Persistent Warnings: From George Tenet to Christopher Wray

From the time George Tenet became the director of the CIA in May 1997 until the attacks on September 11, 2001, he persistently raised alarms about Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. During those four years, before al Qaeda struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Tenet testified publicly at least ten times about the threat the group posed to U.S. interests both domestically and internationally. In February 1999, six months after the group bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Tenet declared, “There is not the slightest doubt that Osama bin Laden . . . [is] planning further attacks against us.”

Early in 2000, he warned Congress that bin Laden was “foremost among these terrorists, because of the immediacy and seriousness of the threat he poses” and because he could strike “without additional warning.” Tenet predicted that al Qaeda’s subsequent attacks could be “simultaneous” and “spectacular.” In private, Tenet was even more emphatic, breaking protocol to write personal letters to President Bill Clinton about the severity of the threat. He also discussed his concerns with President George W. Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice several times in 2001.

Although the CIA and FBI could not pinpoint the specifics of the 9/11 plot, Tenet’s warnings were indeed prophetic.

Fast forward twenty-five years, FBI Director Christopher Wray is sounding similar alarms. While his discussions within the Biden administration are private, his public testimonies are crystal clear. During a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in December, Wray stated, “When I sat here last year, I walked through how we were already in a heightened threat environment.” After Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, “we’ve seen the threat from foreign terrorists rise to a whole other level,” he added. Wray has often highlighted security gaps at the southern border of the United States, where thousands enter undetected each week.

High-Ranking Officials Sound Alarms on Terrorism

Wray is one of many high-ranking officials issuing warnings. Since becoming the commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in 2022, General Erik Kurilla has emphasized the dangerous capabilities of terrorist groups in the Middle East and South Asia, including al Qaeda, ISIS, and particularly ISIS-K, the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Christine Abizaid, the outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center, also mentioned “an elevated global threat environment” at a conference in Doha recently.

Last week, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland told the House Judiciary Committee that the “threat level . . . has gone up enormously.”

While a comprehensive view of the threat requires access to classified intelligence, the statements from the FBI director and CENTCOM commander likely reflect the classified information they see and their agencies’ operations. Their warnings should be taken seriously. Even though not all terrorism warnings in the years since 9/11 have materialized, that does not mean today’s warnings from Wray and Kurilla should be ignored. Historically, the level of terrorism warnings has often matched the actual risk. Moreover, these warnings have sometimes led to government actions that thwarted terrorist plans. Given the stakes, it’s better to err on the side of caution.