The title of a 2003 Senior Executive Intelligence Brief (SEIB) item indicates that by late 2003 the CIA had concluded it would be hard for al-Qaeda to pull off another 9/11. The item was entitled “Terrorism Complexities Make Repeating September 11 Difficult” and was circulated to top policy officials on December 16, 2003.
The precise circulation of SEIBs varied from administration to administration, but they were usually seen by officials such as the secretary of state, attorney general, vice president and others of similar rank. SEIB items are often used as presidential daily brief items, so it is likely that President George Bush also saw the information in mid-December 2003.
The title of the SEIB item was found in a 9/11 Commission document at the National Archives by History Commons contributor Erik Larson, who uploaded it to the 9/11 Document Archive at Scribd. The document is 83 pages of notes by a staffer apparently brainstorming ideas for the final report. The SEIB item title can be found on page 27 of the notes.
The notes do not further specify the content of the SEIB item, or what the “complexities” were exactly.
The SEIB title raises two issues. First, there was no announcement by the government that a repeat of 9/11 was unlikely. In fact, just five days later there was a major terror alert. I would describe the alert in my own words, but one of the other History Commons contributors has already done it, and I like his style:
December 21, 2003: Fifth Nationwide Orange Alert Is Based on False Information
Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge raises the nationwide terror alert level to orange. He states that “These strategic indicators, including al-Qaeda’s continued desire to carry out attacks against our homeland, are perhaps greater now than at any point since Sept. 11.” In his announcement, Ridge cites further reports that al-Qaeda is planning further operations, and that “extremists abroad” are anticipating attacks on the scale of those on September 11, 2001. He states that “credible sources suggest the possibility of attacks against the homeland around the holiday season and beyond.” Officials repeatedly warn about threats to the aviation sector. [CBC News, 12/21/2003 ] The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says it has reliable and corroborated information from several sources indicating that a plot, similar to 9/11, is in an advanced stage. US officials focus their investigation on the “informed belief” that six men on Air France Flight 68, which arrives in Los Angeles daily at 4:05 p.m., are planning to hijack the jet and crash it near Los Angeles or Las Vegas. Officials say some names on the passenger manifest match those of known Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists, with one of them being a trained pilot with a commercial license. Six Air France flights between Paris and Los Angeles are canceled by French Prime Minister Jean Pierre Raffarin. [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 12/24/2003 ] The terror alert turns out to be baseless. The names identified as terrorists turn out to be a five-year-old boy, whose name had been mistaken for an alleged Tunisian terrorist, an elderly Chinese lady who used to run a restaurant in Paris, a Welsh insurance salesman, and three French nationals. [Rolling Stone, 9/21/2006 ] Further investigation of the Tunisian man reveals that he has no plans to leave the country, no criminal record, and no links to extremism. [Red Orbit, 12/25/2003 ] Despite criticism of the investigation, French authorities praise the level of cooperation between intelligence agencies. A spokesman for the prime minister says “What is important is that the evaluation of threats continues, and they are undertaken between the Americans and the French in a framework of intense cooperation. Franco-American cooperation in this domain is exemplary.” [Red Orbit, 12/25/2003 ] This alert comes in the wake of the comments of the chair of the 9/11 Commission, Tom Kean, suggesting that the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented. President Bush is criticized in the press for the continuing failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. [Rolling Stone, 9/21/2006 ]
As you can see from the Terror Alerts category in the 9/11 Timeline, this was not the end of the alerts by any means and they continued for years.
The contradiction here is clear to see: the administration reported internally that it would be hard for al-Qaeda to pull off another spectacular attack, but the public learned nothing of this and the fearmongering continued.
We need to ask whether Ridge got the SEIB five days before he issued an orange alert.
The second issue relates to the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as walling, the belly slap, sleep deprivation and stress positions. Some defenders of torturing detainees have argued that such techniques should be permissible in the event of a “ticking time-bomb” scenario. However, the SEIB title indicates there were at least some people in the administration–and the SEIBs were drafted by the CIA, the agency doing some of the walling–who thought there probably was no ticking time-bomb.
While there may be no legal implications to this, from a certain viewpoint there could well be a difference between torturing detainees in a state of panic about where the next attack might come from, and torturing detainees with the knowledge that there probably wasn’t going to be another attack anyway.