The August Memo

Following is the text of the presidential daily briefing everyone is talking about. (Link takes the reader to FOXNews.)

(Readers: please click the link, or follow the Permalink, to expand.)

Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US

Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate Bin Ladin since 1997' has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US. Bin Ladin implied in US television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and "bring the fighting to America."

After US missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, Bin Ladin told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington, according to a [deleted text] service. An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative told an [deleted text] service at the same time that Bin Ladin was planning to exploit the operative's access to the US to mount a terrorist strike.

I think it meet to pause for a moment to clarify: "[deleted text] service" in this context means that the information came from a protected source. Even the media should understand that those resources remain anonymous; after all, the AP lives and breathes by their "unnamed sources".

In case anyone is interested in a transcript of Bin Laden's 1998 statements, it can be found here. (Note: it is both fascinating and revolting. He is convinced of his own rhetoric and rationalizations. It goes to illustrate that real villains are not the simplistic creatures Hollywood paints.)

The millennium plotting in Canada in 1999 may have been part of Bin Ladin's first serious attempt to implement a terrorist strike in the US. Convicted plotter Ahmed Ressam has told the FBI that he conceived the idea to attack Los Angeles International Airport himself, but that Bin Ladin lieutenant Abu Zubaydah encouraged him and helped facilitate the operation. Ressam also said that in 1998 Abu Zubaydah was planning his own US attack.

Ressam says Bin Ladin was aware of the Los Angeles operation.

Before anyone starts crying out, "Why weren't these men apprehended before the fact," I feel I should point out a couple of details. First, Ahmed Ressam was convicted for the foiled Millennium plot targeting Los Angeles International Airport in 1999. (PBS has an interesting chronology of his activities here.) It should also be noted that when asked, he did not recognize any of the 9/11 highjackers from photos, but did identify other sleepers within US borders.

Osama bin Laden hadn't been within the borders of the United States for years, and so fell outside legal jurisdiction. The same is true for his closest lieutenants. In retrospect, it seems logical that assassination would have been a good idea. However, President Ford instituted a policy against assassination in 1976 with Executive Order 11905.

(Note: No, Virginia, the EO does not cover the well-publicised deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein. They were combatants, as explained in this article on Slate.)

Although Bin Ladin has not succeeded, his attacks against the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 demonstrate that he prepares operations years in advance and is not deterred by setbacks. Bin Ladin associates surveilled our Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as early as 1993, and some members of the Nairobi cell planning the bombings were arrested and deported in 1997.

There is a key phrase in the preceeding quote: "...he prepares operations years in advance and is not deterred by setbacks." There is no question that available intelligence indicated that he was planning something. The problem was that no one knew when or how he planned to deliver his strike. From this report, and by the statements delivered in his 1997 and 1998 interviews, we knew that Osama bin Laden meant us harm. The real issue is the fact that the US Intelligence agencies were underfunded and understaffed by -- wait for it -- former President William J. Clinton. Moreover, this article by Lisa Meyers on MSNBC outlines several opportunities to nab Bin Laden that were missed or passed over by the Clinton Administration.

We knew he was planning something, but the newly-elected President Bush did not have enough information with which to act. He ordered stepped-up intelligence, but alas, it was too late.

Al-Qa'ida members including some who are US citizens have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks. Two al-Qa'ida members found guilty in the conspiracy to bomb our Embassies in East Africa were US citizens, and a senior EIJ member lived in California in the mid-1990s.

A clandestine source said in 1998 that a Bin Ladin cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks.

This is the most heartbreaking part of the report. I have taken the liberty of boldfacng the relevant phrases.

Read and re-read the blockquote above, and let the relevance sink in. The. Enemy. Was. Living. Among. Us. For. Years. Intelligence knew about it. Clinton did nothing to dismantle their support structure for the eight years he was in office.

I find it laughable to think that anyone could have expected President Bush, within his first three hundred days of office, to defuse a situation that was almost a decade in the making.

But wait, there is more:

We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a [deleted text] service in 1998 saying that Bin Ladin wanted to hijack a US aircraft to gain the release of "Blind Shaykh" 'Umar' Abd aI-Rahman and other US-held extremists.

The reading comprehension-challenged are encouraged to look at that paragraph again. "We have not been able to corroborate..." usually means that the rumor was mentioned, but no one else could be found who had heard the same intelligence. Such leads are usually flagged for follow-up, but without hard evidence showing that a hijacking was imminent, there was little agents could do besides investigate and pray that they caught the criminal/s in time.

Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.

Note the lack of hard evidence. Again, no one knew the specifics, only that there was an increase of questionable activity. Damnably, there wasn't enough evidence at that time to arrest anyone.

The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers Bin Ladin-related. CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our Embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group of Bin Ladin supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives.

An anonymous tip was paid to the US Embassy in the United Arab Emirates in May of 2001. No specifics were mentioned; no one was named.


This memo does not give any hard, actionable data. It is merely an outline of Bin Laden's past activities, avowed intentions, and rumors of gathering danger. In no way does it specify that on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, a group of Muslim terrorists would highjack four of our aircraft and effect the deaths of nigh 3,000 of our brothers and sisters.

Reasonable people will stop for a moment, and put themselves in President Bush's shoes, imagining themselves with the memo in hand on that morning in August, 2001. The empathetic will be able to understand something of the urgent concern he must have felt as he quietly gave orders to find out, for God's sake what that crazy bastard in Afghanistan was planning, and what we could to to prevent it.

It was too late. There was no time to gather the scattered bits of data and collate them into a cohesive whole that clearly stated the who would be involved in the time, place, and method of attack.

No matter what I write, the partisan finger pointing will go on, with some assigning the blame to President Bush, and others like me trying to point out that Clinton had just as much information, and did nothing about it for eight years.

Finger-pointers seem to miss one fact, which I will try to state simply: No matter who was derelict in their duties to protect America, no matter whether or not those attacks could have been prevented, they still happened. This is a past-tense fact. It cannot be changed or undone.

Politically speaking, I hope the 9/11 commission comes back with suggestions that may seem obvious: (1) never again hobble intelligence agencies with lack of funds, staff, and cooperation; and (2) let there be no-holds-barred in addressing threats to this nation and her people.

Regardless of the Commission's findings, the tragedy opened the eyes of many of us. We cannot undo it. But we can move forward with determination and fortitude to do what we must to ensure that such evil is never again perpetrated upon our countrymen. This means making hard choices. It means following-through with our promises: those who have, and would, attack us must be brought to justice, or have justice brought to them. We cannot falter now. To do so would only seem like a weakness, and invite further attacks of the nature that Spain now sees.

We must move on. The War on Terror progresses, but it is not won. Not yet. We must win. For the safety and security of us all, we must be victorious.

posted by Linda on April 13, 2004 06:55 PM

Well Done. One of the most cogent and thorough analyses of the PDB that I have read.

Posted by: Stephen Macklin at April 13, 2004 08:27 PM