The 9/11 Investigation
The White House also refused to release to the committees the contents of an August 6, 2001, President's Daily Brief (PDB) that contained information on bin Laden. In May 2002 National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice claimed this PDB only included information about bin Laden's methods of operation from a historical perspective and contained no specific warnings. But the joint inquiry appears to have managed to find a source in the intelligence community who informed it that "a closely held intelligence report" for "senior government officials" in August 2001 (read: the PDB prepared for Bush) said that bin Laden was seeking to conduct attacks within the United States, that Al Qaeda maintained a support structure here and that information obtained in May 2001 indicated that a group of bin Laden supporters were planning attacks in the United States with explosives. This is quite different from Rice's characterization of the PDB. Did she mislead the public about it? And presuming that this "closely held intelligence report" was indeed the PDB, the obvious question is, how did Bush react? But through its use--or abuse--of the classification process, the Administration has prevented such questions from inconveniencing the White House.
The committees tried to gain access to National Security Council documents that, the report says, "would have been helpful in determining why certain options and program were or were not pursued." But, it notes, "access to most information that involved NSC-level discussions were blocked...by the White House." Bush has said, "We must uncover every detail and learn every lesson of September the 11th." Just not those details about him and his National Security Council.
One big chunk of the report that the Administration refused to declassify concerns foreign support for the 9/11 hijackers. Of these twenty-seven pages, all but one and a half have been redacted. The prevailing assumption among the journalists covering the committees--and it is well-founded--is that most of the missing material concerns Saudi Arabia and the possibility that the hijackers received financial support from there. Is the Bush Administration treading too softly on a sensitive--and explosive--subject? "Neither CIA nor FBI officials," the report says, "were able to address definitively the extent of [foreign] support for the hijackers globally or within the United States or the extent to which such support, if it exists, is knowing or inadvertent in nature. Only recently, and at least in part due to the joint inquiry's focus on this issue, did the FBI and CIA strengthen their efforts to address these issues.... [T]his gap in US intelligence coverage is unacceptable." At one point in the final report, the committees reveal that a July 2002 CIA cable included a CIA officer's concerns that persons associated with a foreign government may have provided financial assistance to the hijackers. "Those indications addressed in greater detail elsewhere in this report obviously raise issues with serious national implications," the report notes. But these "indications" are not addressed elsewhere in the report. The Administration would not declassify the material.
The report does include a list of quotes from unnamed US officials each of whom says that Saudi Arabia has been reluctant to cooperate with the United States on matters related to bin Laden. "In May 2001," according to the report, "the US government became aware that an individual in Saudi Arabia was in contact with a senior al Qaeda operative and was most likely aware of an upcoming operation." The following sentences--which likely cover how the United States responded to this intelligence and what the Saudis did or did not do--is deleted from the report, thanks to the Bush Administration.
It's a pity that the committees were, on a few matters, rolled by the White House, and that Bush has gotten away with concealing from the public what he knew and when, and what he did (or did not do) about a serious threat to the nation. But for seven months, the joint inquiry has been engaged in trench warfare with the Administration over the declassification of this report. It is a credit to the joint inquiry and its staff director, Eleanor Hill, that the committees squeezed as much out of the Administration as they did. The joint inquiry has done far better in this regard than the average Congressional intelligence committee investigation.
The report is a good start in establishing the historical record. It reads at times like tragedy, at other times almost as farce. The signs were there. Few paid attention. Two, if not more, of the hijackers were within reach of US law enforcement, but nobody saw that. Five days after the attacks, Bush said, "No one could have conceivably imagined suicide bombers burrowing into our society." And in May 2002, Rice said, "I don't think anyone could have predicted these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center." Actually, the report has proof that the attacks of 9/11 were foreseen. Not in terms of date and time. But intelligence reporting indicated and terrorism experts warned that Al Qaeda was interested in mounting precisely these types of attacks. Yet the US government--the Bush II and Clinton administrations--did not prepare adequately. The attacks were far less outside the box than Bush and his aides have suggested. Thwarting them was within the realm of possibility.
The Administration has yet to acknowledge that--let alone reveal how--Bush responded to the intelligence he saw. The joint inquiry's work provides a solid foundation for the 9/11 independent commission, which is now conducting its own inquiry. Perhaps that endeavor will be able to learn even more and address the questions the Bush Administration did not allow the committees to answer.