Am I wrong, or is the document that the White House released yesterday more or less exactly what Condoleeza Rice, under oath at the time, said it was? In a non-biased article with the middle-of-the-road title Declassified Memo Said Al Qaeda Was in U.S., the Washington Post writes
The White House originally resisted releasing the article, part of the President’s Daily Brief, or PDB, citing the sensitivity of intelligence information. It characterized the document as a historical summary with little current information on which the president could have acted.
In her testimony to the 9/11 commission on Thursday, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said, “this was a historical memo. . . . It was not based on new threat information.”
While the two-page document included information dating to 1997, it also contained information that the government suspected al Qaeda was actively preparing for an attack in the United States. While it gave no information about specific targets or dates, the briefing warned that U.S. intelligence believed bin Laden had serious plans to hit the United States.
The PDB said U.S. intelligence could not confirm “some of the more sensational threat reporting,” such as information from a foreign intelligence service in 1998 saying bin Laden “wanted to hijack a US aircraft” to gain the release of U.S.-held Muslim extremists. The identity of the foreign service was redacted. [emphasis mine]
So, despite sensational headlining, this story tells us that Osama bin Laden wanted to attack the United States. Not really all that news-worthy, is it?
What if the administration had jumped all over this information, despite the fact that it was told it was “sensational reporting”? It would have been preparing for an airline hijacking staged for the express purpose of negotiating the release of Muslim extremists held in US custody, not for use as massive missiles targeting the WTC or the Pentagon.
If anyone can look at this report and honestly say “Ah-ha! Why didn’t we do anything about any of that?”, I’d like to hear their reasoning.
There are those, of course, who will try to do so. Besides the headline and misleading information in its article, the Washington Post gives this summary of the text of the PDB:
The following is the text of an Aug. 6, 2001, intelligence briefing for President Bush that outlined al Qaeda plans to strike within the United States. It was released Saturday by the White House. [emphasis mine]
Apparently, the “outline” is
FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.
call to our Embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group of Bin Ladin supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives.
As Dr. Clarke — um, Dr. Rice — said, there is no actionable information in here. There is no outline. There are no leads. There are a few tips, of sorts, but they are being followed up by the CIA and the FBI, the report says. And none of the tips ended up related to 9/11, anyway.
The release of the this report has de-fanged the latest angle of attack on the Bush administration’s performance in the pre-9/11 world, and it’s a little mystifying to me why it wasn’t released earlier. There’s nothing at all damning in here. So why did the administration hold out?
This seems to be the modus operandi of the Bush administration. Let the critics attack. Let them shout and wave their arms. Give them time. Feed out just enough rope for them to hang themselves with, then kick the soapbox out from under their feet.
(That sound you just heard was Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste choking and gagging.)
Why did Ben-Veniste go after Rice so hard on the 8/6 PDB? In case you have missed it, or at least missed the unedited version, here it is again:
BEN-VENISTE: Isn’t it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the August 6 PDB warned against possible attacks in this country? And I ask you whether you recall the title of that PDB?
RICE: I believe the title was, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.”
BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.
RICE: No, Mr. Ben-Veniste…
BEN-VENISTE: I will get into the…
RICE: I would like to finish my point here.
BEN-VENISTE: I didn’t know there was a point.
RICE: Given that — you asked me whether or not it warned of attacks.
BEN-VENISTE: I asked you what the title was.
RICE: You said, did it not warn of attacks. It did not warn of attacks inside the United States. It was historical information based on old reporting. There was no new threat information. And it did not, in fact, warn of any coming attacks inside the United States.
Ben-Veniste certainly wanted the title out, and he got it. However, as has been extensively discussed elsewhere, he apparently screwed up by accidentally asking if the PDB warned of attacks. Rice caught him, and he paid dearly.
Now, Ben-Veniste had seen the PDB, so he knew exactly what it said. And, even though some will choose to interpret it more harshly than others, he must have known that it certainly wasn’t a smoking gun, or even a loaded gun. It wasn’t even a gun, really. It just noted that a gun may, in fact, exist somewhere.
Why, since he must have known all of this, did he work Rice to get the title out? Did he hope that the title alone would implicate the administration? Yes, but why didn’t he think the contents would be released?
Thursday evening, while watching the testimony, I stopped and replayed that segment several times. My wife, who was already fed up with Ben-Veniste, asked why he was pushing that angle so hard. I responded that there were two main possibilities: 1) The briefing contained classified information – though not 9/11-specific – that precluded its release, so he wanted to use the title to score points, knowing it would never see the light of day. Or, 2) The briefing DID contain 9/11-specific information, and he was trying to force the administration into releasing it.
Option #2 required that Dr. Clarke – err, Dr. Rice – be clearly lying under oath on national television, and I wasn’t really prepared to accept that. So I figured that, secure in the knowledge that the PDB would never go public, Ben-Veniste jumped on an opportunity to knock Rice, who was performing quite strongly, down a notch and at the same time cast doubt on the administration’s denials of actionable information before 9/11.
He slipped up when he asked what the briefing actually contained, though, or maybe he didn’t think she would address that. Maybe he hoped she wouldn’t, leaving something for pundits to point out the next day. She did address it, and she addressed it strongly.
In fact, in light of the PDB’s quick release, a third possibility exists: 3) Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste was intentionally playing the fall guy for the administration, acting the part of the harsh, overbearing inquisitor who gets shot down in flames, smearing not only his own reputation but that of those around him. This, granted, is fairly outlandish. But he pulled it off so effectively, whether by intention or not, that it makes you wonder.