After the grilling National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice got last week from members of the September 11 Commission, one would be forgiven for thinking the Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) of Aug. 6, 2001, was a smoking gun — proof positive the Bush administration had been warned of, and failed to prevent, an impending attack by al Qaeda operatives.
Now that everyone can read the declassified PDB in question, it is clear the information it relayed was like so much other intelligence: “unactionable.” It raised a general alarm, but failed to offer sufficiently concrete indications of the nature and timing of attacks in the United States to enable effective preventive action to be taken.
For example, the president was told on that day roughly six weeks before the September 11 attacks:
“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. … We have been unable to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a [redacted text] service in 1998 saying that bin Laden wanted to hijack an aircraft to gain the release of ‘Blind Shaykh’ Umar Abd al-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 commission seems set to conclude other information available elsewhere in the government might have enabled more to be done with this sort of general warning. Some of this data have long been publicly known, notably reports from Federal Bureau of Investigation field offices about young Arab aliens taking lessons in this country to fly large jet aircraft that curiously excluded instruction in taking off and landing them.
Unfortunately, at the time, the relevant intelligence and law enforcement agencies were afflicted with legal, procedural and cultural obstacles to the fullest possible sharing of information that might have made more of it actionable. Today and tomorrow, commission members are expected to explore at some length with Clinton and Bush attorneys general and FBI directors the so-called “Wall” that artificially precluded possibly relevant data from being sifted, analyzed and put into the right hands in a sufficiently timely way to detect and, with luck, to prevent terrorist attacks before they occur.
It will be interesting to see if Janet Reno — a tireless champion of the Wall during her years as attorney general — will recant. In any event, she and the September 11 Commission’s other leading witnesses (her successor, John Ashcroft, former FBI Director Louis Freeh and the current director, Robert Mueller) will almost certainly contend that, absent the sort of terrifying trauma now under investigation, the legislation required to dismantle the Wall and the noncooperation it demanded could never have been enacted.
Incredible as it may seem, the statute that accomplished this singularly important feat — known as the USA Patriot Act — is currently the object of an intensive wrecking operation on Capitol Hill. Regrettably, the push to undo the Patriot Act is being mounted by more than hard left-wing civil liberties and pro-Islamist organizations and their standard-bearers in the Democratic party. Even though President Bush stands squarely behind the Act, the legislation may not be renewed when by it expires in 2005, thanks to the help being provided by a smattering of libertarian and right-of-center groups.
Even now, some of the activities that offer the greatest hope of being able to turn the vast amounts of seemingly unactionable information into “connected dots” are being savaged and, in some cases, prohibited piecemeal. A brilliant scholar in the field, Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute, notes in an essay titled “What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us” in the current issue of City Journal:
“For two years now, left- and right-wing advocates have shot down nearly every proposal to use intelligence more effectively — to connect the dots — as an assault on ‘privacy.’ Though their facts are often wrong and their arguments specious, they have come to dominate the national security debate virtually without challenge. The consequence has been devastating: just when the country should be unleashing its technological ingenuity to defend against future attacks, scientists stand irresolute, cowed into inaction.
” ‘No one in the research and development community is putting together tools to make us safer,’ says Lee Zeichner of Zeichner Risk Analytics, a risk consultancy firm, ‘because they’re afraid’ of getting caught up in a privacy scandal. The chilling effect has been even stronger in government. ‘Many perfectly legal things that could be done with data aren’t being done, because people don’t want to lose their jobs,’ says a computer security entrepreneur who, like many interviewed for this article, was too fearful of the advocates to let his name appear.”
The question of whether the Clinton or Bush administrations could have done more than they did to prevent September 11 is interesting. The commission examining that topic will render a far greater service, however, if it helps — starting with this week’s hearings — to underscore the supreme importance of preserving the Patriot Act and bringing to bear other tools essential to connecting future intelligence “dots,” and thereby making them actionable.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.