Saturday, April 10, 2004

Circle the Wagons…

From the New York Times:

President Bush was told more than a month before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that supporters of Osama bin Laden planned an attack within the United States with explosives and wanted to hijack airplanes, a government official said Friday.

The warning came in a secret briefing that Mr. Bush received at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., on Aug. 6, 2001. A report by a joint Congressional committee last year alluded to a “closely held intelligence report” that month about the threat of an attack by Al Qaeda, and the official confirmed an account by The Associated Press on Friday saying that the report was in fact part of the president’s briefing in Crawford.

The disclosure appears to contradict the White House’s repeated assertions that the briefing the president received about the Qaeda threat was “historical” in nature and that the White House had little reason to suspect a Qaeda attack within American borders.

Members of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks have asked the White House to make the Aug. 6 briefing memorandum public. The A.P. account of it was attributed to “several people who have seen the memo.” The White House has said that nothing in it pointed specifically to the kind of attacks that actually took place a month later.

Thanks to some efficient leaking, the White House is beginning to set up their siege bunker and shoot the wounded:

Also on Friday, the White House offered evidence that the Federal Bureau of Investigation received instructions more than two months before the Sept. 11 attacks to increase its scrutiny of terrorist suspects inside the United States. But it is unclear what action, if any, the bureau took in response.

The disclosure appeared to signal an effort by the White House to distance itself from the F.B.I. in the debate over whether the Bush administration did enough in the summer of 2001 to deter a possible terrorist attack in the United States in the face of increased warnings.

A classified memorandum, sent around July 4, 2001, to Condoleezza Rice, the president’s national security adviser, from the counterterrorism group run by Richard A. Clarke, described a series of steps it said the White House had taken to put the nation on heightened terrorist alert. Among the steps, the memorandum said, “all 56 F.B.I. field offices were also tasked in late June to go to increased surveillance and contact with informants related to known or suspected terrorists in the United States.”

Parts of the White House memorandum were provided to The New York Times on Friday by a White House official seeking to bolster the public account provided a day before by Ms. Rice, who portrayed an administration aggressively working to deter a domestic terror attack.

But law enforcement officials said Friday that they believed that Ms. Rice’s testimony before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks — including her account of scores of F.B.I. investigations under way that summer into suspected Qaeda cells operating in the United States — overstated the scope, thrust and intensity of activities by the F.B.I. within American borders.

Meanwhile, Bush’s minions on Capitol Hill are laying the groundwork to discredit the 9/11 commission by accusing them of having a political agenda:

The finger-pointing will probably increase next week when numerous current and former senior law enforcement officials, including Attorney General John Ashcroft, testify before the Sept. 11 commission. In an unusual pre-emptive strike, Mr. Ashcroft’s chief spokesman on Friday accused some Democrats on the commission of having “political axes to grind” in attacking the attorney general, who oversees the F.B.I., and unfairly blaming him for law enforcement failures.

A similar accusation against the commission was also leveled by Senator Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican with ties to the White House, in a speech on the Senate floor Thursday.

“Sadly, the commission’s public hearings have allowed those with political axes to grind, like Richard Clarke, to play shamelessly to the partisan gallery of liberal special interests seeking to bring down the president,” Mr. McConnell said.

Note to Senator McConnell: Re-read The Final Days by Bob Woodward. It details the last months of the Nixon Administration in 1974. You might save yourself some embarrassing moments later on.

As for immediately declassifying the August 6 PDB, well…hang on a second.

The White House on Friday put off a decision on declassifying the document at the center of the debate — the Aug. 6 briefing, titled “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.” But the administration appeared ready to release at least portions of the document publicly in the coming days.

Want to bet that the portions they release will look favorably on Rice?

The mysterious papertrail of memos from Clarke and the FBI to their field offices gets more confusing. Nobody seems to know who told what to who:

In April 2001, the F.B.I. did send out a classified memo to its field offices directing agents to “check with their sources on any information they had relative to terrorism,” said a senior law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity. But with the level of threat warnings increasing markedly over the next several months, there is no indication that any directive went out in the late June period that was described in the memo from Mr. Clarke’s office.

[edit]

At this week’s appearance by Ms. Rice, several commissioners sharply questioned whether the F.B.I. and the Justice Department had done enough to act on intelligence warnings about an attack.

“We have done thousands of interviews here at the 9/11 commission,” said Timothy J. Roemer, a Democratic member of the panel. “We have gone through literally millions of pieces of paper. To date, we have found nobody — nobody at the F.B.I. who knows anything about a tasking of field offices” to identify the domestic threat.

The apparent miscommunication will probably be a central focus of the commission’s hearing next week. Scrutiny is expected to focus in part on communication breakdowns between the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. that allowed two of the 19 hijackers to live openly in San Diego despite intelligence about their terrorist ties.

When Ashcroft appears before the panel next week, you can be sure who he will blame for this screw-up: The Democrats.

Another Democratic panel member, Jamie S. Gorelick, said at Thursday’s hearing that Mr. Ashcroft was briefed in the summer of 2001 about terrorist threats “but there is no evidence of any activity by him.”

Such criticism led Mark Corallo, Mr. Ashcroft’s chief spokesman at the Justice Department, to say Friday that “some people on the commission are seeking to score political points” by unfairly attacking Mr. Ashcroft’s actions before Sept. 11.

“Some have political axes to grind” against Mr. Ashcroft, Mr. Corallo said in an interview, naming Ms. Gorelick, who was the deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration; Mr. Roemer, a former congressman from Indiana, and Richard Ben-Veniste, the former Watergate prosecutor.

[edit]

Ms. Gorelick said she was surprised by Mr. Corallo’s comments and puzzled by assertions that the attorney general had no knowledge of a domestic terrorist threat in 2001.

“This appears to be a debate within the administration,” she said. “On the one hand, you have Dr. Rice saying that the domestic threat was being handled by the Justice Department and F.B.I., and on the other hand, you have the Justice Department saying that there did not appear to be a domestic threat to address. And that is a difference in view that we have to continue to explore.”

You would think, wouldn’t you, that with so much at stake in terms of protecting the country against outside attacks that everyone would be interested in getting to the truth without regard to infantile fingerpointing and such. Well, you would be wrong. More’s the pity.