WASHINGTON — President Bush was told more than a
month before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that supporters of Osama
bin Laden planned an attack within the United States with explosives
and wanted to hijack airplanes, a government official said Friday.
The warning came in a secret briefing that Mr. Bush received at his
ranch in Crawford, Tex., on Aug. 6, 2001. A report by a joint
Congressional committee last year alluded to a "closely held
intelligence report" that month about the threat of an attack by Al
Qaeda, and the official confirmed an account by The Associated Press on
Friday saying that the report was in fact part of the president's
briefing in Crawford.
The disclosure appears to
contradict the White House's repeated assertions that the briefing the
president received about the Qaeda threat was "historical" in nature
and that the White House had little reason to suspect a Qaeda attack
within American borders.
The disclosure appears to contradict the White
assertions that the briefing the president received about the Qaeda
threat was "historical" in nature and that the White House had little
reason to suspect a Qaeda attack within American borders.
Members of the independent commission
investigating the Sept. 11
attacks have asked the White House to make the Aug. 6 briefing
memorandum public. The A.P. account of it was attributed to "several
people who have seen the memo." The White House has said that nothing
in it pointed specifically to the kind of attacks that actually took
place a month later.
The Congressional report last year, citing efforts
by Al Qaeda
operatives beginning in 1997 to attack American soil, said that
operatives appeared to have a support structure in the United States
and that intelligence officials had "uncorroborated information" that
Mr. bin Laden "wanted to hijack airplanes" to gain the release of
imprisoned extremists. It also said that intelligence officials
received information in May 2001, three months earlier, that indicated
"a group of bin Laden supporters was planning attacks in the United
States with explosives."
Also on Friday, the White House offered evidence
that the Federal
Bureau of Investigation received instructions more than two months
before the Sept. 11 attacks to increase its scrutiny of terrorist
suspects inside the United States. But it is unclear what action, if
any, the bureau took in response.
The disclosure appeared to signal an effort by the
White House to
distance itself from the F.B.I. in the debate over whether the Bush
administration did enough in the summer of 2001 to deter a possible
terrorist attack in the United States in the face of increased warnings.
A classified memorandum, sent around July 4, 2001,
to Condoleezza Rice,
the president's national security adviser, from the counterterrorism
group run by Richard A. Clarke, described a series of steps it said the
White House had taken to put the nation on heightened terrorist alert.
Among the steps, the memorandum said, "all 56 F.B.I. field offices were
also tasked in late June to go to increased surveillance and contact
with informants related to known or suspected terrorists in the United
Parts of the White House memorandum were provided
to The New York Times
on Friday by a White House official seeking to bolster the public
account provided a day before by Ms. Rice, who portrayed an
administration aggressively working to deter a domestic terror attack.
But law enforcement officials said Friday that
they believed that Ms.
Rice's testimony before the commission investigating the Sept. 11
attacks — including her account of scores of F.B.I. investigations
under way that summer into suspected Qaeda cells operating in the
United States — overstated the scope, thrust and intensity of
activities by the F.B.I. within American borders.
Agents at that time were focused mainly on the
threat of overseas
attacks, law enforcement officials said. The F.B.I. was investigating
numerous cases that involved international terrorism and may have had
tangential connections to Al Qaeda, but one official said that despite
Ms. Rice's account, the investigations were focused more overseas and
"were not sleeper cell investigations."
The finger-pointing will probably increase next
week when numerous
current and former senior law enforcement officials, including Attorney
General John Ashcroft, testify before the Sept. 11 commission. In an
unusual pre-emptive strike, Mr. Ashcroft's chief spokesman on Friday
accused some Democrats on the commission of having "political axes to
grind" in attacking the attorney general, who oversees the F.B.I., and
unfairly blaming him for law enforcement failures.
A similar accusation against the commission was
also leveled by Senator
Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican with ties to the White House, in
a speech on the Senate floor Thursday.
"Sadly, the commission's public hearings have
allowed those with
political axes to grind, like Richard Clarke, to play shamelessly to
the partisan gallery of liberal special interests seeking to bring down
the president," Mr. McConnell said.
The charges and countercharges underscored the
political challenge that
the investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks has become for President
Bush as he mounts his re-election bid. The White House sought this week
to defuse the situation by allowing Ms. Rice to testify before the
Sept. 11 commission after months of resistance. But her appearance
served to raise new questions about the administration's efforts to
deter an attack.
The White House on Friday put off a decision on
document at the center of the debate — the Aug. 6 briefing, titled "Bin
Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States." But the
administration appeared ready to release at least portions of the
document publicly in the coming days.
The memo from Mr. Clarke's group in July 2001
about F.B.I. activities
adds another piece of evidence to the document trail, but it is
unlikely to resolve the questions over whether the administration did
enough to deter an attack.
White House officials, who spent several weeks
attacking Mr. Clarke's
credibility, said Friday that they believed the memo from his
counterterrorism group was an accurate reflection of steps the White
House took to deter an attack. But they questioned whether the F.B.I.
executed the instructions to intensify its scrutiny of terrorist
suspects and contacts in the United States.
In April 2001, the F.B.I. did send out a
classified memo to its field
offices directing agents to "check with their sources on any
information they had relative to terrorism," said a senior law
enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity. But with the
level of threat warnings increasing markedly over the next several
months, there is no indication that any directive went out in the late
June period that was described in the memo from Mr. Clarke's office.
That summer saw a string of alerts by the F.B.I.
and other government
agencies about the heightened possibility of a terrorist attack, but
most counterterrorism officials believed an attack would come in Saudi
Arabia, Israel or elsewhere. Many also were worried about a July 4
attack and were relieved when that date passed uneventfully.
For months, the F.B.I. had been consumed by
internal problems of its
own, including the arrest of an agent, Robert P. Hanssen, on espionage
charges, the disappearance of documents in the Oklahoma City bombing
case and the fallout over the Wen Ho Lee spy case. Moreover, the bureau
was going through a transition in leadership, with its longtime
director, Louis J. Freeh, retiring in June 2001. He was replaced by an
acting director, Thomas J. Pickard, until the current director, Robert
S. Mueller III, took over in September, just days before the deadly
hijackings. All three men will testify at next week's commission
hearings and are expected to face sharp questioning about whether the
F.B.I. did enough to prevent an attack in the weeks and months before
At this week's appearance by Ms. Rice, several
questioned whether the F.B.I. and the Justice Department had done
enough to act on intelligence warnings about an attack.
"We have done thousands of interviews here at the
said Timothy J. Roemer, a Democratic member of the panel. "We have gone
through literally millions of pieces of paper. To date, we have found
nobody — nobody at the F.B.I. who knows anything about a tasking of
field offices" to identify the domestic threat.
The apparent miscommunication will probably be a
central focus of the
commission's hearing next week. Scrutiny is expected to focus in part
on communication breakdowns between the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. that
allowed two of the 19 hijackers to live openly in San Diego despite
intelligence about their terrorist ties.
Another Democratic panel member, Jamie S.
Gorelick, said at Thursday's
hearing that Mr. Ashcroft was briefed in the summer of 2001 about
terrorist threats "but there is no evidence of any activity by him."
Such criticism led Mark Corallo, Mr. Ashcroft's
chief spokesman at the
Justice Department, to say Friday that "some people on the commission
are seeking to score political points" by unfairly attacking Mr.
Ashcroft's actions before Sept. 11.
"Some have political axes to grind" against Mr.
Ashcroft, Mr. Corallo
said in an interview, naming Ms. Gorelick, who was the deputy attorney
general in the Clinton administration; Mr. Roemer, a former congressman
from Indiana, and Richard Ben-Veniste, the former Watergate prosecutor.
While insisting that he was not speaking
personally for Mr. Ashcroft,
Mr. Corallo said he was offended by Ms. Gorelick's remarks in
particular. Offering a detailed preview of Mr. Ashcroft's testimony
next week, he said the attorney general was briefed repeatedly by the
C.I.A. and the F.B.I. on threats posed by Al Qaeda and was told that
the threats were directed at targets overseas. "He was not briefed that
there was any threat to the United States," Mr. Corallo said. "He kept
asking if there was any action he needed to take, and he was constantly
told no, you're doing everything you need to do."
Several commission officials denied in interviews
that there was any
attempt to treat Mr. Ashcroft unfairly. Al Felzenberg, a spokesman for
panel, said that Mr. Ashcroft would be warmly received.
Ms. Gorelick said she was surprised by Mr.
Corallo's comments and
puzzled by assertions that the attorney general had no knowledge of a
domestic terrorist threat in 2001.
"This appears to be a debate within the
administration," she said. "On
the one hand, you have Dr. Rice saying that the domestic threat was
being handled by the Justice Department and F.B.I., and on the other
hand, you have the Justice Department saying that there did not appear
to be a domestic threat to address. And that is a difference in view
that we have to continue to explore."
The commission also heard testimony Friday morning
behind closed doors
from former Vice President Al Gore.
Former President Bill Clinton appeared before the
panel in closed
session on Thursday, but a Democratic commission member took issue
Friday with Mr. Clinton's assertion that that there was not enough
intelligence linking Al Qaeda to the 2000 bombing of the Navy destroyer
Cole to justify a military attack on the terrorist organization.
"I think he did have enough proof to take action,"
Bob Kerrey, the
former senator from Nebraska, said on ABC's `Good Morning America.'
Philip Shenon, Adam Nagourney and James Risen
contributed reporting for this article.
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