Trump, Intelligence and the Post-9/11 Presidency
“Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US” — August 6th, 2001, Presidential Daily Brief.
Fifteen years after witnessing the unforgettable horror of buildings, planes and people falling from the sky, those six words continue to haunt. Could the government have done anything to prevent the 9/11 attacks?
President George W. Bush was on vacation in Crawford, Texas on August 6, 2001. That vacation is tied with Nixon’s as the longest in presidential history. The President spoke with CIA Director George Tenet only twice during the entire month of August. He did, however, receive daily intelligence briefings in the form of the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB).
The PDB is one of the most closely guarded documents in the United States. Former Vice-President Cheney once called the reports “the family jewels” of American intelligence. Its compiled nightly and contains the latest updates and announcements on the most high profile threats to national security and American interests.
The presidency travels with the individual holding the office. On the morning of August 6, like every morning, President Bush received his PDB from the CIA at his ranch in Crawford. An article within it was titled “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US.” According to the 9/11 Commission Report, the August 6 PDB was the 36th to reference Bin Laden but “the first devoted to the possibility of an attack in the United States.” Tenet would later testify to the Commission that “the system was blinking red” that summer.
The Intelligence Community was confident an attack was imminent but weren’t clear on when, where or how it would be carried out. In subsequent years, it would come to light that intelligence agencies had enough information to connect the dots but failure to share intelligence prevented them from doing so.
Commission Chairman Gov. Thomas Kean (R-NJ) concluded that Presidents Clinton and Bush were “not well-served” by the Intelligence Community and did not possess the “information they needed to make the decisions” to prevent the attack. The Vice-Chairman of the Committee, former Democratic Representative Lee Hamilton added: “I think that both Presidents Clinton and Bush understood that Al Qaida was a dangerous threat to the country,” but “they, like the rest of us, did not understand the gravity of the threat.”
The horror of 9/11 taught many painful lessons. The Commission proposed a number recommendations to protect against getting caught off-guard again. Many of those recommendations have been implemented — from the creation of the Department of Homeland Security to the reorganization of the Intelligence Community in order to better facilitate intel sharing. And thankfully, an attack on the scale of 9/11 hasn’t occurred since. While implementation is still a work in progress, a great deal of time, money and effort has been dedicated to providing the President with the intelligence he needs to protect the country.
Hindsight is 20/20, but its hard not to wonder if the attack could’ve been prevented if the former President was more alarmed by the briefing he received that morning in Texas. Of course we will never know and the thought exercise isn’t entirely fair but one thing we do know is that the mistakes of that summer must never be repeated. When the “system is blinking red,” and such stark warnings are issued in a PDB, its all hands on deck. After 9/11, there are no excuses.
In light of these lessons, the fact that this was considered news yesterday chilled me to my core:
PEOTUS Trump received Presidential Daily Briefing this am, per spokesman @JasonMillerinDC
It comes on the heels of reports that President-elect Trump has been skirting security briefings since his victory. Receiving daily security briefings is one of the key de facto duties of a President. To defend the United States, its President must be informed. Failure to act on intelligence can result in catastrophe and willful failure to consume intelligence is a dereliction of duty. If the President isn’t in the loop regarding the latest threats to the United States, he will not have the background necessary to issue effective orders to tackle those threats. The fact that President-elect Trump, the second person elected to the office after 9/11, has thus far turned his back on the Intelligence Community is unconscionable. If he continues to ignore the lessons of 9/11 after taking office, what could happen when his version of the August 6, 2001 PDB crosses his desk? Will he even read it?
UPDATE: Today President-elect was named TIME Person of the Year. In the cover story, Trump went on the record regarding his distrust of the Intelligence Community:
In this view, Trump will find common cause with Vladimir Putin, the authoritarian President of Russia who, like Trump, seeks to challenge diplomatic and democratic norms. For reasons that remain unclear, Trump still refuses to acknowledge the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Putin’s agencies were responsible for stealing the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign emails released on WikiLeaks. “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe they interfered,” Trump says. Asked if he thought the conclusion of America’s spies was politically driven, Trump says, “I think so.” Since the election, Trump has chosen not to consistently make himself available for intelligence briefings, say aides. (emphasis added)
UPDATE 2 (December 11, 2016):
Trump on Fox News Sunday says he doesn't need daily intelligence briefings as POTUS because he's "smart