In the past, I’ve given George W. Bush a pass on the 6 August 2001 President’s Daily Briefing (PDB) Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US (pdf). My thinking revolved around two issues. First, fighting terrorism is like house cleaning: no one notices what isn’t there. There will always be failures and only a jerk looks at them alone and claims that you are incompetent. Second, the PDB did not have actionable information. After reading the document, I’ve rethought it.
In Against All Enemies, Richard Clarke notes that a major terrorist attack was probably inevitable because the American people were not going to pay attention to the issue until there was one. Now, it didn’t have to be nearly as bad as 9/11, but something had to happen. I think there is much to this argument. However, I think it has also clouded my thinking regarding Bush’s reaction to the PDB. There is a big difference between the people of American paying attention to the terrorist threat and the White House paying attention. The Clinton White House paid close attention to this threat. But when Bush took over there was almost complete apathy.
In fact, the purpose of the 6 August 2001 PDB was to get Bush to take terrorism seriously. And it didn’t work at all. After the briefing, Bush said, “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.” And then he went fishing. This shows that before the PDB Bush didn’t care and after it he didn’t care. That’s a real problem and speaks extremely badly for Bush.
On the second issue it doesn’t look much better. I’m not sure what the apologists for the Bush administration are getting at here. Did they think that the PDB should have mentioned flight numbers? Here is what it says:
I understand that this sounds very different after 9/11 than it did before. But it is actionable. If I was given that memo, I would want to know what this suspicious activity was. I would want options. It is clear from Bush’s reaction that he understands that the intelligence and law enforcement parts of the government are concerned. But he is not moved.
The question is really not whether this memo would have stopped 9/11. It almost certainly would not have. But it should have made the Bush White House less complacent about terrorism. It shouldn’t have taken the deaths of over 3,000 people to get them interested in the subject. This is particularly sad when you consider the fact that Bush got a 40 percentage point bounce in his approval rating for ignoring the PDB. As a result of being apathetic about the threat of terrorism, Bush’s approval rating jumped up to 90%. And it went down constantly for the next eight years.
So yes, Bush should be judged very harshly for ignoring the 6 August 2001 President’s Daily Briefing.