Iâm going to try to comment later on various issues surrounding Saturdayâs release of the August 6th PDB. But thereâs one point about the White Houseâs explanation that I donât understand. It stems from this line in the 8/6 PDB ...
FBI information since that time [presumably since 1998] 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.
Now, in a conference call two senior administration (SAO) officials held with reporters Saturday evening, one SAO was asked just what those 'patterns' were.
Hereâs the exchange â¦
Q: You mentioned earlier about patterns of suspicious activity and cited one. What other patterns? I mean, this is July -- in July you have the Phoenix memo and you have some other things popping up.
SAO: Glad you asked that question, because I think that's one of the things that is, in fact, somewhat difficult to understand here, which is, what are the patterns of suspicious activity? Let me just reemphasize something that my colleague said, is that the patterns of suspicious activity here are not patterns based on FBI investigative observations, other than the one observation of the surveillance of buildings. The pattern was the CIA analyst's judgment that if you connect -- having talked to the FBI analysts -- that if you connect the threat spike overall with the information from the East Africa defendant that bin Laden might be interested in retaliating if people were convicted, and, in fact, they had just been convicted, and that people had recently been seen surveilling the courthouse where they, in fact, had been convicted, even though -- although she did not know it at this time -- that this surveillance turned out to be tourist-related; that if, in her judgment, if you connected those dots, that seemed to be a pattern of possibly suspicious activity in this country.
[ed. note: Youâll note the SAOâs reference to what his or her colleague had said earlier in the briefing. I believe that was a reference to this statement: âThe CIA author of the PDB item judged, after consulting an FBI colleague, that there was suspicious patterns of activity that were worrisome, even though nothing pointed to a specific operation in a specific location.â]
But just to be clear here, this was not based on FBI information -- FBI observations of patterns of suspicious activity derived from their investigative observations, other than that one of surveillance of the courthouse later determined to be tourist-related.
Q: But to put it a different way, to prepare this paper, no one went back to the FBI to ask for all the information they had relative to potential hijacking?
SAO: The analyst called -- the CIA analyst called an FBI analyst for information that would be relevant. And the FBI analyst provided the information that we just described to you.
On the face of it, this seems to misstate <$Ad$>what the PDB actually says. The document refers to a pattern of suspicious activity âincluding recent surveillance â¦â
It doesnât say itâs limited to
the surveillance but that it includes it
. If this were a Venn Diagram weâd have one big circle which would be the âpatterns of suspicious activityâ and then youâd have a smaller circle inside it that would be the surveillance information.
Now, it seems to me there are two issues here. One is a misrepresentation of what intelligence analysis is about --- specifically that itâs two words, intelligence and then analysis
. The senior administration official here seems to want to say that since the judgment about hijackings was based on the CIA analystâs piecing together a series of seemingly disparate, yet possibly interconnected, pieces of information that that judgment was somehow irrelevant or insignificant.
But, as I say, this is precisely what intelligence analysis is about --- taking isolated pieces of information and making analyses of them which make them meaningful. The quality of the analysis is another matter; but that's what intelligence analysis is.
So thatâs point one.
Yet even on the merits, the SAOâs argument doesnât make sense to me. He or she seems to be saying that the CIA analyst took a) the threat spike, b) the fact that bin Laden would try to retaliate if the embassy bombers were convicted and c) the fact that the courthouse where they were convicted was being cased and then concluded from that there were signs of preparations for a hijacking.
That just makes no sense.
Letâs grant the SAO the benefit of the doubt and include the other piece of information in the PDB: that there were hints bin Laden might try to hijack a plane to gain the release of some of his imprisoned fighters.
That moves the pieces a little closer together. But it still seems very hard to believe --- just based on logic and the construction of the sentence itself --- that the only information from the FBI pointing to hijackings was this casing of the federal building by the two Yemenis.
Thereâs a lot more I want to say about this. But here what you have is the White House trying to retrospectively (and with the benefit of retrospective information) deconstruct the plain text and meaning of what this report was telling the president. And even at that, the deconstruction doesnât really hold up.