Memo noted pre-9/11 steps by al-Qaida

White House releases Aug. 6, 2001, report that pointed to hijackings

`Suspicious activity' within U.S.

Release of document is highly unusual disclosure

April 11, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The White House, in an extraordinary disclosure, released last night a highly sensitive intelligence report that warned President Bush a month before the Sept. 11 attacks of "suspicious activity" among al-Qaida operatives in the United States that pointed to possible aircraft hijackings.

The report also says the terror group included U.S. citizens and "apparently" had a support system in place in the country to carry out attacks.

The Aug. 6, 2001, report states that "clandestine, foreign government and media reports" going back to 1997 indicated that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden wanted to conduct attacks in the United States.

It describes a May 2001 call to the U.S. Embassy in the United Arab Emirates in which the caller said a group of bin Laden supporters was in the United States planning attacks with explosives.

The document also points to a foreign intelligence report saying that bin Laden had told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington for the 1998 U.S. missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan.

A White House fact sheet also released last night stressed that none of the specific incidents mentioned in the report later turned out to have any connection with the Sept. 11 attacks. The Aug. 6 report gave no specific warning of Sept. 11 and made no mention of the use of planes as missiles.

The White House has contended that the report contained mainly "historical" information, much of which was well-known publicly.

The report from the tightly held President's Daily Brief, headlined "Bin Ladin [sic] Determined to Strike in US," is at the heart of a growing debate over what Bush knew about threats before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and whether the U.S. government reacted forcefully enough. Richard B. Clarke, the former White House counterterror chief, has testified that Bush and his team failed to assign an "urgent" priority to terrorism in the months leading up to the attacks.

Political pressure

The report was declassified in response to growing political pressure after the president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, described parts of it during a hearing last week by the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

Two senior White House officials, briefing reporters on the document, said they did not know whether the president read the 1 1/2 -page report or rather had its contents described to him by an intelligence official. One said, however, that his "normal process" is to read the briefing papers and discuss them with his briefer.

The officials said they didn't know how Bush reacted to the briefing. The president had requested the information after hearing repeated reports of terrorist threats outside the United States. He wanted to know the likelihood of an attack in the United States, officials said.

Among suspicious activities mentioned in the report was "recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York." This was based on a report two Yemenis were observed taking pictures in New York's Federal Plaza. The FBI interviewed the men and determined, after the brief was written, that the actions were consistent with tourism.

No indications

Apart from this incident, the fact sheet noted, the report "contained no information from FBI investigations that indicated activities related to the preparation or planning for hijackings or other attacks within the United States."

The officials said the May 15, 2001, phone call to the embassy in the UAE triggered within two days a meeting of the Counterterrorism Security Group that Clarke headed, which circulated the information among a number of departments and agencies that regularly are on the lookout for terrorists.

But the briefing paper noted that the FBI at the time was conducting "approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the U.S. that it considers bin Laden-related."

The document was censored in three places to avoid naming foreign intelligence services that supplied information.

In her testimony last week, Rice described the document as "analytic" and containing "historical" information that did not require urgent follow-up by the president.

In their briefing yesterday, officials said terrorist threats, to the extent they were known before Sept. 11, were being "pursued aggressively by the appropriate agencies."

The report describes in crisp, chilling prose the indications that bin Laden wanted to attack the United States and noted the careful preparation that was a hallmark of his network.

It noted that in television interviews in 1997 and 1998 he had implied that his organization would follow the example of Ramzi Yousef, one of those convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and "bring the fighting to America."

The report points to an operative in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a terror group with close links to al-Qaida, telling a foreign intelligence service that bin Laden was planning to "exploit the operative's access to the U.S. to mount a terrorist strike."

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