By the way, we, uh, forgot to mention, that in August of 2001, while the President was taking a long vacation at his ranch in Crawford, the CIA told him that, uh, Osama bin Laden might be planning to hijack an airliner as part of some, who-knows-what terrorist action against the United States.
That is, in essence, how the Bush White House confirmed the CBS News report that broke this story Wednesday night. The White House was quick to say the CIA intelligence did not refer to anything as diabolical as a quadruple-hijacking that transformed airliners into weapons of mass destruction. That’s probably true. But this latest news follows recent reports that an FBI agent in Phoenix in July 2001 had written a classified memo noting a “strong connection” between a group of Middle Eastern aviation students he was investigating and bin Laden’s al Qaeda, and that one of the FBI agents trying to figure out the intentions of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested at a flight school in August 2001, had speculated he might be planning to fly an airliner into the World Trade Center.
Before conspiracy theorists run away with this latest revelation, it is important to note its true significance.
First, the news raises an obvious question, is there anything else the White House is not telling us? Bush and his lieutenants kept word of the CIA briefing secret for eight months. Why did they not disclose this earlier? In January and February, The Washington Post published an eight-part series by Bob Woodward and Dan Balz on how the President and his aides responded to the September 11 attacks. The articles–a mostly positive account–were largely drawn from interviews with Bush and senior officials. Funny, none of them mentioned that a month before the attacks, the CIA had told the President, via the daily briefing it prepares for him, there was reason to worry about a bin Laden action. It is a good bet that at one point on that awful day the President or the other aides who generally have access to the CIA’s daily briefing–Vice President Dick Cheney, CIA director George Tenet, national security adviser Condoleeza Rice, and chief of staff Andrew Card–recalled that warning.
The Post series did report, “Through much of the summer, Tenet had grown increasingly troubled by the prospect of a major terrorist attack against the United States. There was too much chatter in the intelligence system and repeated reports of threats were costing him sleep….Everywhere he went, the message was the same: Something big is coming. But for all his fears, intelligence officials could never pinpoint when or where an attack might hit.” But in this administration-provided account, there was no sign the CIA had informed Bush it was on the lookout for a bin Laden hijacking. Presumably, none of Woodward and Balz’s insider-sources felt that was worth sharing.
Once again, the Bush crowd has demonstrated its fondness for secrecy. And for spinning. When Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, facing a combative press corps, was asked why the adminstration had not revealed that Bush received this warning, he reminded the reporters the real issue was that “the fault lies with Osama bin Laden and the terrorists.” Later in the day, Rice, up against the White House reporters, repeatedly depicted the CIA briefing as an unexceptional act during which Bush was merely told that bin Laden could be interested in hijacking. It’s common sense that a terrorist might be considering a hijacking, she added. But CIA daily briefings are supposed to include noteworthy material for the President, not obvious, generalized information. Let’s hope the CIA is not wasting the President’s time by reminding him terrorists sometimes hijack airplanes.