Millions of Messages Sent, but Only Handful Mention Al Qaeda Leader
By Margie Burns
â€œMissingâ€ White House emails retrieved from Bush administration records indicate that top Bush Justice Department officials had little interest in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden or Mullah Mohammed Omar, head of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), prolonged correspondence has pursued â€œmissingâ€ emails between the Bush White House and Bushâ€™s attorney general, deputy attorney general, associate attorney general, Office of Public Affairs, Office of Legal Counsel and Office of the Inspector General, in the Justice Department.
After a lengthy search, President Obamaâ€™s Office of Information Policy, which handles FOIA requests, found emails pertaining to Osama bin Laden or to Mullah Omar only in Attorney General and Office of Public Affairs records from the Bush administration. Alberto Gonzales, previously Bushâ€™s White House counsel and then Attorney General, did not use email.
White House emails from the Bush years, often reported as missing, numbered in the millions. Thousands of emails were sent between the Bush White House and top Justice Department officials, through both government email accounts and private accounts including the Republican National Committee.
FOIA inquiries have produced two emails, totaling four pages, between the White House and Justice under the former administration relating to Mullah Mohammed Omar.
The FOIA requests produced 26 emails, totaling 119 pages, relating to Osama bin Laden.
The first internal reference to Mullah Omar, according to email records, occurred Dec. 7, 2001. White House staffer Edward Ingle forwarded a series of talking points titled â€œMeet Mullah Omarâ€ from Deputy National Security Adviser James R. Wilkinson to a distribution list of several dozen government personnel in Cabinet offices and the Pentagon including Paul Wolfowitz. Omar has continued to evade capture and is believed to be living in neighboring Pakistan. There is no reference in the emails to Omar dating from the period when he was evading US forces. The next, and only other, mention of Omarâ€™s name was an incidental reference in a Sept. 23, 2004, New York Times article on Afghanistan forwarded the same day by White House staffers.
The 26 emails that mention Osama bin Laden in correspondence between the Bush White House and Justice Department break down as follows:
There were seven email references to Osama bin Laden in 2001. Five occurred in press releases from White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer forwarded by Ingle â€” one Executive Order, two transcripts of press briefings and two sets of talking points â€” dating from Sept. 24 to Dec. 17, 2001. Kenneth B. Mehlman, then in the Executive Office Building and later chairman of the Republican National Committee, sent around a copy of Bushâ€™s address to the Joint Session of Congress Sept. 21, 2001, in which Bush briefly mentioned â€œa person named Osama bin Laden.â€ The other mention of bin Laden in 2001 comes in an Oct. 15 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about John Ashcroft and terrorism, forwarded by David Israelite.
One email reference to bin Laden occurred in 2002, also forwarded by David Israelite. Under the heading â€œDo you remember?,â€ Israelite distributed to colleagues, including Barbara Comstock, a description of a purported 1987 video clip saying that Oliver North warned Congress about Osama bin Laden in the Iran-Contra hearings but was shut off by then-Sen. Al Gore. This claim had already been debunked by North himself (see www.snopes.com). Comstock went on to chair Scooter Libbyâ€™s defense fund in 2007 and in 2008 ran for Congress from Virginia.
There were three email references to bin Laden in 2003 â€” a press briefing, a forwarded newspaper article, and a December statement from Director of Public Affairs Mark Corallo criticizing a Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse study.
Fifteen emails mentioned bin Laden in 2004. Some were in response to criticism of the White House after disclosure of the famous Aug. 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing, â€œBin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.â€ All email references are forwarded press briefings and other press releases, forwarded newspaper articles, or talking points related to bin Laden.
The Department of Justice represents the US government in enforcing the law in the public interest. According to the official definition of responsibilities printed under a photograph of then Attorney General Ashcroft, â€œThrough its thousands of lawyers, investigators, and agents, the Department plays the key role in protection against criminals and subversion … It represents the government in legal matters generally, rendering legal advice and opinions, upon request, to the President and to the heads of the executive departments. The Attorney General supervises and directs these activities, as well as those of the U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals in the various judicial districts around the country.â€
Either top Justice Department personnel under the previous administration were not a set of bloodhounds, or documents have been suppressed. The email archives contain no indication that inside circles in the Bush White House and DOJ were paying attention to capturing Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar. Mentions of bin Laden and Omar come strictly in the context of public relations.
There are no records of emails to or from Alberto Gonzales, presumably because he did not have an email account.
Email records searched under FOIA include those of previous Attorney General Ashcroft; Michael Chertoff, previously assistant attorney general in the Criminal Division and later secretary of Homeland Security; former Deputy Attorney General James Comey; former Deputy Attorney Paul McNulty; Philip J. Perry, acting associate attorney general and son-in-law of Vice President Dick Cheney; former Associate Attorney General Jay B. Stephens; and David Ayres, Ashcroftâ€™s chief of staff.
After leaving Justice, Ayres co-founded The Ashcroft Group. His corporate biography describes Ayres thus:
â€œAfter the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Mr. Ayres managed the Departmentâ€™s crisis operations and restructuring of the FBI to focus on preventing terrorist attacks. As the Attorney Generalâ€™s principal counter-terrorism advisor, Mr. Ayres oversaw numerous counter-terrorism operations, program reorganizations and policy reforms to prevent additional terrorist attacks.â€
Many persons in the Department of Justice and the executive offices of the White House had responsibilities in the â€œwar on terror,â€ at least according to public pronouncements. Given all the public emphasis on â€œinformation sharingâ€ and cooperation among law enforcement and security entities, and the speechifying against a purported â€œwallâ€ between domestic and foreign information gathering, one would think there would have been extensive correspondence about bin Laden and Omar among others.
Again, either there was such extensive correspondence, and it is being suppressed; or there was no such interest in bin Laden at the highest levels of government, meaning that indeed the previous administration viewed bin Laden chiefly as a public relations tool.
What did they know about bin Laden that they did not share with the public? Were they confident, for undisclosed reasons, that he posed no threat? Why are there no expressions of concern about his whereabouts?
With this plate handed to him, it is a wonder that Obamaâ€™s hair has not turned white already.
Margie Burns is a Texas native who now writes from Washington, D.C. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. See her blog at www.margieburns.com.