If you knew that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had received a memo a month before Pearl Harbor entitled, "Japanese Determined to Attack the United States in the Pacific," and that he had done nothing about that information, would that knowledge change your perception of FDR as a wise war leader?
Roosevelt received no such memo, of course, but President George W. Bush got a blunt warning five weeks before 9/11 and he did little or nothing. He even presided over a stand- down in preparations, concentrating on other concerns.
The Washington Post reported in May 2002 that Bush had received a President's Daily Brief on Aug. 6, 2001, entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." But, of course, not everything that's reported becomes widely known, or is necessarily true. And so for most Americans, yesterday's 9/11 hearing provided their first occasion to learn, from the highest sources, just what was in that document.
Condoleezza Rice began her testimony with a statement in which she minimized the possibility that anyone could have known what was happening. All intelligence prior to 9/11 was "not specific as to time, nor place, nor manner of attack," she said. But then 9/11 Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste pressed her about that PDB memo, still rated as "classified" by the government. Ben-Veniste was legally prohibited from mentioning even the title of the document.
But he wasn't prohibited from asking Rice the title of the PDB. And she obliged: "I believe the title was, 'Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.'" Ouch. Just moments after she had said intelligence was "not specific" about the place of attack, here's a presidential-level document warning, specifically, that al-Qaida's target wasn't overseas somewhere, but rather the United States itself.
David Colton, Washington lawyer and veteran of the intelligence world, observes of this exchange: "Ben-Veniste hypnotized her." Colton adds, "She fell into the rhythm of a smart lawyer's questions, and so blurted out the single most damning admission of these hearings."
Seeming to realize she had said too much, Rice tried to bury the revelation by piling on words. She insisted that the document, the PDB's title notwithstanding, "did not warn of attacks inside the United States. It was historical information based on old reporting." Whereupon Ben-Veniste invited her to seek the declassification of the entire memo. Rice declined.
Rice's semi-admission - she was under oath, but that doesn't guarantee that every witness will tell whole truth - stirred up Bob Kerrey, another commissioner.
Kerrey was bound by the same strict rules of classification as Ben-Veniste, but he's a free-spirited war hero and so didn't care that he was breaking those rules. "In the spirit of further declassification," he announced, "this is what the August 6th memo said to the president: that the FBI indicates patterns of suspicious activity in the United States consistent with preparations for hijacking. That's the language of the memo that was briefed to the president on the 6th of August."
Ouch again. "Hijacking" is pretty darn specific - which seems to contradict Rice's assertion that the intelligence was "frustratingly vague" as to the "manner of attack."
Plenty of people in Washington had their "hair on fire" about the terror threat in the summer of 2001. But not Bush, apparently. On Aug. 4, he went off on a working vacation to his ranch in Texas.
According to White House speechwriter turned memoirist David Frum, that summer Bush "did something I had never seen him do: he brooded." Yet the issue wasn't terror; it seems it was stem cell research. On Aug. 9, Bush gave his first primetime policy speech to the nation - on the topic of embryos. After that, according to Frum, Bush launched a "mini-political campaign" that took him out on the stump.
And we all know what happened the following month.
What we don't know is the precise sequence of events that led to the government's Pearl Harbor-like cluelessness on 9/11. But there's at least a chance now, as documents are revealed and as officials testify under oath, that we'll find out. In the meantime, here's a prediction, based on what we know already: Bush won't dare show more 9/11 images in his campaign ads.
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