April 12, 2004, 8:20 P.M.
Crisis du jour: Let me get this straight. There is a PDB (Presidential Daily Briefing memo) dated August 6, 2001 that says clearly and unequivocally that al Qaeda is planning attacks in the U.S. The President still maintains that the memo “said nothing about an attack on America,” as quoted in the Washington Post. Of course, the memo was titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,” but I guess nobody in the Bush administration reads titles.
According to the Post, the President went on to say that “some of the matters were being looked into” and “I am satisfied that I never saw any intelligence that indicated there was going to be an attack on America – at a time and a place, an attack.” The shuttering at the end of that quote sounds to me like an attempt to qualify the statement, and it was further qualified by Bush’s statement, “of course we knew that America was hated by Osama bin Laden. That was obvious. The question was who was going to attack us, when and where and with what.”
Well, I’ll agree that those were pivotal questions. But there was additional information out there. For example, the previous administration had considered the extraordinary step of targeting bin Laden for execution, they had a long history of surveillance on him and his people had already attacked the USS Cole and various embassies around the world. Bin Laden and the al Qaeda network should have been on everyone’s terrorism short list in 2001.
The World Trade Center had already been the target of an attack. We knew that it was a target because it was a symbol of American economic prosperity and power. We also knew that the first attack had failed because of the type and placement of the bomb, not for lack of effort. In one sense, the failure to get the buildings on the first try should have had somebody thinking that the bad guys perhaps saw the towers as unfinished business.
The timing of the attack was the concern of Richard Clarke. No one has yet disputed that this guy made himself a real pain in the neck between January and August 2001. He was sounding the alarm about an imminent threat, and he apparently did not have the President’s ear.
Of course, all of this is clear in hindsight. I do not suggest that it is the fault of the President or his advisors that the attacks on the Trade Center and the Pentagon happened. What I don’t like is the arrogant response of our government. In his remarks to reporters after Easter services at Fort Hood, Texas, Bush agreed with a reporter who characterized the memo as containing “ongoing” and “current threat information.” But he added that, if the FBI or CIA “found something, they would have reported it to me…” His next statement should have been an acknowledgement that the government failed to recognize the level of threat presented by al Qaeda, but instead he went on to say, “we were doing precisely what the American people expect[ed] us to do, run down every lead, look at every scintilla of intelligence and follow up on it.” From where the rest of us sit, that’s precisely what was not happening in the case of al Qaeda, and it may not be only the Bush administration that is to blame.
The 911 Commission, through its Chairman, Republican Tom Kean (former governor of New Jersey against whom I campaigned on behalf of Jim Florio), has indicated that he will push for declassification of some of former President Clinton’s PDBs. If those documents have the same relevance as the August 6, 2001 PDB they should be released. The 911 Commission should have access to all relevant data. It is disappointing that the Commission has focused on the PDBs to the extent that they have, while they have largely ignored the Hart Commission report issued in January 2001 and the members of that commission, given their eerily prophetic and timely report of threats against the U.S.
The fact is, and no one disputes this, that there was an upswing in terrorist activity aimed at the U.S. in the summer of 2001. It was known throughout the intelligence community that bin Laden and others were planning hijackings in the U.S. (possibly aimed at gaining the release of Amar Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian cleric named as the mastermind behind the World Trade Center bombing in 1993) and that bin Laden supporters were planning attacks using explosives in the U.S. (This was disclosed in a phone call to the U.S. Embassy in the UAE in May of 2001.)
True, there is no silver bullet missed by the government in these attacks, however, there is also no salve to relieve the government of its failure to pursue the real leads it had. What is most disturbing, however, is that no one at the White House seems to have the ability to focus beyond one crisis at a time. In the summer of 2001, the terrorist threat was not a top agenda item for our incredibly well-rested, ever-vacationing President, or at least it wasn’t the myopic Bush administration’s crisis du jour.