Here is how Condoleezza Rice described the August 6, 2001, President's Daily Brief ("Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States") in her testimony before the 9/11 commission last week. "It did not warn of attacks inside the United States. It was historical information based on old reporting. There was no new threat information. And it did not, in fact, warn of any coming attacks inside the United States," she said. "Historical" became one of the buzz words from Rice's appearance last week, and its repetition left the impression that this intelligence brief, declassified over the weekend, contained nothing new -- nothing that would raise a flag, put top officials at "battle stations," or interrupt the president's monthlong vacation.
But now we know better. The disputed President's Daily Brief was about more than just ancient history. Yes, the PDB laid out what the intelligence analysts knew about bin Laden's plots going back to the late 1990s, while also noting that the terrorist mastermind plans his attacks for years. But the document brings us up to date on what the F.B.I. thought was taking place right here at home in the weeks before 9/11.
The PDB concludes: "F.B.I. information 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 F.B.I. is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the U.S. that it considers bin Laden-related. C.I.A. and the F.B.I. are investigating a call to our embassy in the U.A.E. in May saying that a group of bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives."
The president read this memo at a time of heightened "chatter" about a massive impending attack. Rice cited it in her testimony: "Unbelievable news coming in weeks," said one. "Big event -- there will be a very, very, very, very big uproar." "There will be attacks in the near future."
"Troubling, yes," Rice told the commission, regarding the intercepts. "But they don't tell us when; they don't tell us where; they don't tell us who; and they don't tell us how."
What's troubling here is the White House's passivity in the face of mounting threats of terrorism against the United States during the summer of 2001. Is it acceptable now for Rice -- and yesterday, Bush -- to say they would have taken action if only they had been told an exact time, place and method?
Gary Hart has one of the best responses to this administration line of defense: "I think this is disingenuous. It's a bit like saying at the local level that a group of citizens warning the mayor and the police department that there is going to be a wave of burglaries. And when the burglaries occur, the defense says, you didn't say which house, what night, and what method. There are steps that could have been taken to make this more difficult. When I was a national candidate, Secret Service said if somebody wants to kill you, they'll probably kill you. Our job is to make it as difficult as possible. We didn't do that."
The rest is, as they say, history.