When Last a President Ignored an Intelligence Briefing…

…because he thought he knew better.

The PDF of the entire memo (redacted of course), delivered 36 days before 9/11, is here.

Here is one account of President George Bush’s response:

August 6, 2001 While vacationing at his ranch, in Crawford, Texas, Bush is given a Presidential Daily Briefing memorandum whose headline warns that the al-Qaeda terrorist leader, Osama bin Laden, is “determined to strike in U.S.” After being briefed on the document by a C.I.A. analyst, Bush responds, “All right, you’ve covered your ass now.”

I will add that the fact that the incoming Administration is way behind in putting in place its national security team only adds to my anxieties (I was working in the Old Executive Office Building on January 2001 when the transition occurred — the place was like a tomb for several days, with only a few non-political and civil service folks around; even with an organized transition under the G.W. Bush team, it took weeks for people to filter in…).

28 thoughts on “When Last a President Ignored an Intelligence Briefing…

  1. PeakTrader

    It wasn’t because he knew better, it was because he was given every possible threat, which 99% didn’t happen.

    I think, Clinton had an opportunity to kill Bin Laden and he didn’t take it.

    And, Obama gave Bin Laden a Muslim funeral, which was ridiculous. Just more appeasement.

    1. baffling

      bush had greater reasons and opportunities to get bin laden, and he was unable to accomplish the task. he had the full force of the us military at the time, in a designated war. his handling of that entire affair could be considered ridiculous.

    2. Mike V

      What an incredibly simple-minded reading of history. Clinton attempted several strikes against OBL that failed, regrettably. Read his counter-terrorism decision directive which led to a big buildup in funding for counter-terrorism. https://fas.org/irp/offdocs/pdd/pdd-39.pdf

      On the opposite side, Bush was actively dis-interested in terrorism, and said so himself. http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB116/woodward1.pdf

      On top of that, the Bush Whitehouse cut anti-terrorism programs in the State Dept. and denied funding from the FBI & CIA. https://books.google.com/books?id=_UW07J0-_X8C&pg=PA39&lpg=PA39&dq=whitehouse+cut+counterterrorism+programs+bush&source=bl&ots=JaHNqLGXiG&sig=5ovY7pgOYuysWAsEY6opp6EvAuk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi53PCo39TRAhUKOSYKHZR3Bg8Q6AEIVDAJ#v=onepage&q=whitehouse%20cut%20counterterrorism%20programs%20bush&f=false

      Your last statement is just ridiculous and vile, even for you. You continue to be one of the most biased and uninformed people I’ve ever seen on the internet, and that says a lot.

    1. spencer

      So how should I change my assessment of the current situation because of that?

      If one President made a mistake it would seem to suggest that other Presidents are also likely to make similar mistakes, Right?

      Tell me how that would make me feel better?

    2. Steven Kopits

      I believe Clinton had three shots at bin Laden, according to Richard Clarke. Slugs details the considerations below.

      The memo states that the FBI was conducting 70 investigations related to bin Laden throughout the US. I am not sure how this shows that Bush disregarded intelligence. He was informed that the FBI was on the case. Was he supposed to do something more? Not clear, at least not from the quoted passages.

      1. Menzie Chinn Post author

        Steven Kopits: If I recall correctly from Richard Clarke’s book, Against All Enemies, President Bush could’ve elevated alert levels at airports, and prioritized the investigations already underway had he took the threat seriously.

        Many accounts from that period confirm the general disinterest of the incoming Bush Administration national security officials in Al Qaeda activities; in fact they were quite dismissive of Clinton administration exit briefings on the subject.

  2. 2slugbaits

    Ah yes, leave it to NoiseTrader and Manfred to misremember history. For those with short memories, Clinton decided against a missile strike against bin Laden for several very good reasons. One reason is that it would have been an act of war. Another reason is the risk of killing innocent civilians…back then we sort of cared about niceties like that. A third reason is that at the time bin Laden was only an emerging potential threat and not a major threat. But the best reason was that a missile strike had a very low probability of success associated with a very high cost of failure. Launching missiles would have required traversing Pakistani territory. Notifying the Pakistani security forces would have alerted bin Laden because those forces were sympathetic to bin Laden. He would have had plenty of time to escape. Not notifying the Pakistanis risked a nuclear exchange with India because Pakistan would have detected unexplained missiles. If you’ll recall, Pakistan and India both had their nuclear forces on high alert at the time. Still think launching a missile strike would have been a good idea? Good thing neither of you works for the CIA, State Dept or DoD.

    But if you want to talk about missed opportunities to take out bin Laden, how about Tora Bora? He was literally within sniper range when the “kill” order was reversed. Who reversed that order? GEN Tommy Franks says that he reversed the order on his own authority. If you believe that story then I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you. Just a few days before Tora Bora the Bush WH team was very worried that US forces would kill bin Laden before the WH had an opportunity to use 9/11 as an excuse for regime change in Iraq. In other words, by Dec 2001 the WH was no longer interested in getting bin Laden too soon. He was useful being alive. The thinking was that they could always get him later. In the meantime, they wanted him alive for propaganda purposes.

    BTW, the Muslim funeral wasn’t for bin Laden’s benefit. He was dead, so it wasn’t likely to do him much good. The Muslim funeral was for the benefit of US relations. Again, good thing you don’t work for State.

  3. 2slugbaits

    Normally I never miss a chance to trash Bush #43, but in this case I think Menzie’s post is a little unfair. But only a little. In fact, Bush did take some actions. In the summer of 2001 outgoing Ambassador Robert Oakley started to reorganize the US Embassy in Islamabad in order to orient it towards gathering intelligence on A-Q. He got permission to select the hot shot best and the brightest out of Foggy Bottom and dedicate those resources towards Pakistan and Afghanistan. The State Dept was pretty sure that something was up and that the source would be in Pakistan or Afghanistan. They didn’t know exactly what was up, but they knew something was afoot. So intelligence assets positioned in Islamabad by late July/early August 2001 were selected with special skills. Then Oakley left and Wendy Chamberlin took over the upgraded Islamabad mission. So the Bush Administration was actively take action to thwart A-Q. The problem was that they probably put too much emphasis on Islamabad, not knowing that things were much further along in New York than they thought. Team Bush got a lot of things wrong, but it’s a little unfair to suggest that they completely ignored intelligence.

    1. howard

      Let us not forget that the outgoing Clinton administration tried to get the bush 43 admin to care about terrorism right from the transition, but team Cheney didn’t believe in non-state actors. The 8/6 briefing was a last desperate measure to try and overcome this block.

      Let us also not forget how hard the bush 43 administration worked to prevent a 9/11 investigation.

      Well, in the case of some posters here, let us tell them in the first place.

  4. Rick Stryker


    When I read this sort of thing, I’m so thankful that we will finally have a President tomorrow who is not afraid to call out the fake news of the Left. This is fake news. While you’re at it, why not allege that Bush dismissed the briefing so strongly that he hired Russian hookers to perform golden showers on it?

    First, you claim that Bush dismissed the briefing by saying, “all right, you’ve covered your ass now.” Your source for this is the linked Vanity Fair article. But when you look at the article, there is just the assertion but no source or quote. The proximity of the quote to the notorious Bush Administration basher Richard Clarke suggests to the reader that he’s the source. But he’s not. This claim actually comes from Ron Suskind’s book “The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 911.” This quote comes from the opening anecdote in the book. Suskind tells the reader what Bush was thinking in detail during the alleged briefing. He says that Bush doesn’t read but operates on instinct. Supposedly, according to Suskind you see, the ignorant Bush judges briefings by seeing how sure of himself the briefer seems. Suskind seems to be in Bush’s head. And yet, Suskind offers no evidence for that alleged Bush quote or anything else in the book. No sources are named or quoted. No one can be questioned. The reader doesn’t know who told Suskind this happened–if anyone did. It’s completely unverifiable.

    Moreover, when you look at the briefing, there’s nothing in it that’s actionable. That intelligence believes that Bin Laden wanted to attack the US was old news. Basically, intelligence is telling Bush in that briefing that they haven’t been able to corroborate anything but they are investigating some leads. What are you supposed to do with that? No one knows how Bush actually reacted to this briefing but my reaction would have been “get out of my office and bring me something solid I can use.”

    You should also re-title this post, since it implies the current President (for a few more hours) did not ignore intelligence briefings. We don’t have any evidence about what Bush did but we certainly have evidence on what Obama did, since we now keep records of daily briefings. And we know President Obama ignored 58% of his daily briefings because he skipped them!

    1. Menzie Chinn Post author

      Rick Stryker: Seriously, you are citing a document from the Government Accountability Institute? “GAI is a conservative nonprofit investigative research organization located in Tallahassee, Florida. GAI was founded in 2012 by Peter Schweizer and Stephen Bannon with funding from Robert Mercer and family. Schweizer serves as the group’s president.” Is that the same Stephen Bannon associated with Breitbart. Is that your idea of impartial journalism? I really think you’ve gone off the deep end. Go back to doing monte carlo simulations.

      By the way, one can consume the PDB by reading the document; it doesn’t have to be orally delivered. See here (read it before NPR disappears as CPB is zero’d out).

      1. Rick Stryker


        Yes, I know who they are. But all they did is count the number of times the White House itself reported that President Obama received the daily briefing. Unless they miscounted on purpose, I’m not sure how you can claim bias.

    2. baffling

      “When I read this sort of thing, I’m so thankful that we will finally have a President tomorrow who is not afraid to call out the fake news of the Left. ”
      rick, it is interesting you would promote the issue of fake news in the same sentence as the Liar in Chief. rick stryker has already gone on the record as not having an issue with trump being dishonest with his statements. rick, such a position disqualifies you from complaining about fake news. your righteous indignation is amusing.

    3. Kevin O'Neill

      At some point people like Rick S should, as Brad DeLong says, “mark their beliefs to market.”

      Given that Rick thought Al Gore had a better chance of being a Prez candidate than the Donald, and his skepticism of climate change (have you actually ever looked at a surface temps – Rick?), and his countless other rationalizations on every subject under the sun he’s probably a couple decades past due for a reality check.

      The purveyors of ‘fake news’ admit they don’t do leftist fake news because it doesn’t work. Apparently leftists have better B.S. detectors. So we have random consumers of rightist ‘fake news’ shooting up pizza parlors on cockamamie tinfoil hat conspiracy theories. The right is chock full of conspiracy theories. Rick Stryker does nothing to dissuade us from these observations.

      1. Rick Stryker


        Can we stick to the subject at hand?

        Menzie asserted as a fact that Bush was warned about Bin Laden’s attack in advance but chose to ignore that warning because “he knew better.” This is a widespread belief of the Left.

        I pointed out that the Vanity Fair article repeats that charge as if it’s a well-established fact but provides no basis for it. The article falsely claims that it’s providing an oral history from interviews. And indeed they proceed to quote a lot of people. But the incendiary charge that Bush ignored a key 9-11 warning is just stuck in there with no attribution.

        Fortunately you have me to tell you where Vanity Fair got it from. As I said, they got it from Suskind’s book. Suskind provides no direct quote, no attribution, and no documentary evidence for it.

        If this is not fake news, I don’t know what is. This canard that Bush was warned but ignored it is one of the many pieces of fake news that the Left has taken on board as gospel. Your supercilious belief that you and your fellow leftists are too smart to fall for fake news is a key reason why you fall for it so much. When I mark myself to market, I count the numerous fake beliefs of the Left I’ve punctured on these comment pages.

        1. Barkley Rosser


          As usual you are way off. You can read about this in the NY Times in a 2012 op ed by Kurt Eichenwald, a former editor at Vanity Fair. He cited his own private sources, not anything by Suskind. One rather glaring error you have made is assuming that Bush got the briefing in his office, from which he threw out the briefers, according to you. No, he was on his ranch at the time, as has been widely reported.

          More seriously, Eichenwald reports that the Aug. 6 memo was not the first but followed a series of earlier ones dating to the spring about bin Laden planning an attack on the US. However, not only had the incoming security people dismissed the Clinton team’s warnings, with them viewing al Qaeda as the top national security threat to the US, but during the spring crucial ones, especially Cheney, had dismissed these ongoing reports as reflecting a plot by bin Laden to distract the US from an impending threat from Saddam Hussein, with bin Laden supposedly in cahoots with Hussein, which was utter nonsense, but reflected the deranged views of the Cheney neocons at the time.

          The other matter high on their agenda, indeed at the top of it when they came in, was to abrogate the ABM treaty with Russia, which they promptly did, something Putin has thrown back at the US on more than one occasion since. Wow, that did us a lot of good!

          As it was, apparently the Aug. 6 memo was a sort of last gasp attempt by frustrated people at the CIA to get to Bush over Cheney et al and get him to take the long reported threat of an attack seriously. But he was too busy clearing brush and responded with his notorious remark about them supposedly “covering their asses.”

          Sorry, Stryker, but you are farther down the toilet with your fake news than usual.

          Barkley Rosser

          1. Rick Stryker


            You haven’t refuted anything I’ve said, as usual.

            My contention was that the assertion that Bush dismissed the Aug 6 briefing by saying “All right, you’ve covered your ass now” is fake news. The Vanity Fair article asserted its truth but provided no documentary evidence. It actually came from Suskind’s book and he provided no documentary evidence either. Journalism 101: you have to corroborate something before you can call it “news.”

            Now you bring up Eichenwald’s NY Times article on this topic. Eichenwald does not independently corroborate Bush’s alleged quote about the Aug 6 memo either. Thus, my point that it is fake news stands.

            You also claim I made a glaring error in supposedly assuming that Bush threw the interviewers out of his office, which would imply I thought he was in Washington. No, the glaring error is yours. Read my comment. I didn’t say Bush threw them out of the office. I said: “No one knows how Bush actually reacted to this briefing but my reaction would have been ‘get out of my office and bring me something solid I can use.'” Did you get that? Read slowly. I said no one knows. I said my reaction would be to tell them to get out of my office.

            Your glaring error reveals further ignorance on your part. Even if I had said what you claim, there is no implication that the incident must have been in Washington. Menzie’s quote above made it clear that Bush was in Crawford at the time. Suskind’s book says explicitly that Bush was in Crawford. And Bush used Crawford as the “Western White House.” He received heads of state their and conducted Presidential business. He used the library in the house as his office. Bush could have thrown somebody out of his office in Crawford too.

            Besides all these errors, you also add to the fake news. Did you notice that Eichenwald has no corroboration for anything he says. He claims he read that Bush was warned in documents that haven’t been released. But you’ll just have to take his word on that.

            Sorry, but no corroboration = #fakenews.

  5. Darren

    But wait, don’t leftists deny that Muslims had anything to do with 9/11?

    Don’t the vehemently argue that there should be no vetting of Muslim immigration to the US?

    Don’t leftists vehemently argue that Muslims don’t oppress women, execute gays, and say leaving the Islamic faith should carry the death penalty.

    One could say that leftists cannot make up their minds, except that they lost their minds long before then (and hence no longer possess it, precluding a ‘making up of the erstwhile mind’).

      1. Darren

        What I said is true. The internal contradictions within leftism are immense.

        You cannot rebut anything, since all you can do is memorize low-information lines…

  6. Erik Poole

    I do not blame President Bush II for the ‘cover your asses’ remark. That is how risk averse behaviour on the part of civil servants is described throughout North America. Once upon a time, I entertained my colleagues in Ontario’s finance ministry by making large circular movements with an open hand off the corner of one hip.

    Overall, US terrorism interdiction has been excellent, top notch. Before, during and after the Sept. 11th attacks. The arbitrary detentions and torture after Sept. 11th contributed to a decline in US reputation capital but perhaps that is simply the cost of doing dirty, bloody business.

    Face the truth: the arbitrary detentions and torture were popular with the American public. US support for the Israeli nation building process was popular before the Sept. 11th attacks and still is popular with the American public including the majority of democratic party voters and American liberal economists.

    If anything, Democrats and American liberal economists should be congratulated for the Sept. 11th attacks. It provided America with a pre-text to illustrate how easily and effectively Americans can kill people. Presumably that makes America safer.

  7. James

    I could rant about how a key difference between the Bush administration and the Trump administration is that the Bush administration were in bed with the Saudis and the Trump administration is openly hostile to the Saudis, but I am not sure that would be useful. If Trump releases the redacted pages from the 9/11 report that might move the conversation from “who is paying attention” to “who has a conflict of interest”.

  8. BP1979

    The only explanation is that Bush and Cheney planned the 9/11 attacks with help from the Clinton Administration (why he did not take out Usama aka Tim Osman) so that Obama could get the Nobel Peace Prize while overthrowing the MENA region to create civil wars and get Trump elected.

    I can hear the helicopters circling. I better finish this before….

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