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Context of 'June 2004: 9/11 Commission Executive Director Zelikow Discusses Key Presidential Daily Brief with CIA Analyst, Allegedly Pressures Analyst to Accept White House Version of Events'

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Condoleezza Rice and Philip Zelikow.Condoleezza Rice and Philip Zelikow. [Source: Public domain]National Security Adviser Rice decides this day to retain Richard Clarke, counterterrorism “tsar” for the Clinton administration, and his staff. However, she downgrades his official position as National Coordinator for Counterterrorism. While he is still known as the counterterrorism “tsar,” he has less power and now reports to deputy secretaries instead of attending Cabinet-level meetings. He no longer is able to send memos directly to the president, or easily interact with Cabinet-level officials. [Clarke, 2004, pp. 227-30; Guardian, 3/25/2004] Clarke will not be able to meet with President Bush even a single time before 9/11 to discuss al-Qaeda (see January 25, 2001-September 10, 2001). In 2004, Rice will reveal that the person she tasks with considering changes to Clarke and his staff is Philip Zelikow, the future Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission. Zelikow recuses himself from those parts of the 9/11 Commission’s investigation directly relating to his role in this and other matters. However, 9/11 victims’ relatives are not satisfied. For instance, one relative says, “Zelikow has conflicts. I’m not sure that his recusal is sufficient. His fingerprints are all over that decision [to demote Clarke].” [United Press International, 4/9/2004]

Entity Tags: Philip Zelikow, Richard A. Clarke, Condoleezza Rice

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

President Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch on August 6, 2001. Advisors wait with classified briefings.President Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch on August 6, 2001. Advisors wait with classified briefings. [Source: White House]President Bush receives a classified presidential daily briefing (PDB) at his Crawford, Texas ranch indicating that Osama bin Laden might be planning to hijack commercial airliners. The PDB provided to him is entitled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.” The entire briefing focuses on the possibility of terrorist attacks inside the US. [New York Times, 5/15/2002; Newsweek, 5/27/2002] The analysts who drafted the briefing will say that they drafted it on the CIA’s initiative (see July 13, 2004), whereas in 2004 Bush will state that he requested a briefing on the topic due to threats relating to a conference in Genoa, Italy, in July 2001, where Western intelligence agencies believed Osama bin Laden was involved in a plot to crash an airplane into a building to kill Bush and other leaders (see April 13, 2004). The analysts will later explain that they saw it as an opportunity to convey that the threat of an al-Qaeda attack in the US was both current and serious. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 260] The existence of this briefing is kept secret, until it is leaked in May 2002, causing a storm of controversy (see May 15, 2002). While National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice will claim the memo is only one and a half pages long, other accounts state it is 11 1/2 pages instead of the usual two or three. [New York Times, 5/15/2002; Newsweek, 5/27/2002; Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002] A page and a half of the contents will be released on April 10, 2004; this reportedly is the full content of the briefing. [Washington Post, 4/10/2004] The briefing, as released, states as follows (note that the spelling of certain words are corrected and links have been added):
bullet Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US (see December 1, 1998). Bin Laden 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” (see May 26, 1998).
bullet After US missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, bin Laden told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington, according to a -REDACTED-service (see December 21, 1998).
bullet An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative told -REDACTED- service at the same time that bin Laden was planning to exploit the operative’s access to the US to mount a terrorist strike.
bullet The millennium plotting in Canada in 1999 may have been part of bin Laden’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 (see December 14, 1999), but that bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaida encouraged him and helped facilitate the operation. Ressam also said that in 1998 Abu Zubaida was planning his own US attack (see Late March-Early April 2001 and May 30, 2001).
bullet Ressam says bin Laden was aware of the Los Angeles operation.
bullet Although bin Laden has not succeeded, his attacks against the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998) demonstrate that he prepares operations years in advance and is not deterred by setbacks. Bin Laden associates surveyed our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as early as 1993 (see Late 1993-Late 1994), and some members of the Nairobi cell planning the bombings were arrested and deported in 1997.
bullet Al-Qaeda 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 (see January 25, 2001). Two al-Qaeda members found guilty in the conspiracy to bomb our embassies in East Africa were US citizens (see September 15, 1998), and a senior EIJ member lived in California in the mid-1990s (see November 1989 and September 10, 1998).
bullet A clandestine source said in 1998 that a bin Laden cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks (see October-November 1998).
bullet “We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a [REDACTED] service in 1998 saying that bin Laden wanted to hijack a US aircraft to gain the release of ‘Blind Sheikh’ Omar Abdul-Rahman and other US-held extremists” (see 1998, December 4, 1998, and May 23, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 223] According to the Washington Post, this information came from a British service. [Washington Post, 5/18/2002]
bullet 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 (see May 30, 2001).
bullet The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full-field investigations throughout the US that it considers bin Laden-related (see August 6, 2001). CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group or bin Laden supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives (see May 16-17, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 223]
In retrospect, the briefing is remarkable for the many warnings that apparently are not included (see for instance, from the summer of 2001 prior to August alone: May 2001, June 2001, June 12, 2001, June 19, 2001, Late Summer 2001, July 2001, July 16, 2001, Late July 2001, Late July 2001, Summer 2001, June 30-July 1, 2001, July 10, 2001, and Early August 2001). According to one account, after the PDB has been given to him, Bush tells the CIA briefer, “You’ve covered your ass now” (see August 6, 2001). Incredibly, the New York Times later reports that after being given the briefing, Bush “[breaks] off from work early and [spends] most of the day fishing.” [New York Times, 5/25/2002] In 2002 and again in 2004, National Security Adviser Rice will incorrectly claim under oath that the briefing only contained historical information from 1998 and before (see May 16, 2002 and April 8, 2004).

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Islamic Jihad, Omar Abdul-Rahman, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Los Angeles International Airport, Condoleezza Rice, Abu Zubaida, Al-Qaeda, World Trade Center, Central Intelligence Agency, 9/11 Commission, Ahmed Ressam, Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Condoleezza Rice and Philip Zelikow in Tel Aviv, October 2006.Condoleezza Rice and Philip Zelikow in Tel Aviv, October 2006. [Source: Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy via Getty Images]9/11 Commission Executive Director Philip Zelikow tells the staff team working on the Bush administration’s response to terrorist threats in the summer of 2001 that their drafts must be rewritten to cast National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in a better light. Rice’s testimony about the administration’s prioritizing of terrorism has been contradicted by former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke, who said that al-Qaeda was not a high priority for the White House. The Commission staffers think that Clarke is telling the truth, because, in the words of author Philip Shenon, Clarke had left a “vast documentary record” about the White House’s inattention to terrorism. Clarke’s account is also corroborated by other National Security Council (NSC) members, the CIA, and the State Department.
Zelikow's Reaction - However, Zelikow, a close associate of Rice (see 1995 and January 3, 2001), tells the staffers their version is “too Clarke-centric” and demands “balance.” Shenon will comment: “He never said so explicitly, but Zelikow made clear to [the staffers] that the Commission’s final report should balance out every statement of Clarke’s with a statement from Rice. The team should leave out any judgment on which of them was telling the truth.”
Support from Commission Lawyer - Zelikow is supported to a point in this dispute by Daniel Marcus, the Commission’s lawyer. Marcus thinks that the staffers are making Clarke into a “superhero,” and that there were some “limitations and flaws” in his performance. Marcus also sees that the staff’s suspicions of Zelikow and his ties to Rice are no longer hidden, but will later say, “In a sense they overreacted to Philip because they were so worried about him they pushed and pushed and pushed, and sometimes they were wrong.”
Staffer Regrets Not Resigning Earlier - One of the key staffers involved in the dispute, Warren Bass, had previously considered resigning from the Commission due to what he perceived as Zelikow’s favoring of Rice. At this point he regrets not resigning earlier, but does not do so now. Bass and his colleagues merely console themselves with the hope that the public will read between the lines and work out that Clarke is telling the truth and Rice is not.
"Tortured Passages" - Shenon will comment: “[T]he results of the team’s work were some of the most tortured passages in the final report, especially in the description of the performance of the NSC in the first months of the Bush presidency. It was written almost as a point, counterpoint—Clarke says this, Rice says the opposite—with no conclusion about what the truth finally was.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 394-396]

Entity Tags: Warren Bass, Philip Shenon, 9/11 Commission, Daniel Marcus, Philip Zelikow

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

9/11 Commission Executive Director Philip Zelikow telephones a CIA analyst who co-wrote a Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) item entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.” President George Bush received the briefing in August 2001 (see August 6, 2001). The tone of the conversation will be disputed. According to an anonymous Commission staffer who overhears part of the conversation and who talks to author Philip Shenon, Zelikow pressures the analyst to accept the version of the PDB offered by Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and say that it contained historical information and was written in response to a request by President Bush for such briefing. Zelikow is close to Rice (see January 3, 2001) and defends her interests on the Commission (see May-June 2004). However, Zelikow will later deny pressuring the analyst, saying he was merely trying to prepare a summary of what was known about the PDB for the commissioners and that he had little time, so the interview was conducted by telephone. Nevertheless, the call is in violation of several internal Commission rules, including the requirement that significant interviews be conducted in the presence of at least two staff members. Shenon will describe the call as “a private inquiry into the origins of what was, without doubt, the most controversial document in the investigation.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 374-376] Zelikow will try to stop one of the commissioners, Richard Ben-Veniste, from talking to the analyst and a colleague (see Early July 2004).

Entity Tags: Philip Shenon, Philip Zelikow, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic member of the 9/11 Commission, insists that the commission properly interview two CIA analysts who drafted an August 2001 Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) item entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” (see August 6, 2001). Ben-Veniste makes the demand after he learns that Commission Executive Director Philip Zelikow interviewed one of the analysts by phone, but allegedly pressured the analyst to back the White House version of events (see June 2004). Initially, Ben-Veniste asks to see transcripts of interviews with the analysts. However, according to author Philip Shenon: “With a condescending tone that reflected his disdain for Ben-Veniste, Zelikow explained matter-of-factly that there weren’t any transcripts…. After months of battles with Zelikow, it was hard for Ben-Veniste to be shocked by almost anything he did. But the staff could see that Ben-Veniste was genuinely startled.” Ben-Veniste’s demand for full interviews is opposed by Zelikow, who says that one of the analysts, known only as Barbara S, has already been interviewed (although it is unclear how much of this interview was focused on the PDB). Zelikow will also say, “The CIA was pleading with us not to do this, since the career people involved in preparing and presenting PDBs would be intimidated, disrupting the sense of confidentiality and candor they considered essential for the PDB process.” However, when they are interviewed, the two analysts seem eager to volunteer the information they have. The commission’s Democratic Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, who has a record of siding with the Republicans (see Before November 27, 2002 and March 2003-July 2004) fails to back Ben-Veniste before the full commission. Republican Chairman Tom Kean rescues him, pushing through the request for the interviews in the face of opposition from the other Republicans on the commission (see July 13, 2004). [Shenon, 2008, pp. 375-377]

Entity Tags: Philip Shenon, ’Barbara S’, 9/11 Commission, Lee Hamilton, Thomas Kean, Richard Ben-Veniste

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The 9/11 Commission interviews two CIA analysts who drafted an August 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) item entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” (see August 6, 2001). The interview is conducted mainly by commissioners Richard Ben-Veniste and Jim Thompson and follows an internal battle inside the Commission (see June 2004 and Early July 2004). Despite a claim by the Commission’s Executive Director Philip Zelikow that the analysts, known only as Barbara S and Dwayne D, were reluctant to answer questions, they are willing and eager to respond to Ben-Veniste.
PDB Item Not 'Historical' - According to author Philip Shenon, the analysts are “confused” and “appalled” by claims by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and others at the White House that the PDB item only contained an “historical” overview of domestic terrorism threats. The analysts say that this was not its purpose and that it was supposed to remind President Bush that al-Qaeda remained a dire threat in August 2001 and that a domestic attack was certainly a possibility. For example, the item referred to “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks.” Barbara S says, “That’s not historical,” and adds the threat of a domestic terror attack by al-Qaeda was thought “current and serious” at that time.
Ordered up 'In-House' - In addition, the analysts say that another claim made by the White House, that President Bush specifically ordered the PDB (see April 13, 2004), is false. They state that the PDB item was ordered “in-house” by the CIA in the hope that the White House would pay more attention to the threat. However, President Bush had asked his intelligence briefers about the possibility of a domestic attack by terrorists that summer (see July 5, 2001).
Zelikow Objects to Placement of Material in Final Report - Ben-Veniste insists that the material from the two analysts is placed prominently in the Commission’s final report, although Zelikow objects to this. After negotiations, the relevant paragraph will read as follows: “During the spring and summer of 2001, President Bush had on several occasions asked his briefers whether any of the threats pointed to the United States. Reflecting on these questions, the CIA decided to write a briefing article summarizing its understanding of this danger. Two CIA analysts involved in preparing this briefing article believed it represented an opportunity to communicate their view that the threat of a bin Laden attack in the United States remained both current and serious. The result was an article in the August 6 Presidential Daily Brief titled ‘Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.’” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 377-379]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, ’Barbara S’, 9/11 Commission, James Thompson, Richard Ben-Veniste, Philip Shenon, ’Dwayne D’

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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