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The CYA Mentality of Rahm, and Why Enough Is Enough

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Dear Interim White House Chief of Staff Peter M. Rouse:

Please allow me to introduce myself -- I am a 9/11 widow who once spent a large amount of time fighting for the release of information related to the 9/11 attacks. One document, in particular, was a primary focus -- the August 4, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB).

Usually such a document is shrouded in secrecy, deemed classified, and kept from public scrutiny. But since the August 4, 2001, PDB was titled, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike In the United States," the document played a key role in trying to understand how the Bush administration could have been so surprised by the 9/11 attacks. Eventually, during the sworn testimony of Condoleezza Rice, then National Security Advisor for President Bush, the August 4, 2001, PDB was declassified.

When the title and part of the un-redacted content was released to the American public, we learned that there were several al Qaeda groups living and working inside the U.S. and that the concept of hijacking planes and using them as missiles was a possibility. Additionally, targets such as those in NYC and Washington, D.C., were also mentioned in the PDB. Needless to say, without rehashing history, it turned out that the Bush administration should have known more and done more about the very credible threat of terrorist attacks facing the United States during the late summer of 2001.

Upon the PDB's release, I hit the proverbial roof. I excoriated Condoleezza Rice, calling her either "incompetent or a liar" because she had repeatedly told the American people that nobody could have imagined terrorists hijacking planes and using them as missiles. I railed against President Bush, who spent the entire month of August 2001 in Texas on vacation. I assailed then-DCI George Tenet for not sharing vital information with the FBI that could have arguably stopped and/or delayed the attacks.

Without doubt, the August 4, 2001, PDB was a smoking gun. And, to me, it made any subsequent administration's handling of PDB's of paramount concern and interest.

Welcome to October 2010, where Bob Woodward has published a book, Obama's War that details an incident of the Obama administration and their handling of one particular PDB.

Sadly, it's time to hit the roof again.

Woodward writes, "The headline on this item read, 'North American al Qaeda trainees may influence targets and tactics in the United States and Canada.'" According to Woodward, the PDB said:

At least 20 al Qaeda converts with American, Canadian, or European passports were being trained in Pakistani safe havens to return to their homelands to commit high-profile acts of terrorism. They included half a dozen from the United Kingdom, several Canadians, some Germans and three Americans. None of their names are known.

Woodward goes on to state the DNI Dennis Blair "thought the reports were alarming and credible enough that the President should be alerted."

And then Woodward adds this alarming vignette about former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel: "Rahm Emanuel summoned Blair to his office after the al Qaeda report had been briefed. 'Why'd you put that in the PDB?' [Emanuel] asked."

According to Woodward, Blair responded to Emanuel, "This is a threat to the United States. I'm worried about it and I think you ought to know."

Woodward writes that Emanuel then responds to Blair by stating, "You're just trying to put this on us, so it's not your fault." (Emphasis added.)

To which Blair responds, according to Woodward, "No, no. I'm trying to tell you. I'm the President's intelligence officer and I'm worried about this, and I think I owe it to him -- and you -- to tell him."

Woodward's blunt takeaway from this exchange was that:

Blair was insulted. The White House chief of staff was not only accusing him of a brazen act of ass-covering but of ducking responsibility. Blair viewed his willingness to bring bad news as a strength, a sign of loyalty. He was accepting responsibility. The warning was an important reminder that a domestic terrorist strike was one of the greatest threats to the country, its economy and Obama's presidency.


According to Woodward, Blair left the White House thinking, "Wow, we come from different planets on this one."

Honestly, Mr. Rouse, I don't know whether to scream, cry, or pray after reading Woodward's astonishing account. Because if this information is accurate, it is a very, very, very serious problem.

In short: WE CANNOT HAVE A WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF MORE CONCERNED WITH POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS THAN NATIONAL SECURITY. PERIOD.

Mr. Emanuel recently announced his departure from the Oval Office to run for mayor of Chicago. Thank god. I can only hope that you, as his replacement, will more rightly understand the role and responsibilities of the nation's most important intelligence officer, the Director of National Intelligence. The DNI's job is to present to the president an unbiased, unvarnished, and succinct account of all national security threats presently facing our nation. The DNI does that via the PDB. Notably, the PDB is not written in a manner to sugarcoat things, nor is it prepared to ignore things out of political expedience.

But perhaps most importantly, Mr. Rouse, I hope you, unlike your predecessor Mr. Emanuel, recognize that the first and foremost priority of any administration is to serve the people, not politics. In other words, when it comes to protecting and saving lives with regard to matters of national security, there can be no room for a cover your ass (CYA) mentality.

(I wrote this blog on Friday prior to the recent (and relatively rare) State Department Warning about Americans traveling abroad in Europe. Clearly this announcement makes Woodward's characterization of how the Obama administration handles matters of national security all the more pertinent and interesting.)