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A passive president

THE PRESIDENT'S Daily Brief for Aug. 6, 2001 -- declassified only under pressure -- shows that President Bush had an accurate warning from intelligence analysts of Osama bin Laden's intention to kill Americans in New York and Washington.


Had Bush responded by calling a meeting of department heads concerned with the national security, crucial items in FBI and CIA files could have been perceived as what they were: part of a pattern foreshadowing an attack by terrorists using hijacked airplanes.

The bipartisan commission on terrorism to which the Aug. 6 brief was released will not issue its final report until July, but some members have already made public key conclusions. "This was something that did not have to happen," said the commission's chairman, Thomas Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey. Bob Kerrey, former Democratic senator from Nebraska, wrote in a New York Times op-ed article that it is clear to him from the commission's investigation "that 9/11 could have been prevented."

Bush and his advisers do not deserve all the blame for the failure to prevent Sept. 11. As national security adviser Condoleezza Rice rightly told the commission last week, there were structural or systemic defects in the nation's antiterrorist defenses, including legal barriers to communication between intelligence and law enforcement and a bureaucratic disposition against sharing information.

Still, when Bush read the carefully chosen title of the Aug. 6 brief -- "Bin Laden determined to strike in the US" -- he should have demanded that his national security team scour files for useful information and institute immediate preventive precautions.

The Aug. 6 memo was in response to a request Bush had made for an assessment of bin Laden's intentions. It was the right question to ask. It followed months of alarming signs that bin Laden was about to launch a major attack on Americans. But the answers Bush received should have lit a fire under him. He should have demanded action from the government agencies under his command.

After all, Bush was being told that bin Laden wanted to kill people inside America, that he already had operatives and cells in this country, and that he "wanted to hijack a US aircraft." If Bush had made prevention an urgent priority, two of the hijackers -- Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi, whom the CIA had identified from a terrorist conclave in Malaysia and who were living openly in San Diego -- might have been nabbed. The memo from an FBI agent in Phoenix about Arab males at flight schools might have been pursued. The request from the FBI's Colleen Rowley to examine the computer of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, might have been granted. The government had the clues that fateful summer. It lacked a commander in chief to prod officials to align them in a pattern and take preventive action.

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