Faced with presidential resistance to turning over highly sensitive intelligence briefs, the commission investigating the September 11 terror attacks tried to learn the details in the documents by obtaining access to White House transcripts of interviews that senior officials gave to a prominent journalist, NEWSWEEK has learned.
The extraordinary access that top Bush administration officials gave Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward more than two years ago for his book, "Bush at War," became a principal issue in the contentious battle between the September 11 panel and the White House over access to the President's Daily Briefs or PDBs-the intelligence briefing report that is given to the president every morning.
Threatened with a subpoena for the documents, the White House relented somewhat last week and agreed to allow the full 10-member commission to hear a summary of key PDBs about the Al Qaeda terrorist threat that were given to Bush and before him, to President Clinton. The summary was prepared by a four-member team that was allowed to read under highly restrictive conditions hundreds of PDBs dating back to 1998.Try Newsweek: Subscription offers
Still, the last-minute deal, sources tell NEWSWEEK, came only after intense negotiations in which members of the federal panel repeatedly brought up the Woodward interviews as evidence of the administration's hypocritical approach toward secrecy. How, commission officials demanded to know, could the White House deny a federal panel investigating the worst crime in U.S. history access to documents that it had already shared with a journalist?
"Woodward was a point of reference to show the PDBs were not as sacrosanct as they claimed," said one commission official familiar with the negotiations with the White House. "In his book, Woodward claims he saw the PDBs. That was an argument that these were not the 'Holy of Holies.'"
The commission also cited a New York Times op-ed column written by a former national security advisor, Richard V. Allen, in which he described how, during the Reagan administration, PDBs were shared with a White House aide "whose main function was public relations." The column also said another former official-identified by one knowledgeable source as former attorney general Edwin Meese-had stored the documents in the home garage of one of his assistants.
But the unusual access given to Woodward, the veteran reporter of Watergate fame, was clearly the most sensitive case invoked by the commission. The best selling "Bush at War" is sprinkled with a number of precise references to the PDBs. On page 40 of the book, for example, Woodward quotes from the Sept. 12, 2001 PDB that CIA director George Tenet gave Bush linking the terror attacks to Al Qaeda. On page 132, Woodward gives the exact title-"Trying to Anticipate the Next Attack"-of a "highly classified, three-page briefing paper" that was provided to Bush on Sept. 25 as part of that morning's PDB.
Such passages were a major irritant because the White House has consistently refused to turn over any PDBs to outside investigators. White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and his staff have portrayed the documents as the "crown jewels" of executive privilege and argued that sharing them with anybody would jeopardize the ability of all future presidents to receive briefings on highly sensitive intelligence matters in confidence. As a result, the White House would provide any PDBs to the House-Senate Joint Intelligence Committee inquiry that last year investigated law enforcement and intelligence failures relating to the September 11 attacks.
But the September 11 commission thought it saw a way around the White House wall of resistance. Hoping to learn the contents of the PDBs cited by Woodward as well as other sensitive intelligence matters, the commission last year asked the White House to turn over transcripts of hours of taped interviews about the September 11 attacks that senior officials gave Woodward and a number of other journalists. A few of those interviews, such as one that Bush gave to Woodward for his book, were on the record. But many other interviews, including those given by national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and chief of staff Andrew Card, were conducted "on background,'' meaning the officials' identities could not be disclosed.
Although uncomfortable with the request, the White House had no grounds to resist and did in fact turn over the transcripts. But it turned into a less fruitful avenue of inquiry than the commission had at first hoped. A commission source said the transcripts did not in fact show evidence that top White House officials had described the PDBs to Woodward-at least not in the taped interviews that were transcribed by White House secretaries. "The assumption is that he got the (PDBs) from the White House," said one commission official. "There's no proof of that."
But there is little doubt that Woodward got details of documents that are central to the commission's investigation-and more than a little sensitive for the Bush White House. One intelligence document that Woodward described in a May, 2002 Washington Post story , although not in his book, is the Aug. 6, 2001 PDB given to Bush while on vacation at his ranch in Crawford. This is the day that intelligence officials briefed Bush on the prospect of an upcoming Al Qaeda attack and the prospect that terrorists might seek to hijack commercial airliners-a warning that critics have long charged should have triggered a more vigorous response from the White House. The title of the PDB, according to Woodward's story, was more prophetic than the White House has ever acknowledged: "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."
Meanwhile, Woodward, who is notoriously reluctant to comment on anything to do with his reporting, is putting the finishing touches on his latest book due out this spring-about the war on Iraq.