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:

“A briefing prepared for senior government officials at the beginning of July 2001 contained the following language: ‘Based on a review of all-source reporting over the last five months, we believe that UBL [Usama bin Laden] will launch a significant terrorist attack against US and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against US facilities or interests. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning.'”

This was a much more to-the-point briefing than the August 6 one that caused the fuss. But who received it? What intelligence sources was it based on? Most importantly, what did those senior government officials do in response? The report does not say. Yet imagine the reaction if the report explicitly stated that Bush and top White House officials had been told in July, 2001, that a “spectacular” al Qaeda attack was weeks away.

That is the obvious inference. After a recent hearing held by the intelligence committees, a journalist asked Senator Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who chairs the Senate panel, if a reader could assume that prior to being censored the report read “the President and White House officials” in the many spots where it now says “senior government officials.” Graham jokingly nodded his head without saying anything. Adopting a more serious demeanor, he said that “if the underlying information has been declassified I see no reason that who received it should be classified. How else do you hold people accountable?”

Precisely. The committees’ job is to examine and judge how the government performed prior to 9/11–and tell the public what happened. A significant part of that mission is determining what information made it to the White House and what was done by the President and his aides. But Bush is stonewalling.

Classifying this type of information, Graham remarked, “is new to me….I do not understand how, as a blanket reason, that serves national security interests.” Is the White House trying to cover up an embarrassment? a reporter asked. With a smile, Graham replied, “I’m not in the psychotherapy business.” He vowed that the House and Senate intelligence committees will continue to negotiate with the White House to declassify this and other material ordered withheld by the administration.

The report overall is a damning document, indicating the national security establishment had plenty of warnings–more so than publicly known before–that al Qaeda was considering using airplanes as weapons. Yet no one in the intelligence community–as it is called–acted seriously on this information. (In one instance, an intelligence agency in 1998 received a report that an Arab group, which later was possibly linked to al Qaeda, planned to fly an explosives-laden plane from a foreign country into the World Trade Center. The FAA and FBI were informed; neither took action. Intelligence officials, though, have claimed this report, which originated with a police official in a Caribbean nation, was not deemed credible and that its significance has been exaggerated by the committees.) As the staff report bemoans, “While this method of attack had clearly been discussed in terrorist circles, there was apparently little, if any, effort by Intelligence Community analysts to produce any strategic assessment of terrorists using aircraft as weapons.” (The committees’ report undermines national security adviser Condoleeza Rice’s post-attack assertion that no one could have imagined such an assault.) And the study notes that after CIA chief George Tenet in 1998 declared “we are at war” with bin Laden, “there was no massive shift in budget” and many within the intelligence establishment did not get the message. It shows, sadly, there were many more dots than previously revealed that went unconnected.

The report–the first of several supposedly to come from the committees–went further than expected in demonstrating that the intelligence establishment missed concrete signs of a specific threat and failed to plan for it. But it also revealed–once more–the Bush fondness for excessive secrecy. The President, who likes to champion responsibility, is abusing the classification system to prevent an evaluation of how he and White House officials handled their own responsibilities. A commander-in-chief who hides behind a phony claim of national security hardly deserves public confidence as he preps for war.