Why the President Needs Intel Briefings

Since Donald Trump now says that he will not accept a daily intelligence briefing (known as the Presidential Daily Briefing or “PDB”) because he’s so smart that he doesn’t need it, I want to remind you what can happen when a president doesn’t take his intelligence briefings seriously.

I’m going to highlight some things from the Presidential Daily Brief that was delivered to President George W. Bush at his vacation ranch in Crawford, Texas on August 6th, 2001. The first thing to note is the title of the brief, which was Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US. It clearly suggests that the point of what follows is related to attacks somewhere in our fifty states, not in some territory or foreign military or diplomatic installation.

The memo begins by giving some history and some information on the sources of their reporting:

Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US. Bin Laden implied in U.S. 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.”

Ramzi Yousef tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993, and he nearly succeeded. Bush was being told that al Qaeda operatives were seeking to “follow his example.”

After U.S. missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, bin Laden told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington, according to a [REDACTED] service.

An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative told [REDACTED– probably “Egyptian”] service at the same time that bin Laden was planning to exploit the operative’s access to the U.S. to mount a terrorist strike.

The ringleader of the 9/11 attacks, Mohamed Atta, who was already in the country making final preparations, was an Egyptian.

The memo next details intelligence gathered from the interrogation of Ahmed Ressam, the so-called Millennial Bomber who wanted to attack Los Angeles International Airport but was caught at the Canadian border in 2000. He said that bin Laden was aware of his plot and that one of his lieutenants had encouraged him and had been planning his own operation for several years. Ressam also said that in 1998 this lieutenant was already planning his own U.S. attack. The CIA then noted that the preparations for the 1997 African embassy bombings had begun in 1993.

At this point, the PDF explained that al-Qaeda members had been in the country in the past, that some were even U.S. citizens, and they were trying to recruit young people to carry out attacks here.

Al Qaeda members — including some who are U.S. citizens — have resided in or traveled to the U.S. for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks.

Two al-Qaeda members found guilty in the conspiracy to bomb our embassies in East Africa were U.S. citizens, and a senior EIJ member lived in California in the mid-1990s.

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

Then the CIA got to the meat of the matter. There were signs that al-Qaeda was preparing to hijack airplanes. This information was “sensational” and came from both a foreign service and FBI observations in the field (see, for example, the July 10, 2001 Phoenix Memo).

We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a [REDACTED] service in 1998 saying that Bin Laden wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft to gain the release of “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman and other U.S.-held extremists.

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.

All the pieces were in this memo, although no one had imagined that the hijacked planes would be used to attack buildings in New York.

Now, there’s a back story to the August 6th memo which is that the CIA had been trying mightily without success during the summer to get the Bush administration to focus on the threat of a domestic or foreign attack from al-Qaeda. On the same day that FBI headquarters received the Phoenix memo, CIA counterterrorism chief J. Cofer Black burst into director George Tenet’s office and said “Chief, this is it. Roof’s fallen in.” The two of them were so freaked out that they made a special trip.

Tenet called Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, from the car and said he needed to see her right away. There was no practical way she could refuse such a request from the CIA director.

For months, Tenet had been pressing Rice to set a clear counterterrorism policy, including specific presidential orders called “findings” that would give the CIA stronger authority to conduct covert action against bin Laden. Perhaps a dramatic appearance — Black called it an “out of cycle” session, beyond Tenet’s regular weekly meeting with Rice — would get her attention…

…Tenet hoped his abrupt request for an immediate meeting would shake Rice. He and Black, a veteran covert operator, had two main points when they met with her. First, al-Qaeda was going to attack American interests, possibly in the United States itself. Black emphasized that this amounted to a strategic warning, meaning the problem was so serious that it required an overall plan and strategy. Second, this was a major foreign policy problem that needed to be addressed immediately. They needed to take action that moment — covert, military, whatever — to thwart bin Laden.

The outcome of that meeting was not satisfactory. Rice didn’t take their threats seriously enough to do anything urgent about them. Later on, Cofer Black said, “The only thing we didn’t do was pull the trigger to the gun we were holding to her head.”

So, nearly a month later, on August 6th, the CIA decided to write a really alarming presidential brief for the president in the hope that it would spur him to leap into action. But that’s not what happened.

In Ron Suskind’s book The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11, there is some reporting on how Bush responded to the August 6th warning.

The book’s opening anecdote tells of an unnamed CIA briefer who flew to Bush’s Texas ranch during the scary summer of 2001, amid a flurry of reports of a pending al-Qaeda attack, to call the president’s attention personally to the now-famous Aug. 6, 2001, memo titled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US.” Bush reportedly heard the briefer out and replied: “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.”

The final part of the briefing told Bush what was currently being done, which the CIA clearly thought was inadequate:

The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full-field investigations throughout the U.S. that it considers bin Laden-related. CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group or bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives.

We can hang our heads that we elected a numbskull like George W. Bush, but at least it wasn’t a struggle to get him to accept the briefing. Trump says he will leave the briefing to his vice-president.

President-elect Donald Trump indicated “that as president, he would not take the daily intelligence briefing that President Obama and his predecessors have received,” the New York Times reports.

He said that it was often repetitive and that he would take it “when I need it” while noting his vice president, Mike Pence, would receive the daily briefing.

Said Trump: “You know, I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.”

He added that he had instructed the officials who give the briefing: “‘If something should change from this point, immediately call me. I’m available on a one-minute’s notice.’”

Now the CIA might be relieved that they won’t even have to worry about covering their ass in a Trump administration but everyone knows they’ll get blamed if we get attacked and the president wasn’t forewarned.

Maybe Mike Pence will be a better commander in chief than Dick Cheney?

That can’t be too hard, can it?

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.