No one wants to believe that the attacks of Sept. 11 could have been prevented, but we do a disservice to our country if we stay in denial. No one wants to believe that President Bush had more forewarning than he acknowledges, but there is strong circumstantial evidence that he did.
Reviewing that evidence on May 26, The Washington Post's ombudsman, Michael Getler, alluded to one very telling sign from a conversation between CIA Director George Tenet and former U.S. Sen. David Boren over breakfast on Sept. 11. When an aide rushed up to tell Tenet of the attacks, Tenet's immediate reaction was: ``This has bin Laden all over it. . . . I wonder if it has anything to do with this guy taking pilot training?''
Getler notes that the reference is to Zacarias Moussaoui, the ''20th hijacker,'' who had been taken into custody in Minnesota four weeks before, after attracting suspicion at a flight school there.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the FBI did not tell the White House about Moussaoui until after Sept. 11.
But it is a safe bet that the CIA's Tenet did. Even before learning about Moussaoui,
Tenet's President's Daily Brief of Aug. 6 bore the title ''Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.'' When analysts working in Tenet's Counterterrorist Center were warned about Moussaoui a few weeks before Sept. 11, it is inconceivable that they would not have told Tenet. He is, by law, ''the principal advisor to the president for intelligence matters related to national security,'' and is entitled to ``all intelligence related to the national security, which is collected by any department, agency or other entity of the United States.''
Tenet's people learned about Moussaoui in a back-door message from the FBI Field Office in Minneapolis enlisting the CIA's help in obtaining information on Moussaoui from French intelligence. The French promptly pointed out Moussaoui's affiliations with radical fundamentalist groups and Osama bin Laden. (The French service had been keeping close tabs on the likes of Moussaoui, having foiled a plan by Algerian terrorists to crash an airplane into the Eiffel Tower in 1994.)
American officials have acknowledged that they learned in 1996 that a pilot in bin Laden's network, Abdul Hakim Murad, had planned to use the training that he received at U.S. flight schools to carry out a suicide attack on the CIA headquarters or another large federal building in the Washington area.
Murad had been captured in the Philippines and was convicted in New York on charges of trying to blow up American jumbo jets over the Pacific. His confession formed the basis for a broader analysis prepared for the CIA in 1999 warning that bin Laden terrorists could hijack a jet and fly it into government buildings like the Pentagon.
On May 29, FBI Director Robert Mueller revealed that a May 1998 field report warned that the large number of Middle Eastern men in flight training in Oklahoma ''may be related to planned terrorist activity.'' Moussaoui did his flight training in Oklahoma.
On May 23, John Cooley reported in The Christian Science Monitor that, in the weeks before Sept. 11, Jordanian intelligence had warned U.S. counterparts that bin Laden terrorists were planning a major attack using aircraft inside the continental United States. The Jordanians had intercepted a crucial al Qaeda message that dubbed the operation ''the big wedding,'' but it did not identify the timing or the precise targets.
As warnings of a major terrorist operation against the United States poured in last summer, we know that George Tenet kept warning everyone who would listen. It seems to me certain that he would have kept the vacationing president up to date, including the fresh information on Moussaoui.
And that's probably why Tenet didn't get fired after Sept. 11. Instead, President Bush made an unusual appearance at CIA headquarters on Sept. 26, put his arm around Tenet and said:
``This is my report to the American people. We have the best intelligence possible, thanks to the men and women of the CIA.''
If only he had acted on it.
Ray McGovern, a CIA analyst from 1964 to 1990, regularly reported to the vice president and senior policy-makers on the President's Daily Brief from 1981-85. He now is co-director of the Servant Leadership School, an inner-city outreach ministry in Washington, D.C.