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Think Again: Back to 9/11: Was Condi a Friend in Need?

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Center for Americann Progress: Think Again

I know you're all obsessing about the midterms, but this is a 501c3, and anyway, there's a real world out there where elections don't mean proverbial squat. Remember 9/11, for instance? Many mysteries remain about this, perhaps the most heavily covered event in human history. The release of the 9/11 Commission report on July 22, 2004--vociferously opposed and frequently undermined by the Bush administration--was supposed to put all the major questions to rest. And for a while, it seemed to many as if it had.

Alas, this was not even close to being the case. On July 10, 2001, CIA chief George Tenet and his counterterrorism deputy, J. Cofer Black, were so concerned about intelligence pointing to an impending attack by al-Qaeda that they called an emergency meeting with Condoleezza Rice and her National Security Council staff to issue a warning. But when Bob Woodward reported it in his new book, State of Denial, it was the first that any of us had ever heard of it. According to reports, Rice thought that the briefing was important enough to recommend that Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and then-Attorney General John Ashcroft receive the same briefing, which they soon did.

In the days after Woodward's revelation, the White House and Rice herself denied the story. Rice claimed she had no recollection of the meeting, saying, "What I'm quite certain of, is that it was not a meeting in which I was told that there was an impending attack and I refused to respond."

Her story was soon shot down when a review of White House records showed that Tenet and Black did indeed visit Rice at her White House office on July 10. But her office still refused to admit that the meeting was important. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack dismissed the briefing Rice received as "not new," claiming that it didn't amount to a dire warning; "Rather, it was a good summary from the threat-reporting from the previous several weeks."

How did this meeting get left out of the 9/11 Commission report? According to McClatchy's Jonathan S. Landay, Warren P. Strobel, and John Walcott, the 9/11 Commission knew about the briefings, but never included it in its final report. The trio of reporters wrote that the same briefing Tenet and Black gave to Rice was given to members of the Commission on January 28, 2004, "but the Commission made no mention of the warning in its 428-page final report." And why was that?

Well, the executive chairman and principal author of the Commission report was Secretary Rice's close friend, former colleague, co-author, and now Senior Advisor, Philip Zelikow. Well before the Commission issued its report, I noted in The Book on Bush that "Without casting any personal aspersions on Professor Zelikow, who is also a first-rate scholar of the Cuban missile crisis, it is hard to imagine that anyone could conduct a thoroughly honest and potentially damning investigation of his friends and former colleagues. In October 2003, a group of families of September 11 victims wrote to the commission co-chairs asking that Zelikow recuse himself "'from any aspect of national security and executive branch negotiations and investigations' because of his past connections to the National Security Council and to key Bush administration officials."

According to three former senior intelligence officials, Tenet testified to commissioners Richard Ben-Veniste and Zelikow. Ben-Veniste confirmed the testimony to McClatchy, but Zelikow never returned calls for comment. Tenet, who kept quiet about the meeting--at least until the Woodward book--got a Presidential medal, despite his spectacular incompetence in the job.

Sound fishy to you? While reporting Woodard's scoop, the media produced few stories like those written by the reporters from McClatchy, and even fewer were able to tie 9/11 chair Zelikow to Rice. Amazingly, only a few weeks after the story broke, The New York Times' Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger profiled Zelikow , focusing on some veiled criticisms of Bush administration policy he has made while acting as Rice's advisor. The piece touched on his role heading the celebrated 9/11 Commission only toward the end of the piece, noting that he "pressured Ms. Rice to turn over highly classified intelligence estimates and testify in front of the commission. Officials who worked with him marveled at his industry and precision, but described him as far more opinionated than his gather-the-numbers approach might first suggest."

The story created shockwaves because, in an administration that generally brooks no dissent whatsoever, it contained some pointed criticisms of U.S. foreign policy as well as the news that Rice had refused to employ Cheney favorites Eric Edelman and Elliot Abrams in the State Department as Colin Powell was forced to do when picking his own team.

But there was no mention of the key role that Zelikow appears to have played in protecting his boss from the revelation of her spectacular failure to try to act to prevent the 9/11 attacks. (Rice was also present at the infamous August 6, 2001 Crawford "Bin-Laden Determined to Attack Continental U.S." meeting, which was ended by the president pronouncing, "You've covered your ass" before retiring for a day of fishing.) Could it be that Rice is so indebted to Zelikow that he can say anything at all and still retain his job? Might someone in the mainstream media be interested in further investigation? After all, Zelikow's not that hard to reach...when he wants to talk.