAND BEERS: With all due respect to Michael Scheuer, who served his country well, I’m sure there is a document — I don’t dispute that — that he thought he could have produced an operation that could have captured bin Laden. But he was fairly well down in the hierarchy of the Central Intelligence Agency. And his suggestions and plans and ideas were all reviewed by people higher than him, most of them career CIA officials, and they were not approved. The fact that they were not approved, I think, is representative of the notion that just because you come up with a plan, doesn’t mean that the plan is executable or even feasible.

JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the issues that has gotten more attention recently is all of the former generals and high-ranking military leaders who have spoken out against the government’s policies right now in Iraq. Is it your sense that there’s a growing rift among the senior military leaders of the country and the civilian leadership in the White House in the way that they’re pursuing this war?

RAND BEERS: I think that we’re seeing basically the tip of the iceberg. These individuals are representative of their colleagues who are still on active duty. We have had reports for the last two-and-a-half years of concerns, not just with individuals, but across the entire spectrum of military leadership, that the civilian leadership in the Pentagon pays little attention to professional views, seeks to ensure that their views prevail and then claims that those were all recommendations made by the military.

AMY GOODMAN: Rand Beers, how hard was it for you to resign, after decades of service, five days before the invasion of Iraq?

RAND BEERS: It was one of the most anguishing times of my life. When you are responsible for undertaking a significant task and when you have people who work for you, who are working their fingers to the bone on a daily basis, to say that you can’t be a part of that any longer, to walk away from the friendships and the professional relationships like that is extraordinarily difficult. And I really had a very difficult weekend, before I came to the office on Monday and told people that I was leaving.

AMY GOODMAN: The final straw for you?

RAND BEERS: The final straw for me was that the reports that were coming in from the field just continued to mount, and we weren’t really paying attention to them, because the senior leadership had determined that we were going into Iraq, and I just couldn’t go along with that decision. And I was working in the White House. The President deserved the full support of the people who were working for him. And I couldn’t give that to him. So the better course of action was for me to say I have to leave, and that’s what I did.

AMY GOODMAN: Rand Beers, thanks very much for joining us, former counterterrorism advisor who served on the NSC, National Security Council, under Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush. Beers resigned in protest from the NSC in March 2003, five days before the U.S. invasion, currently president of the National Security Network. Thank you.

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