The 'Deafness' Before The Sept. 11 Attacks

Writer Kurt Eichenwald's op-ed in The New York Times explores the presidential briefings before 9/11 that warned of an attack. He speaks with Steve Inskeep.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Eleven years after the September 11 attacks, Americans are still debating what happened. And one of the latest arguments comes from the journalist Kurt Eichenwald, who writes in a new book and in the New York Times about intelligence briefings to then-President George W. Bush in the months before the attacks .

You remind us of a famous and now declassified briefing to the president from August of 2001. The headline was "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." But you contend that there were other briefings to the president that came earlier. What did they say?

KURT EICHENWALD: The other briefings were much more specific. And one of the things that the Bush administration said with that single briefing that was released was that it was a historical portrayal, which when you read it carefully, it was. But they were holding back the ones that preceded it that said such things as there is a team in the United States. They are preparing an attack. There are going to be a large number of casualties.

And so what they had and what they knew and what was going to the president in these presidential daily briefs were much more specific and much more alarming than we've been led to believe in the past.

INSKEEP: We should keep this in context. I've been rereading the famous 9/11 Commission, the famous 9/11 Commission from some years back. And they remind us that there was widespread alarm in the government for many months before 9/11. But you're talking here specifically of what was told to the president. Is that what you're focused on?

EICHENWALD: Yes. The CIA was coming in and telling the president: Here are things that are happening, here are threats.

And the Pentagon came in and told Bush, don't worry about it. Bin Laden -you know, the CIA is getting fooled, bin Laden is running a game, and what you got in response to that were briefings that went to the president that were basically, you know, stomping the ground, saying, no, these are real, bin Laden is not playing a game. This isn't some pretend thing he's making up trying to fool us.

INSKEEP: Now, as I said, in the 9/11 report there had been hints of this debate before. Paul Wolfowitz is mentioned in the 9/11 report as being a Defense Department official who was doubtful about the warnings.

But at the same time, when you read that report, you do get a sense of a government that is trying to activate itself. You have warnings to Americans overseas in that period. You have warnings to airlines. You have U.S. troops on alert in a number of countries. You have ships putting out to sea. But what are you saying that they failed to do that they could have done in that circumstance?

EICHENWALD: There's a difference between putting out a warning and going on high alert. In December of 1999, the CIA was picking up a lot of information that there was going to be an attack. And they went, you know, pedal to the metal. You had every division of the government that was ramped up full force.

And that's - you know, one of the things that I point out is that people who are in the counterterrorist center this time - same people who were there in the summer of 2001 - were talking about quitting because they knew something horrible was going to happen and nobody was paying attention.

INSKEEP: In the end, you conclude that the presidential daily briefs that have described to you reveal, quote, "significantly more negligence than has been disclosed." Negligence, strong word. Are you arguing in the end that with this information the United States should have stopped the 9/11 attacks?

EICHENWALD: That's the kind of argument that is difficult to make. I mean, you know, should the United States have stopped it? Of course. Could the United States have stopped it? There is a little bit of Monday morning quarterbacking that goes into that. But the reality here is when they were told about, you know, these guys sitting on a mountain in Afghanistan as being a major national security threat, they just were not prepared to believe it.

INSKEEP: Kurt Eichenwald is a writer for Vanity Fair, author of the new book "500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars," and also author of an opinion article in the New York Times.

Thanks very much.

EICHENWALD: Thanks for having me.

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