Saturday, May 23, 2009

Bush criticized by former 9/11 commission member

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A former member of the 9/11 Commission criticizes former President George W. Bush in a new book for not responding to pre-attack intelligence on Osama bin Laden's intentions.

In "The Emperor's New Clothes: Exposing the Truth from Watergate to 9/11," Richard Ben-Veniste writes that CIA analysts told Bush that bin Laden was determined to strike inside the United States, "yet the president had done absolutely nothing to follow up."

A Democrat and a longtime Washington attorney, Ben-Veniste provides an inside account of the commission's three-hour interview with Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on April 29, 2004.

Bush told the panel that the Aug. 6, 2001, intelligence summary — known as a presidential daily brief — was the only one he ever received on the domestic threat, Ben-Veniste writes.

In the interview with Bush, Ben-Veniste asked the president why he hadn't met with the FBI director after getting the PDB.

Bush replied that there were concerns predating his administration about politicizing the FBI and interfering in pending cases.

But "this was no pending case subject to claims of political interference," Ben-Veniste writes in his book.

The president said he couldn't recall whether he asked National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to get in touch with the FBI regarding the PDB, according to the book.

On Friday, a spokesman for the former president, Rob Saliterman, declined to comment, referring all questions to statements Bush made on April 11, 2004, during his re-election campaign, the day after the PDB was publicly released.

"I asked for the Central Intelligence Agency to give me an update on any terrorist threats," Bush told reporters that day. "And the PDB was no indication of a terrorist threat. There was not a time and place of an attack. It said Osama bin-Laden had designs on America. Well, I knew that. What I wanted to know was, is there anything specifically going to take place in America that we needed to react to?"

"I looked at the Aug. 6 briefing; I was satisfied that some of the matters were being looked into. But that PDB said nothing about an attack on America. It talked about intentions, about somebody who hated America. Well, we knew that," Bush said.

Finally declassified by the Bush administration amid public and political pressure in April 2004, the PDB from Aug. 6, 2001, said, "The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full-field investigations throughout the U.S. that it considers bin Laden related." The PDB also said that the CIA and the FBI at the time were investigating a call to the U.S. embassy in the United Arab Emirates three months earlier saying that "a group of bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives."

In his interview with the commission, Bush said the mention of 70 pending FBI investigations was a good thing, helpful, according to Ben-Veniste's book. Rice testified publicly that the PDB contained "some frightening things." At the time the president received the Aug. 6, 2001, PDB, Rice was not with Bush, who was vacationing at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

The PDB also stated that FBI information "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."

In his comments in April 2004 the day after the PDB was released, Bush told reporters, "You might recall the hijacking that was referred to in the PDB. It was not a hijacking of an airplane to fly into a building."

In the run-up to the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks, Ben-Veniste wrote, the summer of 2001 marked the most elevated threat level the country had ever experienced, providing convincing evidence that a spectacular attack was about to occur.

"CIA analysts had written a report for the president's eyes to alert him to the possibility that bin Laden's words and actions, together with recent investigative clues, pointed to an attack by al-Qaida on the American homeland," Ben-Veniste writes.

In the commission interview, "President Bush volunteered that if there had been 'a serious concern' in August 2001, he would have known about it," Ben-Veniste writes. "Being on my best behavior, I didn't come out and ask him what he thought a briefing from the CIA titled 'Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.' was, if not a serious concern."

"Instead, I asked whether the president had discussed the Aug. 6 PDB with either the attorney general or the secretary of the treasury, the two cabinet officers who oversaw the FBI and other federal agencies charged with domestic law enforcement," Ben-Veniste wrote. "Had he discussed the PDB with Attorney General Ashcroft to ensure the FBI was doing everything necessary? The president said that he could not recall, nor could he say whether Rice had any such discussion with Ashcroft."

Ben-Veniste's book recounts five episodes from his career in which he played a role. Aside from his membership on the 9/11 Commission, Ben-Veniste prosecuted former top Nixon administration officials in the Watergate coverup; prosecuted the top aide to Democratic Speaker John McCormack for bribery and perjury; defended a lawyer in the FBI's Abscam sting operation in which bribes were paid to members of Congress; and served as Democratic counsel to the Republican-controlled Senate Whitewater Committee that investigated the Clintons.

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