Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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I’m going to try to comment later on various issues surrounding Saturday’s release of the August 6th PDB. But there’s one point about the White House’s explanation that I don’t 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.

Here’s the exchange …

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: You’ll note the SAO’s reference to what his or her colleague had said earlier in the briefing. I believe that was a reference to this statement: “The 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.”]

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 “including recent surveillance …”

It doesn’t say it’s limited to the surveillance but that it includes it. If this were a Venn Diagram we’d have one big circle which would be the “patterns of suspicious activity” and then you’d 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 it’s 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 analyst’s 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 that’s point one.

Yet even on the merits, the SAO’s argument doesn’t 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.

Let’s 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.

There’s 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 doesn’t really hold up.

Here are two columns you should definitely read.

The first is Bob Novak's column from April 8th which details growing frustration from America's top generals that they've been forced to go along with the administration's fiction that no more troops are needed in Iraq.

"Abizaid made clear Monday," writes Novak, "that he was not going to be the fall guy if conditions in Iraq further deteriorate. If commanders want more troops to fulfill their mission, he will ask for them. That would leave Rumsfeld with no choice. The secretary announced on Tuesday that the generals 'will get what they ask.'"

Also be sure to read Jim Pinkerton's piece from Friday on why the Bush campaign probably won't be using any more 9/11 images in its ads. In addition to being an accomplished columnist, Jim's background as a former George H.W. Bush staffer and a Republican (if perhaps now something of an alienated one) gives his columns on these topics a certain dissonant edginess and power.

Pinkerton's column was written before Saturday evening's release of the August 6th PDB. But that only makes his words more pointed and on the mark.

I think it's fair to say there's nothing thermonuclear, shall we say, in the August 6th Presidential Daily Brief released this afternoon by the White House. But Condi Rice's claim that the information contained in it was primarily of an historical nature seems at least to leave out some key points.

(You can read the thing yourself here in a .pdf file.)

The first portion of the document covers past plots and efforts by al Qaida against US interests and within the US itself. Then towards the end of the memo it moves into the present with a few tidbits which do raise some questions.

The second to last item says that in the previous three years or so the FBI had observed "patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent wtih preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York."

The last item says that there were currently 70 FBI field investigations the Bureau considered "Bin Ladin-related" and that the FBI and CIA were following up on "a call to our Embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group of Bin Ladin supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives."

There's certainly far, far less here than you'd need to do anything specific to counter what was coming. But you can't say there aren't some hints: preparations for hijackings, casing of federal buildings in New York (presumably New York City), a three month old tip saying bin Laden operatives were in the US planning some sort of bombing attacks.

Elsewhere in the memo it reports that bin Laden was intent on retaliating in Washington for the 1998 missile attacks on his camps in Afghanistan.

I agree with Robert Wright who wrote, on the Times OpEd page yesterday that the real scandal is not so much what the administration missed pre-9/11 but that they kept to a clearly outmoded vision of national security as solely a matter of conflicts between states even after 9/11 had shown that viewpoint to be seriously inadequate.

Still, the one issue doesn't invalidate the other.

The next question is what the White House, or the CIA or the FBI or whomever, did to follow up on these very fragmentary leads.

I mentioned a few days ago that a friend of mine who <$NoAd$>spent a career in US military intelligence specializing in counter-terrorism is now in Iraq working as a contractor providing security for companies and NGOs.

I received this update from him this morning ...

The fighting two nights ago was loud and widespread throughout the northern and northwestern parts of Baghdad ... areas such as Yarmouk, Sadr City had almost continuous gunfights and rocket attacks. When we heard US forces using the main gun on M-1 tanks at 1 AM we knew it was serious insurgency at hand. The night is no longer the refuge and domain of the Americans. I have to tell you although the wide open areas of Iraq give a false sense of security. Even though much of this is unseen to most people the situation has gone from bad to really bad to unbelievably bad! Westerners are getting hit everywhere. Security companies escorting CPA, themselves and other Westerners are now on the menu for all the armed resistance groups. There was a report of a massive ambush by one security firm that tried to drive in from Amman. Reports have 25-40 gunmen opening up on them. They lost all of their vehicles and had to be given a mercy lift by a passing Iraqi minivan. Several other firms lost western security personnel killed this week in drive-by ambushes and even a seige by the Sadr Militia. Several NGOs, security firms and military bases were literally under siege for days in Kut, Nasiriyah and Baghdad. The boldness and sophistication of the attacks is staggering and it is clear that every one of the resistance fighters and Islamic militiamen have taken heart at the ease of inflicting damage on the Westerners. The abductions of the Japanese hostages is a sign that we have entered a new phase of bad as abduction requires a permissive environment for the hostage taker.

I refer to this entire mess as the second Intifada of Iraq. The first Intifida was last August in Fallujah when US soldiers killed 15-17 Iraqis and Fallujah fell into revolt. Vehicles are being hit where they are easiest to find and the security firms who are here to protect the Westerners are taking casualties because the US Army and Marines are literally stretched thin throughout the country and quite over their own capacity to stop the violence. The resistance's combat operational center of mass is and will continue moving from known mass resistance organizations (such as uniformed Badr Brigade) to small leaderless or autonomous teams or supporters who are now deciding to do what they please to the first target available. Those targets are easy ... Westerners. Any and all. This burst of energy won't last long though ...

I suspect we will have a cool down period in the next few days or within a week but it will be simply to "re-arm and re-fuel for re-strike and re-venge." A true sustained explosion of violence has yet to be coordinated by the myriad of resistance teams but as the independent or semi-centralized resistance groups form, choose leadership and communicate at the internet cafes, you can be pretty sure the second wave of violence is going to come and it will be equally, if not more, dramatic. This time it won't be men in black uniforms, they have learned that lesson in Najaf ... They will shift to urban terrorism and un-uniformed attacks. God forbid if Sadr is killed or captured ... then we have an entire second front that won't give up until we leave.

General Kimmet is wrong if he thinks that he will destroy the Badr brigade or Sadr Army as a military organization because there isn't really one ... he will disperse them into small, highly armed teams of friends and ... voila! Al Qaeda-Iraq or Hezbollah-Iraq will be borne in numbers we will not be able to control. Since the ICDC [the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps] seem to have run off and joined the opposition in Nasiriyah it may reflect the true loyalties of the new Iraqi army and Police. No one is going to cross their family, tribe or religious community for the Americans.

The correct answer is to back off, leave Sadr alone and start to throw lots of money into jobs projects and utilities for the south before this summer's electricity and gas shortages ... will that work? Probably not. But we have just antagonized the core of the Shiite resistance and putting them to work is better than letting them fight us 24/7. General Sanchez is right about one thing ... this is not Vietnam ... Oh no, its not that easy. I refer you to Israel humiliating defeat in Southern Lebanon by Hezbollah's armed resistance for a reference to our potential future.

More soon.

Putting out the fire with gasoline<$NoAd$>.

From the AP ...

The people of Fallujah carried their dead to the city's soccer stadium and buried them under the field on Friday, unable to get to cemeteries because of a U.S. siege of the city.

As the struggle for Fallujah entered a fifth day, hundreds of women, children and the elderly streamed out of the city. Marines ordered Iraqi men of ''military age'' to stay behind, sometimes turning back entire families if they refused to be separated.

''A lot of the women were crying,'' said Lance Cpl. Robert Harriot, 22, of Eldred, N.Y. ''There was one car with two women and a man. I told them that he couldn't leave. They tried to plead with me. But I told them no, so they turned around.''

What does this sound more like to you? Southern Lebanon in the early 1980s or the West Bank in 2002?

Nice choice, isn't it?

Our troops have been placed in an impossible situation by a blundering leadership that laughed off the warning signs and friendly advice for a year until the situation blew up in their face.

Awful. Unforgivable.

Contemporary history? This from the Associated <$NoAd$>Press ...

President Bush's August 2001 briefing on terrorism threats, described largely as a historical document, included information from three months earlier that al-Qaida was trying to send operatives into the United States for an explosives attack, according to several people who have seen the memo.

The so-called presidential daily briefing, or PDB, delivered to Bush on Aug. 6, 2001 -- a month before the Sept. 11 attacks -- said there were various reports that Osama bin Laden had wanted to strike inside the United States as early as 1997 and continuing into the spring of 2001, the sources told The Associated Press.

The Post says top White House aides said "they hoped they could soon declassify and publicly release at least some portion of the written briefing."

Department of troubling juxtapositions <$NoAd$>...

At the center of a storm brewing for more than two weeks, Rice on Thursday consistently stressed before the packed hearing room on Capitol Hill that the Bush White House was fully engaged against al-Qaida.

She also repeatedly suggested the administration was hampered because it had been in office for only 233 days before the attacks.

April 9, 2004
Chicago Tribune

U.S. soldiers in Baghdad evacuated police stations and the town hall in Baghdad's Shiite Muslim district of Sadr City after five days of fighting with supporters of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, Agence France-Presse reported.

April 9, 2004
Bloomberg News

On Saturday, Bush and his father were to go fishing at the ranch's bass pond with a crew from the Outdoor Life Network's "Fishing with Roland Martin."

The White House approached the network about coming to film Bush, who is eager to cultivate an image as a sportsman with the millions of voters who hunt and fish. The crew was to bring its own boat for the shoot on the small pond.

April 9, 2004
Associated Press

What will we tell the children?

There are all manner of disputes and atmospherics surrounding Condi Rice's testimony yesterday. The key, however, is the dispute over the FBI tasking and related questions raised by Ben-Veniste, Kerrey and Roemer.