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Al Qaeda Isn't Afraid to Kill Americans, a Memo Warned One Week Before 9//11

In this series, Newsweek maps the road to 9/11 as it happened 20 years ago, day by day.

After President Bush's extended summer vacation in Crawford, Texas, the cabinet-level principals met in the White House Situation Room on September 4 to discuss al Qaeda and terrorism policy for the first time in the Bush administration.

Present were the president and vice president, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and her deputy Steve Hadley, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and future chairman) Gen. Dick Myers, and CIA director George Tenet. Richard Clarke, the White House terrorism staffer, also attended.

On the day of the meeting, Clarke sent Rice a personal note criticizing current and past counterterrorism efforts. The "real question" before the principals, he wrote, was, "are we serious about dealing with the al Qida threat? ... Is al Qida a big deal?" He went on to say, "Decision-makers should imagine themselves on a future day when ... hundreds of Americans lay dead in several countries, including the US. What would those decision makers wish that they had done earlier? That future day could happen at any time." He argued that because the U.S. had not retaliated for the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen the previous October, al Qaeda and the Taliban were drawing the lesson that they could kill Americans without paying a price. He blamed the Pentagon for saying that there was nothing worth hitting in Afghanistan. He said that the CIA would insist that its priorities were most important and described their bureaucracy as "masterful at passive aggressive behavior."

Condoleezza Rice George Bush 9/11 Oval Office
Condoleezza Rice believed it would take the al Qaeda terrorists three years to carry out their plans. With President George W. Bush in the Oval Office, July 6, 2006. Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

Rice later told the 9/11 Commission that she thought Clarke's memo was a good warning but also thought that after nine years of being on the national security council staff, he was frustrated that he often failed to persuade the principals to set the agenda he wanted or persuade these agencies to adopt his views.

The meeting ended up being dominated by an unresolved question of when Predator reconnaissance drone flights would again be flown over Afghanistan, and whether the drone would be armed. The discussion centered on whether the White House, the CIA or the Pentagon would hold the authority to give permission to fire. Treasury Secretary O'Neill was skittish about civilians being involved, cautioning as well about the implications of trying to kill an individual: that it constituted assassination, something that had been banned since the Ford administration.

At the end of the extended meeting, the draft national security policy directive on terrorism was discussed and approved, the text sent back to agencies for comment. National security advisor Rice said later that she thought that it would take three years or so for the al Qaeda strategy to work.

Follow the Newsweek live tweet of September 11, 2001 (based upon the new book On That Day) starting at 4:45 a.m. EST @Roadto911.

Newsweek is reconstructing the road to 9/11 as it was constructed 20 years ago, day by day. Each day a new story will be published here. On September 11 we'll live tweet the events of the day, minute by minute, starting at 4:45 a.m. EST, @RoadTo911.