Bush’s Little Secret

By the way, we, uh, forgot to mention, that in August of 2001, while the President was taking a long vacation at his ranch in Crawford, the CIA told him that, uh, Osama bin Laden might be planning to hijack an airliner as part of some, who-knows-what terrorist action against the United States.

That is, in essence, how the Bush White House confirmed the CBS News report that broke this story Wednesday night. The White House was quick to say the CIA intelligence did not refer to anything as diabolical as a quadruple-hijacking that transformed airliners into weapons of mass destruction. That's probably true. But this latest news follows recent reports that an FBI agent in Phoenix in July 2001 had written a classified memo noting a "strong connection" between a group of Middle Eastern aviation students he was investigating and Bin Laden's al Qaeda, and that one of the FBI agents trying to figure out the intentions of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested at a flight school in August 2001, had speculated he might be planning to fly an airliner into the World Trade Center.

Before conspiracy theorists run away with this latest revelation, it is important to note its true significance.

First, the news raises an obvious question, is there anything else the White House is not telling us? Bush and his lieutenants kept word of the CIA briefing secret for eight months. Why did they not disclose this earlier? In January and February, The Washington Post published an eight-part series by Bob Woodward and Dan Balz on how the President and his aides responded to the September 11 attacks. The articles -- a mostly positive account -- were largely drawn from interviews with Bush and senior officials. Funny, none of them mentioned that a month before the attacks, the CIA had told the President, via the daily briefing it prepares for him, there was reason to worry about a Bin Laden action. It is a good bet that at one point on that awful day the President or the other aides who generally have access to the CIA's daily briefing -- Vice President Dick Cheney, CIA director George Tenet, national security adviser Condoleeza Rice, and chief of staff Andrew Card -- recalled that warning.

The Post series did report, "Through much of the summer, Tenet had grown increasingly troubled by the prospect of a major terrorist attack against the United States. There was too much chatter in the intelligence system and repeated reports of threats were costing him sleep....Everywhere he went, the message was the same: Something big is coming. But for all his fears, intelligence officials could never pinpoint when or where an attack might hit." But in this administration-provided account, there was no sign the CIA had informed Bush it was on the lookout for a Bin Laden hijacking. Presumably, none of Woodward and Balz's insider-sources felt that was worth sharing.

Once again, the Bush crowd has demonstrated its fondness for secrecy. And for spinning. When Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, facing a combative press corps, was asked why the administration had not revealed that Bush received this warning, he reminded the reporters the real issue was that "the fault lies with Osama bin Laden and the terrorists." Later in the day, Rice, up against the White House reporters, repeatedly depicted the CIA briefing as an unexceptional act during which Bush was merely told that Bin Laden could be interested in hijacking. It's common sense that a terrorist might be considering a hijacking, she added. But CIA daily briefings are supposed to include noteworthy material for the President, not obvious, generalized information. Let's hope the CIA is not wasting the President's time by reminding him terrorists sometimes hijack airplanes.

Certainly, there was an understandable reason for the White House to be mum until now. If the public had learned of the briefing, questions would be asked. Which brings us to the other significance of this disclosure: it provides Congress an additional -- and well-defined -- avenue for its investigation of the national security community's performance prior to September 11.

Belatedly, Congress in February moved to have the intelligence committees of the House and Senate conduct a joint investigation into what went wrong before the attacks. (The decision came after the Bush White House earlier asked Congress not to pursue this topic quickly.) In doing so, Congress eschewed the suggestion made by Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman that a blue-ribbon panel outside Congress conduct the investigation. Instead, the mission was handed to committees that have traditionally maintained cozy relations with the intelligence services. And the probe has gotten off to a slow and bumpy start. The first lead investigator, Britt Snider, quit the post, after getting into an internal tussle for not alerting the committees he had hired someone under investigation for failing a CIA lie-detector exam. (Snider, a former CIA inspector general, may not have been the right fellow for the job, since he is a longtime friend and colleague of Tenet, and Senator Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, has had Tenet in the crosshairs since September 11.) Then news leaked that the Justice Department and the CIA were not fully cooperating with the investigation.

Assuming the inquiry gets on track, the committee investigators should thoroughly examine that August intelligence briefing. They ought to be able to trace it backward and determine what went into this report. What was the sourcing? How did the CIA gather this information? How did it follow up? Did it make a serious effort to learn more about this hijacking plot? If so, what was done? If not, why not? This is an important trail for the investigators to follow, inch by inch. Perhaps the CIA did everything it could and, still, was unable to unearth a clear tip-off. But maybe opportunities were missed. The public deserves to know.

Second-guessing is easy, but it is tragic that the Phoenix FBI report (suspects in a terrorist investigation linked to al Qaeda are attending flight school), the mysterious Moussaoui case (a suspicious fellow, enrolled in a flight school, is up to something, maybe crashing an airliner into the World Trade Towers), and the CIA warning (Bin Laden is planning a terrorist action) were never placed side-by-side on the same desk. Had they been, that might not have spelled out what was coming. But it could have made other information seem more relevant or helped the CIA and FBI locate additional pieces of this secret puzzle.

The inability of the intelligence community to coordinate its information streams -- not even within the FBI was the Phoenix report passed to the office investigating Moussaoui -- is troubling. Is there a point to spending $30 billion-plus dollars a year for a sweeping intelligence system -- and Congress is in the process of approving a multibillion dollar boost -- if that system cannot discern and efficiently handle the nuggets it does manage to obtain?

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