A small but significant White House cover-up fell apart this past weekend.
When the White House finally released the August 6, 2001 President’s Daily Brief, it marked the end of a two-year effort on the part of the Bush administration to prevent the public from learning that a month before the 9/11 attacks–and weeks after the U.S. government had collected “chatter” indicating Osama bin Laden was planning a major strike–Bush received information indicating that al Qaeda was intent on mounting attacks within the United States.
Condoleezza Rice was instrumental in the attempt to keep the contents of this PDB–which was entitled “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US” and which noted that al Qaeda “apparently maintains a support structure [in the United States] that could aid attacks” and that the FBI had detected “suspicious activity…consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks”–from becoming known. And it is obvious why it was so important for her and the White House to smother this PDB.
The existence of the August 6 PDB was first revealed by CBS News’ David Martin on May 15, 2002. But Martin’s report only referred to the PDB in one sentence that noted the PDB had warned that an attack by bin Laden could involve hijacking U.S. aircraft. CBS did not report the title of the briefing or any other material it contained. A media furor erupted after the White House acknowledged Bush had received this PDB. The day after the CBS News report, The New York Times carried a front-page story with a headline declaring, “Bush Was Warned Bin Laden Wanted To Hijack Planes.”
The disclosure of the PDB came at an especially awkward time for the White House. Two weeks earlier, news reports revealed that an FBI agent in Phoenix in July 2001 had written a classified memo suggesting that a group of Middle Eastern aviation students might be linked to terrorists (including bin Laden) and that the FBI had not taken any action in response to this agent’s investigation. The “Phoenix memo” received a flood of media coverage, and the Bush administration–which heretofore had not had to field any tough questions about the government’s pre-9/11 performance– was confronted with queries about the negligent handling of the agent’s prescient report. At the same time, the case of Zacarias Moussaoui was in the news. On May 15, the Times reported that before 9/11 an FBI agent had speculated that Moussaoui, the suspicious aviation student arrested by the FBI on immigration charges in the summer of 2001, might have been planning to fly a plane into the World Trade Center. News reports had previously indicated that the FBI had not pursued the Moussaoui case vigorously prior to September 11.
The Phoenix memo, the Moussaoui case–all of this placed the administration on the defensive for the first time since 9/11, as the White House fended off suggestions (and accusations) that the federal government, on Bush’s watch, had missed crucial tips and opportunities to thwart the horrific attacks. Then came news of the August 6 PDB.