When Rice asked what needed to be done, the CIA's Black responded, "This country needs to go on a war footing now." The CIA officials sought approval for broad covert-action authority that had been languishing since March, Tenet wrote.
Despite the July 10 briefing, other senior Bush administration officials continued to pooh-pooh the seriousness of the al-Qaeda threat. Two leading neoconservatives at the Pentagon -- Stephen Cambone and Paul Wolfowitz -- suggested that the CIA might be falling for a disinformation campaign, Tenet recalled.
But the evidence of an impending attack kept pouring in. At one CIA meeting in late July, Tenet wrote that Rich B. told senior officials bluntly, "they're coming here," a declaration that was followed by stunned silence.
Through the sweltering heat of July 2001, Bush turned his attention to an issue dear to the hearts of his right-wing base, the use of human embryos in stem-cell research.
Medical scientists felt stem cells promised potential cures for debilitating and life-threatening injuries and illnesses, from spinal damage to Alzheimer's disease. Yet, despite this promise, the Christian Right objected on moral grounds to the extraction of cells from embryos, even of those destined for destruction as waste at fertility clinics.
While the team of al-Qaeda terrorists made final preparations for their attack, the U.S. press corps also missed the drama playing out inside the U.S. intelligence agencies. The hot stories that steamy summer were shark attacks and the mystery of a missing Capitol Hill intern Chandra Levy, who'd had an affair with Rep. Gary Condit, a California Democrat.
The news media pretended that its obsession with Levy's disappearance was a heartfelt concern to help her parents find their missing daughter; the sexual gossip about Levy and Condit proved to be just a fortuitous byproduct. Yet, as cable news played the Chandra Levy case 24/7, a far more significant life-or-death drama was playing out inside the FBI and CIA.
At the FBI's Phoenix field office, FBI agent Kenneth Williams noted the curious fact that suspected followers of bin Laden were learning to fly airplanes at schools inside the United States.
Citing "an inordinate number of individuals of investigative interest" attending American flight schools, Williams sent a July 10, 2001, memo to FBI headquarters warning of the "possibility of a coordinated effort by Usama Bin Laden" to send student pilots to the United States. But the memo produced no follow-up.
CIA officials encountered similar foot-dragging at the White House. At least two officials in the CIA's Counterterrorism Center were so apoplectic about the blase reactions from the Bush administration that they considered resigning and going public with their concerns. Instead, the CIA hierarchy made one more stab at startling Bush into action.
So, on Aug. 6, 2001, the CIA dispatched senior analysts to brief Bush who was starting a month-long vacation at his Crawford ranch. They carried a highly classified report with the blunt title "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US." This PDB summarized the history of bin Laden's interest in launching attacks inside the United States and ended with a carefully phrased warning about recent intelligence threat data:
"FBI information ... indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York. The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers Bin Ladin-related. 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."
Bush was not pleased by the CIA's intrusion on his vacation nor with the report's lack of specific targets and dates. He glared at the CIA briefer and snapped, "All right, you've covered your ass," according to an account in author Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine, which relied heavily on senior CIA officials.
Putting the CIA's warning in the back of his mind and ordering no special response, Bush returned to a vacation of fishing, clearing brush and working on a speech about stem-cell research.