Friday, September 08, 2006

The other 'Path to 9/11' lie

While most of the attention regarding ABC's The Path to 9/11 "docudrama" has focused on the bogus scene in which Clinton officials are depicted as letting Osama bin Laden go despite having him in their clutches -- a truly mendacious bit of right-wing propaganda -- there's another scene, apparently in the film, that deserves every bit as much attention and careful scrutiny.

That's the sequence described in the Salon review of the program:
Meanwhile, Condoleezza Rice gets that fated memo about planes flying into buildings, and makes it very clear to anyone who'll listen just how concerned President Bush is about these terrorist threats -- despite the fact that we're given little concrete evidence of the president's concern or interest in taking action.

"That fated memo" in question is, of course, the August 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing memo that became the subject of extensive wrangling between the 9/11 Commission and the White House, which was intent on keeping it from being made public.

The purported scene in Path to 9/11 (which may turn out to be among the sequences the network is currently scrambling to correct) is in fact contradicted directly by Rice's own testimony:
Rice told the commission Thursday that the briefing included mostly "historical information" and that most of the threat information known in the summer of 2001 referred to overseas targets.

Perhaps more to the point, there was clear testimony that Rice and Bush both largely ignored the memo:
Former counterterrorism aide Richard Clarke had testified two weeks before that the White House had ignored warnings about bin Laden's terrorist organization. Clarke said the Bush administration, including Rice, was aware of al Qaeda threats but did not treat them as "urgent."

In other words, rather than treating the memo with any urgency, Rice, Bush, and Co. all viewed the memo as ranting from Clarke, who had been demoted when Rice arrived as National Security Adviser in early 2001.

Rice's focus, in fact, during weeks leading up to Sept. 11, was on promoting a missile defense system, not terrorism. She had been prepared the morning of the attacks, in fact, to deliver a speech on "the threats and problems of today and the day after, not the world of yesterday" -- which was focused almost solely on a missile system.

What did the memo say, exactly? Well, it was titled "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S." and read thus:
Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US. Bin Laden implied in U.S. television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and "bring the fighting to America."

After U.S. missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, bin Laden told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington, according to a -- -- service.

An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative told - - service at the same time that bin Laden was planning to exploit the operative's access to the U.S. to mount a terrorist strike.

The millennium plotting in Canada in 1999 may have been part of bin Laden's first serious attempt to implement a terrorist strike in the U.S.

Convicted plotter Ahmed Ressam has told the FBI that he conceived the idea to attack Los Angeles International Airport himself, but that in ---, Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaydah encouraged him and helped facilitate the operation. Ressam also said that in 1998 Abu Zubaydah was planning his own U.S. attack.

Ressam says bin Laden was aware of the Los Angeles operation. Although Bin Laden has not succeeded, his attacks against the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 demonstrate that he prepares operations years in advance and is not deterred by setbacks. Bin Laden associates surveyed our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as early as 1993, and some members of the Nairobi cell planning the bombings were arrested and deported in 1997.

Al Qaeda members -- including some who are U.S. citizens -- have resided in or traveled to the U.S. for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks.

Two al-Qaeda members found guilty in the conspiracy to bomb our embassies in East Africa were U.S. citizens, and a senior EIJ member lived in California in the mid-1990s.

A clandestine source said in 1998 that a bin Laden cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks.

We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a ---- service in 1998 saying that Bin Laden wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft to gain the release of "Blind Sheikh" Omar Abdel Rahman and other U.S.-held extremists.

Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates 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.

The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full-field investigations throughout the U.S. that it considers bin Laden-related. CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group or bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives.

Those last two paragraphs utterly demolish Rice's claim that the information was purely "historical" and did not specify potential threats.

In fact, here's how Rice described the White House's assessment of the memo in her commission testimony:
The briefing item reviewed past intelligence reporting, mostly dating from the 1990s, regarding possible al Qaeda plans to attack inside the United States. It referred to uncorroborated reporting that from 1998 that terrorists might attempt to hijack a U.S. aircraft in an attempt to blackmail the government into releasing U.S.-held terrorists who had participated in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. This briefing item was not prompted by any specific threat information. And it did not raise the possibility that terrorists might use airplanes as missiles.

What was the White House's response? Well, here's how Rice described it:
Despite the fact that the vast majority of the threat information we received was focused overseas, I was concerned about possible threats inside the United States. On July 5, chief of staff Andy Card and I met with Dick Clarke, and I asked Dick to make sure that domestic agencies were aware of the heightened threat period and were taking appropriate steps to respond, even though we did not have specific threats to the homeland.

Later that same day, Clarke convened a special meeting of his CSG, as well as representatives from the FAA, the INS, Customs, and the Coast Guard. At that meeting, these agencies were asked to take additional measures to increase security and surveillance.

Throughout this period of heightened threat information, we worked hard on multiple fronts to detect, protect against, and disrupt any terrorist plans or operations that might lead to an attack. For instance, the Department of Defense issued at least five urgent warnings to U.S. military forces that al Qaeda might be planning a near-term attack, and placed our military forces in certain regions on heightened alert.

The State Department issued at least four urgent security advisories and public worldwide cautions on terrorist threats, enhanced security measures at certain embassies, and warned the Taliban that they would be held responsible for any al Qaeda attack on U.S. interests.

The FBI issued at least three nationwide warnings to Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies, and specifically stated that, although the vast majority of the information indicated overseas targets, attacks against the homeland could not be ruled out.

The FBI also tasked all 56 of its U.S. field offices to increase surveillance of known or suspected terrorists and reach out to known informants who might have information on terrorist activities.

The FAA issued at least five Civil Aviation Security Information Circulars to all U.S. airlines and airport security personnel, including specific warnings about the possibility of hijackings.

The CIA worked round the clock to disrupt threats worldwide. Agency officials launched a wide-ranging disruption effort against al Qaeda in more than 20 countries.

However, in reality, as we later determined, Rice's testimony was at best misleading if not downright fallacious:
Rice, testifying before the Sept. 11 commission Thursday, said that those 70 investigations were mentioned in a CIA briefing to the president and satisfied the White House that the FBI was doing its job in response to dire warnings that attacks were imminent and that the administration felt it had no need to act further.

But the FBI Friday said that those investigations were not limited to al-Qaida and did not focus on al-Qaida cells. FBI spokesman Ed Coggswell said the bureau was trying to determine how the number 70 got into the report.

... [Rice] said the briefing memo disclosed that the FBI had 70 "full-field investigations under way of cells" in the United States. And that, Rice said, explained why "there was no recommendation [coming from the White House] that we do something about" the flurry of threat warnings in the months preceding the attacks.

But Coggswell Friday said that those 70 investigations involved a number of international terrorist organizations, not just al-Qaida. He said that many were criminal investigations, which terrorism experts say are not likely to focus on preventing terrorist acts. And he said he would "not characterize" the targets of the investigations as cells, or groups acting in concert, as was the case with the Sept. 11 hijackers.

In addition to these investigations, Rice told the panel that FBI headquarters, reacting to alarming but vague intelligence in the spring and summer of 2001 that attacks were imminent, "tasked all 56 of its U.S. field offices to increase surveillance of known suspected terrorists" and to contact informants who might provide leads.

That, too, is news to the field offices. Commissioner Timothy J. Roemer told Rice that the commission had "to date ... found nobody, nobody at the FBI, who knows anything about a tasking of field offices." Even Thomas Pickard, at the time acting FBI director, told the panel that he "did not tell the field offices to do this," Roemer said.

So let's review the entirety of the Bush administration's real-life response to the memo:

-- The problem is handed off to Richard Clarke (if anyone in the White House could have been accurately described as warning everyone they knew of an imminent attack, it was Clarke).

-- The intelligence agencies involved send out a handful of warnings and the State Department beefs up security abroad.

-- The FAA sends out some warning fliers.

-- Rice prepares her missile-defense speech.

-- Bush takes nap, clears brush, remains resolutely on vacation. Finally ends vacation and returns to his leadership role by reading My Pet Goat to Florida schoolchildren.

Somehow, I don't think that's going to be depicted very accurately in Path to 9/11 either.

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