While Bush vacationed, 9/11 warnings went unheard.
Bush got back after Labor Day. That first day, Sept. 4, was when the "Principals Committee"—consisting of his Cabinet heads—met in the White House to discuss terrorism. As Dick Clarke has since complained, and Condi Rice and others have acknowledged, it was the first time Bush's principals held a meeting on the subject.
This morning, Roemer asked Tenet if he brought up the Moussaoui briefing at that meeting. No, Tenet replied. "It wasn't the appropriate place." Roemer didn't follow up and ask, "Why not? Where was the appropriate place?" Perhaps he was too stunned. He sure looked it.
The official story about the PDB is that the CIA prepared it at the president's request. Bush had heard all Tenet's briefings about a possible al-Qaida attack overseas, the tale goes, and he wanted to know if Bin Laden might strike here. This story is almost certainly untrue. On March 19 of this year, Tenet told the 9/11 commission that the PDB had been prepared, as usual, at a CIA analyst's initiative. He later retracted that testimony, saying the president had asked for the briefing. Tenet embellished his new narrative, saying that the CIA officer who gave the briefing to Bush and Condi Rice started by reminding the president that he had requested it. But as Rice has since testified, she was not present during the briefing; she wasn't in Texas. Someone should ask: Was that the only part of the tale that Tenet made up? Or did he invent the whole thing—and, if so, on whose orders?
The distinction is important. If Bush asked for the briefing, it suggests that he at least cared about the subject; then the puzzle becomes why he didn't follow up on its conclusions. If he didn't ask for the briefing, then he comes off as simply aloof. (It's a toss-up which conclusion is more disturbing.)
Then again, it's easy to forget that before the terrorists struck, Bush was widely regarded as an unusually aloof president. Joe Conason has calculated that up until Sept. 11, 2001, Bush had spent 54 days at the ranch, 38 days at Camp David, and four days at the Bush compound in Kennebunkport—a total of 96 days, or about 40 percent of his presidency, outside of Washington.
Yet by that inference, Bush has remained a remarkably out-of-touch—or at least out-of-town—leader, even in the two and a half years since 9/11. Dana Milbank counts that through his entire term to date, Bush has spent 500 days—again, about 40 percent of his time in office—at the ranch, the retreat, or the compound.
The 9/11 commission has unveiled many critical problems in the FBI and the CIA. But the most critical problem may have been that the president was off duty.
Update, April 15, 2004: On Wednesday evening, after the hearings, a CIA spokesman called reporters to tell them Tenet had misspoken: It turns out he did brief Bush in August 2001, twice—on Aug. 17 and Aug. 31. Assuming the correction is true, it doesn't negate the point. The first briefing, which the spokesman described as uneventful, took place before Tenet learned about Moussaoui. The second occurred after the president returned to Washington.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of George W. Bush by Rick Wilking/Reuters.