The August 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing has been released with much media fanfare. Butwhy? Most of the PDB had already been leaked to the press over the course of the last two years. Moreover, far from being specific, the PDB was wrong in several critical respects. The hijackers were citizens of Saudi Arabia and Yemen. They were not recruited from the ranks of young Muslim Americans. The hijackers did not use explosives. The 9/11 terrorists used cardboard cutters and nail clippers to seize control of the aircraft. Consequently, even if the president had issued an order stopping every young Muslim American from boarding an airplane until they and their luggage were searched for explosives, 9/11 still would likely not have been prevented.
Furthermore, the PDB states the information, which was wrong, was uncorroborated but, nonetheless, there were 70 FBI field investigations occurring across the nation looking into bin Laden connections.
The declassification and release of the August 6 PDB proves one thing: The president and his people have been telling the truth all along about both the substance and nature of the intelligence information they received. 9/11 Commissioner Richard Ben Veniste and co. have, at best, been misleading the American people with their dire inferences about the PDB.
And despite all the false hype surrounding the release of the PDB, there’s nothing new in it. In fact, by May 17, 2002, much of the PDB had already been leaked to CBS News. It reported, in part:
President Bush was told in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks that Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network might hijack U.S. passenger planes–information which prompted the administration to issue an alert to federal agencies–but not the American public.
CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin says the warning was in a document called the President’s Daily Briefing, which is considered to be the single most important document that the U.S. intelligence community turns out. The document did not, however, mention the possibility of planes being flown into buildings.
In truth, back in 1995, the government knew more about what al Qaeda might be planning against the U.S. than the president learned on his August 6, 2001 intelligence briefing. At that time the FBI was warned that terrorists were planning to hijack U.S. commercial aircraft and crash them into U.S. buildings. On September 18, 2001, just one-week after 9/11, CNN reported, in part:
The FBI was warned six years ago of a terrorist plot to hijack commercial planes and slam them into the Pentagon, the CIA headquarters and other buildings, Philippine investigators told CNN.
Philippine authorities learned of the plot after a small fire in a Manila apartment, which turned out to be the hideout of Ramzi Yousef, who was later convicted for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Yousef escaped at the time, but agents caught his right-hand man, Abdul Hakim Murad, who told them a chilling tale.
“Murad narrated to us about a plan by the Ramzi cell in the continental U.S. to hijack a commercial plane and ram it into the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and also the Pentagon,” said Rodolfo Mendoza, a Philippine intelligence investigator.
Philippine investigators also found evidence targeting commercial towers in San Francisco, Chicago and New York City.
They said they passed that information on to the FBI in 1995, but it’s not clear what was done with it.
This is a far more accurate and specific description of the threat the U.S. faced than the August 6 PDB provided to President Bush. And yet, there has been precious little public testimony before the 9/11 Commission about this information, and precious little discussion about the Clinton administration’s response to this information–including the inaction of the ever-prescient former National Security Agency official, Richard Clarke.
In 1999, a report for the National Intelligence Council mentioned that al Qaeda might use U.S. aircraft to fly into key government buildings. On May 18, 2002, the Houston Chronicle reported, in part:
A September 1999 report for the National Intelligence Council, an executive branch clearinghouse for data on terrorism, gave a chillingly accurate warning of the carnage that would strike the United States exactly two years later.
“Suicide bombers belonging to al-Qaida’s Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives…into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the CIA or the White House,” according to the report.
Again, this report, based on publicly available information, contained more accurate and specific information than the August 6 PDB. When asked about the 1999 report in May 2002, Bill Clinton played down the information. He told the Associated Press:
That has nothing to do with intelligence. All that it says is they used public sources to speculate on what bin Laden might do. Let me remind you that’s why I attacked his training camp and why I asked the Pakistanis to go get him, and why we contracted with some people in Afghanistan to go get him–because we thought he was dangerous.
I wonder if this is what Richard Clarke meant when he lauded the aggressive focus on terrorism by the Clinton administration.
In any event, the August 6, 2001, PDB isn’t the political weapon with which George W. Bush’s detractors had hoped to undermine his presidency. The briefing did not provide the president with the information he would have needed to stop the terrorist attacks, which came less than five weeks later.