Wednesday's must-reads


Geraldine Sealey
April 14, 2004 4:12PM (UTC)

PDB just one of many warnings
In his primetime press conference last night (transcript here), President Bush defended his inaction after reading the President's Daily Brief, or PDB, from Aug. 6, 2001, titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," by saying:

"Frankly, I didn't think there was anything new. I mean, major newspapers had talked about bin Laden's desires on hurting America ..."

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But, as the Washington Post reports today, the PDB didn't contain "anything new" because Bush was told repeatedly already about the "stream of alarming reports" on al-Qaida's plans to attack America. Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and others on the president's national security team also saw the threat reports that spring and summer, according to newly declassified information released by the 9/11 commission yesterday.

The Post's Dana Priest writes: "In April and May 2001, for example, the intelligence community headlined some of those reports 'Bin Laden planning multiple operations,' 'Bin Laden network's plans advancing' and 'Bin Laden threats are real.'"

" ... The government moved on several fronts to counter the threats. The CIA launched 'disruption operations' in 20 countries. Tenet met or phoned 20 foreign intelligence officials. Units of the 5th Fleet were redeployed. Embassies went on alert. Cheney called Crown Prince Adbullah of Saudi Arabia to ask for help. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice asked the CIA to brief Attorney General John D. Ashcroft about an 'imminent' terrorist attack whose location was unknown. 'The system was blinking red,' Tenet told the commission in private testimony, the panel's report noted."

"In this context, Bush 'had occasionally asked his briefers whether any of the threats pointed to the United States,' the report said. Or, as one U.S. senior official more intimately involved in the summer reporting paraphrased the president's question to the CIA: 'This guy going to strike here?' A partial answer was contained in the very first sentence of the Aug. 6 President's Daily Brief: 'Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate Bin Ladin since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US.' The document ended with two paragraphs of circumstantial evidence that al Qaeda operatives might already be in the United States preparing 'for hijackings or other types of attacks' and said that the FBI and the CIA were investigating a call to the U.S. Embassy in the United Arab Emirates in May 'saying that a group of Bin Ladin supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives.'"

Another disappointing performance
Even supporters of President Bush and the war in Iraq were disappointed with his primetime performance last night and left questioning if he could convince the American people to "stay the course," the Los Angeles Times reports.

"I was depressed," conservative strategist William Kristol told the Times. "I am obviously a supporter of the war, so I don't need to be convinced. But among people who were doubtful or worried, I don't think he made arguments that would convince them. He didn't explain how we are going to win there."

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"... Bush's performance is unlikely to stem anxiety among Republicans already uneasy about poor reviews for his State of the Union address in January and a subsequent appearance on NBC's 'Meet the Press.' The skeptical tone of the questions Bush faced -- all of which centered on the war in Iraq or the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks -- underscored the decline in his political standing since his last news conference in December 2003."

Ashcroft ignored terrorism
The Chicago Tribune reports that while the 9/11 panel was told on Tuesday that Attorney General John Ashcroft ignored terrorism before the 2001 attacks, he tried to shift the blame to the Clinton administration in his testimony.

"Former interim FBI chief Thomas Pickard testified Tuesday that Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft didn't want to hear about terrorism when Pickard tried to brief him during the summer of 2001, as intelligence reports about terrorist threats were reaching a historic level. Ashcroft flatly denied the charge Tuesday in testimony before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks and blamed the Clinton administration for creating bureaucratic hurdles that impeded the nation's defense against the assaults. He portrayed himself as taking decisive action against Osama bin Laden and portrayed his predecessors as weak, charging that former President Bill Clinton failed to authorize bin Laden's assassination."

" ... Ashcroft testified that little more than a month after assuming office he told National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that he wanted to 'fix covert authorities to allow for decisive, lethal action' against bin Laden. But under questioning, Ashcroft couldn't point to anything he did to pursue or enact such a plan after his meeting with Rice. He said he believed Tenet was handling it as part of a broader review. And two commissioners, Democrat Richard Ben-Veniste and Republican Fred Fielding, suggested that the panel recently received a previously undisclosed -- and highly classified -- document showing that Clinton may have authorized just such a strike. Ashcroft said he was unaware of it. And despite what he called his own thorough review, Ashcroft acknowledged under questioning from Fielding that he couldn't recall what documents he was given, where they came from or whether his staff briefed him on the issue."

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" ... Pickard wasn't the only one who portrayed Ashcroft as disengaged on terrorism. Commission investigators said Dale Watson, the former head of counterterrorism at the FBI, told them 'that he almost fell out of his chair' when he saw a May 10, 2001, memo from Ashcroft on Justice Department budget priorities 'because it made no mention of counterterrorism.' The day before, Ashcroft had testified at a Capitol Hill budget hearing that terrorism was his top priority."

(Ashcroft's appearance didn't quite provide the fireworks one might have expected. Fred Kaplan at Slate guesses why: Maybe the bipartisan commission didn't want to appear overly political by whipping liberals' favorite Bush administration whipping boy. For whatever reason, the AG's turn in the witness chair was a disappointing yawner and missed opportunity to make Ashcroft explain his lack of action on terrorism before 9/11.)

Bush's self-help tax plan
You have to hand it to the president for making his job work for him. The Washington Post reports that President Bush's tax return for 2003 shows he's a prime beneficiary of his own tax cut plan.

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"In all, the tax cut Bush signed into law last summer saved him and his wife $30,858, according to Robert McIntyre, executive director of the labor-backed Citizens for Tax Justice."

"The release of the White House tax returns provided a clear window into the Bushes' and Cheneys' finances, as well as a glimpse at the impact of their economic policymaking. Last year's tax cut lowered the top rate -- paid by households earning more than $311,950 -- from 38.6 percent to 35 percent."

"The Cheneys' wages totaled $454,301, including the vice president's $198,600 salary as well as $178,437 in compensation from Halliburton Corp., the oil services giant the vice president once headed. Mindful of the billions of dollars in contracts Halliburton has in Iraq, Cheney's office said that his deferred compensation was set in 1998 and that it 'is fixed and is not affected by Halliburton's current economic performance or earnings in any way.'"

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As for John Kerry, "his tax burden more than tripled on income that surged with the sale of a million-dollar painting," the Post says.

Making the problem worse
The USA Today talked to military analysts who say "President Bush's promise to send more troops to Iraq if U.S. commanders request them still may not stabilize the country."

" ... Charles Pena, director of defense studies at the Cato Institute, says that adding more U.S. troops will only 'make the problem worse' and increase Iraqi resentment."

"The decision by Bush to abandon a plan that would have reduced U.S. troop levels from 135,000 to 105,000 undercuts earlier U.S. predictions about the force size needed for Iraq and was prompted by disturbing developments:

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-- The Iraqi insurgency has moved into a more deadly phase in which massed attacks on U.S. troops have replaced isolated ambushes with homemade bombs.
-- U.S. troops, working with Iraqi forces, have been unable to seal off Iraq's borders and prevent foreign fighters from entering. Bush said he was 'disappointed' in the performance of some Iraqi troops.
-- New guerrilla tactics, including the taking of dozens of hostages has threatened everything from foreign investment to the U.S. military's ability to supply troops.
-- American forces have been forced to engage in deadly urban warfare in Iraqi cities.
-- Help from other nations, which now contribute about 24,000 troops, is set to wane soon.

Those factors have compounded what critics see as flawed planning assumptions by the Pentagon, whose leaders a year ago said most Iraqis would embrace the occupation and U.S. troop levels would be reduced by this summer."


Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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