This teaser for Showtime‘s documentary, The Spymasters, hints at one of the production’s goals, which is to reveal how the Bush Administration received plenty of pre-9/11 notice that a major terrorist attack would hit the United States. The doc will be narrated by Homeland‘s Mandy Patinkin and features interviews with living CIA directors (all 12 of them). The production’s centerpiece appears to be Cofer Black, the then-chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism center. Black says his department repeatedly urged National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to take action against rising terrorist threats.
This week’s cover story from Politico contains snippets from interviews by Chris Whipple, The Spymaster‘s documentarian. Whipple, who also penned the article, notes several warnings that arrived in advance of the infamous August 2001 CIA brief, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Black expressed great urgency in May. He insisted that “real plots were being manifested,” and it was “very evident that we were going to be struck” with a great loss of life. In July, Richard Blee (head of the CIA’s al-Qaeda unit) further warned of “absolutely compelling” information from many sources, which indicated that “the attacks would be spectacular.” Black’s boss, George Tenet, met with Rice:
Tenet vividly recalls the White House meeting with Rice and her team. (George W. Bush was on a trip to Boston.) “Rich [Blee] started by saying, ‘There will be significant terrorist attacks against the United States in the coming weeks or months. The attacks will be spectacular. They may be multiple. Al Qaeda’s intention is the destruction of the United States.'” [Condi said:] ‘What do you think we need to do?’ Black responded by slamming his fist on the table, and saying, ‘We need to go on a wartime footing now!'”
Black expresses frustration at how his department’s warnings went unheeded:
“To me it remains incomprehensible still. I mean, how is it that you could warn senior people so many times and nothing actually happened? It’s kind of like The Twilight Zone.” Remarkably, in her memoir, Condi Rice writes of the July 10 warnings: “My recollection of the meeting is not very crisp because we were discussing the threat every day.” Having raised threat levels for U.S. personnel overseas, she adds: “I thought we were doing what needed to be done.”
Tenet’s July meeting with Rice never appeared in the 9/11 Commission’s final report, but he insists that he did tell the committee everything during closed-door testimony. Tenet also hints at “one more chilling warning,” which occurred in a conference at CIA headquarters. Blee gathered the agency’s deputies and simply said, “They’re coming here.” Everyone in the room recognized the seriousness of the situation, and “you could feel the oxygen come out of the room.”
The entirety of the Politico article begs for a full reading, as it also dives into the CIA’s struggle to define the word “torture” and the resulting struggle that has spanned many presidential administrations (from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama). These interviews and much more will be illuminated by The Spymasters, which will air on Showtime on November 28.
For those who want to time travel behind the scenes, here’s a photo of George W. Bush consulting with administration members in his private dining room on 9/11.