The Clinton administration had bankrupted the intelligence community and refused to let the CIA prioritize anti-terrorism over other major priorities in the late 1990s, leaving the agency stretched too thin in the days ahead of the 2001 terrorist attacks, former Director George J. Tenet said in a 2005 document declassified Friday.
Mr. Tenet, who was head of the agency at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks and has taken severe criticism for not anticipating and heading them off, said in the document that he took the threat of Osama bin Laden very seriously, and put major effort into trying to penetrate al Qaeda, beginning as far back as 1998.
In one revelation, Mr. Tenet says those efforts averted off an earlier “major attack” planned by al Qaeda for some time in 1999 or 2000. The document gives no other details.
The document was a response to an inspector general’s draft report that had accused Mr. Tenet of failing to give al Qaeda enough attention in the months leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks. But Mr. Tenet said he did take steps, amid all the other work CIA was also required to do.
“Your report does not adequately address the context of an intelligence community that had to respond to wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, the prospect of war between India and Pakistan, China’s military buildup and threat to Taiwan, the requirements of policy makers, particularly in Congress, to pursue narco-traffickers in Central and South America, and numerous other such requirements,” Mr. Tenet wrote. “Despite all of these stresses, despite the fact that we had effectively been in Chapter 11 as an intelligence community, we continued on a path to methodically increase both CIA and intelligence community resources and our personnel base devoted to terrorism.”
In addition to Mr. Tenet’s response document, which had originally been classified “top secret/codeword sensitive,” the CIA released more full versions Friday of several other documents that had been released earlier.
The documents came in a Friday afternoon dump — though according to the notations, they’d been approved for release as far back as March.
“The events of 9/11 will be forever seared into the memories of all Americans who bore witness to the single greatest tragedy to befall our homeland in recent history,” the CIA said in a memo accompanying the new documents. “The documents released today reflect differing views formed roughly a decade ago within CIA about the Agency’s performance prior to 9/11.”
The inspector general’s nearly 500-page report, issued in June 2005, found that agency employees “worked hard” to combat al Qaeda, and said Mr. Tenet himself was “actively and forcefully engaged” in counterterrorism. But the investigators said Mr. Tenet didn’t follow up enough on his own warnings and admonitions, and allowed the agency to get bogged down in tactical debates rather than setting an overarching strategy for getting bin Laden.
Mr. Tenet, though, details the follow-up efforts he made and lists the number of times he asked for more money for counterterrorism, and the nine occasions he said he sent memos to senior officials in both the executive branch and Congress warning of terrorist plots.
“Even though senior policy makers were intimately familiar with the threat posed by terrorism, particularly those in the previous administration who had responded to major attacks, they never provided us the luxury of either downgrading other high priority requirements we were expected to perform against, or the resource base to build counterterrorism programs with the consistency that we needed before September 11,” Mr. Tenet wrote.