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Evidence piles up that Bush administration got many pre-9/11 warnings

Author Kurt Eichenwald talks about what the White House knew leading up to the attacks and how they used the intelligence information in the months after.

On the 11th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, there is mounting evidence that the Bush administration received more intelligence warnings than previously known prior to the Sept. 11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000.

Kurt Eichenwald, a former New York Times reporter, wrote in an op-ed piece in Tuesday’s newspaper about a number of previously unknown warnings relayed to the White House by U.S. intelligence in the weeks and months prior to the attacks.  Eichenwald wrote of  the warnings in his new book, “500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars.”

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And former US intelligence officials say there were even more warnings, pointing to a little noticed section of George Tenet’s memoir, “At the Center of the Storm.”

In it, Tenet describes a July 10, 2001, meeting at the White House in the office of Condoleezza Rice, then President George W. Bush’s national security adviser. The meeting was not discussed in the 9-11 Commission’s final report on the attacks, although Tenet wrote that he provided information on it to the commission.

What’s critical to understanding the difference between this meeting and others, says one former senior U.S. intelligence official who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity, is that the intelligence provided that day was fresh, some of it having been collected the previous day. And other intelligence and national security officials, also speaking on condition of anonymity, say the briefings make clear that, while Bush administration officials understood the nature of the threat, they didn’t understand its magnitude and urgency.

“This intelligence delivered on July 10 was specific and was generated within 24 hours of the meeting,” said the first official, who pointed out the text in the Tenet memoir.

Tenet wrote about how after being briefed by his counterterrorism team on July 10 -- two months prior to the attacks -- “I picked up the big white secure phone on the left side of my desk -- the one with a direct line to Condi Rice -- and told her that I needed to see her immediately to provide an update on the al-Qaida threat.”

Tenet said he could not recall another time in his seven years as director of the CIA that he sought such an urgent meeting at the White House. Rice agreed to the meeting immediately, and 15 minutes later, he was in Rice’s office.

An analyst handed out the briefing packages Tenet had just seen and began to speak.  “His opening line got everyone’s attention,” Tenet wrote, “in part because it left no room for misunderstanding: ‘There will be a significant terrorist attack in the coming weeks or months!'”

The team laid out in a series of slides its concerns, based on intelligence that included information “from the past 24 hours.” 

Citing his notes on the briefing, Tenet wrote, “A chart displayed seven specific  pieces of intelligence gathered over the past twenty-four hours, all of them predicting an imminent attack. Among the items: Islamic extremists were traveling to Afghanistan in greater numbers, and there had been significant departures of extremist families from Yemen. Other signs pointed to new threats against U.S. interests in Lebanon, Morocco, and Mauritania.”

A second chart followed, listing a summation of the most chilling comments by al-Qaida. According to Tenet, they were:

• A mid-June statement from Osama bin Laden to trainees that there will be an attack in the near future.

• Information that talked about moving toward decisive acts.

• Late June information that cited a “big event” that was forthcoming.

• “Two separate bits of information collected only a few days before our meeting in which people were predicting a stunning turn of events in the weeks ahead.”

Another slide detailed how Chechen Islamic terrorist leader Ibn Kattab had  promised some “very big news” to his troops.

There were more details, as laid out by one of Tenet’s top analysts, known in the book as “Rich B.”  Tenet recounts his aide telling Rice and others, “The attack will be ‘spectacular.’ and designed to inflict mass casualties against U.S. facilities and interests. ‘Attack preparations have been made,’ he said. ‘Multiple and simultaneous attacks are possible, and they will occur with little or no warning. Al-Qaida is waiting us out and looking for vulnerability.”

Rice, Tenet wrote, reacted positively to the briefing and asked her counter terrorism adviser, Richard Clarke, if he agreed with the assessment. Clarke said he did, and Tenet said he and his aides left the meeting feeling that Rice understood the threat.  However, he wrote, the White House never followed up on the presidential finding that Tenet had been asking for since March, authorizing broader covert action against al-Qaida.  That finding was signed by President Bush on Sept. 17, six days after the attacks.

Roger Cressey, who was Clarke’s deputy and is now an NBC News counter terrorism analyst, says one thing that is missing from Tenet’s description of the events is that the intelligence pointed to overseas attacks. although CIA did tell officials that they couldn’t discount an attack on the US homeland.

 “Everything we had (from US intelligence) pointed overseas, specifically to the Gulf,” he said. “There was no actionable intelligence that pointed to the homeland. What we did know, and what we told domestic agencies, was there was "a disturbance in the force” and we were very worried about an attack.

Still, Cressey remains critical of the lack of a response going back to the first week of the administration, saying the counterterrorism team at the National Security Council and experts elsewhere in the government were “butting our  heads against the wall” in an effort to get a meaningful response from the White House.

Would action by the White House have helped? Like Eichenwald, Cressey says he isn’t sure, but notes that when similar intelligence pointed to attacks on Jan. 1, 2000, “Sandy Berger (Rice’s predecessor) and (President Bill) Clinton went to battle stations.”  Did warnings prior to the millennium help thwart a number of attacks back then? Cressey believes they did.

One intelligence official also noted that after the interception of the July intelligence, there was little conversation on the al-Qaida communications network prior to Sept. 11. It wasn’t until much later U.S. intelligence understood why: With the plans and operational personnel in place, the plotters were simply waiting for an opportune time to strike.

“They laid low because they were waiting for Congress to come back in session,” the official said.

The reason, he said: United Flight 93 was headed for the U.S. Capitol, where Congress was in session, when passengers overpowered the hijackers, causing the plane to crash in a field near Shanksville, Pa.  

Robert Windrem is a senior investigative producer for NBC News.

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