August 6 PDB

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On August 6th, 2001, President Bush received a Presidential Daily Brief that included a section entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States". And this is sometimes claimed to have been a warning that was ignored.

Fortunately the document was declassified in 2004. You can download a copy here, or keep reading to consider the contents.

We’re starting with a history lesson: bin Ladin is determined to strike in the US, but has been so since 1997 with no success as of yet.

Now a little more caution is added. Although they’re pointing out that “bin Ladin has not succeeded”, he’s playing a long game, and there’s no guarantee some operation may not be active right now. (Although note that given the 5 year lead time they mention on the Embassy attacks, that’s not a suggestion that something is imminent.)

They back up the previous point by pointing out that there are al Qaeda members within the US. Note the vagueness of “the group apparently maintains a support structure”, though -- this does not suggest in-depth knowledge of their activities.

The pointer to recruitment of Muslim-American youth is also interesting, but not of direct relevance to 9/11.

That’s the first mention of hijacking, but the context minimises its impact. The information comes from another intelligence service (we believe the UK); it’s around three years old; the context suggests it relates to hostage-taking, not using a plane as a missile; and the FBI call the claim “sensational” and say they cannot corroborate it.

Then once again the memo writer adds a note of caution, although pay attention to the caveats...

“Since that time” means they’ve observed “patterns of suspicious activity” since 1998, which suggests to us they’re nothing detailed or of great urgency.

The second one is most important, as we see the true context of “consistent with preparations for hijackings” in the original claim, and in reality it’s “consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks”. That’s about as useless a warning you can get, as plainly it covers everything (and hijacking may only have been mentioned as a reference to the previous paragraph).

“Recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York” suggests the identification of New York as a possible target. However, the WTC towers were not federal buildings, and a White House press release said this claim of surveillance turned out to be a false alarm:

The PDB concluded:

So the original comment that there were “No warnings to FBI agents across the country” seems a little out of place; the FBI are saying here they’re already conducting 70 bin Ladin-related “full field investigations”.

This includes the final one, suggesting a plan for an “attack with explosives”, but how is foretelling 9/11? If anything, with the preceding paragraph, they may relate it to an attempt to bomb “federal buildings” in New York. And a White House press release on the topic said no link had been discovered to 9/11:

Overall, then, there is no reference to the use of planes as missiles. There are two references to hijackings, one virtually dismissed, the second only mentioned as one possible type of terrorist attack. There is no sense of urgency, a suggestion that attacks may only be weeks away, quite the opposite: “we’re on top of it”, they seem to be saying.

Now there’s plenty you can say about this, how the intelligence services should have known more, perhaps were complacent, but what you can’t say is that the August 6th memo constitutes a particularly useful warning of 9/11: that simply isn’t true.


A reader points out that a footnote in the 9/11 Commission Report suggested the 70 “full-field investigations” number was misleading...

This may suggest a basis for another take on the memo (the President was being deliberately misled), but doesn’t add any support for the idea that Bush should have reacted differently to it. How was he to know the number didn’t mean what it said? How was he to know what an appropriate number of “full-field investigations” should be, anyway?

The fact remains that the memo is not a convincing warning of 9/11, it does not suggest attacks might be imminent in weeks, and it suggests the FBI are already involved in detailed investigations of the situation. On the specific point of Bush’s reaction to the document (which is what we’re discussing here), there’s no evidence to show he should have done anything differently.