Many commission members and staff came to believe that Condoleezza Rice, then President Bush's national security adviser, had ignored many warnings about a terrorist attack before 9/11 and done little to bring them to the president's attention. Former Sen. Bob Kerrey was one of the commission members who questioned Rice in February 20004.
Kerrey recalled a comment that Rice made about her responsibilities as national security adviser - and how troubling her description was. She said something like "I took the president's thoughts, and I helped the president describe what he was thinking," Kerrey remembered.
Kerrey thought that was a rare, unguarded acknowledgement from Rice, and it captured what she had done wrong as national security adviser. ... Rice's job was not simply to repackage and prettify the thoughts of a president whose understanding of national security issues was limited enough in 2001. Her job was to wake up in the morning, review the raw intelligence presented to the White House by the government's spy agencies and the Pentagon, and then advise the president what to do. Condi Rice had turned the definition of her job on its head.
Thomas Pickard, a longtime FBI agent, served as the acting director of the FBI in the summer of 2001. He testified before the commission about his first briefings of Attorney General John Ashcroft, who had jurisdiction over the FBI, in the months before the attacks.
During the briefing, Ashcroft suggested he knew little about al-Qaida, so Pickard offered a primer on the terrorist network and its murderous history. "I told him about al-Qaida and bin Laden, a little history about the World Trade Center bombing (in 1993) and East Africa." Ashcroft listened, but he seemed far more intrigued by other items on the agenda, especially the latest on the FBI's efforts to end delays on background checks for gun buyers. ...
Pickard opened the next briefing, on July 12, 2001, with the latest on the CIA warnings about an al-Qaida attack.
"We're at a very high level of chatter that something big is about to happen," Pickard began. "The CIA is very alarmed -"
He had barely begun the presentation when Ashcroft jumped in angrily. "I don't want to hear about that anymore," he said. "There's nothing I can do about that. ...
"I don't want you to ever talk to me about al-Qaida, about these threats," Ashcroft said. "I don't want to hear about al-Qaida anymore."
On Sept. 16, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press and told Tim Russert that on Sept. 11 President Bush gave the order to shoot down the plane that would crash in Pennsylvania. The commission staff found evidence in White House logs from that day that contradicted Cheney's version. Cheney would later demand the commission remove this part of its report; it did not.
The staff was convinced that "the horrendous decision" was not made by Bush; it was made by Cheney, and the vice president had almost certainly made it alone. If (John) Farmer's team was right, the shoot-down order was almost certainly unconstitutional, a violation of the military chain of command, which has no role for the vice president. ...
Whatever the constitutional issues, it would have been difficult to second-guess Cheney about a decision to save the White House if a suicide hijacker was bearing down on the capital and there were only seconds to act.
"If Cheney orders a shoot-down of a plane that he thinks is coming at the White House, who'd blame him?" (commission general counsel Daniel) Marcus said. "But his staff was obsessed with showing that he didn't give the order."