The scene: a hut somewhere near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Al Qaeda Terrorist Number One: I have good news to report.
Al Qaeda Terrorist Number Two: What is it?
AQT1: We have achieved a major breakthrough in learning how the infidels in America intend to pursue their campaign against us. With this information, we will be able to strike again.
AQT2: What is this important information?
AQT1: That the President is briefed by the CIA and other spy services on what they learn of our plans.
AQT2: Now that we know the President is informed by his lackeys we are in a better position to deliver chaos and death upon them. Praise Allah.
Believe it or not, the Bush administration is suggesting that an absurd scenario of that sort is possible. As proof, look at the first page of the report released days ago by the House and Senate intelligence committees’ joint inquiry examining September 11. “The Director of Central Intelligence,” the relevant passage says, “has declined to declassify two issues of particular importance to this Inquiry.” One was the identity of a key al Qaeda leader (since identified by the news media as Khalid Sheik Mohammed). The other was “any references to the Intelligence Community providing information to the President or White House.” The report went on, “According to the DCI, the President’s knowledge of intelligence information relevant to this Inquiry remains classified even when the substance of that intelligence information has been declassified.”
That is, the administration will declassify intelligence information, but it will keep classified the fact that this material was (or was not) shared with the President or anyone else at the White House. The administration’s position is that it can tell the public about intelligence reports the government gathered regarding potential acts of terrorism before September 11 without harming national security, but if it must reveal whether these reports were brought to the attention of George W. Bush or his aides, that would endanger the United States. (This is different from the customary Bush White House arguments about executive privilege and preserving Bush’s and Dick Cheney’s ability to hear frank talk from such crucial advisers as energy industry lobbyists.)
If there were a secrecy-meter for the secrecy-loving Bush White House, this latest move would peg the needle in the red zone. After all, if information that was shared with Bush is made public, how could Bush’s awareness (or unawareness) of that information be considered a vital secret? But the administration is indeed maintaining that the country’s enemies, as they currently plot against America, could somehow exploit knowledge of Bush’s knowledge of past intelligence reporting.
The reason for this silly White House maneuver appears obvious: to avoid further debate on what Bush did or did not know about the prospect of domestic terrorism attacks prior to 9/11–and how he reacted to what he was told. Four months ago, Bush got burned when news reports revealed he had received a general briefing on August 6, 2001, suggesting al Qaeda was aiming to hit the United States. As Bush plans his war against Iraq, administration officials surely do not want a similar distraction. Had they not censored the intelligence committees, such a diversion might have occurred, for on page 23 of the report sits a landmine: