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Only the zealot and the lucky "have it" on the PDB


The release of the al Qaeda snippet from the 6 August PDB occasioned a number of pundits, some of whom I otherwise admire, lining up to slang this document into whichever political camp they preferred. Some in this readership may have done likewise.

I am still trying to figure out what I think I read. Perfectly clear, you say? Rubbish. Let me share a related example: How many of you are aware that if Condi Rice's testimony before the 9/11 Commission had been under a court of law (such as Clinton's impeachment trial) that her responses would have landed her in contempt of court on multiple occasions? She and the administration knew that the public watching would not know that and, as this was not a court proceeding, she could move to control the limited public time and make her questioners look like ogres. This takes nothing away from her performance. I am just telling you that I might have seen something different that you did.

As to the PDB, without knowing it, we are all trying to interpret one of the smallest distribution "newsletters" on the planet, the President's Daily Brief. It is said to be the most closely held document in a government where chimney building is rampant and control over information is power. The PDB is said to be an art form, a daily document that tries to be forceful without being alarmist. (There are in fact many pressures to resist alerts, many for good reasons.) Supposedly anything seen to hold a smoking gun "goes downtown" immediately and does not wait for the PDB, although a later PDB may well reflect follow-up and tracking.

Any reader familiar with my writings has heard me speak of misevaluating a "still frame from a motion picture." So it is with this PDB snippet. Its release will demand more information in order to put it in the appropriate context. Each PDB is a ten plus page document, so we need to know where the snippet sat in the order of issues of that PDB, how many other related items preceded and followed it in other PDBs, what steps did the president put in place as a result, and what follow-up occurred when to what effect. There are likely more questions to ask.

While my jury is still out, I am reminded that in previous great surprises such as Pearl Harbor (where we knew the Japanese were going to attack but did not guess Pearl) and Normandy (where the Germans knew that the Allies were going to launch an amphibious invasion but did not know where and so did not alert the proper divisions) that we may not always know the precise where and when even we are reading some of the enemy's mail.

On the other hand, I am remember that the first months of the Bush administration were marked by what has been called the "incuriosity" of the sitting president in foreign affairs. As I am adjacent to the Canadian border, my Canadian colleagues relish the question put to candidate Bush shortly after he had been stung in a pop quiz about foreign leaders. Candidate Bush fell victim to a foreign affairs trap when he responded on-air to a "comic posing as a reporter made up a story that Canadian Prime Minister "Jean Poutine" had endorsed him as "the man to lead the United States into the next millennium." (Canada's prime minister at the time was Jean Chretien and he did not endorse any US candidate.)

To hear the Canadians tell it, Bush fell into the flattery trap (as had the governor of Michigan and a top Bush adviser to the same question) and replied that, "I appreciate his strong statement, he understands I believe in free trade," Bush replied.

Poutine is a plate of french fries smothered in gravy and cheese curd popular in Quebec.

Again I submit that only the zealot and the lucky think that they "have it" on the PDB. We need more information to make a reasoned decision.

Gordon Housworth

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