WASHINGTON, D.C.—Even though Bush has refused to make parts of the 9-11 report public, one thing is startlingly clear: The U.S. government had received repeated warnings of impending attacks—and attacks using planes directed at New York and Washington—for several years. The government never told us about what it knew was coming.
See for yourself. The report lists 36 different summaries of warnings dating back to 1997. Among them:
“In September 1998, the [Intelligence Community] obtained information that Bin Laden’s next operation might involve flying an explosive-laden aircraft into a U.S. airport and detonating it.”
“In the fall of 1998, the [Intelligence Community] obtained information concerning a Bin Laden plot involving aircraft in the New York and Washington, D.C. areas.”
“In March 2000, the [Intelligence Community] obtained information regarding the types of targets that operatives of Bin Laden’s network might strike. The Statue of Liberty was specifically mentioned, as were skyscrapers, ports, airports, and nuclear power plans.”
Maybe the Bush team dismissed warning signals as the discoveries of an overly hyped up Clinton team. But John Dean, a White House counsel under Nixon who has become a guide to deciphering reports on 9/11, says this is unlikely. Condi Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, “stated in a May 16, 2002, press briefing that, on August 6, 2001, the President Daily Brief (PDB) included information about Bin Laden’s methods of operation from a historical perspective dating back to 1997.”
Rice also said at this briefing that the PDB pointed out that Bin Laden might hijack an airline and take hostages to gain release of one of their operatives. She said the warning was “generalized”—no date, place, or method.
As Dean notes, how could Rice, having known all this, say that the administration had no idea “these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon”?
“In sum, the 9-11 Report of the Congressional Inquiry indicates that the intelligence community was very aware that Bin Laden might fly an airplane into an American skyscraper,” says Dean. “Given the fact that there had already been an attempt to bring down the twin towers of the World Trade Center with a bomb, how could Rice say what she did?”
We don’t know because Bush has invoked executive privilege to withhold from Congress this key briefing on August 6, 2001.
We do know that despite years of warnings from the intelligence community, the government apparently had taken no steps to protect the eastern seaboard or any other American border from attack. There were no fighter aircraft ready to respond immediately to a threat. The government undertook no measures to increase airport security.
This entire affair has been forced into a discussion of what the CIA knew or didn’t know, and what it told or didn’t tell the White House. But the questioning needs to focus on what Bush knew or didn’t know. And what he did or didn’t do in response to what his intelligence advisers told him.