April 14, 2004,
A striking characteristic of the August 6 Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) is its thoroughly bureaucratic nature. It smacks of a self-justifying, going-through-the-motions grab bag to get the boss to knock it off with the questions already and leave us alone. If the CIA was seriously alarmed about the potential domestic threat from Osama bin Laden, it sure isn't evident in this sloppy memo, prepared by the CIA at the president's request. In my na´vetÚ, I thought that a PDB would be of a higher quality.
You can easily imagine the CIA analyst calling someone with the FBI looking for some random example of a possible threat. So the Yemen tourists (as it later turned out) seemingly casing federal buildings in Manhattan was mentioned. At the time, the Phoenix memo raising the alarm about possible terrorists hanging around Arizona flight schools was being ignored at headquarters, but an anonymous call to our embassy in the United Arab Emirates that May about bin Laden planning an attack in the U.S. with explosives was mentioned. Why one and not the other? Because you have to tell the president something and anything concrete will do. The misleading mention of 70 FBI investigations underway is a classic bureaucratic attempt to tell the boss that everything is O.K.
It's so depressing to be reminded of how bureaucracies operate. They're sluggish, petty, risk and conflict-averse, self-justifying, and unimaginative. I had known that the FBI wasn't exactly at the cutting edge of 20th-century office technology in the summer of 2001, it was not possible to e-mail out of FBI Headquarters but we only just learned that Thomas Pickard, the acting FBI director between Freeh and Mueller, can't type.
J. Cofer Black, the CIA's counterterrorism chief, told the 9/11 Commission that the fundamental problem the agency faced was a lack of people and money. How would the quality of the work of the CIA analyst who wrote the August 6 PDB been improved with more resources? Would extra personnel and a larger budget have encouraged the CIA to tip off the FBI that two known terrorists flew to LAX in January 2000? Louis Freeh explained that in August 1998 he sent 400 FBI agents to East Africa to invwestigate the embassy bombings. FOUR HUNDRED.
I've begun to wonder if there were too many people involved in counterterrorism pre-9/11. Too many to coordinate efficiently, too many to assign clear responsibilities to, too many for anyone to feel primarily responsible.
The draft staff reports for the 9/11 Commission are fascinating, detailed accounts of evidence overlooked and opportunities missed. To be fair, the dots that went unconnected look like boulders in retrospect. Still, the nature of bureaucracies is a fundamental challenge to the kind of imaginative, energetic, sophisticated, and accountable agencies we need to meet the threat we face.
Despite the documented mistakes, not a single person has lost his job as a result of 9/11. No one person is responsible for failing to prevent 9/11, but it would not be scapegoating to recognize that government agents who "forgot" earlier evidence, or who neglected to notify counterparts as required, or who sat on information as a result of inertia should be let go. In the immediate days after 9/11, President Bush went to CIA headquarters to tell Langley's finest what a great job they were doing. The CIA author of the August PDB was probably among the congratulated.