Friday, February 20, 2004



Feb. 18 - 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.

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.’”

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.”