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The war of words between GOP presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Donald Trump continues, with the most recent clash coming over the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the response of Bush’s brother, President George W. Bush.
Jeb Bush has stated several times that his brother kept America safe.
Trump said that ignores a crucial fact -- that George W. Bush failed to stop the Sept. 11 attacks. Worse yet, Trump said on Oct. 20, 2015, that Bush knew the 2001 attacks were coming.
"His brother could have made some mistakes with respect to the actual hit because they did know it was coming and George Tenet, the head of the CIA, told them it was coming," Trump said on CNN’s New Day. "So they did have advanced notice and they didn’t really work on it."
Our question here is simple: Did Tenet and the CIA tell the Bush administration that an attack on U.S. soil was imminent?
The answer comes from a special commission created to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks. (Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
‘The system was blinking red’
Tenet told staff for the commission, formally the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States, that "the system was blinking red" in the months before the September 2001 attacks.
"Threat reports surged in June and July, reaching an even higher peak of urgency," the commission report said. "The summer threats seemed to be focused on Saudi Arabia, Israel, Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen, and possibly Rome, but the danger could be anywhere -- including a possible attack on the G-8 summit in Genoa."
Despite the chatter, there were doubters. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz thought perhaps Osama bin Ladin was trying to study U.S. reactions. Tenet shot that down.
The report said that on Aug. 3, 2001, "the intelligence community issued an advisory concluding that the threat of impending al Qaeda attacks would likely continue indefinitely. Citing threats in the Arabian Peninsula, Jordan, Israel, and Europe, the advisory suggested that al Qaeda was lying in wait and searching for gaps in security before moving forward with the planned attacks."
The commission’s timeline revealed a consensus that the target lay outside America’s borders.
The one prominent exception came in an Aug. 6 briefing document written by two CIA analysts. They titled it "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US."
Essentially, the briefing document stated that bin Laden said he wanted to attack the United States directly and was expected to plan patiently. It spoke of an unconfirmed warning from 1998 that planes might be hijacked to win the release of imprisoned extremists and noted suspicious surveillance of federal buildings in New York. It noted that 70 investigations were underway in the United States. The closest it came to what actually took place was "CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our Embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group of Bin Ladin supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives."
What Bush knew
The commission interviewed George W. Bush as part of its investigation and included his response to the briefing document. They write:
"The President told us the August 6 report was historical in nature. President Bush said the article told him that al Qaeda was dangerous, which he said he had known since he had become President. The President said Bin Ladin had long been talking about his desire to attack America. He recalled some operational data on the FBI, and remembered thinking it was heartening that 70 investigations were under way. As best he could recollect, (National Security Adviser Condoleeza) Rice had mentioned that the Yemenis' surveillance of a federal building in New York had been looked into in May and June, but there was no actionable intelligence."
The commission report goes on to say that the briefing document led to no meetings of the interagency Counterterrorism Security Group or the National Security Council to discuss a domestic attack. Tenet met with Bush two more times in August and on Sept. 10. Tenet said he didn’t remember talking to Bush about a domestic threat.
News reports since 2004 have described in detail the frustrations intelligence officials like Tenet had in trying to get the White House to focus on Bin Ladin. But none suggest that Tenet thought a domestic strike was likely.
Brian Finlay, president of the Stimson Center, a defense policy think tank, said the Aug. 6 article contained no specific information that would have "prevented the tragedy of that day."
"One would have to willingly suspend disbelief to presume that any American official responsible for the national security of our country would have failed to act in the face of clear evidence of an imminent attack," Finlay said.
Trump’s accusation "is simply off-base," Finlay said.
Trump claims that the CIA told the Bush administration that a domestic terror attack was coming. The report assembled over a span of three years after Sept. 11, 2001, found no specific alert. The potential for a domestic attack was discussed in early August, but it was mentioned only in broad terms and was not brought back up. Investigative reports in the years since found that the CIA warnings emphasized possible targets overseas.
Tenet told investigators that as late as Sept. 10 he did not talk about a domestic attack with the president.
There’s no support that Bush and top White House officials had, as Trump said, "advanced notice" of an attack on New York City or any other place in America.
We rate this claim False.
Mediaite, Trump Defends 9/11 Comments: Bush ‘Did Know It Was Coming’, Oct. 20, 2015
National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States, Chapter 8 - "The system was blinking red", July 22, 2004
NBC News, Evidence piles up that Bush got many pre-9-11 warnings, Sept. 11, 2012
Atlantic, Trump Is Right About 9/11, Oct. 19, 2015
Email interview, Brian Finlay, president and CEO, Stimson Center, Oct. 20, 2015
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