Bush: Terror Memo Lacked Specifics

Now that it is public, a pre-Sept. 11 briefing memo on Al Qaeda has President Bush and his critics giving opposing versions of whether he should have acted more aggressively to avert the terrorist attacks.

Released late Saturday under pressure, the intelligence memo from Aug. 6, 2001, showed that Bush received reports as recently as May 2001 and that most of the information focused on possible plots in the United States.

"I was satisfied that some of the matters were being looked into" and had any specific intelligence pointed to threats of attacks on New York and Washington, "I would have moved mountains" to prevent it, Bush said Sunday during a visit to Fort Hood (search), Texas, 50 miles from his ranch here.

The document has "nothing about an attack on America. It talked about intentions, about somebody who hated America — well, we knew that," he said.

A Republican member of the Sept. 11 commission backed that up Monday.

Former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson (search) told ABC's "Good Morning America" that "no reasonable American could hold the president responsible for the attack."

"If I'm the president and I get a special briefing that I've asked for, and he asked for this, and said the FBI is conducting 70 field investigations about this, then I assume the FBI is on top of the job," Thompson said. "The president is not an FBI agent."

Commission member Jamie Gorelick (search), a former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, told NBC's "Today" show "there is a major game of finger-pointing going on around here. Our job is to get to the bottom of it."

Sen. Evan Bayh (search), D-Ind., said public figures "shouldn't be scapegoating" and said he believes serious questions must be raised about whether the FBI is equipped to deal with terrorism.

Bayh said most Western governments have separate counterterrorism departments. "We don't. We need to ask ourselves, maybe the time has come to do that," he told CBS's "The Early Show."

Most of the CIA reporting during the summer of 2001 focused on possible overseas targets. But the memo specifically told Bush that Al Qaeda had reached American shores, had a support system in place and was engaging in "patterns of suspicious activity ... consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks."

The memo's contents are somewhat of a surprise because for two years, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, starting with a May 2002 news conference, left the impression that the document focused on historical information and that any current threats mostly involved overseas targets.

Rice first outlined the then-classified memo's contents at a news conference in May 2002. The "overwhelming bulk of the evidence" before Sept. 11, she declared, was that any terrorist attack "was likely to take place overseas."

The 500-word document mentioned two current threats: suspected Al Qaeda operatives might have cased federal buildings in New York and that, according to a phone call to an American embassy in the Middle East, a group of supporters of Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden was in the United States to plan attacks with explosives.

The FBI later concluded that two Yemeni men photographing buildings in New York were tourists.

To accentuate the potential domestic threat, the memo told Bush the FBI had 70 investigations related to bin Laden under way.

Richard Ben-Veniste (search), a Democrat on the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, saw as significant the memo's references to May 2001 intelligence about a possible Al Qaeda explosives plot inside the United States.

The "leadership at the top," he said Sunday, should have "butted heads together, get them in the same room, and then pulse the agencies: 'What do you know?' Get all of your agents out there with messages to say, 'Tell us everything you know at this moment.'"

Should the memo — a major topic on the Sunday talk shows — have raised "more of an alarm bell than it did? I think in hindsight that's probably true," said Sen. John McCain (search), R-Ariz. He said the Clinton and Bush administrations bear responsibility for Sept. 11.

Richard Perle, a former Pentagon adviser who was an assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration, said there was "not enough specificity to take any action."

"What could a president have done under those circumstances?" Perle asked. "Shut down the United States? Grounded all aircraft? Gone into a panic mode?"

Sen. Susan Collins (search), R-Maine, said it is easy to "go back now and pick out a clue here and a tidbit there ... but we have to keep in mind the environment. We have to keep in mind the volume of reporting that the president and his advisers are dealing with each and every day."

To Sen. Bill Nelson (search), D-Fla., however, the memo should have created a sense of urgency.

"If you are having a brief that is entitled 'Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.,' and then it lays out specific things ... you would think that that would raise enough caution flags that you would haul in the FBI, that you'd put out an all-points bulletin," he said.

Slade Gorton (search), a Republican on the commission, said the memo "did talk about potential attacks in the United States," but "it didn't give the slightest clue as to what they would be or where they would be."

"The FBI has more questions to answer than Condoleezza Rice or [former presidential anti-terrorism adviser] Dick Clarke or anyone we've had testify before us so far," said Gorton, a former senator from Washington state.

Gorton said the reference in the memo sent to the president about 70 FBI investigations "would be sort of comforting to the person who read it the first time around."