The New York Times' Juicy, Scoop-Filled 9/11 Op-Ed Is Neither Juicy Nor Full of ScoopsS

Kurt Eichenwald, the disgraced former New York Times reporter whose career went up in flames after he got caught secretly paying thousands of dollars to a child pornographer he wrote about, is on the comeback trail. Today he published an op-ed in the New York Times claiming to have evidence that the Bush Administration is guilty of "significantly more negligence" in ignoring 9/11 warning signs "than has been disclosed." That may be true, but save for a few interesting details, the evidence he presents has been in the public record for nearly a decade.

Eichenwald's op-ed, which is part of the publicity campaign for a new book he wrote about the aftermath of 9/11, is creating quite a stir this morning. He claims to have gained access to "excerpts" of numerous still-classified presidential daily briefs (PDBs) from the months leading up to 9/11. Aside from the infamous "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." brief, Eichenwald writes, there are several other reports indicating that Bush knew or should have known that an attack was imminent.

While those documents are still not public, I have read excerpts from many of them, along with other recently declassified records, and come to an inescapable conclusion: the administration's reaction to what Mr. Bush was told in the weeks before that infamous briefing reflected significantly more negligence than has been disclosed. In other words, the Aug. 6 document, for all of the controversy it provoked, is not nearly as shocking as the briefs that came before it.

Among the revelations: Unnamed "neoconservative leaders" discounted the flood of Al Qaida-related threat reporting in the summer of 2001 as a deliberate head fake aimed at "distract[ing] the administration from Saddam Hussein." The theory was so persistent that the CIA felt compelled to rebut it in a report: "The U.S. is not the target of a disinformation campaign by Usama Bin Laden."

Eichenwald also presents numerous harrowing quotes demonstrating that the CIA tried to warn Bush repeatedly about the Al Qaida threat:

    • "By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that 'a group presently in the United States' was planning a terrorist operation."
    • "Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be 'imminent,' although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible."
    • "Operatives connected to Bin Laden, one reported on June 29, expected the planned near-term attacks to have 'dramatic consequences,' including major casualties."
    • "In Chechnya, according to intelligence I reviewed, Ibn Al-Khattab, an extremist who was known for his brutality and his links to Al Qaeda, told his followers that there would soon be very big news. Within 48 hours, an intelligence official told me, that information was conveyed to the White House, providing more data supporting the C.I.A.'s warnings."

    Taken together, Eichenwald writes, the warnings show "there were events that might have exposed the plans, had the government been on high alert." The op-ed is being hailed as "investigative journalism of historic import" by Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson and a "BFD" by Mother Jones co-editor Monika Bauerlein.

    Here's the thing: There is virtually nothing new, aside from some details to flesh out the already abundant historical record, in Eichenwald's op-ed. It does not present evidence of "significantly more negligence than has been disclosed." All the negligence had already been disclosed.

    As a general matter, the fact that the intelligence community spent the summer of 2001 furiously warning everyone who would listen, including President Bush, that Al Qaida was on the verge of attacking the U.S. has been repeatedly established. From New York Times reporter Tim Weiner's history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes:

    Bush and [CIA director George] Tenet met at the White House almost every morning at eight. But nothing Tenet said about bin Laden captured the president's attention. Morning after morning at the eight o'clock briefing, Tenet told the president...about portents of al Qaida's plot to strike America. [I]n the spring and summer of 2001, every nerve and sinew of the agency strained to see and hear the threat clearly.... Tips kept coming in. They're going to hit Boston. They're going to hit London. They're going to hit New York. "When these attacks occur, as they likely will," [then counter-terrorism advisor Richard] Clarke e-mailed [National Security Advisor Condoleezza] Rice on May 29, "we will wonder what more we could have done to stop them.

    That's just one of many, many accounts of ignored 9/11 warnings. But what about the briefs? Eichenwald claims to have access to previously undisclosed presidential briefs demonstrating just how much the president was personally warned.

    Again, not new. The report of the 9/11 Commission makes clear that the commission's leaders—though not all members—were permitted to read every brief Bush received in the four years prior to 9/11 that mentioned bin Laden and Al Qaida:

    The Commission received access to about four years of articles from the PDB related to Bin Ladin, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and key countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, including all the Commission requested. The White House declined to permit all commissioners to review these sensitive documents. The Commission selected four representatives—the Chair, the Vice Chair, Commissioner Gorelick, and the Executive Director—as its review team. All four reviewed all of the more than 300 relevant articles. Commissioner Gorelick and the Executive Director prepared a detailed summary, reviewed by the White House for constitutional and especially sensitive classification concerns, that was then made available to all Commissioners and designated staff. Except for the August 6, 2001, PDB article, the summary could not include verbatim quotations, for example the titles of the articles, but could paraphrase the substance.

    Kudos to Eichenwald for independently gaining access to excerpts of those briefs without the onerous restrictions placed on the commission. That's good reporting, and it advances the ball somewhat on the 9/11 story. But it's by no means revelatory. The 9/11 commissioners went over those briefings and—unless they were part of a conspiracy to protect the Bush White House—they distilled the relevant parts into their narrative report. The chapter of that report dealing with the warnings in the run-up to 9/11 is called "The System Was Blinking Red," and it contains virtually every substantive claim Eichenwald makes in his op-ed, only eight years earlier.

    In May 2001, the drumbeat of reporting grew louder with reports to top officials that "Bin Ladin public profile may presage attack" and "Bin Ladin network's plans advancing." In early May, a walk-in to the FBI claimed there was a plan to launch attacks on London, Boston, and New York. Attorney General John Ashcroft was briefed by the CIA on May 15 regarding al Qaeda generally and the current threat reporting specifically. The next day brought a report that a phone call to a U.S. embassy had warned that Bin Ladin supporters were planning an attack in the United States using "high explosives." On May 17, based on the previous day's report, the first item on the CSG's agenda was "UBL: Operation Planned in U.S." The anonymous caller's tip could not be corroborated.

    A terrorist threat advisory distributed in late June indicated a high probability of near-term "spectacular" terrorist attacks resulting in numerous casualties. Other reports' titles warned, "Bin Ladin Attacks May be Imminent" and "Bin Ladin and Associates Making Near-Term Threats." The latter reported multiple attacks planned over the coming days, including a "severe blow" against U.S. and Israeli "interests" during the next two weeks.

    According to the report, "many of these [reports] were made available to President Bush in morning intelligence briefings with DCI Tenet, usually attended by Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Rice." They were also all—along with many others—included in the less detailed Senior Executive Intelligence Brief (SEIB), which went to high-ranking White House officials (the Commission received full access to SEIBs dealing with al Qaida).

    Eichenwald fleshes this out somewhat by including direct quotes and reporting that Bush himself, as opposed to his senior advisors, received these warnings. At least that's what he claims. But he employs curious language to make his case: After gaining access to excerpts from the presidential briefs, Eichenwald goes on to repeatedly say that "the White House," as opposed to Bush himself, was informed of the more ominous threats: "By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that 'a group presently in the United States' was planning a terrorist operation." If your scoop is that Bush was personally informed of all the previously reported threats coming into the White House, wouldn't you say so?

    Again, there was never even the remotest question that the White House had been informed of the threat reporting. From Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, a 2004 history of the CIA's secret wars in Afghanistan:

    An intelligence alert in early June said that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was recruiting volunteers to undertake missions in the United States, where they would "establish contact with colleagues already living there." [T]he CIA prepared a briefing paper on July 10 for senior Bush administration officials: "Based on a review of all-source reporting over the last five months, we believe that [bin Laden] will launch a significant terrorist attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against U.S. facilities or interests. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning."

    But what about the crazy report that some "neoconservative leaders" thought it was all a "disinformation campaign"? Again, that's in the commission's report, and it names the leader: Paul Wolfowitz.

    Not everyone was convinced. Some asked whether all these threats might just be deception. On June 30, the SEIB contained an article titled "Bin Ladin Threats Are Real." Yet Hadley told Tenet in July that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz questioned the reporting. Perhaps Bin Ladin was trying to study U.S. reactions. Tenet replied that he had already addressed the Defense Department's questions on this point; the reporting was convincing. To give a sense of his anxiety at the time, one senior official in the Counterterrorist Center told us that he and a colleague were considering resigning in order to go public with their concerns.

    The report doesn't specifically state, as Eichenwald does, that Wolfowitz suspected Al Qaida of trying to distract the White House from Iraq. And while that's a new detail, again, it's hardly revelatory. The "shocking" substance of the allegation—that some administration officials refused to believe the warnings were true—was more completely reported eight years ago.

    Eichenwald's larger point—that the Bush White House had abundant, redundant warnings that al Qaida was going to kill a lot of Americans, and soon—is of course true. It was true eight years ago, when the public first learned of it. Perhaps his book, 500 Days, will contain a wealth of previously undisclosed and truly informative reporting. But if the op-ed is any indication, readers interested in how and why the White House missed the 9/11 warning signs—as well as reporters who were shocked by Eichenwald's claims—will be better served by Ghost Wars or Legacy of Ashes. Or the 9/11 commission report—it's free.

    [Image by Jim Cooke]