The macabre videotape from ISIS came barely a week after the bloody carnage in Paris: “We bring [President François] Hollande and the people around him good tidings—as we bring [President] Obama good tidings…. Allah willing, we shall roast them with explosive belts and car bombs.”
At the CIA, no one is under any illusion that the threat of more ISIS attacks on Europe—or even U.S. soil—is just bluster. Cofer Black, former head of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, says of the Paris assault: “An out-of-the-blue attack with so many moving parts is bad news for us.” “I’ve come to the view when dealing with bad guys, that you should believe what they say,” John McLaughlin, a longtime former deputy director, told me recently. “Most of them are going to try and do what they tell you they’re going to do. The ISIS objective is to consolidate their so-called caliphate. But unless they are stamped out, they’ll come here. They'll come here. To say we’re not in their gun sights reminds me of pre-9/11, where the C.I.A. encountered what I would call a climate of disbelief.”
If, before the Paris attacks, the Obama White House believed that the ISIS threat had been “contained,” it is not the first time U.S. leaders have had their heads in the sand. Long before the famous President’s Daily Brief, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.,” both the Clinton and the Bush White Houses received repeated and urgent warnings from CIA Director George Tenet that an attack was coming. I detailed the unheeded warnings in a Nov. 12, 2015, article for Politico that has made news around the world. Over the past eight months, in more than a hundred hours of interviews, my partners Jules and Gedeon Naudet and I have talked with Tenet, his deputies, and the 11 other living former directors of the CIA for The Spymasters, a documentary set to air Nov. 28 on Showtime.
From the moment he became head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center in 1999, Cofer Black warned the Clinton White House of the al Qaeda threats. Black, a legendary former operative who had helped French Intelligence corral the infamous terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal, was alarmed by the nascent plots his first day on the job. “I don’t shock easy. But I was shocked,” he recalls. “This was a wave of threats coming at the United States. There was no doubt in my mind that the United States was going to be struck and struck hard. Lots of Americans were going to die.”
At the urging of Sandy Berger, Clinton’s National Security Advisor, George Tenet, the CIA director, drew up a plan called the “Blue Sky paper.” [Berger] said, “I want you to imagine that you had all the authorities that you needed and all the resources you needed to take down al Qaeda. What would you do?” Tenet responded with a plan calling for a CIA assault on al Qaeda—“getting into the Afghan sanctuary, launching a paramilitary operation. We knew exactly what to do. We were ready to do it.” But the plan was shelved. Later, in the spring of 2001, Tenet says he submitted a similar paramilitary plan to the new Bush administration: “And the word that came back was: ‘We don’t want the clock to start ticking.’” “What did that mean to you?” I asked Tenet. “That they weren’t ready,” he replies, “to consider their options with regard to terrorism.”
The saga of unheeded warnings reached a climax on July 10, 2001. Tenet called for an urgent White House meeting with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and her team. (George W. Bush was on a trip to Boston.) Richard Blee, the head of the Al Qaeda Unit, said, “There will be significant terrorist attacks against the United States in the coming weeks or months. The attacks will be spectacular. They may be multiple. Al Qaeda’s intention is the destruction of the United States.” Black slammed his fist on the table, and said, “We need to go on a wartime footing now!” “What happened?” I ask Cofer Black. “Yeah. What did happen?” he replies. “To me it remains incomprehensible still. How is it that you could warn senior people so many times and nothing actually happened? It’s kind of like The Twilight Zone.”
To the CIA directors, one of the most chilling aspects of last week’s Paris attacks is that unlike 9/11, they came with no warning. France’s Directorate of Territorial Security (DST) is widely regarded as one of the world’s elite intelligence agencies, hardened by decades of experience with terrorism spawned in Algeria; the fact that it was totally by surprise speaks volumes about the ability of the ISIS operatives to go undetected. “ISIS showed impressive OPSec [operational security] in that they could launch this multiple operation in a coordinated manner and the French not have a clue,” says Black, who has worked closely with his Parisian counterparts: “Paris is noteworthy because there was no warning before people started dying. It all shows the problem is big in France with unassimilated and angry immigrants there as well as a flood of recent new immigrants with terrorists. European Intelligence failed.”
What are the lessons of 9/11 for the French? Both tragedies resulted from the same miscalculation: underestimating the danger of a terrorist sanctuary. Fifteen years ago it was al Qaeda in Afghanistan; today it is ISIS in Syria and Iraq. “The lesson that we’ve all learned,” says Tenet, “is when you give terrorists unimpeded access to a sanctuary, when you don’t disrupt them, when you don’t throw them off their feet and they’re allowed to operate with impunity, sooner or later you’re going to pay the price.”
How far will France now go—how “merciless” will it be, in President François Hollande’s words—to prevent another attack? It’s a question that goes to the heart of how the country defines itself. There are lessons to be learned here from the American response to 9/11. Says Leon Panetta, President Obama’s first CIA director: “How do we make sure we are not so caught up in the fear of an enemy that we begin to move away from the principles and the standards that represent what this country’s all about? There’s not an easy answer to that.”
What’s acceptable in France’s newly declared “war” against ISIS? Rounding up Muslims? “When the Japanese-Americans were interned as a result of what happened at Pearl Harbor,” says Panetta, “it violated what this country is all about. And in many ways that’s what happened after 9/11.” Panetta is referring to the Bush administration’s so-called enhanced interrogation techniques—which some CIA directors have called torture. (And which Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has promised to bring back in the form of waterboarding.) Stansfield Turner, now 91, CIA director under Jimmy Carter, says: “I just don’t think a country like ours should be culpable of conducting torture. I just think it’s beneath our dignity. I think it’s poor for our reputation and the world.”
Will France now resort to enhanced interrogation to extract intelligence about imminent plots? What about black sites? Indefinite detention? “Somebody has to stand up and be willing to say, ‘This is not what our country is about,’” says Panetta. “Yes, we’re facing a terrible enemy, one who doesn’t care about who gets killed, but the United States is better than that.” Will France be better than that? “I don’t really see terrorists or terrorism as a threat to national security,” says senior CIA counterterrorism analyst Gina Bennett. “To me, our security is only threatened by us—if we choose to change course and become something that we’re not.”
Taking the battle against ISIS into Syria will also pose dilemmas for the French leadership. What if a terrorist, who also happens to be a French citizen, is in the crosshairs of an airstrike over Syria? Will France decide that such a terrorist should be executed from the air without judicial process? That is the dilemma the CIA faced when it tracked down the militant jihadi cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, in the desert of Yemen. “I was asking people, “What were we interested in al-Awlaki about?” says former director William Webster, now 91, the only director to have also run the FBI. “And someone said, ‘Well, he’s on the list.’ I said, ‘What list is that?’ They said, well, the ‘Goodbye List.’”
The Goodbye List—better known as the “Kill List”—is the roster of terrorists marked for execution by the government. On September 30, 2011, CIA drone pilots based in Nevada fired hellfire missiles at al-Awlaki in Yemen, killing him and one other terrorist. It was the first time since the Civil War that an American citizen had been executed without an indictment, trial, or sentencing. Al-Awlaki’s death sparked a passionate debate among the CIA directors that continues today. “The precedent of an American president being able to kill an American citizen under any circumstances, on just his signature, is dangerous,” says Robert Gates, former CIA director and Secretary of Defense. “This was an American citizen and he was ultimately taken out,” adds Webster, a former federal judge, “but it’s not something that should be left to one person, no matter who that person is.” Panetta argues that dangerous times require harsh tactics. “There were Nazis who were U.S. citizens,” he says. “Does that make them less of an enemy? There are terrorists who are U.S. citizens. Does that somehow make them less of an enemy?”
For Europeans, perhaps the most sobering lesson of 9/11 is just how little their intelligence agencies can do in the face of a ruthless enemy—with open borders, unassimilated immigrants, and the underlying causes of terrorism unresolved. “We’re not going to see an end to terrorism in my lifetime or my children’s lifetime,” says John Brennan, the current CIA director. “It’s not going to end. We’re just going to have to continue to minimize the ability of these individuals to carry out these terrorist acts. That’s what intelligence is really trying to do. We’re trying to give time and space to policy-makers, to our diplomats, to resolve these outstanding issues in the world.” Adds former director Michael Hayden: “The reality is, intelligence or direct action only buys you space. It rarely solves the problem on its own. And if political leaders don’t have the wherewithal or the courage or whatever it takes to use the space, you get to kill people forever.”
Chris Whipple is executive producer and writer of The Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs, airing Nov. 28 at 9 p.m. on Showtime. He is writing a book for Crown on the White House chiefs of staff.