Do Right-Wingers Really Want To Be Talking About PDBs Today?

Oddly enough, there's been no mention this morning on Fox News (at least not that I have caught) on today's New York Times story about the Bush administration's manifest failure to heed a litany of warnings prior to the 9/11 terror attacks in

Oddly enough, there's been no mention this morning on Fox News (at least not that I have caught) of today's New York Times story about the Bush administration's manifest failure to heed a litany of warnings prior to the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001. Huh.

Oh, but they have been all over ex-Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen's WaPo op-ed claiming that President Obama has been skipping out on attending his Presidential Daily Briefings, the daily national-security rundown each president receives:

President Obama is touting his foreign policy experience on the campaign trail, but startling new statistics suggest that national security has not necessarily been the personal priority the president makes it out to be. It turns out that more than half the time, the commander in chief does not attend his daily intelligence meeting.

The Government Accountability Institute, a new conservative investigative research organization, examined President Obama’s schedule from the day he took office until mid-June 2012, to see how often he attended his Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) — the meeting at which he is briefed on the most critical intelligence threats to the country. During his first 1,225 days in office, Obama attended his PDB just 536 times — or 43.8 percent of the time. During 2011 and the first half of 2012, his attendance became even less frequent — falling to just over 38 percent. By contrast, Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush almost never missed his daily intelligence meeting.

Naturally, Dick Cheney was quick to chime in:

“If President Obama were participating in his intelligence briefings on a regular basis then perhaps he would understand why people are so offended at his efforts to take sole credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden,” Cheney told The Daily Caller in an email through a spokeswoman.

“Those who deserve the credit are the men and women in our military and intelligence communities who worked for many years to track him down. They are the ones who deserve the thanks of a grateful nation.”

Ironic, isn't it, that people from the Bush administration, of all people, should be pointing an accusatory finger about Presidential Daily Briefings on this day -- Sept. 11, the anniversary of the day when George W. Bush's failure to respond to the Aug. 6, 2001, PDB came home to roost in a horrifying way.

They seem to have conveniently forgotten all about it. Thiessen was on with Megyn Kelly on Fox this morning and for some strange reason, the subject was never mentioned.

It's doubly strange because today's front-page NYT piece focuses on that PDB and the warnings leading up to it:

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On April 10, 2004, the Bush White House declassified that daily brief — and only that daily brief — in response to pressure from the 9/11 Commission, which was investigating the events leading to the attack. Administration officials dismissed the document’s significance, saying that, despite the jaw-dropping headline, it was only an assessment of Al Qaeda’s history, not a warning of the impending attack. While some critics considered that claim absurd, a close reading of the brief showed that the argument had some validity.

That is, unless it was read in conjunction with the daily briefs preceding Aug. 6, the ones the Bush administration would not release. While those documents are still not public, I have read excerpts from many of them, along with other recently declassified records, and come to an inescapable conclusion: the administration’s reaction to what Mr. Bush was told in the weeks before that infamous briefing reflected significantly more negligence than has been disclosed. In other words, the Aug. 6 document, for all of the controversy it provoked, is not nearly as shocking as the briefs that came before it.

The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001. By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible.

But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster. An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat.

Let's recall, for a moment, exactly what the PDB concluded:

We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a ---- service in 1998 saying that Bin Laden wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft to gain the release of "Blind Sheikh" Omar Abdel Rahman and other U.S.-held extremists.

Nevertheless, 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.

The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full-field investigations throughout the U.S. that it considers bin Laden-related. CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group or bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives.

It's worth noting that those last two paragraphs utterly demolish the Bush administration's claim that the information was purely "historical" and did not specify potential threats.

In fact, here's howNational Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice described the White House's assessment of the memo in her commission testimony:

The briefing item reviewed past intelligence reporting, mostly dating from the 1990s, regarding possible al Qaeda plans to attack inside the United States. It referred to uncorroborated reporting that from 1998 that terrorists might attempt to hijack a U.S. aircraft in an attempt to blackmail the government into releasing U.S.-held terrorists who had participated in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. This briefing item was not prompted by any specific threat information. And it did not raise the possibility that terrorists might use airplanes as missiles.

What was the White House's response? Well, here's how Rice described it:

Despite the fact that the vast majority of the threat information we received was focused overseas, I was concerned about possible threats inside the United States. On July 5, chief of staff Andy Card and I met with Dick Clarke, and I asked Dick to make sure that domestic agencies were aware of the heightened threat period and were taking appropriate steps to respond, even though we did not have specific threats to the homeland.

Later that same day, Clarke convened a special meeting of his CSG, as well as representatives from the FAA, the INS, Customs, and the Coast Guard. At that meeting, these agencies were asked to take additional measures to increase security and surveillance.

Throughout this period of heightened threat information, we worked hard on multiple fronts to detect, protect against, and disrupt any terrorist plans or operations that might lead to an attack. For instance, the Department of Defense issued at least five urgent warnings to U.S. military forces that al Qaeda might be planning a near-term attack, and placed our military forces in certain regions on heightened alert.

The State Department issued at least four urgent security advisories and public worldwide cautions on terrorist threats, enhanced security measures at certain embassies, and warned the Taliban that they would be held responsible for any al Qaeda attack on U.S. interests.

The FBI issued at least three nationwide warnings to Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies, and specifically stated that, although the vast majority of the information indicated overseas targets, attacks against the homeland could not be ruled out.

The FBI also tasked all 56 of its U.S. field offices to increase surveillance of known or suspected terrorists and reach out to known informants who might have information on terrorist activities.

The FAA issued at least five Civil Aviation Security Information Circulars to all U.S. airlines and airport security personnel, including specific warnings about the possibility of hijackings.

The CIA worked round the clock to disrupt threats worldwide. Agency officials launched a wide-ranging disruption effort against al Qaeda in more than 20 countries.

However, in reality, as we later determined, Rice's testimony was at best misleading if not downright fallacious:

Rice, testifying before the Sept. 11 commission Thursday, said that those 70 investigations were mentioned in a CIA briefing to the president and satisfied the White House that the FBI was doing its job in response to dire warnings that attacks were imminent and that the administration felt it had no need to act further.

But the FBI Friday said that those investigations were not limited to al-Qaida and did not focus on al-Qaida cells. FBI spokesman Ed Coggswell said the bureau was trying to determine how the number 70 got into the report.

... [Rice] said the briefing memo disclosed that the FBI had 70 "full-field investigations under way of cells" in the United States. And that, Rice said, explained why "there was no recommendation [coming from the White House] that we do something about" the flurry of threat warnings in the months preceding the attacks.

But Coggswell Friday said that those 70 investigations involved a number of international terrorist organizations, not just al-Qaida. He said that many were criminal investigations, which terrorism experts say are not likely to focus on preventing terrorist acts. And he said he would "not characterize" the targets of the investigations as cells, or groups acting in concert, as was the case with the Sept. 11 hijackers.

In addition to these investigations, Rice told the panel that FBI headquarters, reacting to alarming but vague intelligence in the spring and summer of 2001 that attacks were imminent, "tasked all 56 of its U.S. field offices to increase surveillance of known suspected terrorists" and to contact informants who might provide leads.

That, too, is news to the field offices. Commissioner Timothy J. Roemer told Rice that the commission had "to date ... found nobody, nobody at the FBI, who knows anything about a tasking of field offices." Even Thomas Pickard, at the time acting FBI director, told the panel that he "did not tell the field offices to do this," Roemer said.

So let's review the entirety of the Bush administration's real-life response to the memo:

  • The problem is handed off to Richard Clarke (if anyone in the White House could have been accurately described as warning everyone they knew of an imminent attack, it was Clarke).
  • The intelligence agencies involved send out a handful of warnings and the State Department beefs up security abroad.
  • The FAA sends out some warning fliers.
  • Rice prepares her missile-defense speech.
  • Bush takes nap, clears brush, remains resolutely on vacation. Finally ends vacation and returns to his leadership role by reading My Pet Goat to Florida schoolchildren.

All of which establishes one clear reality: It's not whether or not you attend each and every PDB session. It's what you do with the information that matters.

But then, right-wingers really don't want to be talking about that, do they?

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