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Poll: What Did The President Know?

Concerns about what the Bush administration and intelligence agencies might have known about terrorist threats before September 11, and what government intelligence agencies might have done to prevent the attacks, have led to questions from Congress and partisan divisions. There is no clear public consensus about what the president and his administration might have known before September 11, and the president's approval rating - while lower than it has been since the attacks - remains high at 71%.

While most Americans believe that government intelligence agencies should have been able to discover the September 11 attacks before they happened, there is no consensus among the public on how much those intelligence agencies actually knew and what they told the President and his administration.

54% of Americans think that U.S. intelligence agencies should have been able to prevent the attacks, about the same percentage as felt that way in September, immediately after the attacks. But slightly fewer think that the F.B.I. and C.I.A. actually could have done so. 48% say the intelligence agencies had information in hand before September 11 that actually could have permitted them to prevent the attacks. Expectations for what the two agencies could and should have done are higher among Democrats than Republicans.

CBSNEWS - New York Times Polls
The FBI And CIA Before 9/11

Should have been able to prevent attacks



Had information that would have prevented attacks




Americans are divided about whether President George W. Bush was aware of the pieces of intelligence that the U.S. government had about the possibility of terrorists using airplanes to attack the United States. More think that senior members of the Administration were aware of this intelligence.

CBSNEWS - New York Times Polls
Aware Of Pre-9/11 Information?




Senior members of Administration




Those who think the President or members of his Administration knew of this intelligence information (a group that is more likely to include Democrats than Republicans) are quite critical of the use that the Administration made of that information. Of the 55% who think Bush or his Administration knew about those intelligence reports, more than half - 55% - say they believe the attacks could have been prevented if more attention had been paid to those memos and other intelligence information.

Overall, the public is divided as to whether a president can do much to address terrorism. 45% think a president can do something about terrorism, and 46% think it is beyond a president's control.


In the current, more politically charged atmosphere surrounding the question of what the government knew before September 11, many Americans accept the appropriateness of Democrats asking questions, but do not see the need for Congressional hearings on what the White House knew. As they often have in the past, concerns about political motivation behind the questions exist in this instance.

By 62% to 36%, Americans don't think Congress should hold hearings to investigate what the White House knew about possible terrorist attacks. But by 45% to 32% they think the questions Democrats are asking the White House about what it knew are appropriate ones.

Are Democrats' Questions To The White House Appropriate?
Yes 45%
No 32

Should Congress Hold Hearings On What The White House Knew?
Yes 36%
No 62%

Nationally, Democrats divide almost evenly, 52% to 47%, on whether this matter deserves official Congressional investigation. 52% of the public think the White House will cooperate if Congress does hold hearings.

Despite their negative reaction to the possibility of hearings, most Americans don't think members of the Bush Administration have so far told the public what they knew before September 11. While few say they are lying about the information they had prior to September 11, two-thirds believe they are hiding something.

Is Administration Telling The Public All It Knew Before 9/11?
Telling entire truth 21%
Hiding something 65
Lying 8

43% think the Administration is hiding something the public needs to know.

Though there are doubts the Administration has given a complete reckoning of what they knew, Democratic motivation is also being criticized. Just 33% think the Democrats are asking questions because they think the public needs to know, while nearly half (47%) say they are doing this to damage Bush and his Administration. 13% say they have both motivations.

Why Are Democrats Asking Questions About Pre-9/11 Info?
They believe the public should know 33%
They want to damage Bush Administration 47
Both reasons 13


However, all things considered, Americans continue to place more blame for the September 11th terrorist attacks on airport security than on government policies or intelligence failures, although all share in the blame. 80% place a lot or some blame for the attacks on security at U.S. airports, 73% blame U.S. Middle East policies over the years, and 66% blame U.S. intelligence agencies such as the FBI or the CIA. These views are virtually unchanged since last September, just after the terrorist attacks.

A Lot Or Some Blame For Attacks
Airport security 80%
U.S. Middle East policies 73%
Intelligence agencies 66%


If the Democrats in Congress are out to damage the Administration, it has not translated into lower ratings for the President; his ratings remain high. 71% of Americans approve of Bush's overall job performance; while this rating is down from 77% last week, it is still high. 63% approve of the way he is handling foreign policy, and 74% approve of his handling of the campaign against terrorism.

CBSNEWS - New York Times Polls
Bush's Approval Ratings

 NowMay 2
Handling campaign against terrorism



 NowMay 2



 NowMay 2
Handling foreign policy




66% of Americans now have confidence in Bush's ability to deal wisely with an international crisis. While higher than Bush's rating early in his presidency, this is down from January 2002, when 76% expressed confidence in his ability to deal with an international crisis.

CBSNEWS - New York Times Polls
Bush's Handling Of International Crisis

 NowJan. 2002Jan. 2001




 NowJan. 2002Jan. 2001






The news about intelligence reports before September 11 warning of terrorism has reflected negatively on the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Now, just 29% have a favorable opinion of the F.B.I., 17% have an unfavorable opinion, and half don't have an opinion one way or the other.

CBSNEWS - New York Times Polls
Opinion Of FBI.

 NowJune 2001May 2001




 NowJune 2001May 2001




 NowJune 2001May 2001
No opinion





Positive views of the FBI are now some of the lowest in nearly three years, and are only slightly better than in May 2001, when news broke regarding the agency's misplacing documents relating to the investigation of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which led to a delay of Timothy McVeigh's execution.

The Central Intelligence Agency receives similar ratings; 27% have a favorable view, and 19% have an unfavorable view.

Opinion Of The CIA
Favorable 27%
Unfavorable 19
No opinion 52

The Media

77% of Americans are following stories about what the White House knew before September 11 about possible terrorist attacks very or somewhat closely. 67% think the media is covering these stories responsibly; 21% think the media is not covering these stories responsibly.

This poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 681 adults, interviewed by telephone May 19-20, 2002. The error due to sampling could be plus or minus four percentage points for results based on the entire sample.

For detailed information on how CBS News conducts public opinion surveys, click here.

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