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April 20, 2004

President Bush May Never Have Read Bin Laden Brief


by Mark Rothschild

President Bush may never have actually read the memo contained in his President's Daily Brief (and here) titled "Bin Ladin [sic] Determined To Strike in US." The brief has been at the center of a controversy about whether President Bush took appropriate action to protect the country prior to the attacks on 9-11.

The "President's Daily Brief" is a set of highly classified documents (briefs) that are bound together into a "briefing book" specially prepared for the President and the President only.

On August 6, 2001, the President, at his 1600 acre ranch in Crawford, Texas was into the second day of a vacation that was to last for the month of August. That morning saw the President taking his customary four-mile jog – today however – in 100 degree Texas heat. Later he settled down to a day of bass fishing and other rural activities.

Critics have said that the President, after reading his President's Daily Brief (PDB) on that hot August day, failed to act in a timely manner on the information that it contained.

However, on the basis of new information, it now it appears that the President did not actually read the Brief and may in fact not have known about its contents until much later.

Did the President Actually Read His Brief?

Among the President’s critics is Sidney Blumenthal, former senior advisor to President Clinton, who posted an article on April 15, 2004 at the web site salon.com, titled Bush faces a revolt -- from the U.S. military (subscription required), also (here - subscription not required), in which he writes, "Bush, in fact, does not read his PDBs, but has them orally summarized every morning by CIA director George Tenet."

However, on that sweltering Monday morning in Texas, President Bush could not have received an oral summary by CIA director George Tenet because Tenet was not in Texas and Tenet has in fact testified on April 13th that he did not speak to George Bush during the entire month of August, nor was Bush briefed that day by National Security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, according to the 9-11 Commission transcript.

The probability that President Bush did not read the Aug. 6, 2001 PDB is supported by the following exchange that took place during a White House press briefing given by the President's press spokesperson, Scott McClellan, and one other unnamed "senior administration official."

This press briefing took the form of a 40-minute telephone conference call in the evening of April 10, 2004. After a few formalities:

"I think we have everyone on. This will be a background briefing. We should be referred to as senior White House officials. I will say a few things address a few opening issues. Then my colleague and I will take some questions."

The senior administration officials take a few questions from the journalists, and then there is the following exchange – in which reference is made to the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (DCI), George Tenet, concerning the Aug. 6, 2001 PDB:

REPORTER’S QUESTION: I know you don't want to go into the President's reaction, but can you tell us whether he read the PDB, the article, or whether he was briefed on it?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We don't have any information on that. I actually just don't know the answer to that. The norm would be that he has both, that he was given the book and reads it, and the briefer may provide may answer questions or provide additional detail. But that's simply a normal process over all of the briefings that the President takes. The President likes an interactive process for his briefer. As you know, it's something that he revived, because he's very interested in intelligence, at the beginning of his term, he revived the practice of actually having a long intelligence briefing in the morning with his DCI present, so that he could have interaction with the briefer, to both read the material, get additional color on it from either the DCI or the briefer, and to be able to ask questions. But as far as what happened in this particular incident, I don't think we have anything on that for you.

REPORTER’S QUESTION: He was in Crawford at the time, I believe – correct me if I'm wrong –

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Correct.

REPORTER’S QUESTION: Was he briefed in person?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He was briefed in person.

REPORTER’S QUESTION: And it was on – he was actually briefed on August 6th, is that right?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Correct

The senior administration official seemed to take a very long time to answer a very simple question. The reporter asked, "…can you tell us whether he read the PDB?

The senior administration official purports to not know the answer to this question. Evidently, everything he knows about the briefing is from another source, i.e., it is second hand. In other words, someone other than President Bush provided the information about the briefing to the senior administration officials, but left out the detail of whether the President personally read the Brief.

Why It Is Important to Know Whether the President Read the Brief

Although the President’s press spokespersons seem to be clear about the fact that the President was not briefed by the Director of the CIA, the President himself apparently, is not so sure. The following text is from the official White House transcript of President Bush’s prime time evening press conference on April 13th, 2004.

REPORTER’S QUESTION: Mr. President, good evening. You've talked on the – I'd like to ask you about the August 6th PDB.

THE PRESIDENT: Sure.

REPORTER’S QUESTION: You mentioned it at Fort Hood on Sunday. You said you pointed out that it did not warn of a hijacking of airplanes to crash into buildings, but that it warned of hijacking to, obviously, take hostages and to secure the release of extremists being held by the U.S. Did that trigger some specific actions on your part and the administration, since it dealt with potentially hundreds of lives and a blackmail attempt on the United States government?

THE PRESIDENT: Ed, I asked for the briefing. And the reason I did is because there had been a lot of threat intelligence from overseas. And so part of it had to do with Genoa, the G8 conference that I was going to attend. And I asked, at that point in time, let's make sure we are paying attention here at home, as well. And that's what triggered the report.

The report, itself, I've characterized as mainly history, and I think when you look at it you'll see that it was talking about '97 and '98 and '99. It was also an indication, as you mentioned, that bin Laden might want to hijack an airplane, but as you said, not to fly into a building, but perhaps to release a person in jail. In other words, serve it as a blackmail.

And of course, that concerns me. All those reports concern me. As a matter of fact, I was dealing with terrorism a lot as the President when George Tenet came in to brief me. I mean, that's where I got my information. I changed the way that the relationship between the President and the CIA Director. And I wanted Tenet in the Oval Office all the time. And we had briefings about terrorist threats. This was a summary.

Now, in what's called the PDB, there was a warning about bin Laden's desires on America, but, frankly, I didn't think that was anything new. Major newspapers had talked about bin Laden's desires on hurting America. What was interesting in there was that there was a report that the FBI was conducting field investigations. And I – that was good news that they were doing their job.

The way my administration worked, Ed, is that I met with Tenet all the time, obviously met with my principals a lot. We talked about threats that had emerged. We had a counterterrorism group meeting on a regular basis to analyze the threats that came in. Had there been a threat that required action by anybody in the government, I would have dealt with it. In other words, had they come up and said, this is where we see something happening, you can rest assured that the people of this government would have responded, and responded in a forceful way.

I mean, one of the things about Elisabeth's question was, I step back and I've asked myself a lot, is there anything we could have done to stop the attacks. Of course, I've asked that question – as have many people of my government. Nobody wants this to happen to America. And the answer is that had I had any inkling whatsoever that the people were going to fly airplanes into buildings, we would have moved heaven and earth to save the country – just like we're working hard to prevent a further attack.

Let's see – Jim.

REPORTER’S QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. You mentioned the PDB and the assurance you got that the FBI was working on terrorism investigations here. The number they had used was 70. But we learned today in the September 11th hearings that the Acting Director of the FBI at the time says -- now says the FBI tells him that number was wrong, that he doesn't even know how it got into your PDB. And two of the commissioners strongly suggested the number was exaggerated. Have you learned anything else about that report since that time? And do you now believe you were falsely comforted by the FBI?

THE PRESIDENT: No, I heard about that today, obviously, and my response to that was I expect to get valid information. As the ultimate decision-maker for this country, I expect information that comes to my desk to be real and valid. And I presume the 9/11 Commission will find out -- will follow up on his suggestions and his recollection and garner the truth.

That is an important part of the 9/11 Commission's job, is to analyze what went on and what could have, perhaps, been done differently so that we can better secure America for the future. But, of course, I expect to get valid information. I can't make good decisions unless I get valid information.

REPORTER’S QUESTION: Has the FBI come back to you, sir?

THE PRESIDENT: No, I haven't talked to anybody today. But I will, though. We'll find out.

In the preceding Presidential press conference transcript, italics have been supplied. How critically should we judge the President’s press conference?

It must be said that the President’s statement that, "…I met with Tenet all the time," is potentially misleading, since the President did not meet with Tenet at all during the month of August 2001 following the August 6th PDB, and, as mentioned above, Tenet himself thought that he had not even spoken to the President during that month.

It could be said that the forgoing is overly critical, and that the President may have inadvertently misstated the facts as he knows them.

We can see from the transcript of his April 13th press conference that the part of the President's Daily Brief the President found most interesting was, as he said,

"What was interesting in there was that there was a report that the FBI was conducting field investigations"

The President might be entitled to come to this conclusion, since he was informed that there were 70 ongoing FBI full field investigations of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. According to the second-to-last sentence in the PDB,

"The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers Bin Ladin-related."

However, it turns out that the 70 "full field investigations" were primarily about extremist-related fund raising activities in the US, rather than terrorist-related activities.

In the following, taken from the Tuesday, April 13, 2004 transcript of the 9-11 Commission hearing, Commission member Slade Gorton is speaking (referring to Osama bin Ladin as OBL):

GORTON: ... with someone at the FBI. 

Now, our staff says this about that statement. The 70 full field investigations number was checked out by the joint inquiry and we looked at it, too. It was indeed a number the bureau used at the time. It was generously calculated to include all fund-raising investigations around the country that might have a connection with OBL. 

GORTON: It also counted each individual in an investigation as an individual full field investigation

Although in subsequent questioning, the representatives of the FBI seem to fudge their answers to the Committee’s questions concerning the number and nature of the full field investigations, it is clear from reading their testimony that the suggestion of 70 terrorism-related full field investigations was essentially a fiction.

The President may be forgiven for being focused on the 70 mischaracterized FBI "full field investigations" since the original distortion of information was not his fault.

But there is one aspect of the President’s press conference that is remarkable and not easy to explain – it, in fact, leads to other questions that have profound implications for the security of this country.

The Embassy Call

If one reads the President’s own words as reported from his prime time press conference given on April 13, 2004, the President’s makes his reaction to the PDB quite clear:

"Now, in what's called the PDB, there was a warning about bin Laden's desires on America, but, frankly, I didn't think that was anything new. Major newspapers had talked about bin Laden's desires on hurting America. What was interesting in there was that there was a report that the FBI was conducting field investigations. And I – that was good news that they were doing their job."

So the President reasonably concluded that the "warning about bin Laden's desires on America" was not especially arresting, because, as he said, it had already been reported in the major newspapers. Indeed, most Americans were aware of Osama bin Laden’s desires to harm America.

Finally, we come to the last sentence in the PDB. And a very strange sentence it is indeed, considering that US embassies must receive hundred of threats from Islamic extremists in that part of the world:

"CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our Embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group of Bin Ladin supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives."

Why, from among the galaxy of threatening phone calls that our embassies receive every day, would this one lone star be plucked out of the black night sky and sent on directly the President of the United States?

One thing is certain – this sentence at the end of the PDB memo was not intended to stand alone as a complete report of the Embassy call. Any President (or anyone else, for that matter) who had actually read about the Embassy call in the PDB would naturally ask the following questions:

Why was this particular call so important that it made its way to the President?Was a recording or transcript made of the call? Most importantly, who made the call?

Anyone reading this PDB memo would have asked these questions – unless of course they did not have to ask the questions because the subsequent pages of the PDB briefing book supplied the answers.

Until the White House declassifies the subsequent page or pages of the August 6, President’s Daily Briefing book, the question of the incongruous Embassy call will remain a tantalizing mystery and a cloud will hang over the issue – especially the intriguing possibility that the caller was a high-ranking member of Al Qaeda.


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Mark Rothschild lives and writes from Los Angeles, California. Comments or questions are welcome.

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