WASHINGTON - President Bush defended himself yesterday against allegations that he did not act urgently enough after being briefed about terrorists operating in the United States a month before the Sept. 11 attacks, saying he believed that the FBI and the CIA were pursuing the situation.
"I wanted to know whether there was anything, any actionable intelligence," Bush said. "I was satisfied that some of the matters were being looked into."
But, he said, the memo he received, a highly sensitive briefing document made public Saturday, contained no specific information and talked only about al-Qaida's possible intentions.
"I never saw any intelligence that indicated there was going to be an attack on America - at a time and a place, an attack," Bush told reporters as he left a military chapel in Fort Hood, Texas.
Bush's comments were his first since the memo became the focus of dispute Thursday when national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, under questioning by the commission investigating the attacks, revealed its title: "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." The memo warned Bush on Aug. 6, 2001, that al-Qaida terrorists were in the United States and possibly making "preparations for hijackings and other types of attacks."
The White House took the extraordinary step of making the memo public under pressure from the 10-member 9/11 commission, which is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. The memo revealed that the FBI had been conducting 70 "full field investigations" across the country that it believed were connected to Osama bin Laden, though it remains unclear what those investigations involved.
Bush said yesterday that he was well aware, as the memo stated, that bin Laden wanted to attack the United States, adding that hijackings were mentioned in the context of freeing a prisoner held in the United States, not using airplanes as missiles. He said he believed that "the FBI was investigating things."
"Had I known there was going to be an attack on America, I would have moved mountains to stop the attack. And had there been actionable intelligence, we would have moved on it," Bush said.
The president's comments are likely to increase the growing scrutiny of the FBI and its actions in the months and years leading up to the attacks, and raise new questions about how well the bureau handled the mounting threat of al-Qaida.
The FBI and the Department of Justice, which oversees the bureau, are expected to be the focus this week of two 9/11 commission hearings scheduled for tomorrow and Wednesday. Attorney General John Ashcroft is likely to face tough questions when he testifies about whether the Justice Department was taking the terrorist threat seriously while trying to redirect counterterrorism funds.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who took his post a week before the attacks, has been desperate to fend off a growing movement among some commission members to recommend pulling counterterrorism efforts from the FBI and giving them to a new domestic intelligence agency.
Commission member Slade Gorton said yesterday on Fox News Sunday that when former President Bill Clinton testified before the commission Thursday, he said the White House is "limited" in dealings with and control over the bureau.
Gorton, a former Republican senator from Washington, said he was surprised to learn that there wasn't, at least at the time, more White House authority over the FBI.
"After all the scandals of the J. Edgar Hoover and some of the Nixon years, the White House has felt that it couldn't give direct directions to the FBI," Gorton said. "And I think that was a great inhibiting factor, and it's the reason I'm so interested in these so-called 70 field investigations."
Democratic commission member Richard Ben-Veniste, also a guest on the show, said that he, too, is eager to hear from the FBI about the investigations and to find out why much detailed information never seemed to make it to top decision-makers.
"Yes, there were those couple of [investigations] about flight schools," Ben-Veniste said, "but the FBI didn't put them anywhere. No one in Washington, D.C., knew about them."
When asked whether he was satisfied that the FBI and CIA had done everything they should, Bush said that he is looking forward to a "full analysis of what took place."
FBI sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity yesterday said they are increasingly worried about the 9/11 commission's intentions. The bureau fended off attempts to separate it from its counterterrorism mission a year and a half ago, when the House and Senate committees investigated the attacks and considered the idea.
The bureau has intensified its efforts over the past two years to make terrorism its No. 1 priority, and most recently created a new department, the Office of Intelligence, to help analyze information and study reports that point to any future attack.
"These 70 investigations were ongoing, but at the same time, we had significant problems with `the wall' that prevented us from sharing information with the CIA," one top official said.
Congressional leaders also continued to question yesterday whether Rice was being forthcoming when she told the 9/11 commission that the memo was mostly "historical" information. Many said in interviews that they believed it should have pushed the administration into immediate action.