On Saturday, the New York Times?adhering to the P.T. Barnum school of journalism?screamed on its front page that President Bush was warned ?that supporters of Osama bin Laden planned an attack within the United States with explosives and wanted to hijack airplanes.?
To drive home the point that ?Bush lied,? the Times informed readers, ?The disclosure appears to contradict the White House?s repeated assertions that the briefing the president received about the Qaeda threat was ?historical? in nature and that the White House had little reason to suspect a Qaeda attack within American borders.?
The source for this most sensational of charges, that the President was given some kind of advance warning of 9/11 and then lied about it? A single ?government official.?
It took the release of the document for the public to realize that it contained no sort of advance warning.
What the Times did is akin to a psychic telling a poor sap that he sees ?the color blue? and ?the letter D??and the sucker plays along by remarking, ?Amazing! My brother David?s favorite color is blue!?
To wit, here?s a rundown of the PDB:
Near the top of the briefing, Bush was told, ?Bin Ladin since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US.? Sounds ?historical.?
Soon after is a morsel that Bush critics, including the Times, have chewed endlessly: ?Bin Ladin told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington.? But as the briefing notes just before, this threat was made ?[a]fter US missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998.? In other words, a ?threat? that was three years old by that point, or if you will, ?historical? in nature.
The briefing then runs through al Qaeda?s role in both the foiled ?millennium? plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in 1999 and the successful bombings of the U.S. Embassies in East Africa in 1998. Again, ?historical.?
(So ?historical? was most of this information, in fact, that Bush wouldn?t have needed a top-secret briefing; a newspaper would have sufficed.)
Near the end of the PDB, two references have received the extraordinary media attention: that ?Bin Ladin wanted to hijack a US aircraft? and that the FBI had detected al Qaeda activity suggesting ?preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks.?
But the kind of hijacking suggested in the briefing was one ?to gain the release of ?Blind Shaykh? ?Umar? Abd al-Rahman and other US-held extremists.?
And the only suspicious activity highlighted in the document was ?recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.? Yes, it mentions ?New York,? but that?s an awfully big place, chock-full of ripe targets?and the World Trade Center was not a ?federal building.?
Caught red-handed misstating the facts, the Times gave the following quasi-clarification that same evening in a news story on the declassified document: ?But the briefing did not point to any specific time or place of attack and did not warn that planes could be used as missiles.?
The article?s next paragraph, however, promptly returned to the Times? campaign to paint Bush as a liar: ?But the page-and-a-quarter-long document showed that Mr. Bush was given more specific and contemporary information about terrorist threats than the White House had previously acknowledged.?
What ?specific? and ?contemporary? information exactly?
Referencing possible ?hijackings or other types of attacks? is about as ?specific? as a ?yellow? versus ?orange? terror alert.
In short, there was nothing new, specific, or actionable in the much-ballyhooed PDB.
Naysayers will point to the ?hijacking? reference, but there was no mechanism in place to respond to a vague threat of a hijacking in fall 2001. The bureaucracies were broken. The FAA barely functioned, and Boston?s Logan International Airport was but one of many with near-nonexistent security.
The ugly truth is that directing the massive U.S. bureaucracy to respond to the previously ignored threat of radical Islam in fall 2001 is like the Titanic captain steering once he spotted the iceberg.
After all, it is clear to anyone who reads the briefing that there was sadly nothing specific in it that Bush could have acted on in order to prevent 9/11.
Anyone, that is, except the New York Times.