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.
The White House reaction was predictable: stonewall. The Bush crew clearly did not want American citizens to discover that he had been told that bin Laden was aiming to conduct attacks in the United States, and they did not want to have to answer the inevitable questions (such as, what did the president do in response to this briefing?). So Team Bush started spinning, and its lead twirler was Rice.
On May 16, she held a briefing for reporters and described the PDB as “not a warning” and no more than an “analytic report that talked about [bin Laden’s] methods of operations, talked about what he had done historically, in 1997, 1998. It mentioned hijacking, but hijacking in the traditional sense, and in a sense said that the most important and likely thing was they would take over an airliner holding passengers and demand the release of one of their operatives.” She did not refer to the title or the other elements of the PDB unrelated to hijacking, including the report that al Qaeda members had apparently set up a support network in the United States. She did her best to make the PDB seem rather dull:
“This was generalized information that put together the fact that there were terrorist groups who were unhappy [with] things that were going on in the Middle East as well as al Qaeda operatives, which we’d been watching for a long time, that there was more chatter than usual, and that we knew that they were people who might try a hijacking. But, you know, again, that terrorism and hijacking might be associated is not rocket science.”
That ho-hum description hardly matches the actual memo. And several days after the PDB story broke, Ari Fleischer, then Bush’s press secretary, told reporters that the headline on the document was “Bin Laden Determined To Strike the United States.” That is, he had changed an “in” to a “the”–an alteration of significance, since the White House line has been that the pre-9/11 chatter had the administration looking for attacks on targets outside the United States. A May 19 , 2002, front-page Washington Post story did report the correct title of the PDB and did state that the briefing had noted that al Qaeda members were living or traveling to the United States. But such reporting was overwhelmed by a White House, PR blitz that maintained the PDB was no big deal.
Rice, Fleischer and their colleagues succeeded more or less. The issue of the August 6, 2001, PDB went away. But there was another front to worry about. In 2002, the House and Senate intelligence committees were conducting a joint 9/11 inquiry. When the committees requested access to PDBs received by Bush and Bill Clinton, the Bush White House said no. As the final report of the joint inquiry noted, “Ultimately, this bar was extended to the point where CIA personnel were not allowed to be interviewed regarding the simple process by which the PDB is prepared.”
The joint inquiry did interview intelligence community officials aware of the contents of the August 6 PDB. And the final report of the committees, which was released last summer, strongly hinted at what had been in the PDB. The committees got it right, noting that intelligence material gathered in early August 2001 had informed “senior government officials” that bin Laden had wanted to conduct attacks in the United States and that al Qaeda had a support structure in the United States. But the committees were unable to portray the PDB definitively or to provide the title. Only a few reporters picked up on the obvious hints placed in the final report. For the most part, the cover-up was still holding.
The independent 9/11 commission finally forced the August 6 PDB out of Bush’s clutches. But first the White House put up a fight, refusing to allow the full commission to see this and other PDBs. The commission and the White House negotiated an agreement under which one commissioner, Jamie Gorelick (a Democrat), and the panel’s executive director, Philip Zelikow (a Republican), were able to review the PDBs and report back to the other commissioners, after the White House vetted the notes they had taken. September 11 family members complained about the arrangement. They believed the full commission should have access to the PDBs, and they worried about Zelikow’s credibility. (He served with Rice in the first Bush administration, co-wrote a book with her, worked on the Bush II transition team with her, and was appointed by George W. Bush to be on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.) This deal did seem to provide the White House the opportunity to continue to suppress specifics about the PDB.
But Richard Clarke got in the way. His book and his testimony to the 9/11 commission brought far more attention to the panel and to the issue of whether the Bush administration had not regarded the al Qaeda threat seriously before September 11. His dramatic appearance also highlighted the White House’s refusal to permit Rice to testify. With the White House trying to limit the commission’s actions, its attempt to sit on the August 6 PDB became one more example of the administration’s reluctance to cooperate fully. (Earlier this year, the White House had opposed the commission’s request to add two months to its end-of-May deadline and had said Bush would not consent to an interview with all of the panel’s commissioners; it then retreated on each point.)
When Rice did appear, Democratic commission members–particularly Richard Ben-Veniste–grilled her on the PDB, disclosing information from the PDB and forcing her to reveal its title. But she tried to stick to her previous characterization of the PDB, noting it presented “historical information based on old reporting.” That depends on what the definition of “historical” is. The PDB did run through material dating back several years to show that “bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the U.S.” But it also noted that al Qaeda was currently maintaining a “support structure” in the United States. And it cited information obtained in May 2001 that suggested “that a group of bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives.” (The White House said it reacted aggressively to this tip-off and it was unrelated to 9/11.) Rice repeatedly referred to the PDB as a “historical” document and did not accept Ben-Veniste’s invitation to call for its declassification. When Ben-Veniste asked Rice if she had ever told Bush before August 6, 2001, of the existence of al Qaeda cells within the United States, she did not answer the question.
With so much attention focused on the PDB, it became inevitable that the Bush White House would have to release it. The administration has established a rather clear pattern. When it comes to sharing information with the public about controversial matters, it holds the line as long as it can–until politics dictate otherwise. This is the SOP for elected officials. But Bush does seem to dig in his heels more than most. After two years of hiding the PDB, the administration let it out on a Saturday night–a rather convenient time to make inconvenient information available.
When the White House released the document, it held a background briefing with reporters on a conference call. During this sessions, one White House official said, “The release of this PDB should clear up the myth that’s out there that
somehow the President was warned about September 11th.” But the point of the PDB was not that Bush had been warned specifically about 9/11. At issue was what he had been told about the prospect of a bin Laden strike inside the United States, as well as what, if anything, he did in response. Under questioning from Commissioner Timothy Roemer, a former Democratic congressman, Rice had said the PDB was “most certainly an historical document that says, ‘Here’s how you might think about al Qaeda.'” But there are no public indications that after he received this briefing that Bush thought at all about the possibility of an al Qaeda attack in the United States. Maybe he did. But during the background briefing, a White House official declined to discuss how Bush reacted to the August 6 briefing: “That’s a confidential relationship between the briefer who briefs the President each morning and the President. So not only do we not know, but it’s not the sort of thing that we would discuss.”
The day after the PDB was released, Bush held a short media availability at Fort Hood, Texas, and insisted that the August 6 briefing “said nothing about an attack on America. It talked about intentions, about somebody who hated America. Well, we knew that.” When asked if he was “satisfied” that every agency had done all it should have prior to 9/11, Bush redefined the question: “I’m satisfied that I never saw any intelligence that indicated there was going to be an attack on America at a time and a place of an attack.” It was a non sequitur. No one has suggested he saw such intelligence.
The PDB controversy is not about whether Bush received a specific warning a month before 9/11. It concerns his administration’s attitude toward al Qaeda and the possibility of domestic attacks prior to September 11 and whether the White House has truly been willing to see the full 9/11 tale uncovered and told. The evidence is mounting that al Qaeda was not the priority it should have been in the first seven months of Bush’s presidency. Yet the White House is unable to acknowledge that it made a misjudgment. Much of the public might even believe that it was a natural mistake for a new administration to underestimate the abilities and reach of a madman hunkered down in faraway Afghanistan. In a way, such a screw-up may be more forgivable than Bush and his lieutenants’ efforts to cover up information and prevent the 9/11 commission from completing a thorough examination.
Bush lost the PDB battle, but the war is not over. The 9/11 commission is working hurriedly to finish its report by the congressionally mandated date of July 28. No doubt, the commission will have to tussle with the White House over the declassification of other material. Will the administration once more attempt to censor significant information? Could this delay the release of the report? Declassification fights tied up the congressional intelligence committees’ 9/11 report for eight months. A repeat would push the unveiling of the 9/11 commission’s report until after the election, but commission officials say they are determined to avoid such a fate.
The 9/11 commission has not constantly inspired confidence, but thanks to the panel, Rice’s PDB cover-up, after two years, caved in. Still, suspicious minds would be right to wonder: Are there other cover-ups, which are not yet publicly known, that will end up more to Bush and Rice’s liking?
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