WASHINGTON – Top CIA officials fought bitterly in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks over whether U.S. intelligence agencies could have done more to stop the deadliest terrorist strikes in American history, documents released on Friday show.
The once-secret documents include a more complete version of a 2005 report by the spy agency’s inspector general, which found that the CIA did not have a comprehensive strategy or marshal adequate resources to combat al-Qaida before hijacked planes hit New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
A redacted summary of that report was first made public in 2007. But the documents released by the CIA on Friday also reflect the arguments of former CIA Director George Tenet and his lieutenants that U.S. intelligence was intently focused on al-Qaida and leader Osama bin Laden.
At stake in the years-long dispute are the legacies of former top CIA officials and the agency itself.
None of the documents focus directly on how President George W. Bush and his White House dealt with the al-Qaida threat after taking office in January 2001. Some former officials, including Bush counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, have said Bush did not initially make al-Qaida a priority.
In a heated June 2005 letter to then CIA Inspector General John Helgerson, Tenet rejected Helgerson’s critical draft report. “Your report challenges my professionalism, diligence and skill in leading the men and women of U.S. intelligence in countering terrorism,” Tenet told Helgerson. “I did everything I could to inform, warn and motivate action to prevent harm,” he wrote. “Your report does not fairly or accurately portray my actions, or the heroic work of the men and women of the Intelligence Community.”
After the bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 and the USS Cole in October 2000, Tenet said, he warned President Bill Clinton “to expect from five to fifteen attacks against United States’ interests.”
Tenet has previously said that he developed a plan to go after al-Qaida in 1999 and worked to increase U.S. intelligence funding, which had been slashed during the 1990s.
“I said when the executive summary was made public eight years ago that the IG’s report was flat wrong,” Tenet said on Friday. “Nothing in the additional material just released changes that judgment in the slightest.”
The documents, which former CIA officials pressed the agency to release, include a July 2005 memo from 17 top officers of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center disputing Helgerson’s report.