Decoding the PDB
Are George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice really as clueless as they are claiming to be? Bush and Rice are both on the record misstating what was in the 6 August 2001 PDB (Presidential Daily Briefing). They both insist the information was only "historical" and "not actionable." They apparently are not alone in their faux ignorance. Republican partisans and even some members of the media are busy bolstering the spin that this was "an historical memo." Absolute nonsense!
I wrote about 40 PDB's during my four-year tenure at the CIA. This particular PDB article was written in response to a presidential request. I am told that Bush's request was a reaction to the intelligence warnings he was hearing during the daily CIA morning briefings. Something caught his attention and awakened his curiosity. He reportedly asked the CIA to come back with its assessment of Bin Laden's intentions. The CIA answered the question -- Bin Laden was targeting the United States.
The PDB article released Saturday is a classic CIA response to such a request. It lays out the historical and evidentiary antecedents that undergird the analyst's belief about the nature of the threat and provides current intelligence indicators that reinforce the basic conclusion of the piece -- i.e., Bin Laden was determined to attack the United States. It is true that the piece did not contain specific details about the plot that was launched subsequently on 9/11. However, the details that are included in the piece are so alarming that anyone familiar with the nature of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda should have asked, "What are they planning and what can we do to stop it?"
Remember the furious attacks against Richard Clarke during the past month? Now that we have seen the content of the PDB we know he was telling the truth when he said that President Bush and Condoleezza Rice did not make fighting Al Qaeda a priority prior to 9/11. At a minimum, the details in the 6 August PDB should have motivated Rice to convene a principals' meeting. Such a meeting would have ensured that all members of the president's national security team were aware of the information that had been shared with the president. George Bush should have directed the different department heads to report back within one week on any information relevant to the Al Qaeda threat. Had he done this there is a high probability that the FBI field agents concerns about Arabs taking flight training would have rung some bells. There is also a high probability that the operations folks at CIA would have shared the information they had in hand about the presence of Al Qaeda operators in the United States. While Condoleezza Rice is correct that there was no "silver bullet" in that PDB, she conveniently ignores the huge pieces of the puzzle that were in the hands of various members of the U.S. government.
None of these steps were taken. Bush was on vacation and Condi -- the smartest woman in Washington, we are told -- was asleep at the switch.
The PDB revealed another very fascinating item -- the analyst who wrote the piece had access to details about FBI investigations. This is something I never had access to when I was writing PDBs. It was forbidden territory. In other words, Bill Clinton has opened some level of cooperation between the FBI and CIA. The FBI, in a break with tradition, was telling the CIA what it was doing in some measure. Unfortunately, with the benefit of hindsight, not enough was shared.
Larry C. Johnson is a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. He served with the CIA from 1985 through 1989 and worked in the State Department's office of Counter Terrorism from 1989 through 1993. He also is a registered Republican who contributed financially to the Bush Campaign in 2000.