Condi Rice's other wake-up call

Former Sen. Gary Hart says he, too, warned Rice about an imminent terror attack on two occasions before 9/11.


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David Talbot
April 3, 2004 1:39AM (UTC)

Richard Clarke was not the only national security expert who warned National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other Bush administration officials about terrorist threats before 9/11. Former Democratic Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado also directly told senior Bush officials loudly and clearly that, in his words, "The terrorists are coming, the terrorists are coming."

Hart was co-chair (with former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H.) of the U.S. Commission on National Security, a bipartisan panel that conducted the most thorough investigation of U.S. security challenges since World War II. After completing the report, which warned that a devastating terrorist attack on America was imminent and called for the immediate creation of a Cabinet-level national security agency, and delivering it to President Bush on January 31, 2001, Hart and Rudman personally briefed Rice, Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell. But, according to Hart, the Bush administration never followed up on the commission's urgent recommendations, even after he repeated them in a private White House meeting with Rice just days before 9/11.

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Hart, who is now advising the Kerry campaign on national security issues, spoke with Salon this week about the Bush administration's failures to heed his warnings and why he feels the country is still at grave risk. Even at this late date, says Hart, Bush has failed to sufficiently coordinate federal, state, local and private-sector security efforts, leaving open American ports as possible entry points for weapons of mass destruction and exposing such prime targets as petrochemical facilities located near major urban areas. And two and a half years after 9/11, Hart observes, no government official has been held responsible for the disastrous security failures of that day. The Bush White House, he charges, is locked in a strange and delicate dance with intelligence officials, maneuvering to place blame on the CIA but fearing if it does so too blatantly, the Bush team's own failings will be exposed.

Hart spoke with Salon by phone from Denver, where he works for the international law firm Coudert Brothers.

What was the reaction from Bush officials to your warnings about terrorism when you delivered your final report to the president in late January 2001?

We didn't meet with President Bush. But we briefed at length Don Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Condi Rice. And all of them at that time treated it seriously. I conducted the briefing, along with my co-chairman Warren Rudman, and Gen. Charles Boyd, who was our commission's executive director, and maybe one or two other commissioners. I would say the response was respectful, professional, serious. And Rumsfeld, as I recall, made pages of notes on a yellow pad.

After your briefings, do you think the administration responded adequately to your warnings?

Well, let me just go through the history of things. Because we also sent copies of the report to every member of Congress. And we lobbied specific members of Congress, including Joe Lieberman, who took it very seriously. And in the spring of 2001, some members of Congress introduced legislation to create a homeland security agency. Hearings were scheduled. And our commission, which was scheduled to go out of operation on Feb. 15, 2001, was given a six-month extension so we could testify with some authority. Which we did in March and April.

And then as Congress started to move on this, and the heat was turned up, George Bush -- and this is often overlooked -- held a press conference or made a public statement on May 5, 2001, calling on Congress not to act and saying he was turning over the whole matter to Dick Cheney.

So this wasn't just neglect, it was an active position by the administration. He said, "I don't want Congress to do anything until the vice president advises me." We now know from Dick Clarke that Cheney never held a meeting on terrorism, there was never any kind of discussion on the department of homeland security that we had proposed. There was no vice presidential action on this matter.

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In other words, a bipartisan commission of seven Democrats and seven Republicans who had spent two and a half years studying the problem, a group of Americans with a cumulative 300 years in national security affairs, recommended to the president of the United States on a reasonably urgent basis the creation of a Cabinet-level agency to protect our country -- and the president did nothing!

By the way, when our final report came out in 2001, it did not receive word one in the New York Times. Zero. The Washington Post put it on Page 3 or 4, below the fold.

So there was absolutely no follow-up on your commission's recommendations once Bush referred the matter to Cheney?

Right.

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And were you ever consulted again by the administration?

No. But as one of those fearing a near-term attack, I went out on my own throughout the spring and summer of 2001 saying, "The terrorists are coming, the terrorists are coming." One of the speeches I gave was, ironically enough, to the International Air Transportation Association in Montreal. And the Montreal newspapers headlined the story, "Hart predicts terrorist attacks on America."

By pre-arrangement I had gotten an appointment with Condi Rice the following day and had gone straight from Montreal to Washington to meet with her. And my brief message to her was, "Get going on homeland security, you don't have all the time in the world." This was on Sept. 6, 2001.

What was her response?

Her response was "I'll talk to the vice president about it." And this tracks with Clarke's testimony and writing that even at this late date, nothing was being done inside the White House.

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And your sense from talking with Rice that day was ...

She didn't seem to feel a terrible sense of urgency. Her response was simply "I'll talk to the vice president about it."

Did you get a sense that the administration had made any progress on security since you first briefed her, Rumsfeld and Powell in January?

No. I think she made some kind of gratuitous statements like, "We've taken your report very seriously, we're looking at it, we're thinking about it, we've asked people to give comments on it."

But you felt that was more or less a pro forma response?

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I thought so. Now the backdrop here is that I'd known Condi Rice for about 20 years. She supported me in my presidential effort in 1984. She later said she changed parties in the early '80s, but I know she was a supporter of mine in '84. She was completing her Ph.D. at the University of Denver at the time. She helped me with foreign policy in my '84 campaign. I think that's the only reason I got in to the White House to see her.

One more thing: I met with Rice not long after the president was in Crawford and being briefed by CIA officials on the possible use of aircraft against American targets. This was all happening in the weeks before 9/11.

So I think it's terribly disingenuous for the president of the United States to say, "If somebody had told us they were going to use aircraft against the World Trade Center, we would of course have taken action." I think it's just ridiculous to say, "We're not going to do anything until someone tells us where, when and how."

How would you grade the administration's response after 9/11?

I have said for over two and a half years that no one has been held accountable for 9/11. No one lost his or her job, not [CIA Director] George Tenet, not [FBI Director] Robert Mueller, not anybody. Now this is the president who claims to be strong and tough, but he clearly does not have on his desk a sign that says, "The buck stops here." I honor Dick Clarke for what he said to the victims' families. I think George Bush should say that, I think he should apologize. I think he should take responsibility, as John Kennedy did after the Bay of Pigs. That's presidential leadership, that's a strong president. This is a weak president. He will not take responsibility.

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In Kennedy's case, he was clearly misled by his national security advisors who were bound and determined to go ahead with their Cuban adventure.

And he fired some of them. None of that happened here. You know why I think George Tenet is still in his job? I think there are smoking guns all over the White House. I think if you crack the White House safe, you're going to find memos from Tenet saying, "The terrorists are coming, the terrorists are coming."

So you think the intelligence community was giving Bush information he should have acted on before 9/11?

Precisely. And that's the only explanation I can think of for why no one's been fired. Which leaves open the possibility that the president misled the American people.

Clearly there are a number of intelligence professionals who are not happy with this administration and the way it has politicized the intelligence process. Do you sense there's a growing restiveness in that community against Bush?

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Oh, absolutely. And here's how it works. Career intelligence officers are in constant touch with their colleagues who are retired. And I believe the vast majority of those people are honorable, oath-taking, straight-talking professionals who love their country. But, as with any other human beings, when pushed too far -- by being blamed for something they didn't do or being unfairly held out to ridicule for not doing their job -- they will do what most human beings will do. They will fight back. They will have lunch with one of their colleagues, and they will say, "Let me bring you up to date," and they will give chapter and verse on what the White House and the CIA did and did not do. And they have the understanding that their retired colleague may very well have lunch with somebody from the New York Times. You can say this is shameful or disloyal -- but for these people, who have given their lives to their country, if they think that our political leadership is not protecting the country, they're going to do something about it. Their loyalty is not to George W. Bush -- their loyalty is to the flag of the United States of America.

So a growing number of intelligence and security professionals like Clarke, Joe Wilson and Karen Kwiatkowski are getting fed up with the Bush administration and are doing something about it?

I think that's true. And I think Karl Rove is taking a huge risk. I think since 9/11 they've been walking a very fine line, between wanting to put the blame on the CIA and knowing if they did so unjustifiably, they're going to get whacked. And I think that's exactly what this little dance is about, and I think that's why they did not fire Tenet. They want him and those who work for him not to retaliate.

Has the war in Iraq increased our security in the U.S.?

Absolutely not -- it's increased our vulnerability. It's helped with terrorist recruitment, the spawning of cells in various countries. Don't take my word for it -- that's what the security authorities have said. The directors of the CIA, FBI and DIA have all warned that when America attacks an Arab state, the risk to America skyrockets, it doesn't go down. Now Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle have said we're safer, of course -- the more we keep them on the run abroad, the safer we are at home. I think that's just patent nonsense.

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If Bush has not made us safer, why hasn't there been another terrorist attack in the U.S.? Have we just been lucky?

No, we have made it somewhat more difficult. But my analogy is that when I got Secret Service protection during my presidential run in 1984, the head of the Secret Service said to me, "If someone wants to kill you, they will probably kill you. Our job is to make it as difficult as possible." So nearly three years later, we are making it somewhat more difficult for terrorists. Are we making it as difficult as we can? The answer is no.

The first attack on the World Trade Center occurred almost two years after its triggering event, which was the stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia. Of course that barracks subsequently got blown up. So when people say, "Gee whiz, we must be safe, we haven't been attacked again," well, these enemies we're confronting are patient people.

What would it take for the American people to begin to doubt that Bush has made them safer?

Well, God forbid, another attack, and I don't rule that out. I know we're going to be attacked again.

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Do you think that terrorists learned from Spain that they can affect the outcome of a presidential election?

I think they'd be wrong to assume that about this nation. And I think they'd be dead wrong to assume they'd be better off with a Kerry administration. John Kerry is not soft on terrorism.

Do you think there's ever a role for unilateral American action?

Of course.

But Iraq did not meet the proper criteria?

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Right. The global rules for nations throughout history have been pretty consistent: a threat must be immediate and unavoidable. Iraq was neither. If someone knocks on your door, and you've been robbed before, you're not justified in blowing that person away simply because you're afraid. The same is true of nations.

Will the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction come back to haunt Bush in November?

I think what will haunt this administration is its lack of accountability. Either George Bush was misled, which is his story, or he misled the American people. There are no other choices. If he's a strong president, as he and his supporters claim, then heads should roll. If the president of the United States is misled by those who advise him, heads should roll. And we have not seen this. If he misled the American people, then he must go.


David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years.” He is now working on a book about the legendary CIA director Allen W. Dulles and the rise of the national security state.

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