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Memo Suggested Al Qaeda Attack Inside U.S.

The presidential memo of August 2001, a touchy subject in National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's (search) testimony in front of the Sept. 11 commission, indicated that Al Qaeda was attempting to send operatives into the United States to hit a target with explosives three months earlier.

The presidential daily briefing, or PDB, was given to Bush on August 6, 2001 — a month before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Several people who have seen the memo have told The Associated Press there were various reports Usama bin Laden (search) had wanted to strike inside the United States as early as 1997 and continuing into spring of 2001.

The sources who read the presidential memo spoke on condition of anonymity because the White House has not yet declassified it. The White House was expected to release the text of the briefing, entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States," on Saturday.

Current and former officials also say that in August 2001, intelligence officials had two uncorroborated reports suggesting terrorists might use airplanes. They say one report suggested Al Qaeda members were considering flying a plane into a U.S. embassy.

The officials say the reports — among thousands of varied and uncorroborated threats the government gets every month — weren't deemed credible enough to tell the president or the national security adviser. They say neither report involved the details of the plot that shook the country on Sept. 11.

In her testimony Thursday, Rice emphatically assigned blame for the pre-Sept. 11 failures on "frustratingly vague" U.S. intelligence, setting the stage for the top officials at the CIA and FBI to explain next week what went wrong and what's been done to fix it.

In a long-anticipated public appearance, Rice cited flaws in U.S. intelligence agencies for hampering the administration's ability to foresee or stop the deadly homicide hijackings.

Democratic commissioners sharply questioned Rice as to why the August 6 briefing didn't spark immediate action against Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization headed by Usama bin Laden.

Rice said the document was "historical information based on old reporting" with no specific intelligence information regarding an impending attack.

Raw Data: Full Hearing Transcript

Next week, the bipartisan panel will examine law enforcement and intelligence failures surrounding Sept. 11, with scheduled testimony from Attorney General John Ashcroft (search), CIA Director George Tenet and FBI Director Robert Mueller, as well as from former FBI Director Louis Freeh and former Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard (search).

"This hearing will focus on four important questions," commission chairman Thomas Kean said. "How was our government structured before 9-11 to address the terrorist threat inside the United States? What was the threat in 2001 and our government's response to it? How did the intelligence community address the threat? What reforms have been taken since 9-11 to respond to the terrorist threat inside the United States?"

"These questions are at the core of the commission's mandate," he said.

Next week's hearing also will highlight poor communication among the intelligence and law enforcement groups.

Among the missed signals was a July 2001 memo by a Phoenix-based FBI agent warning that Al Qaeda terrorists might have been undergoing flight training at U.S. schools and the August 2001 arrest of student pilot Zacarias Moussaoui (search) on immigration charges. Moussaoui has since been charged with conspiring in the attacks.

The CIA also failed to share information about two of the future hijackers after they were spotted attending an Al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia in January 2000.

"The director of central intelligence and I think Director Freeh had an excellent relationship," Rice testified. "They were trying hard to bridge that seam.

"But when it came right down to it, this country, for reasons of history and culture and therefore law, had an allergy to the notion of domestic intelligence, and we were organized on that basis," she said. "And it just made it very hard to have all of the pieces come together."

Rice's testimony, under oath and on live national television, came after weeks of White House resistance. Bush yielded after repeated public requests from members of the commission that an on-the-record rebuttal was needed in response to explosive charges from former White House counterterror chief Richard Clarke.

Clarke told the commission last month that the Bush administration gave a lower priority to combatting terrorism than had former President Clinton, and that the decision to invade Iraq undermined the war on terror.

Rice responded that Bush "understood the threat and he understood its importance." She said Bush came into office determined to develop a "more robust" policy to combat Al Qaeda and told his national security adviser he was "tired of swatting at flies."

Picking up on her testimony, commissioner Bob Kerrey (search), a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, noted that Bush failed to order a military strike in response to an attack on the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen that killed 17 U.S. sailors three months before Bush took office.

"Dr. Rice, we only swatted a fly once. ... How the hell could he [Bush] be tired?" Kerrey asked. That was a reference to a 1998 missile strike Clinton ordered against suspected terror training camps in Afghanistan.

Rice said the administration decided not to respond "tit for tat" with an inadequate response that that would simply embolden terrorists.

After hearing from Rice, the commission met with Clinton for more than three hours. A person familiar with the session said on condition of anonymity that the former president discussed his terrorism policies and his decision not to retaliate for the Cole attacks.

The person familiar with Clinton's testimony said Clinton told the panel he did not order retaliatory military strikes after the USS Cole was bombed in the autumn of 2000 because he could not get "a clear, firm judgment of responsibility" from U.S. intelligence before he left office the following January.

U.S. intelligence determined Al Qaeda sponsored the attack only after the Bush administration took office.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.