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“500 Days”: Author Kurt Eichenwald’s New Account of How Bush Admin Ignored Warnings Before 9/11

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Newly disclosed documents provide further evidence the administration of George W. Bush ignored repeated warnings about Osama bin Laden’s plans to attack the United States. In “500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars,” author and journalist Kurt Eichenwald fleshes out how the Bush administration dismissed a number of warnings of an al-Qaeda attack against the United States beginning in the spring of 2001, instead focusing on alleged threats from Saddam Hussein in Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: One day after the 11th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, we begin the show by talking about newly disclosed documents that provide further evidence the Bush administration ignored repeated warnings about Osama bin Laden’s plans to attack the United States. Writing in the New York Times, journalist and author Kurt Eichenwald reports the Bush administration dismissed a number of warnings of an al-Qaeda attack in the United States beginning in the spring of 2001, instead focusing on Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Eichenwald writes, quote, “the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to [this] theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat,” end-quote.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, to talk about the significance of these findings, we’re joined by the author himself, Kurt Eichenwald, an award-winning journalist, contributing editor at Vanity Fair. His op-ed in the New York Times yesterday is called, “The Deafness Before the Storm.” His latest book, 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars, also author of the book The Informant.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

KURT EICHENWALD: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Kurt, lay out the chronology for us. A lot of people know August 6, 2001, right before the September 11th attacks. Explain then that memo and then how you went back.

KURT EICHENWALD: Well, actually, that is the way to look at this, is sort of backwards. In 2004, the 9/11 Commission hearings were coming down and saying, “We want to see these presidential daily briefs.” And the Bush administration fought releasing them. They finally released the August 6th one, which had the now-infamous headline, “Bin Laden determined to strike U.S.” And in her testimony, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser at the time, said this was merely a historical document. It was a review of, you know, bin Laden and al-Qaeda and their intents and what they’ve done. And actually, when you read it, that is what it was. And it was also a red herring, because—I can’t say that’s why they released it, but it certainly was convenient, because that document was the only one of the many that had gone out over the previous few months that was historical. All the others were: “There is an attack coming,” “There’s an attack coming that’s going to be devastating. There are going to be mass casualties,” “There is a terrorist cell in the United States that is plotting to strike,” I mean, with a great deal of table pounding. And there was—and I don’t want to keep picking on Secretary Rice, but she did—in that, she did testify, “If we had been made aware that there was an attack coming, we would have done something.” Well, they were made aware. And, you know, in the end, what these documents show is that the Bush administration was not at that point prepared to consider al-Qaeda and these kind of non-state terrorist organizations as being a significant threat.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But who are the neoconservative leaders that you point to who were more interested in Iraq than in listening to what’s happening with al-Qaeda, what was happening?

KURT EICHENWALD: Well, the lead fellow was Paul Wolfowitz, who was the number two at the Pentagon. And, you know, one of—since this piece came out, there was members of the Bush administration—Ari Fleischer last night was saying, “Oh, Paul was kicking this idea around, but people said no, and that was it.” Well, that’s a lie, you know, because when you look at the presidential daily briefs, the CIA actually had to go back and put together an entire brief saying, “No, we’re not being fooled. This is real. Let’s have to deal” — and it’s going to the president of the United States. There’s a debate playing out to the president of the United States, in June of—June 29th of 2001, about whether these warnings are even worth listening to. So, you know, it’s a very serious, serious circumstance.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Who else is privy to the briefs, apart from the president? Who else heard the briefings from the CIA?

KURT EICHENWALD: Well, it would have gone to the vice president. It would have—there are two levels of briefings. There are the presidential daily briefs, and then there’s a second level down called the SEIB. And that gets around a broader roof of people. Now, elements of what are in the presidential daily briefs are also in the SEIB. And those—so I can say that some elements of what I’m saying were wide—were among the whole national security senior advisory group within the Bush administration.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a clip from April 8th, 2004, of the secretary of state then, Condoleezza Rice, testifying in a hearing before the 9/11 Commission about the attacks.

SECRETARY OF STATE CONDOLEEZZA RICE: There was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks. In hindsight, if anything might have helped stop 9/11, it would have been better information about threats inside the United States, something made very difficult by structural and legal impediments that prevented the collection and sharing of information by our law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

AMY GOODMAN: That was then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who actually spoke at the Republican National Convention this summer. Kurt Eichenwald, talk about what she said, and then talk about what you describe as the obsession, not with Osama bin Laden, but with Saddam Hussein, and how they felt this was sidetracking that targeting.

KURT EICHENWALD: OK. Well, that quote from Secretary Rice was something that, actually, to me, sort of goes to the heart of what’s so offensive here, because, you know, we can say, “Well, here are the warnings.” We cannot say, “Well, if they had done x, y and z, 9/11 would have been stopped.” All we can say is they had this information.

But what we also know is, now that these documents are out, the CIA did a spectacular job in developing the evidence and bringing it to the White House, and the White House didn’t listen. And so, what you had from almost the get-go was the White House and members of the administration saying, “Well, the intelligence wasn’t good enough,” and “Oh, if we had only had something else.” And they get to the point of saying, “Well, we weren’t given a place and a time,” as if, you know, we’re talking about an invitation to a birthday party. I mean, the way intelligence works, you don’t say, “On Tuesday, March—you know, September 11th, there will be an attack here.” If you have that much information, it would simply be: “We’ve arrested these people.”

And the thing to bear in mind—I’ll throw one more little fact out. The only other time you had a series of threat alerts on the scale of what you had on the summer of 2001 was in December of 1999. And it was: bin Laden is about to strike. I mean, same thing, very, very similar. And the entire government went on high alert. You had, you know, the Counterterrorism Center in their terrace—Counterterrorist Center at the CIA was told, “Don’t worry about your budget.” And they blew through their first nine months of the year budget in 15 days. And, you know, this—yes, I mean, it’s—this was a full-court-press “we’re going to stop them.” And they picked up terrorists around the world. You know, the one people know about is the fellow who was planning to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. But there were people picked up in Indonesia, there were people picked up in Pakistan, who were going to attack American interests there. And so, that was very, very successful. And it was successful because the government has the ability and the capacity to go on high alert. What the Bush administration did was say, “This is very concerning. Let’s have a meeting, you know, and let’s put out notices to our embassies and put out notices to our military: you know, be particularly careful.” But it’s not the same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about Saddam Hussein here, the significance of the problem of it being Osama bin Laden for the neocons in the White House, because they wanted to get Saddam Hussein?

KURT EICHENWALD: Well, there, you just sort of have to understand the shift that took place in that period. The Republicans had been out of the White House since '92. When they left, the nation state was the enemy—you know, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, whoever you wanted to pick. And Saddam was, you know, the center of the war. They leave. And during the time from ’92 through 2000, the detached threat, the non-nation-state threat, develops. Al-Qaeda develops. We hadn't heard of al-Qaeda before that time. And so, when they get—when the Republicans get back into office, they have spent the last year on the outside, you know, rattling the “We have to take down Iraq, and Clinton isn’t taking down Iraq” saber. And they get back in, and the Clinton people tell them, “The most important thing you’re going to deal with over the next few years is bin Laden.” But they haven’t adapted to that. This is a new world. And it’s, “No, Iraq is the most important.” So they’re still in that old mindset. And unfortunately, facts started being shoved into that mindset. If you had a piece of information come up, “Well, how does that relate to Iraq? What did bin Laden say? Well, how does that relate to Iraq? What’s for breakfast today? Well, how does that relate to Iraq?”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Kurt Eichenwald, I want to turn to your appearance on MSNBC yesterday, where you were joined by Republican governor of New York, George Pataki, who challenged the premise of your book and much of what you’re saying now, your book 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars.

GEORGE PATAKI: I just think this is incredibly unfortunate, to be perfectly honest, because, first of all, having been there on September 11th and for weeks, months thereafter, President Bush provided inspired, effective leadership. And September 11th, everything changed. And to look 11 years later and say, “Aha! This was happening before September 11th in the summer,” and to go through and selectively take out quotes and say, “You should have done that, you should of done that,” I think it’s incredibly unfair and a disservice to history. And, by the way, you know, if you look back, there are those who could have said, “President Roosevelt was at fault for Pearl Harbor. Look at all the intelligence.”

KURT EICHENWALD: And there are a lot of people who do say that.

GEORGE PATAKI: But the government didn’t look back and say, “Let’s blame the president.” It came together to fight an important war. We came together to fight an important war. Wait, you could also look back, Kurt, and say that you got intelligence we were going to be attacked. Of course, we had already been attacked. The towers were blown up in '93. And I don't think it serves us any point to say that then the Clinton administration treated it as a criminal act as opposed to a terrorist act.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was George Pataki, who was governor of New York when the 9/11 attacks happened. Your response?

KURT EICHENWALD: There has been, over the last 24 hours, a quite a disturbing response from the Republicans, which is actually surprising, because what I’m doing is I am writing a history. This is what happened. I don’t come in and say something horrific about, well, this is what, you know, should be done, and they should have acted in this way, and they could have stopped 9/11. I never say any of that. I have said, this is what they did in '99, and it worked, and they could have done that. But, you know, what is sort of the conceit of what Governor Pataki is saying is, “Well, we don't want to hear the history, because George Bush did a great job after 9/11, and whatever happened beforehand is irrelevant.” His comment about Roosevelt, I mean, this would be as if we were saying, in 1956, we couldn’t talk about the history of what happened before the bombing, before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Well, it’s 11 years before. It’s history. And unfortunately, so much in this country now gets seen through this partisan prism, that when you’re dealing with “here’s what happened,” people don’t want—you know, people don’t want to hear it if it doesn’t fit the talking points of the day.

AMY GOODMAN: The people who threatened to quit within the CIA, I mean, this wasn’t just a minor issue. You had a whole group of people who—we remember when Cheney went repeatedly to the CIA, saying, “You’re not giving me the information I want to attack Saddam Hussein.” The White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke, September 12th, Bush comes up to him and says, “I need information on Saddam Hussein.” But the CIA folks who were talking about it being Osama bin Laden when the rest were pushing them to say Saddam Hussein?

KURT EICHENWALD: Well, I think what you’re talking about is the July 9th meeting at the CIA, where the counterterrorism people all got together. And again, this goes to exactly what Governor Pataki was saying. It’s like, “We get these warnings all the time. And there was something in ’93,” you know, as if—as if there’s no purpose for counterterrorism, because, oh, we all know they’re going to come at us all the time. Well, the people who put together the intelligence, the people who were there, day in, day out, the people who were the ones listening in on the phone calls, the people who are protecting American citizens were sitting in a conference room saying, “We need to put in for a mass transfer, because this is coming, and it’s going to be really bad.” And—

AMY GOODMAN: And they’re going to be blamed for it.

KURT EICHENWALD: And they’re going to be blamed for it. And the senior fellow in the room says — this is a scene in 500 Days — senior fellow in the room says, “There’s nobody more qualified than us to ride this thing down. They’re not going to be able to get people in here who are qualified, and we are going to be the ones here holding the bag,” and, you know, which is exactly what happened. They’re sitting there saying, not, you know, “Oh, what’s the next thing we can do?” They’re saying, “We’ve done everything we can do. They won’t act. It’s going to happen. It’s going to be bad. We’re going to be blamed.” And all the—the only thing they failed to do was to get the White House off the dime, and that wasn’t their responsibility.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the most interesting accounts in your book is of President Bush trying to persuade—then-President Bush trying to persuade French President Jacques Chirac to support U.S. military action in Iraq. You write that Bush said to Chirac, quote, “Jacques, you and I share a common faith. You’re Roman Catholic, I’m Methodist, but we are both Christians committed to the teachings of the Bible. We share one common Lord.” Bush goes on to say, quote, “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. Biblical prophecies are being fulfilled. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase His people’s enemies before a new age begins,” end-quote. Can you elaborate on that exchange?

KURT EICHENWALD: That was a very interesting day when I heard that. This was a phone call—at that point, Chirac had been expressing a great deal of doubt about the intelligence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. His doubts obviously were well placed. And Bush was trying to get a unified—you know, unified effort behind getting a resolution from the U.N. and then for military action. And Chirac was not being particularly cooperative, for the very reason he didn’t trust the intelligence. And so there’s this phone call, and Bush is, you know, giving many reasons why France should become part of a—why Chirac should be joining in. And he’s not having a lot of success. And suddenly you shift into this religious conversation.

And Chirac’s response to this was, you know, he gets off the phone—and other people had been—you know, had been in on the call, and he looks at his staff and says, “Does anyone know what he was talking about?” And they—his administration, someone there reaches out to an expert on the Bible in Switzerland, and this person—because it’s like, what is Gog and Magog? And this person writes up a report for—I mean, I just say this, and it’s surreal. He writes a report for the French president explaining these biblical terms that were cited by the president of the United States in this national security conversation. And Gog and Magog are two—are from two the books of the Bible, one the Book of Ezekiel and one the Book of Revelation. And it is central elements in, you know, the apocalyptic—you know, the Armageddon concept. And so, Chirac’s response when he reads this is, “I’m dealing with a fanatic, and I’m not going to make, you know, national security decisions for France based on someone—you know, the president’s interpretation of the Bible.”

AMY GOODMAN: Kurt Eichenwald, we have to end this conversation, but the book is fascinating, 500 Days. We’d like to ask you to stay after the show so we can do part two and then broadcast it on Democracy Now! and put it online at Kurt Eichenwald is a contributing writer at Vanity Fair. His latest book, 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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