Did Bush Know About The Al Qaeda Threat?
by David Corn, LA Weekly, November 21 - 27, 2003
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
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
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.