It’s fortunate for George W. Bush he has a mess on his hands in Iraq; otherwise, he might have to worry about a significant cover-up coming undone.
As matters in Iraq — rising American casualties, helicopter mishaps, and an abrupt Bush decision to hand off political authority to an Iraqi body to be named later — have dominated the news, a tussle between the independent commission investigating the 9/11 attacks and the White House did attract a short burst of media attention. It was noted on front pages that the bipartisan 9/11 commission and the Bush administration, after weeks of squabbling, had forged a deal regarding the commission’s access to intelligence briefings given to Bush before September 11, 2001. But the news reports generally did not fully explain what was at stake.
The White House had refused to turn over this material to the House and Senate intelligence committees when they were conducting a joint investigation of 9/11, and Bush took the same position with the 9/11 commission. But when the commission — headed by former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean, a moderate Republican appointed to the panel by Bush — raised the prospect of subpoenaing the documents, the Bush team worked out a compromise. It is permitting the 10-member commission limited access to these intelligence reports, known as the President’s Daily Brief (PDB). (It helped that family members of people killed on 9/11 had protested the White House’s lack of cooperation.) The arrangement was unprecedented; this is the sort of stuff administrations fight to the death to keep secret. But 9/11 is different. Two Democratic commissioners (former Senator Max Cleland and former Representative Timothy Roemer) and the Family Steering Committee, an association of 9/11 relatives, though, blasted the agreement for imposing tight restrictions on how the commission can use information and, most importantly, on what it can tell the public about the material it is allowed to see.
The accord was a partial victory for a Bush White House that has been trying hard to conceal a key slice of the 9/11 tale: what Bush knew of the pre-9/11 intelligence warnings that al Qaeda was planning a strike against the United States, and what Bush did (or did not do) in response to these warnings. And the White House’s deal with the commission could well enable the administration to maintain this stonewalling.
Some background: While the World Trade Center ashes were still glowing, Bush and his aides told the public that they had had no reason to suspect this type of horrific attack was about to occur. Yet, as the final report of the joint inquiry of the House and Senate intelligence committees notes, for years the intelligence community had collected information reporting that terrorist outfits, including al Qaeda, were interested in mounting 9/11-like attacks — that is, hijacking airliners and crashing them into high-profile targets in the United States. U.S. intelligence services, the Pentagon, and the Federal Aviation Administration during the Clinton and Bush II years apparently did not take action in response to these reports. That was a systemic failure. Bush has never addressed it publicly, but if pressed he could blame the bureaucrats at the CIA, the Defense Department and the FAA for ignoring clear-and-present hints.
Bush is more vulnerable regarding warnings about al Qaeda that were sent to the White House during his first eight months in office. In May 2002, media reports revealed that the August 6, 2001, PDB had included material regarding Osama bin Laden’s interest in hijacking airliners. That caused a brief controversy for Bush. And in September 2002, the House and Senate intelligence committees disclosed that an early July 2001 intelligence warning had noted, “we believe that [bin Laden] will launch a significant terrorist attack against the U.S. and/or Israeli interests in coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against U.S. facilities or interests. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning.”
The questions are obvious. Was this dramatic July warning shared with Bush and his top advisers? If so, what did they do? And what did the August 6 PDB presented to Bush actually say? How did Bush react to it?
Such queries are not necessarily difficult to resolve. To fulfill its mission, the 9/11 commission ought to provide the answers. But the Bush administration, to date, has acted to stop such answers from reaching the public. When the August 6, 2001, briefing hit the headlines 18 months ago, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice pooh-poohed it and ‰ told reporters that the PDB had contained merely a general warning about al Qaeda. And when the House and Senate intelligence committees revealed the existence of the July 2001 warning, the Bush administration refused to allow the committees to say whether this warning had been passed to Bush and his national security advisers. It would only let the committees report that the warning had been furnished to unnamed senior government officials.
With these actions, the White House blocked the public from learning what Bush had been told about the al Qaeda threat in the weeks before 9/11, and it hid information that could cause Americans to wonder if Bush might have not reacted to the warnings with sufficient vigor. But the preliminary evidence is that the White House has been protecting itself. According to the House and Senate intelligence committees’ final report on 9/11, the committees were told by an intelligence community representative that an August 2001 intelligence report included information that bin Laden wanted to conduct attacks in the United States, that al Qaeda members had been residing and traveling to the United States for years and had apparently maintained a support structure here, that bin Laden was interested in hijacking airliners (to trade for prisoners), that the FBI had discerned patterns of activity consistent with preparations for hijackings, and that bin Laden supporters were planning attacks in the United States with explosives.
That sure is different than a general warning about al Qaeda. Did this information appear in Bush’s August 6, 2001, PDB? The committees are not in a position to say, but their staff has told reporters they strongly believe some — if not all — of this material was included in the PDB. That suggests that Rice misled the public about this briefing and that Bush had been presented with more than a routine warning about al Qaeda. And one Democratic senator on the committee told reporters (including me) that the July warning — the one noting a “spectacular” attack loomed — had indeed gone to senior White House officials and the president.
The current battle over Bush’s PDBs is important. They can show what Bush knew before 9/11 about al Qaeda’s designs. They can provide a foundation for evaluating — finally — whether he and the federal government acted responsibly and reasonably in the weeks and months before the attacks. Which is one reason why anyone with an inquiring mind should be suspicious of a deal that does not provide the commission unfettered access to these reports and that grants the White House the possible means to protect a serious but little-noticed cover-up.