This is featured in our hour What The President Knew. Editor's note: We connected with Cofer Black with the help of Chris Whipple. Black is featured prominently in Whipple's new book "The Spymasters."
Cofer Black begins with a visual, inside the office of a man named Richard Blee, in the months before 9/11.
“By the time 9/11 rolled around he had stacks of paper along this 15-foot wall. The lowest pile was waste high. The highest was, I'm 6 foot 3, shoulder high," Black says.
Blee was the head of the CIA’s al-Qaida unit. So Black asked him, what's all that?
"He would say, 'Oh, that's for when we have the catastrophe and get struck and a lot of Americans die,'" Black recalls. "'This is so the investigators know where to come, and they'll come and ask, 'Did you tell anybody?' And we'll say 'Yeah, there it is. Here's a copy of every briefing we gave on the threat.'"
Blee was prescient. After the attacks, investigators from across government swarmed the CIA's al-Qaida unit.
Black says they all asked the same question: "'So, did you warn anybody?'"
"'Yeah, come to my office. Here's one copy of every briefing we gave.' And they'd say, 'Man that's a lot of briefings.' And he'd say, 'Yes, it is.'"
Cofer Black is a career spy. He served in London, Latin America, South Asia. He served as CIA station chief in Khartoum, where al-Qaida targeted him for assassination. From 1999-2002, Black ran the CIA's Counterterrorist Center and reported directly to then-CIA director George Tenet.
Black has since been called everything from patriot, to assassin, to torture advocate — the epitome of all that's wrong with America's clandestine services.
But in the spring of 2001 — before the Afghanistan war, before the Iraq war, before 9/11 — Black was among a few in the CIA who tried to get the Bush Administration's attention about the growing al-Qaida threat.
By May of 2001, finished intelligence on al-Qaida related intelligence activity escalated greatly — not just about their activity targeting U.S. military bases and embassies abroad, but about active cells within the U.S.
Black says that in 2001, from the beginning of the year on, intelligence about a potential attack took on an "escalatory path."
The raw intelligence was sent to CIA analysts who prepped the briefings, some of which would travel all the way up the Washington food chain to the White House.
"We were producing, I would say, in 2001, it would be hundreds," Black says of the amount of briefings the CIA churning out about al-Qaida.
al-Qaida had already proven how deadly it could be. In 1998 and 2000, the terrorist group had pulled off two sets of horrific attacks, outside the United States.
On Aug. 7, 1998, nearly simultaneous suicide bombings destroyed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 200, injuring more than 4,500.
Then, a little more than two years later, on Oct. 12, 2000, 17 sailors died on the USS Cole in Yemen. President Bill Clinton called the bombing a "despicable and cowardly act."
To this day, Cofer Black remains critical of the Clinton administration. He says it took the Clinton camp "eight years to figure out counterterrorism." By that time, it was too late. An election and change in administration intervened. President George W. Bush took office in January 2001.
Black says by May 2001, a mere seven months after the USS Cole bombing, intelligence on al-Qaida related terrorist activity began to crescendo.
Then, in July 2001, a sudden decrease in terrorist activity. In intelligence, Cofer Black says, it's the worst kind of silence.
According to Black, George W. Bush didn't much understood the nature of this new threat. When it came to threats specific to the United States, the Bush Administration’s most intense focus was squarely on nuclear proliferation and weapons of mass destruction.
Meanwhile, Black's small team of al-Qaida experts says their alarm only grew.
Then came the morning of July 10, 2001.
Richard Blee was the head of the CIA's al-Qaida unit. As counterterrorism chief, Cofer Black was his boss. Blee had compiled compelling, multiple-sourced information about an imminent attack on the United States. They took it straight to CIA director George Tenet.
Black says Tenet got it immediately. Tenet called the White House and told national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, "I have to come see you. We're coming right now."
It's been almost 20 years, but Black remembers the meeting in detail.
"Go in, sit down, and George Tenet says to Rich, 'Please start,'" he says.
Richard Blee told Rice and her national security team that there would be significant terrorist attacks against the United States in the coming weeks or months.
"The attacks will be spectacular. They may be multiple. al-Qaida's intention is the destruction of the United States," Blee said.
In one of her memoirs, Condoleezza Rice says her memory of the July 10 meeting isn’t crisp because “we were discussing the threat every day.”
Following the meeting, Rice did raise the threat level for U.S. personnel overseas. But beyond that, Cofer Black says nothing happened.
"Nothing went out to order, direct, or even encourage domestic agencies to mobilize in response to this threat," Black says. "And then, these are not my decisions to make, the public was not warned."
Two days after that July 10th meeting, Condoleezza Rice gave a speech at the National Press Club. No one would have expected her to talk publicly about a top-level classified briefing she’d just received. However, Rice did talk about what the Bush administration saw as the highest-level security threats to the United States: nuclear weapons proliferation.
"As the president has made clear, we must deal with today's world, and today's threats," Rice said. "Including weapons of mass destruction and missiles in the hands of states that would blackmail us from coming to the aid of friends and allies."
She did not mention the threat posed by possible terrorist attacks.
By late July, Black, Tenet and Blee all believed that an attack within the United States was imminent. They’d gathered in Tenet’s conference room at the CIA. "They're coming here," Blee said.
On August 6, 2001, President Bush's daily briefing included the now-infamous memo titled, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."
A little less than three weeks later, on August 24th, Bush announced a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs. "Terrorism is prevalent, in the Middle East," Bush said.
Regarding direct threats to the United States, Bush said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was actively assessing the security landscape at that time.
"One of the threats that faces America is the threat of blackmail as a result of some rogue nation having a weapon of mass destruction," Bush said. He did not mention the possibility of terrorist activity on U.S. soil.
18 days later, Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacked the United States.
Intelligence failures, particularly at the CIA, are at the center of the exhaustive report published by the 9/11 Commission in July 2004. Cofer Black is candid about those failings. They knew something was going to happen, but they never knew exactly when, or exactly who, or exactly how.
And without that detailed intel, could the attacks have been stopped? What could have been different?
Black wishes someone in the White House had called a principals meeting — with the president and the heads of defense and national security — specifically to consider the al-Qaida threat.
"The national leaders all come together — and they do on other issues, I just don’t understand why they didn’t on this one — all come together, and they make a determination of what course as a nation should be followed, from which they might want to say, 'OK, let’s light a fire in the domestic agencies.'”
But would that have made enough of a difference? Black admits that maybe nothing would have changed. But maybe something would have. Because we know what the consequences were of doing nothing.
"You know, it might have caught some of these guys, so maybe you only have one group of hijackers instead of four," he says. "It just gives you a bit more opportunity to get lucky, than doing nothing."
Black comes back to this point again and again. People in the White House bring in their old biases. They have to unlearn those biases, and rarely do. Instead, in the face of new information, they lean into their own expertise.
In this diary ... we hear from:
Cofer Black, director of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center from 1999-2002. Ambassador-at-Large under the Bush administration until 2004.
This segment aired on October 13, 2020.