Hot seat is set for Bush

April 12, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Three decades after Republican Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr.'s famous question in the Senate Watergate hearings -- "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" -- the same query will greet President Bush when he faces the Sept. 11 commission.

Thanks to the testimony of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and tenacious interrogation of her by two Democratic commission members, the president doubtless will be asked what and when he knew, prior to 9/11, about al-Qaida cells in this country that were gearing up to launch the attacks on New York and Washington.

The question is front and center as a result of the pointed questions by former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste and former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska about that Aug. 6, 2001 presidential daily briefing paper titled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States."

Mr. Ben-Veniste led the wary Ms. Rice into providing the title, word-for-word, to the commission and millions of television viewers. The best she could do in defense was to say the paper was a "historical" statement rather than any specific warning providing information on which defensive action could have been taken.

But Mr. Kerrey quickly disclosed, from the classified document available to the commission, that the FBI had detected "a pattern of activity in the United States consistent with preparations for hijackings."

Ms. Rice said the paper did refer "to uncorroborated reporting from 1998 that a terrorist might attempt to hijack a U.S. aircraft in an attempt to blackmail the government into releasing U.S.-held terrorists who had participated in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing." But, she said, it "did not raise the possibility that terrorists might use airplanes as missiles."

Ms. Rice had told the commission in an earlier private session that Bush counterterrorist chief Richard A. Clarke had informed her in a Jan. 25, 2001 memo of "sleeper cells." So, Mr. Ben-Veniste asked her, "Did you tell the president, at any time prior to Aug. 6, of the existence of al-Qaida cells in the United States?"

Ms. Rice dodged, noting that the presidential brief said "there were 70 full field investigations of these cells, and so there was no recommendation that we do something about this -- the FBI was pursuing it." Only then did she answer the direct question: "I really don't remember, commissioner, whether I discussed this with the president."

So one of the first things the commission is likely to ask Mr. Bush when he appears before it -- in private, with only his sidekick, Vice President Dick Cheney, along for whatever reason -- is: Did he know about the al-Qaida cells within our borders before 9/11; if so, when did he know it and what, if anything, did he do about it?

As for the intelligence briefing paper not raising the possibility of using airplanes as missiles, it apparently never occurred to the CIA geniuses who prepared it that a hijacked plane could have another, more deadly and direct, terrorist use.

After Ms. Rice mentioned the 70 FBI field investigations, a Republican commissioner, former Navy Secretary John Lehman, asked her: "Were you told that there were numerous young Arab males in flight training, had taken flight training?" -- a fact discovered by an FBI agent but never passed on to higher-ups in the bureau. "I was not," Ms. Rice replied, "and I'm not sure that was known at the center" [presumably Mr. Clarke's counterintelligence group].

Maybe that was because Commissioner Jamie S. Gorelick, a deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, in cross-examining Ms. Rice, reported that a commission check had found that "special agents in charge (of FBI offices) around the country [had] no knowledge of this."

When Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and other law enforcement officials testify in public before the commission this week, we therefore can expect to re-examine why the Bush counterterrorism team failed to "connect the dots" that could have revealed the 9/11 plot.

And we may also learn whether the president was even told of the dots before 9/11 -- that is, if his own testimony behind closed doors is allowed to see the light of day.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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