Yesterday the Bush administration tried to explain why it didn't react more vigorously to information it received last summer about al-Qaida hijack plotting—information passed along to the president on Aug. 6. The best thing you can say about these explanations is that they show political ineptitude. The worst is that they point to a colossal intelligence failure.
This controversy has prompted complaints (especially from relatives of 9/11 victims, understandably) that the government should have warned the general public about what it knew at the time. I doubt it. Establishing an immediate hook-up between intelligence and public warnings creates a "boy who cried wolf" problem that detracts from the public safety. But if the government has a right to secrecy in these matters, it doesn't have a right to stupidity.
In her Thursday press briefing, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice quickly conceded that "In the April-May time frame, there was specific threat reporting about al-Qaida attacks against U.S. targets or interests [emphasis added] that might be in the works." Then she added, "In the June time frame … there was testimony by the participants in the millennium plot [emphasis added] that [al-Qaida operations chief] Abu Zubaydah had said that there might be interest in attacking the United States." That is, although there was no indication of a specific target, by June of last year our intelligence system had corroborated information about al-Qaida's interest in attacking U.S. targets. So, the first question raised but not answered by Rice's briefing is:
1) Why did the administration treat corroborated, specific reports with the diminished degree of urgency appropriate to uncorroborated, unspecific ones?
And although U.S. targets—like the previously bombed African embassies and the USS Cole—can be overseas, yesterday Rice artfully neglected to note that the millennium plot was directed against targets in the United States—one was LAX airport in Los Angeles. She stated that a subsequent State Department "caution" was "focusing overseas" and that an FBI message released on July 2 also emphasized overseas threats. So the second question raised is:
2) Why didn't the administration adequately stress domestic vulnerabilities to the al-Qaida plots it was hearing about?
Rice also said that based on the intelligence take, which included indications of al-Qaida interest in hijackings, the FAA issued a circular to airlines "saying that we have a concern." Since Rice didn't mention any specific warnings included in that circular, it's safe to assume it was a very general advisory. And Rice went on to characterize the briefing given to the president on Aug. 6 as "not a warning briefing, but an analytic report." Rice revealed that this presidential briefing did in fact mention quite a bit about al-Qaida hijackings. The briefing, she said, "mentioned hijacking, but hijacking in the traditional sense and, in a sense, said that the most important and most likely thing was that they would take over an airliner, holding passengers and demand the release of one of their operatives." All this prompts another key question:
3) Why wasn't the FAA circular or the Aug. 6 briefing for the president a warning about al-Qaida hijackings?
Both Rice and presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer yesterday stressed what they see as the gulf between traditional hijacking and the actual 9/11 suicide attacks. Rice: "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon." Fleischer: "I want to remind you information about hijackings in the pre-9/11 world is totally different from information about hijackings in the post-9/11 world." That's a reasonable comment about the broad public mentality but not about what intelligence officials knew or should have known. By the summer of 2001, French authorities had discovered that the Algerian Muslim hijackers of an Air France plane in 1994 had planned to blow their plane up over the Eiffel Tower. And the police in the Philippines had also by then uncovered a terrorist plot to commandeer a plane and fly it into CIA headquarters. Yet the Associated Press reports that neither the Eiffel Tower nor the Philippine plots were mentioned in Bush's briefing. So:
4) Why wasn't the president briefed on the possibility of suicide hijacking?