WASHINGTON — Beyond all the denials and deconstruction in the 9/11 hearings lies a simple question: Did the White House know enough to take stronger preventive action?
As an independent bipartisan commission moves to pull together the lessons of the 2001 terrorist attacks on America, much of its focus is on the failings of agencies and operatives far below the Oval Office. This week for example, reports by commission staff have laid often withering criticism on the doorstep of the FBI and CIA.
The White House, for its part, has noted that briefings it received, including an Aug. 6, 2001, memo on Al Qaeda's intent to strike inside the US, gave no "actionable" insight into where and when an attack would occur.
But given the dire tone of this and other messages that reached the president's inner circle, a deeper query is emerging: whether it was up to the White House to "push down the chain" or up to agencies such as the FBI and CIA to "push up the chain" with better data.
Although the Aug. 6 memo stands in hindsight as a stark warning, people acquainted with how presidencies work say its failure to prompt action by the Bush team is not necessarily surprising. It must be understood in the context of multiple demands, the often murky nature of warnings, and the fact that such a PDB (president's daily brief) was not generally expected to prompt action.
"You can't ever judge why people did things the way they did in the past unless you take into consideration what they didn't know," says presidential historian David McCullough. "Looking back, we say: They should have known, or listened to him or to her. It's never that simple."
The commission is grappling with this effort to draw lessons that go beyond 20/20 hindsight - an effort that could help future White Houses deal with what experts say can seem like a barrage of intelligence information during otherwise packed workdays in the Oval Office.
Presidents "are overwhelmed by this huge amount of information that comes to them," says Leon Panetta, who served as White House chief of staff for President Clinton. "So, in the end it really does depend on the people around the president to make very clear that [a threat] is not just the usual chatter, but in fact something that deserves his attention."
Complicating the context of the Aug. 6 PDB, President Bush was on vacation in Crawford, Texas, during that month in 2001. The next day, he teed off at a private club on Lake Waco, jogged at the ranch, read a little, and went bass fishing. Later in the week, he gave a speech on stem-cell research, an issue he worked on and often discussed with visitors that summer.
"In recent weeks, we learned that scientists have created human embryos in test tubes solely to experiment on them. This is deeply troubling and a warning sign that should prompt all of us to think through these issues very carefully," he said in a speech on Aug. 10.
Looking back, the president chose the wrong warning to worry about that week, critics say. He should have been worried about Al Qaeda. But he had no contact with Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet for the entire month of August, Mr. Tenet said in response to questions Wednesday.
Nor did the warnings, now looming large in the 9/11 investigation, prompt new activity in the Justice Department, which alone had the responsibility for following up on terrorism inside US borders.
On Tuesday, US Attorney General John Ashcroft told 9/11 commissioners that he did not recall ever seeing the Aug. 7 Senior Executive Intelligence Brief with a message similar to the PDB. Its title was, "Terrorism: Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the United States."
In response, the administration has insisted that there was nothing in intelligence estimates, including the Aug. 6 PDB, that got to the what, when, or how of an event - a point Clinton administration officials have also made to the commission.
And members of both administrations have pointed out that the nation was not on "war footing" against radical Islamic terror. "I don't see how anybody could have taken any action on the basis of that briefing," says Richard Perle, former chairman of Bush's Defense Policy Board, which advises the Pentagon.
Still, critics see the Bush White House as too passive, characterized by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's statement last week: "We were not asked to do [something]" in the Aug. 6 PDB.
That memo was not the only warning that had reached the White House in 2001 about a building threat from Al Qaeda, including the possibility of strikes inside the US. To the CIA, the spike in terror-related intelligence had reached a "blinking red" level by July, Tenet testified this week.
Presidents vary in how they deal with their flood of information. In moments of crisis, President Kennedy would often call down himself to the CIA for information. President Johnson also worked the phones as a main source of information in his presidency.
While President Clinton consumed vast amounts of daily reading, President Bush has established a much more hierarchical White House with information moving up the ranks, analysts say.
"Presidents vary in how curious they are and how far down they reach in terms of the advice they get," says Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University. "President Bush has a top down management style, in general, although there is probably some diversity there that we don't see.
Ironically, Greenstein says that Bush was beginning to move outside that hierarchical style in the summer of 2001 - but directed his attention toward stem cells, and not a historic terrorist threat.
"There was a lot of concern about whether George W. was really up to speed in the eight months leading up to 9/11," Greenstein says. "One of the signs that he was locking into the job and not winging it and treating it as if he were still a C student at Yale was his interest in stem cell research. He did what you don't associate with him: reaching out to other people. When they talked to him about other subjects, he asked them about stem cells."
However he and other presidential scholars caution that tracing the dots back in history can be misleading.
Investigations into the intelligence failures leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor sank two military careers, historian McCullough notes. Today, people may not lose their jobs because of the 9/11 hearings, but the media exposure has created a different, more highly charged, political environment. "People were brought to censure for how they conducted themselves, but it was nothing like this. The amplification of any event now like this is so much greater than any event in our past that it creates a new kind of reality, almost a crisis unto itself."
The exercise of connecting the dots is always easier in reverse, experts say. And modern presidents are deluged with dots. One of the biggest challenges in any presidency is managing all the claims to urgent action. Terror threats, in particular, are "more like putting a jigsaw puzzle together without a picture and missing three-quarters of the pieces," says Richard Kerr, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency under George H. W. Bush.