The question is not the 1970s cliché, What did the President know
and when did he know it? The appropriate query is, What did US
intelligence know--and what did the President know and do about that?
The flap over the August 6, 2001, intelligence briefing of George W.
Bush--in which he was told that Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network was
interested in hijackings and looking to strike the United States
directly--should not have focused on whether the President ignored that
information and missed the chance to prevent the September 11 strikes.
Still, a political dust-up ensued, as the White House, overreacting to
the overreaction of the Democrats, went into full spin mode. The crucial
issue was broached when National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice
stated, "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people
would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center."
Actually, it was predicted, and the recent hullabaloo called
attention to the sad fact that the Clinton and the Bush II national
security establishments did not heed hints going back to 1995. In that
year a terrorist arrested in the Philippines said bin Laden operatives
were considering a plot to bomb airliners and fly a plane into CIA
headquarters--information shared with the United States. Two weeks
before that arrest, Algerian terrorists linked to Al Qaeda hijacked a
plane, hoping to crash it into the Eiffel Tower (French commandos killed
the hijackers at a refueling stop).
From 1995 on, US intelligence and the military should have taken steps
to detect and prevent a 9/11-like scheme. There was enough information
in the system to cause the US air command to draw up plans for dealing
with an airliner-turned-missile and to prompt the CIA and the FBI (and
other intelligence outfits) to seek intelligence related to plots of
this type. Apparently nothing of the sort happened. Not even when
terrorism experts continued to raise airliner attacks as a possibility.
In 1998 terrorism analysts briefed Federal Aviation Administration
security officials on scenarios in which terrorists flew planes into US
nuclear plants or commandeered Federal Express cargo planes and crashed
them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the White House, the
Capitol and other targets. In 1999 a report prepared for the National
Intelligence Council noted that Al Qaeda suicide bombers could fly an
aircraft filled with explosives into the Pentagon, CIA headquarters or
the White House.
In 2001 the FBI--not looking for signs of a suicide-bombing plot--failed
to recognize the significance of information its agents received while
investigating foreign students at a Phoenix flight school and Zacarias
Moussaoui, a French national enrolled in a Minnesota aviation school,
later charged with participating in the 9/11 conspiracy. In July Italian
authorities warned the United States that bin Laden agents might try to
attack Bush and other Western leaders at the Genoa summit using an
True, these leads were small pieces of data among the massive amounts of
material swept up by the sprawling intelligence system. But what's the
point of spending more than $30 billion annually on spies and high-tech
eavesdropping if the system can't sort out the valuable nuggets?
Hindsight is indeed easy. The Bush and Clinton administrations, based on
what's now known, don't deserve to be faulted for not discovering the
9/11 plot. But both failed to oversee the intelligence and
law-enforcement communities and make sure they were pointed in the right
There is evidence that the Bush team didn't move quickly on the
counterterrorism front. Newsweek reported that Attorney General
John Ashcroft prodded the FBI to concentrate on violent crime, drugs and
child porn more than on counterterrorism (a story the Justice Department
denied). And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld threatened to veto a move
that shifted $600 million from the anti-ballistic missile program to
antiterrorism. Was there a counterterrorism policy delay? Other
questions linger. In July 2001 Richard Clarke, then the National
Security Council official in charge of counterterrorism, put out an
urgent alert, placing the government at its highest state of readiness
for a possible terrorist attack. The alert faded six weeks later. What
triggered it? What caused the stand-down? Should there have been a
The multiple failures of policy, imagination and coordination over two
administrations should be investigated. To assign blame? Accountability
does have its place in a democracy. The public has a right to know who
messed up and to be assured that those who did aren't in a position to
commit further mistakes. The point, of course, is to learn from those
mistakes and to be able to tell the public the failures have been
addressed. Does the intelligence system deserve more billions, as Bush
has requested, without demonstrating that it can use the money wisely?
After 9/11 the Bush Administration didn't rush to examine what went
wrong. We're too busy fighting the war, it said, while urging Congress
not to pursue the matter. Belatedly, Congress authorized a joint
investigation by the House and Senate intelligence committees, two
panels that traditionally have been cozy with the intelligence crowd.
That probe has gotten off to a terrible start--the investigators
fighting among themselves over whether to examine government failures or
to concentrate on how best to reorganize the intelligence system and
accusing the CIA and the Justice Department of not cooperating. One
positive consequence of the maelstrom over the August 6 briefing is that
it has prompted more calls for an independent commission, which Senators
John McCain and Joseph Lieberman have been advocating. Yet so far no
inquiry is committed to mounting a no-holds-barred examination and to
conducting as much of it as possible in public.
"I don't have any problem with a legitimate debate over the performance
of our intelligence agencies," said Vice President Cheney. But he has
opposed sharing the August 6 briefing with Congress. How can there be
worthwhile debate without information? After all, the recent tussle
began when the press sensed that the White House had withheld a
significant--or intriguing--fact. And how can there be information
without investigation? The issue is not what Bush knew--but why he
didn't know, and whether his Administration took sufficient steps before
and after that awful day to deal with the failings of the agencies that
are supposed to thwart and protect.