Probing the Memo

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As the commission looking into the intelligence failures preceding 9/11 resumes its hearings this week, there will be a new exhibit A under public scrutiny: the supersecret CIA report on al-Qaeda that was given to George W. Bush as part of the President's Daily Brief (PDB) on Aug. 6, 2001, just weeks before the attacks on the U.S. At the hearings last week, the PDB had been an elephant in the room. Although the commissioners had read the 1 1/4-page text or a summary, and its title—"Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US"—had been in the public domain since then White House press secretary Ari Fleischer mentioned it in May 2002 to indicate that Bush was aware of the al-Qaeda threat, the White House had refused to declassify the contents. After the commission demanded last week that the report be made public—with the families of 9/11 victims insisting as well—the White House released it last Saturday with only the names of intelligence sources blacked out.

The 9/11 commissioners will now be free to ask more specific and politically freighted questions about it, and the document is provocative yet vague enough in its discussion of terrorist threats to allow partisans on each side to see what they want. As National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testified last week, the report fails to give specific indications about where, when or exactly how terrorists would attack. And much of the information is "historic," as Rice characterized the document. "The release of this PDB should clear up the myth," declared a senior White House official, "that the President was warned about the attacks of Sept. 11."

But the report, which was presented to Bush while he was on vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, seemed to be written by a CIA eager to sound an alarm. Citing clandestine and foreign-government sources, it asserts that the terrorist network had set up shop in the U.S., was carrying out suspicious activity, hoped to strike Washington, might even be planning to hijack airliners and was the focus of 70 FBI field investigations. The PDB also contains two new pieces of specific information that are likely to prompt more questions. One was a mention of "recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York." The Administration said last week it had followed up on that report and found that the suspicious characters turned out to be Yemeni tourists. Another item described a threat phoned in to the U.S. embassy in the United Arab Emirates in May 2001 in which the caller said a group of bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives. The caller gave no more specifics, and federal investigators never found a link between the tip and 9/11, the White House said.

Still, what commissioners will no doubt ask is why, given the memo's strong assertions that bin Laden was bound and determined to strike inside the U.S., the warning didn't spur more action from the President. Commission member Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democrat, told TIME that he and like-minded panelists intend to press ahead with questions on "what occurred [inside the White House] between Aug. 6 and Sept. 11." Panel members will probably ask why the President didn't cut his vacation short or order emergency meetings with Robert Mueller, then the new FBI director. "Once you see the PDB, given what you already know," says Ben-Veniste, "you'll have to make a determination of whether it was exclusively historical or whether there was information there ... indicating an attack."

Besides probing the PDB, the commission will be looking at the current status of domestic intelligence gathering. The key question: Can the FBI fix itself? First up for testimony will be such top officials as Louis Freeh, who led the bureau for nearly eight years, until mid-2001, as well as former Attorney General Janet Reno and figures like Tom Pickard, acting FBI director in the summer of 2001, when U.S. intelligence reported a spike in the threat level. FBI officials tell TIME that Pickard will deny charges that the bureau ignored the warnings and that he will testify that in July and August he put the FBI's rapid-deployment teams, hostage-rescue team and swat teams on standby and alerted the 56 domestic field commanders to squeeze their sources for information.

Next up will be Attorney General John Ashcroft. Commissioners will want to know why his priorities memo in May 2001 did not mention counterterrorism and why on Sept. 10 his bean counters cut the FBI's antiterrorism budget request by $50 million, or 12%. Justice spokesman Mark Corallo says the Attorney General will acknowledge that he didn't give the FBI everything it wanted but that he did ask for more antiterrorism funds than Reno had.

According to FBI sources, Mueller, who took charge just before that September morning, will testify that he has transformed the bureau, replacing nearly all senior and middle managers, hiring linguists and analysts, and placing top priority on terrorism prevention. A new computer system to foster information sharing goes online this summer. "We'll be able to know what we know," says an agent.

The most revealing witnesses may be two top terrorist hunters who usually avoid the limelight—James Pavitt, the CIA's deputy director of operations, and John Pistole, the FBI's senior counterterrorism executive. They will be asked whether the FBI, CIA and other agencies have really joined forces or whether post-9/11 reforms have been treated as make-work projects for agencies that deeply distrust one another. While 50,000 names from various lookout lists have been loaded into the National Crime Information Center master list, Donna Bucella of the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center testified recently that the Pentagon has yet to share its list of terrorism suspects. There are also problems with various agencies sharing threat assessments. And pressure is likely to grow for the release of other documents, including the so-called antiterrorism plan laid out by White House adviser Richard Clarke and the Sept. 4, 2001, plan the Administration finally adopted. For its part, the White House is underscoring that this is the last PDB it plans to release.