Why the Bush Administration Didn't Care About Al Qaeda

Critics of George Tenet have rightly savaged him for trying in his memoirs, At the Center of the Storm, to gloss over his complicity with the Bush administration's shameful selling of the invasion of Iraq based on outright lies. Nevertheless, Tenet does reveal more details of an astonishing story that remains virtually unknown -- how the Bush administration officials who pushed the United States into war in Iraq in 2001 were not only utterly unresponsive to the urgent warnings of CIA officials about a big attack by Bin Laden's terrorists on U.S. soil, but did their best to discredit them.

Tenet recounts how CIA officials gave Condi Rice a "chilling" briefing on July 5, 2001 indicating Bin Laden had told trainees three weeks earlier that a "big event" was coming soon, and that it would be designed to inflict mass casualties, possibly through "multiple and simultaneous attacks." The briefers made it clear that Bin Laden's threats were well known throughout the Arab world, so the possibility of disinformation could be discounted.

But shortly after the briefing Steve Cambone, then undersecretary of defense for intelligence and a spear-carrier who reflected Donald Rumsfeld's views, suggested to Tenet that Bin Laden's threats were all just "a grand deception, a clever ploy to tie up our resources and expend our energies on a phantom enemy that lacked both the power and the will to carry the battle to us."

That was only the tip of the iceberg of Bush administration hostility to the CIA's message about the al Qaeda terrorist threat. The most determined foe of the CIA's warnings was Paul Wolfowitz, the number two man at the Pentagon and the main advocate of war on Iraq. As White House counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke recalled in his 2003 memoirs that Wolfowitz began his campaign against the CIA's emphasis on the threat from Bin Laden early in the Bush administration. When Clarke briefed a "Deputies" meeting in April 2001 on the need to put pressure on al Qaeda and its Taliban regime sponsor in Afghanistan, Wolfowitz complained he couldn't understand "why we are beginning by talking about this one man bin Laden." Wolfowitz insisted that Saddam represented "at least as much" of a threat to the United States as al Qaeda.

The 9/11 Commission reported that Wolfowitz questioned the CIA's June 30, 2001 report titled "Bin Laden Threats are Real." He offered the fascinating theory that all the activity they were picking up was just bin Laden trying to "study U.S. reactions".

Why were Bush's advisers so determined to discredit the idea that al Qaeda represented the most urgent threat to American security? The answer to that question is clear from the response of the same advisers to the 9/11 attack itself. Even as the attack revealed how utterly wrong they had been about the threat from al Qaeda, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz remained hostile to the whole idea of going after bin Laden and his Taliban sponsors in Afghanistan.

In the White House bunker the very night of the 9/11 attacks, Tenet recounts, Cheney worried about whether there were targets in Afghanistan "worth hitting." Two days later, Wolfowitz argued at Camp David against an operation in Afghanistan to search for al Qaeda, which he said would turn into a "mess," according to then Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's account.

The common thread connecting these expressions of hostility to dealing with al Qaeda as the priority was the interest of the Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz in preparing for and fighting a war against a state enemy. Those now-discredited figures were tied in various ways to the military bureaucracy, and the military is organized only to fight state enemies. The state enemy they were preparing to fight and defeat at that moment was Saddam's Iraq, and conceding that al Qaeda could be a more urgent threat than Saddam would have interfered with their plans.

The conflict between the real threat to American security and interests of the military in preparing for war against state enemies and from non-state actors is the fundamental national security issue of this era. In an October 16, 2003 memo on the "Global War on Terrorism", Rumsfeld stated the problem with shocking clarity: "DoD has been organized, trained and equipped to fight big armies, navies and air forces," he wrote. "It is not possible to change DoD fast enough to successfully fight the war on terror."

The military bureaucracy and its political allies now have to argue that the U.S. military is vitally important to fighting global terrorism. But the Rumsfeld memo and the shameful behavior of the Bush administration's top advocates of the military toward al Qaeda reveal the reality that those tied most closely to the military services are not really interested in the threat of terrorism. It is too far removed from their core mission and values.