Bin Laden PDB Anniversary

While many are reflecting on the 62nd anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing today, Steve Benen highlights a more recent milestone: the sixth anniversary of the Presidential Daily Briefing that highlighted a potential terrorist strike by al Qaeda.

He notes this passage from Bart Gellman’s review of Ron Suskind’s One Percent Doctrine:

[A]n unnamed CIA briefer who flew to Bush’s Texas ranch during the scary summer of 2001, amid a flurry of reports of a pending al-Qaeda attack, to call the president’s attention personally to the now-famous Aug. 6, 2001, memo titled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US.” Bush reportedly heard the briefer out and replied: “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.”

He also cites Fred Kaplan’s summary of George Tenet’s testimony:

For the previous few years — as Philip Zelikow, the commission’s staff director, revealed this morning — the CIA had issued several warnings that terrorists might fly commercial airplanes into buildings or cities.

While there are certainly reasons to criticize Bush’s handling of foreign policy in general and the war on terror in particular, this continues to strike me as among the flimsiest. First, they’re based on post hoc explanations by people like Richard Clarke and Tenet who are actually trying to cover their asses.

Moreover, while Bush’s disdainful comment looks outrageous in hindsight — and is damned unprofessional in any event — his reaction quite understandable even though his response should have been more measured. After months of warnings about grand events that might happen, presidents quite naturally come to the entirely correct conclusion that their bureaucracies are playing the CYA game, making sure to issue dire warnings without much specificity. After years of warnings about wolves, the townspeople naturally start to discount them, after all.

Furthermore, it’s far from clear what Bush was supposed to do. “Oh, well, maybe they’re actually on to something this time. Let’s shut down the nation’s air transit system just to be safe!” That would have gone over like the proverbial lead balloon.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Terrorism,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Triumph says:

    Moreover, while Bush’s disdainful comment looks outrageous in hindsight — and is damned unprofessional in any event — his reaction quite understandable even though his response should have been more measured.

    If Bush, indeed, said that, doesn’t it seem really bizarre, defensive, and inappropriate?

    Such a response in many corporate settings would be looked down upon.

  2. James Joyner says:

    If Bush, indeed, said that, doesn’t it seem really bizarre, defensive, and inappropriate?

    Sure. I already termed it “disdainful” and “unprofessional” and said it “should have been more measured.” I merely understand the frustration behind the sentiment.

  3. Andy says:

    Frustration?

    Give me a break.

    As the right wing has been reminding America every day since 9/11, we’re at war with al qaeda, and we have been since, um, 1993 or 1979 or whatever. They had attacked our embassies, the USS Cole, bombed the WTC, tried to take down a dozen airliners over the Pacific, etc.

    But the Bush foreign policy agenda prior to 9/11 was fixated on China and Iraq. His dismissal of these reports of terrorist attacks was not based on frustration. It was, quite clearly, dismissed because it did not fit the neocon policy goals.

    A rational analysis of national security threats to our country has never been performed by the Bush administration. It wasn’t going on prior to 9/11 and it sure hasn’t taken place since.

  4. Anderson says:

    Furthermore, it’s far from clear what Bush was supposed to do.

    Maybe he could’ve asked the relevant officials “what am I supposed to do?”

    That would’ve been an improvement.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Maybe he could’ve asked the relevant officials “what am I supposed to do?”

    That would’ve been an improvement.

    Fair enough. My guess is that he did, repeatedly, and wasn’t given much in the way of useful advice.

    It’s a bit amusing, too, to see so much faith put in George “Slam Dunk” Tenet when it’s convenient.

  6. Anderson says:

    It’s a bit amusing, too, to see so much faith put in George “Slam Dunk” Tenet when it’s convenient.

    Excellent point, though of course one of those putting faith in Tenet when convenient was Bush himself, *after* 9/11.

  7. legion says:

    Furthermore, it’s far from clear what Bush was supposed to do. “Oh, well, maybe they’re actually on to something this time. Let’s shut down the nation’s air transit system just to be safe!”

    James, your writing is usually very thoughtful (even when I disagree), but I gotta call you on this tripe here. You go in two sentences from “we have a warning with many possible responses” to “we can’t take the most extreme knee-jerk option” to giving Bush a pass for doing exactly NOTHING. I’m sorry James, but that sort of lowering of the bar is pathetic and beneath your IQ.

    The idea that these people, who have so screwed up every opportunity to respond in a rational, effective way to the threat of AQ and international terrorism, shouldn’t be criticised at every chance (let alone run out of office in disgrace) is pitiable.

  8. James Joyner says:

    You go in two sentences from “we have a warning with many possible responses” to “we can’t take the most extreme knee-jerk option” to giving Bush a pass for doing exactly NOTHING.

    It’s perhaps a bit glib, I’ll agree. My point, though, is that it’s far from clear what Bush should have done with YET ANOTHER intel warning saying al Qaeda was going to be attacking using planes. They’d reportedly been constant over a two year period.

    Clearly, the Clinton team didn’t take these warnings seriously, either. Maybe the Intel Community just didn’t do a very good job of communicating their gravity to decision makers?

  9. legion says:

    Well, the Slate article answers your questions quite effectively, I think…

    In his CIA days, Johnson wrote “about 40” PDBs. They’re usually dispassionate in tone, a mere paragraph or two. The PDB of Aug. 6 was a page and a half. “That’s the intelligence-community equivalent of writing War and Peace,” Johnson said. And the title—”Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US”—was clearly designed to set off alarm bells. Johnson told his interviewer that when he read the declassified document, “I said ‘Holy smoke!’ This is such a dead-on ‘Mr. President, you’ve got to do something!’ ”

    In short, this PDB was different from what Clinton had been getting, and the CIA was trying to portray the gravity of the situation. George Bush simply did. Not. Care. And he’s been covering his ass ever since.

  10. FredW says:

    “Oh, well, maybe they’re actually on to something this time. Let’s shut down the nation’s air transit system just to be safe!”

    Take a look at the difference between the fourth hijacked plane and the first three? Notice a difference? By that time those on board realized that the plane would be deliberately crashed. Up to that day everyhbody (crew and passengers) we implored to co-operate with any hijackers.

    If after that PDB the word was sent out that hijackers were going to crash planes into buildings, we still would have had four planes down and hundreds (not thousands) dead, but the Twin Towers would still be standing.

    Now also image the how the reaction would have been different if the PDB say “Sadam Hussein Determined to attack in the US by crashing planes into buldings…”

  11. M1EK says:

    My guess is that he did, repeatedly,

    Based on WHAT, exactly? He’s been portrayed even by his allies as “incurious”.