Well that was a blow-out, wasn’t it?
After much media speculation, the famous article from the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) of 6 August 2001 was declassified this past Saturday. Many feared (and some hoped) it would show the President had received ‘actionable intelligence’ about the 9/11 attacks more than a month before they occurred.
But just read the PDB. You don’t have to be James Bond to see there is no actionable intelligence there at all. Not a shred.
This needless declassification of a Top Secret document was the result of a stunt by Richard Ben-Veniste, a member — as unbelievable as it sounds — of the 9/11 Commission.
When it was his turn to query Condoleezza Rice during Thursday’s public hearings, Ben-Veniste brought-up the PDB. He said, “Isn’t it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the August 6th PDB warned against possible attacks in this country? And I ask you whether you recall the title of that PDB.”
Rice replied, “I believe the title was, Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.”
Immediately after she finished her sentence, Ben-Veniste tried to cut her off. Clearly, his intent was not to ask a question, but simply to force Rice into publicly speaking the words of the title, thereby inflicting political damage on a war-time President.
Rice would have none of it. She verbally pushed Ben-Veniste aside, explaining the PDB piece was synthesized from historical intelligence and written in response to questions the President had asked. The article was not a threat report, said Rice.
However, it was to no avail. Ben-Veniste’s words had done their work.
The next day’s press was filled with reports on the ‘secret warning.’ The Los Angeles Times, for example, carried a front page story about “disclosures from the commission that President Bush was warned in a highly classified intelligence briefing five weeks before the attacks...”
What Ben-Veniste did was contemptible. But there is even more to the story than this.
Not only was this particular PDB article not used to alert the President of an impending terrorist attack, no PDB is ever used that way. Never, ever. Not only was Ben-Veniste wrong, he could not possibly have been right.
Once you know the difference between the PDB and a threat report — and if Ben-Veniste doesn’t know the difference, he has even less business being on the Commission than is already obvious — you know his insinuations simply had to be bogus.
The President’s Daily Brief
The PDB is the President’s morning intelligence newspaper, designed to update him on the most important intelligence developments over the past 24 hours. Its overall classification is Top Secret, but individual paragraphs may carry a lower classification.
The PDB is produced by the Intelligence Community, with the CIA taking the lead. It is delivered to the President and a few other top national policy makers, like the Vice President, National Security Advisor, and the Secretary of State. When these officials travel outside the Washington area, the PDB is transmitted through secure CIA channels and hand-delivered to them, usually by an Agency officer.
Articles in the PDB are ‘finished intelligence.’ This means they draw from many sources, both open and covert. It also means the articles themselves have been thought about and worked on by many people, all experts in whatever subject the article is discussing.
Finally, the content of the PDB is often shaped in response to the questions and interests of the President himself. (This is especially true of Presidents with keen interest in the intelligence product, like President Bush. It was less true with Clinton, who did not show much concern with national intelligence, especially in his first term.) According to both Rice and the CIA, the 6 August PDB article was put together in response to questions from the President.
Now, contrast the PDB with a genuine threat report.
Threat reports are raw intelligence, loaded with all the details available, verifiable or not — time is of the essence. A sanitized, unclassified ‘tear line’ version is typically included, so recipients can quickly pass the information to people without security clearances, like foreign governments, or airlines, or police officers.
When a threat report is sent to out to intelligence consumers, it goes at the highest precedence and to the widest possible list of recipients, including the White House Situation Room and, often, the President himself.
This is how the Intelligence Community handles a threat report. Dissemination is quick and wide, with hardly any attention paid to substantive evaluation. As you can see, it is in many respects the exact opposite of how an article for the PDB is put together and distributed.
The point is straightforward. The PDB is not used to disseminate actionable threat intelligence, whether to the President or anyone else.
Politically-motivated games are probably inevitable in forums like the 9/11 commission, at least to some extent. But it is beyond excuse to make a charge simultaneously as grave and as baseless as the one Ben-Veniste hurled.
Mr. Carroll is a former officer in the Clandestine Service of the CIA, currently on the editorial board of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin.