Speak, Memo

Speak, Memo

Speak, Memo

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
April 11 2004 6:52 AM

Speak, Memo

Everyone leads with the White House's move late Saturday to release the classified CIA briefing President Bush received on Aug. 6, 2001, titled, "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in U.S." The memo, known as the President's Daily Brief, did not contain any specific warning of the strikes that occurred only 36 days later but did present fresh evidence that terrorists were planning hijackings and attacks with explosives  inside the United States. The Los Angeles Times blows up images of the most ominous paragraphs and reprints them above the fold.

(The papers all post the full text of the 17-sentence PDB online, but it's worth downloading the LAT's PDF of the actual document, if only to appreciate the CIA's surprising love of italics.)

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The Aug. 6 PDB has been a subject of controversy for years, even more so since Thursday, when National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was asked about it during her sworn testimony before the 9/11 commission. Despite Rice's contention "this was a historical memo" that didn't merit special action, the papers all note that the PDB did in fact include some new intelligence, as has been hinted for days. The LAT goes as far as to speculate, in a separate Page-One analysis, that Rice has damaged her credibility with that statement.

Among the PDB's most non-historical warnings are its two final paragraphs. The first states that, despite being unable to corroborate a 1998 report that Bin Laden was looking to hijack planes,

… 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.

In addition, it continues,

The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers Bin Ladin-related. CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our Embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group of Bin Ladin supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives.

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After the White House released the PDB, officials held a conference call with reporters and issued a written rebuttal, which a New York Times news analysis says was twice as long as the PDB itself. "None of the information relating to the 'patterns of suspicious activity' was later deemed to be related to the 9/11 attacks," the document said. Administration officials explained that the suspicious casing of federal buildings was later determined to be "tourist activity" and that the embassy call has never been linked to 9/11. (The NYT's lead and analysis point out that the White House admitted it couldn't rule out a connection, either).

The Washington Post's lead is alone in reporting on the PDB's creation. According to a "U.S. government official," the CIA analyst who prepared the briefing obtained the two final items from the FBI at the last minute, in an effort to sound a more strident alarm about Bin Laden. "The agency doesn't write a headline like that if it doesn't want to get attention," said a separate "former administration official," who sounds an awful lot like Richard Clarke. "The CIA did not believe Bush policymakers were taking the threat to the U.S. seriously."

An accompanying above-the-fold WP article suggests, however, that no one was taking the threat seriously that summer, even after the Aug. 6 briefing. "In a pre-9/11 world, it was like, 'Check it out and see what you find and get back to us after Labor Day,' " said a former Bush aide, "who remains close to White House" but refused to be named to "avoid angering the President and his staff." "It wasn't just the president who was on vacation. It was the whole government. It was the Bureau [FBI] and the Agency [CIA], too. The attention to the threats was above and beyond normal, but it obviously wasn't enough."

According to the NYT's lead, "no White House has ever made public a copy of a President's Daily Brief, a document that has been produced by the C.I.A. for presidents since the 1960's." But the WP disagrees: "PDBs have been released in the past, but current CIA Director George J. Tenet has tried to put them in a non-releasable category." Only the LAT clarifies: "Similar documents from other administrations have been declassified, but years after the presidents they were prepared for left office."

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One day after a cease-fire between Iraqi insurgents and U.S. Marines fell apart in the besieged city of Fallujah, the papers all go high with the possibility of another; the NYT's off-lead headlines a Governing Council member's announcement on Al Jazeera yesterday that the cease-fire was a done deal, and the BBC reports early this morning that, so far, the agreement appears to be holding. But the LAT casts doubt, reporting that Marines have merely slowed their progression through the city, with scattered air strikes audible on the outskirts this morning. A separate story inside the WP notes that, in any case, the Marines are skeptical that the cease-fire will last. "Given the virulent nature of the enemy, the prospect of some city father walking in and getting Joe Jihadi to give himself up is pretty slim," said one U.S. commander. "That's fine," he added, "because they'll get whipped up, come out fighting again and get mowed down."

The papers' stories all mention that the three Japanese hostages who were seized Thursday are slated to be released today, at the urging of Muslim clerics, even as another insurgent group released a video yesterday of the American contractor who was taken hostage on Friday. His captors vowed that unless U.S. forces withdraw from Fallujah as of this morning, "he will be treated worse than those who were killed and burned in Fallujah." (As of this morning, there's still no word about any of the hostages.)

The WP's front-page Iraq round-up, which provides the most detailed coverage, reports that fighting continued across the country yesterday, including a bloody, daylong battle that left 47 Iraqis dead as they fought U.S. troops for control of a city 30 miles northeast of Baghdad. Meanwhile, the Marines reinforced their Fallujah contingent with a third battalion, along with a battalion of the new Iraqi army, 620 members of which refused to join the battle on Monday, according to a separate story inside the Post.

Even as the uprising raged yesterday, the papers all note—the WP in a separate story—that President Bush reaffirmed his intention to transfer sovereignty to Iraqis on schedule.

In the NYT's "Week in Review," Jeffrey Gettleman, who was detained by masked gunmen earlier this week, discusses the insurgency and provides a first-person account of his capture. "We were in a bulletproof car. Or allegedly bulletproof. Who really knew?" he writes. "The insurgents banged on the inch-thick glass with the tips of their Kalashnikovs. I didn't want to open my door. But with the fatigue of one who is thoroughly defeated, I got out."

The Bush administration has told Manila that the Philippine government is "in a state of denial" about terrorism and needs to do more to crack down on groups in the country, according to a story inside the NYT. Related: News briefs in the WP and LAT report that 53 inmates of a Philippine prison, including members of the Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf, used a smuggled handgun to escape yesterday.

According to a small story inside the NYT, the Spanish crown prince and his fiancee were searched, despite their vocal objections, before they boarded a plane home from Miami on Thursday. A TSA spokesman said that the couple was taken to a private lounge, where they were searched by three "top-notch screeners with V.I.P. experience."

And, in non-war-on-terror news, the NYT fronts a business story about baby boomers who're undergoing a newly approved and expensive kind of corrective eye surgery that uses radio waves to change the shape of the cornea. Best quote: "He didn't want to be the only one at the table putting on reading glasses to read a contract," a doctor said of one her patients, who works in the music industry. "Everybody else there is hip-hop, or whatever they do."