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The 9/11 Report Raises More Serious Questions About The White House Statements On Intelligence


Tuesday, Jul. 29, 2003

The recently released Report of the Joint Congressional Inquiry Into The Terrorist Attacks Of September 11, and its dismal findings, have been well reported by the news media. What has not been widely reported, however, are the inescapable conclusions that must be drawn from a close reading of this bipartisan study.

Bluntly stated, either the Bush White House knew about the potential of terrorists flying airplanes into skyscrapers (notwithstanding their claims to the contrary), or the CIA failed to give the White House this essential information, which it possessed and provided to others.

Bush is withholding the document that answers this question. Accordingly, it seems more likely that the former possibility is the truth. That is, it seems very probable that those in the White House knew much more than they have admitted, and they are covering up their failure to take action.

The facts, however, speak for themselves.

Bush's Claim Of Executive Privilege For His Daily Intelligence Briefing

One of the most important sets of documents that the Congressional Inquiry sought was a set of copies of the President's Daily Brief (PDB), which is prepared each night by the CIA. In the Appendix of the 9/11 Report we learn that on August 12, 2002, after getting nowhere with informal discussions, Congress formally requested that the Bush White House provide this information.

More specifically, the Joint Inquiry asked about the process by which the Daily Brief is prepared, and sought several specific Daily Brief items. In particular, it asked for information about the August 6, 2001 Daily Brief relating to Osama Bin Laden's terrorist threats against the United States, and other Daily Brief items regarding Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and pre-September 11 terrorism threats.

The Joint Inquiry explained the basis for its request: "the public has a compelling interest ... in understanding how well the Intelligence Community was performing its principal function of advising the President and NSC of threats to U.S. national security."

In short, the Joint Inquiry wanted to see the records. Bush's public assertion that his intelligence was "darn good" was not sufficient.

The Inquiry had substantial background material, for the Clinton Administration's national security team had been very forthcoming. As a result, it warned President Bush of the inevitable consequences of refusal to provide access to the requested Daily Briefs.

Bush nevertheless denied access, claiming Executive Privilege. While the Inquiry did not chose to draw obvious conclusions, they are right there in the report for everyone else to draw. So I have drawn them, to see what they look like.

Revealing Information In the 9/11 Report

After pulling together the information in the 9/11 Report, it is understandable why Bush is stonewalling. It is not very difficult to deduce what the president knew, and when he knew it. And the portrait that results is devastating.

The president's briefing of August 6, 2001 was the subject of public discussion even before the Inquiry started its work. As the 9/11 Report notes in a footnote (at page 206), "National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice stated in a May 16, 2002 press briefing that, on August 6, 2001, the President Daily Brief (PDB) included information about Bin Laden's methods of operation from a historical perspective dating back to 1997." (Emphasis added.)

At that May 16, 2002 briefing, Rice went on to say that the Brief made clear that one method Bin Laden might choose was to hijack an airline, taking hostages to gain release of one of their operatives. She said it was "a generalized warring" with nothing about time, place or method. And she added, "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon."

Unfortunately, Rice's statements don't fit comfortably with the Inquiry's information. It appears from the 9/11 Report that either Rice was dissembling, or the CIA was withholding information from the President (and hence also from Rice).

But as we have been learning with the missing Weapon of Mass Destruction, the CIA has consistently been forthcoming. So it seems that it is Rice who should explain herself.

A Closer Look At Rice's Statement

Note again that Rice stated, in explaining the August 6, 2001 Daily Brief, that it addressed Bin Laden's "methods of operation from a historical perspective dating back to 1997."

  • In September 1998, the [Intelligence Community] obtained information that Bin Laden's next operation might involve flying an explosive-laden aircraft into a U.S. airport and detonating it. (Emphasis added.)
  • In the fall of 1998, the [Intelligence Community] obtained information concerning a Bin Laden plot involving aircraft in the New York and Washington, D.C. areas.
  • In March 2000, the [Intelligence Community] obtained information regarding the types of targets that operatives of Bin Laden's network might strike. The Statute of Liberty was specifically mentioned , as were skyscrapers, ports, airports, and nuclear power plans. (Emphasis added.)

In sum, the 9/11 Report of the Congressional Inquiry indicates that the intelligence community was very aware that Bin Laden might fly an airplane into an American skyscraper.

Given the fact that there had already been an attempt to bring down the twin towers of the World Trade Center with a bomb, how could Rice say what she did?

Certainly, someone could have predicted, contrary to Rice's claim that, among other possibilities, "these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon."

The Unanswered Questions

Is Rice claiming this information in the 9/11 Report was not given to the White House? Or could it be that the White House was given this information, and failed to recognize the problem and take action? Is the White House covering up what the President knew, and when he knew it?

The Joint Inquiry could not answer these questions because they were denied access to Bush's Daily Brief for August 6, 2001, and all other dates. Yet these are not questions that should be stonewalled.

Troublingly, it seems that President Bush trusts foreign heads of state with the information in this daily CIA briefing, but not the United States Congress. It has become part of his routine, when hosting foreign dignitaries at his Crawford, Texas ranch, to invite them to attend his CIA briefing.

Yet he refuses to give Congress any information whatsoever about these briefings, and he has apparently invoked Executive Privilege to suppress the August 6, 2001 Daily Brief. It can only be hoped that the 9/11 Commission, which has picked up where the Congressional Inquiry ended, will get the answers to these questions.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the President.

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