A day to remember O'Neill
The prescient warnings of the late FBI counterterror expert John O'Neill, who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, were vindicated again yesterday. He tried to tell us that the U.S. government protected Saudi interests at our terrible expense, and the joint congressional committee report -- whose chapter on the kingdom was redacted at the insistence of the Bush administration -- posthumously proves O'Neill's point.
The consensus within the intelligence community during the years leading up to 9/11 was that the Saudi regime would never cooperate with the United States against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. At least three high-ranking officials testified, according to the report, that such cooperation could not be expected because it would be "contrary to Saudi national interests," meaning the interests of the ruling dynasty. Worse yet, the report quotes at least one official who suggested that certain Saudis may have been aware of an imminent al-Qaida operation against the United States just before 9/11. And it is also clear that the FBI dropped a crucial probe of Saudi operatives in San Diego who provided financial and other assistance to two of the 9/11 hijackers. (Additional reporting on this aspect is provided by the Los Angeles Times.) The full details of the Saudi connection remain classified, however -- at the insistence of the White House.
The best newspaper account of controversies surrounding the report and its release appears today in the Washington Post under the byline of Dana Priest. While the New York Times prints an excerpt from the report today, quoting Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley about the Bush administration's determination to "roll back" al-Qaida in 2001, Priest's story examines how the White House sought to conceal as much information from the joint committee as possible. She also reminds us of the existence of a certain famous memo, given to the president while he was on vacation in Crawford, Texas, a month before the attacks, that remains classified for reasons that aren't clear (or are all too clear):
"Among the only clues cited in the report about Bush's knowledge of al Qaeda's intentions against the United States is an Aug. 6, 2001, President's Daily Briefing (PDB) -- described in the report only as a 'closely-held intelligence report' -- that included information 'acquired in May 2001 that indicated a group of [Osama] Bin Laden supporters was planning attacks in the United States with explosives.'...
"In a May 16, 2002, briefing for reporters, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the PDB was a historical look at bin Laden's methods dating to 1997. She characterized the briefing as an 'analytic report' that summed up bin Laden's methods of operation. 'It was not a warning,' she said. "There was no specific time or place mentioned.'"
Given Rice's diminished reputation for candor and accuracy, it's impossible to take her word for what it says. But as Priest reports, the administration cited an old and controversial phrase to maintain its secrecy:
"The CIA declined to declassify the PDB, and the White House, which had the authority to release it, declined to do so, citing 'executive privilege.'"
My favorite quote today also appears in Priest's story. Rep. Porter J. Goss, the Florida Republican who chairs the House intelligence committee, had this to say about the president: "The intelligence community was providing him information. He wasn't AWOL."
[10:52 a.m. PDT, July 25, 2003]