The release of the classified Aug. 6, 2001, presidential briefing on terrorism was an unusual, but necessary step. Given the spike in terrorist "chatter" that summer, and the scale of attack that followed, the public has a right to know what was being communicated to its commander in chief.
But in judging George Bush's handling of terrorism, the public needs to know how he responded to the memo, known as the presidential daily briefing. By pointedly refusing to tell reporters this half of the story, the White House does the nation a disservice.
The memo is short, a mere page and a half. Its information buttresses both critics and defenders of the Bush team, and is unlikely to advance the ball much further in determining the appropriateness of the administration's antiterrorism actions.
As National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testified last week, the memo contained no specifics as to the terrorists' timing or place of attack or method. And the citation of 70 ongoing FBI antiterrorism investigations probably reassured Mr. Bush.
But was there something different about this memo that should have prompted presidential follow-up? Previous briefings probably focused mainly on terrorists in other countries. This one seemed aimed to shift attention to a threat in the US.
Its title, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US," should have prompted further questions from the president. So should have this bit: Al Qaeda members "have resided in or traveled to the US for years," and "the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks."
When a new president takes office, he is naturally focused on his agenda. To his credit, Bush was curious enough about terrorism to ask the questions that prompted this very memo. But what did he ask once he saw it? Let's hope the 9/11 Commission will probe this when they interview the president and vice president.