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April 11, 2004
The PDB, One More Time

Predictably, the major news media are treating the 8/6/01 PDB as a revelation, a document that contained startling new evidence of al-Qaeda intentions rather than the recap of well-known data that it demonstrably is. A good example would be how the Los Angeles Times headlines their story, "Memo Cited Fears of Attacks in U.S.," making it sound as though the document referred to the 9/11 strikes. However, in its lead, the Times makes the distinction a bit more clear:

The White House took the extraordinary step Saturday of releasing a top-secret intelligence briefing President Bush received five weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, declassifying a document that contained no specific warning of the looming strikes in New York and the Pentagon but provided fresh information that Al Qaeda was bent on hitting targets in the United States.

The 1-page document cited intelligence on Al Qaeda dating to the mid-1990s. But it concluded with two items that pointed to possible domestic threats just months before Bush got the Aug. 6, 2001, briefing.

One passage warned that the FBI had observed "patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York."

Another noted that the CIA and FBI were investigating a call to the U.S. Embassy in the United Arab Emirates in May of that year "saying that a group of Bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives."

What the Times manages to elide in the third paragraph was the motivation for the hijackings, which immediately preceded that statement in the PDB and provided the context for the allegation:

We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a [deleted text] service in 1998 saying that Bin Laden wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft to gain the release of "Blind Shaykh" 'Umar' Abd al-Rahman and other U.S.-held extremists.

Not only did the intelligence services tell the President that the hijackings would be a tactic to force the release of al-Rahman, but that the threat reports could not be corroborated. Bear in mind that this is one PDB from the entire year; up to this point, the President had received 199 PDBs prior to this date, all with various threat reports from all sorts of sources. Dropping everything to focus on uncorroborated reporting would have been irresponsible in the extreme. At any rate, it never gives an indication that the hijackings would be suicide missions turning the planes into guided missiles.

So what did the administration do with this data? For one thing, they warned the FAA to be on high alert for possible hijackings:

In July 2001, the FAA issued a warning to air carriers but did not mention suicide hijackings. Instead, it focused on the possibility that some terrorist groups might conceal explosive devices inside luggage.

That article, from January of this year, claims that the FAA had warned of suicide hijackings, but only as a theoretical possibility, noting that no intelligence pointed to any groups considering the tactic. The same article points out when that suggestion was made: 1998. In the intervening three years, the intelligence services apparently had also concluded that the tactic was strictly theoretical and didn't include it in its analysis to the President.

Even if, at that point, the President had a burst of foresight and imagined that such an attack would be used, what at that point could have been done to prevent the attack from occurring? All of the 9/11 hijackers were already in the US, holding valid travel documents. The only way that we could have stopped them from boarding those planes on 9/11 would have been to stop every Arabic man from August 6 to September 11 from boarding every plane and subjecting them to a search and background check -- and we don't even do that now! Perhaps we could have forced the airlines to retrofit all of their planes with bars on the cockpit doors, but that would have taken weeks without the spectre of 9/11 (and I think took weeks anyway, but I can't confirm that). We still don't have agreement on arming pilots or on mandatory air marshals on international flights.

The notion that an uncorroborated intelligence report that didn't even specify the possibility of a suicide hijacking could allow us to take all of the above steps for our protection when the fact of four suicide hijackings and 3,000 dead people haven't kept people from opposing most of them to this day renders that entire thought process ludicrous. It's not helpful, it's partisan sniping, and it's getting old.

Note: Joe Shockley at the Daily Briefing does a nice job of dissecting the PDB on a point-by-point basis.

UPDATE: McQ at QandO does an excellent analysis of the PDB as well.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 11, 2004 9:15 AM

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Yesterday I gave this warning at the end of a post about the soon to be released PDB: ...expect the media and democrats to twist and spin this story beyond recognition. These are people you would never want to challenge to a game of Twister! So... [Read More]

Tracked on April 11, 2004 8:38 PM

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