A White House aide warns of growing terror threats and urges the president to act. "It is impossible," the aide writes in a memo, "to rule out the possibility of a major terrorist attack in the United States."
It could have been written during the early Bush administration when counterterror adviser Richard Clarke was warning that Al Qaeda was poised to strike.
In fact, it was 29 years ago, when Gerald Ford was president, though the memo's recipient is still around: Dick Cheney, then Ford's chief of staff. According to an internal study written last year for the 9/11 Commission, Cheney and other top White House aides paid little attention and never responded to the memo's recommendation to "strengthen Executive branch efforts to combat terrorism."
The previously unknown memo to Cheney was cited in a lengthy review of U.S. counterterror policies prepared by historian Timothy Naftali. (Naftali will publish his findings this spring in "Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism.") The study found similar problems in virtually every administration: spotty intel, poor coordination and only sporadic attention from top policymakers. The Ford era is noteworthy because key players such as Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld would return under Bush.
At the time, the chief threat came from Palestinian extremists who were hijacking planes. A government "working group" considered possible scenarios for a "spectacular" attack, such as terrorists with portable missile launchers. There were also internal debates about new FBI guidelines restricting domestic intel gathering. A young Justice official, Rudolph Giuliani, urged that the guidelines be relaxed to track possible terror plots during the coming Bicentennial.
The rising threat level prompted a White House staffer, Mike Duval, to take the issue up the chain—to Cheney. In his June 21, 1976, memo, Duval advised Cheney that the working group had produced "a series of doomsday-type papers showing the potential of substantially increased terrorism activities."
Duval recommended that Ford create a high-level "Terrorism Special Action Group," and pushed him to "take action now before a major incident turns this latent problem into a major public issue." Stacy Davis, an archivist with the Ford Library, says there is no record that Cheney ever responded. (A spokeswoman for Cheney declined to comment.) Top White House aides under Ford "downplayed terrorism as a threat," Naftali says. "Then they came back to office, and [until 9/11] they responded the same way."