Assume the Position

Monday, April 12, 2004
 
Contemptuously Misleading Coverage

Jim Robbins on CNN and the PDB in NRO's The Corner (emphasis added):

A CNN headline on the August 6, 2001 PDB reads "Key Document Warned of Possible al Qaeda Scenarios." But none of the scenarios were the actual plan. One dealt with AQ attacking us with explosives, another with hijacking planes to engage in hostage negotiations. Another said the window of AQ attack was early 1997 to early 2001, which had already passed by August.* Yet the press still treats this page and a half document breathlessly. How very sad they think that their audience cannot read or reason for themselves. What contempt they must have for us.

That contempt is probably well founded. Some of the public don't follow the news at all; they are not the news media's prime audience, but they do pick up and process information from the almost inescapable headlines on newspapers they might see and the news commercials during television shows — Comming up on News-at-11: Bush briefing warned of al Qaeda attacks, Charlie with the sports, Lucy with tomorrow's weather, and more at 11 — leaving their impressions almost totally shaped by the slant in the headlines.

Then there are people who do follow the news, but the vast majority of them are going watch, hear or read the news stories themselves, not the actual documents. The media can expect most of them to basically accept how the item is characterised in the story. Television and radio are the worst sources for information relating to documents; newspapers and the web are better, but even their transcriptions leave much to be desired. This basic CNN story had links to Bill Schneider's overblown analysis (dissed in the previous post), a transcript of the PDB and a PDF document of the PDB. How many readers of the story bothered to look at either of the latter two? And if they went to the transcript rather than downloading the PDF file, this is the first thing they would have read (underline added):

The following is a transcript of the August 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing entitled Bin Laden determined to strike in US. Parts of the original document were not made public by the White House for security reasons.

That is one of the reasons I tried to make my transcript a faithful reproduction in layout and typeface and even the size of the three blacked-out redactions—to show that the PDB item was not "heavily redacted" and the White House didn't leave out material information as CNN's transcript might lead readers to believe. To demonstrate, here are parts of two comments left on Kevin Drum's PDB post (emphasis added):

First off, at least according to AirAmerica's coverage of this PDB, it's "heavily redacted", so I don't know what was left out and what was not. I've not seen the actual document, so I do not know how much was redacted, but I did read the transcript on CNN, and I can't tell from that.

[…]

Posted by: Kenneth G. Cavness on April 10, 2004 at 8:26 PM | PERMALINK

BTW: CNN now has a PDF of the report online. Unless they simply excised entire parts of the PDB,** it's not "heavily redacted".

Posted by: Kenneth G. Cavness on April 10, 2004 at 8:35 PM | PERMALINK

While Cavness found and looked at a copy, I doubt most readers would have bothered. Consider the Talking Dog. TD posted and linked the transcript from The New Zealand Herald which presented the redacted portions like this:

After US missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, Bin Ladin told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington, according to a ...(redacted portion) ... service.

An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative told an ... (redacted portion) ... service at the same time that Bin Ladin was planning to exploit the operative's access to the US to mount a terrorist strike.

[…]

We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a ... (redacted portion) ... service in 1998 saying that Bin Ladin wanted to hijack a US aircraft to gain the release of "Blind Shaykh" 'Umar 'Abd al-Rahman and other US-held extremists.

Using that transcript, TD's next post exceeds Schneider's exaggerations about the PDB:

If Bush mentions 9-11, he will then have to immediately answer for why his government did nothing discernible, despite knowing the who, what, where, why and how (and for all we know, the redacted portions said when and which flight numbers) of 9-11 over 5 weeks before it.

CNN and The New Zealand Herald probably made exactly the impression they desired on the majority of their primary audience. They could have accurately described the redactions as being limited to hiding the intelligence sources, but they didn't.


* I don't know where Robbin's got that "window of AQ attack" idea. I certainly don't find anything in the PDB item to support it.

** This goes to a widespread misunderstanding of the PDB that I addressed in the previous post. The only pages of concern were those for the PDB item titled "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US." That two page item was released and was not "heavily redacted." However, the rest of items in that day's book were not released because they didn't have any bearing on the issues being investigated. All of the White House material had already been combed through for the prior House and Senate intelligence committees' investigations. That's how the existence of this particular item in the August 6, 2001, PDB originally got leaked to the press in May 2002. It was addressed by the White House in a press briefing by Condoleezza Rice on May 16, 2002, generally covering the "chronology of the events that occurred during the spring and summer of 2001." It's worth noting that Rice's attempt to describe the item's analytic nature, as opposed to it being a specific intelligence warning detailing a planned attack, may have added to the confusion and inflated the importance bestowed on it by her calling it "an analytic report" several times. She more accurately described it as a summary later in the press briefing.



Sunday, April 11, 2004
 
Must be an Easter Egg, 'Cause It Sure Ain't a Smoking Gun

For those who can't view the PDF of the declassified President's Daily Brief of August 6, 2001, or just don't want to bother, here is a fairly faithful (not to scale) HTML reproduction.

Page 1

Declassified and Approved
for Release, 10 April 2004



Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US


Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate Bin Ladin since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US. Bin Ladin implied in US television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and "bring the fighting to America."

After us missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, Bin Ladin told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington, according to a - - - - - service.

An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative told - - - - - service at the same time that Bin Ladin was planning to exploit the operative's access to the US to mount a terrorist strike.

The millennium plotting in Canada in 1999 may have been part of Bin Ladin's first serious attempt to implement a terrorist strike in the US. Convicted plotter Ahmed Ressam has told the FBI that he conceived the idea to attack Los Angeles International Airport himself, but that Bin Ladin lieutenant Abu Zubaydah encouraged him and helped facilitate the operation. Ressam also said that in 1998 Abu Zubaydah was planning his own US attack.

Ressam says Bin Ladin was aware of the Los Angeles operation.

Although Bin Ladin has not succeeded, his attacks against the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 demonstrate that he prepares operations years in advance and is not deterred by setbacks. Bin Ladin associates surveilled our Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as early as 1993, and some members of the Nairobi cell planning the bombings were arrested and deported in 1997.

Al-Qa'ida members—including some who are US citizens—have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks. Two al-Qa'ida members found guilty in the conspiracy to bomb our Embassies in East Africa were US citizens, and a senior EIJ member lived in California in the mid-1990s.

A clandestine source said in 1998 that a Bin Ladin cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks.

We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a - - - - - service in 1998 saying that Bin Ladin wanted to hijack a US aircraft to gain the release of "Blind Shaykh" 'Umar 'Abd al-Rahman and other US-held extremists.

For the President Only- - - -- - - - - -- - - -Declassified and Approved
6 August 2001- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - for Release, 10 April 2004

Page 2

Declassified and Approved
for Release, 10 April 2004




Nevertheless, FBI information since that time 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 FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers Bin Ladin-related. CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our Embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group of Bin Ladin supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives.






For the President Only- - - -- - - - - -- - - -Declassified and Approved
6 August 2001- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - for Release, 10 April 2004

After reading that, or having it read to him and discussed, President Bush should have immediately ended his vacation, declared a national security emergency and martial law, banned all civilian air travel in the US for the foreseeable future, ordered all "Muslim-American youths" indefinitely detained, and asked Congress to declare war on Afghanistan. Or not.

It's hard to match the document to the way CNN's Bill Schneider hypes the PDB, "I think it could be seriously damaging. What this says is, the White House knew what bin Laden was capable of planning, where he intended to do it, which was New York or Washington, D.C., how he was going to do it. There was only one thing missing, which was exactly when he was going to do it, which turns out to be September 11."

It is very interesting to learn that on September 11, 2001, one team of al-Qaeda's recruited "Muslim-American youths" used a truck bomb to blow up the Federal Building in New York that housed the U.S. District Court where "Blind Sheik" Omar Abdel-Rahman received his life sentence, while a second team hijacked a jet from Dulles International Airport and demanded the release of Sheik Omar and a host of others. Or not.


UPDATE: The Smoking Gun has images of the two PDB pages. I should also point out that these two pages wouldn't make up the whole PDB for August 6, 2001; they are just the two pages of that PDB that dealt with the threat of Bin Ladin/al-Qaeda attacks within the US.

There is a White House FAQ on the PDB (via Bill Quick).

Kevin Drum demonstrates what it takes to be a Washington pundit by bemoaning the format of the PDB:

Aside from that, what really struck me was that the whole thing was so short — considerably shorter than your average op-ed column, in fact — and written at about a high school level. This is an intelligence briefing prepared at the request of the president of the United States and he was apparently satisfied with it? Eleven paragraphs of pabulum considerably less authoritative than an average article in Foreign Affairs? Sheesh.

The President's Daily Brief is a daily digest prepared by the CIA covering anything and everything of national interest going on in the world based mostly on the previous day's intelligence. It is supposed to be brief and to the point, and those are just two of however many pages were in that day's PDB. (I would guess some other items in that PDB would have dealt with Iran and Libya's responses to the 5 year extension of sanctions the President had signed into law on the 3rd, the outlook for a peaceful settlement in Macedonia in the wake of new violence, the security situation in Indonesia in advance of Zoellick's visit, etc.) It is not supposed to be a National Intelligence Estimate, a Foreign Affairs article, or "your average op-ed column." It is neither a decision document, nor a background paper.


UPDATE: OxBlogger Patrick Belton's take on Drum's whine is similar to mine.




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