White House releases memo
Joseph Curl             April 11, 2004

CRAWFORD, Texas -- The Bush administration last night released the declassified contents of a presidential briefing document that contains mostly historical information about Osama bin Laden's terrorist plans -- almost all of it compiled from open sources, including television and news reports.

    The 1½-page document, prepared for President Bush and presented in person at the Bush ranch in Texas on Aug. 6, 2001, contains 17 sentences, 14 of which are "historical in nature," a senior administration official said. The memo did not warn of the September 11 attacks and did not discuss the potential use of planes as weapons.

    "Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate [bin Laden] since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US," said the memo, titled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US."

    That information was gleaned from U.S. television interviews from 1997 and 1998, in which the al Qaeda mastermind implied that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and "bring the fighting to America," said the document, known as a "presidential daily brief," or PDB.

    The PDB -- in which the three redactions have been made "to protect the names of foreign governments that provided information to the CIA," administration officials said -- cited a clandestine source's claim in 1998 that a bin Laden cell in New York was "recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks."

    But the document notes that U.S. intelligence agencies "have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a [redacted] service in 1998 saying that [bin Laden] wanted to hijack a US aircraft to gain the release of 'Blind Shaykh' 'Umar 'Abd al-Rahman and other US-held extremists," some of whom were responsible for the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center.

    Of the three sentences that are not historical, one says: "Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York."

    A senior administration official said last night that the "surveillance," investigated by the FBI, turned out to be "consistent with tourist activity."

    "This information was based on a report that two Yemeni men had been seen taking photographs of buildings at Federal Plaza in New York. The FBI later interviewed the men and determined that their conduct was consistent with tourist activity and the FBI's investigation identified no link to terrorism," the official said.

    The second of the three sentences that is not historical said that the FBI was "conducting approximately 70 field investigations throughout the US that it considers [bin Laden]-related."

    The third sentence said: "CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our Embassy in the [United Arab Emirates] in May saying that a group of [bin Laden] supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives." The caller did not say where or when the attacks might occur, the administration said in a statement.

    Two days after that May 15, 2001, call, the National Security Council's counterterrorism staff convened the Counterterrorism Security Group, whose members include the State, Defense and Justice departments, as well as the FBI and CIA, to review the information provided by the caller. The information was also shared with the U.S. Customs Service and the Federal Aviation Administration, the administration officials said.

    In addition, the officials said that between June and September, the FAA and FBI issued several advisories that included specific warnings about potential hijackings to free al Qaeda members jailed in the United States.

    But nowhere in the PDB is there mention of turning U.S. airliners into missiles, as the al Qaeda terrorists did on September 11, 2001, killing about 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in suburban Washington.

     "There's nothing in here that's tied to the 9/11 plot," the senior official told reporters last night during a conference call.

    The PDB, prepared by the CIA after consultation with an FBI analyst to respond to questions posed by the president, contains in large part widely known -- and general -- information. At some points, the briefing is speculative. For instance, it says that a foiled effort by terrorists to launch an attack from Canada near the millennium "may have been part of [bin Laden's] first serious attempt to implement a terrorist strike in the US," although no documentation is provided.

    That theory was based on the fact that convicted plotter Ahmed Ressam, who was caught trying to cross the Canadian border with explosives about 60 miles north of Seattle in late 1999, told the FBI that he alone conceived a planned attack on Los Angeles International Airport, but that bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaydah "encouraged him and helped facilitate the operation," the PDB states.

    Mostly, though, the report -- the 40th PDB in which al Qaeda was mentioned, the senior official said -- contained already-known information. At one point, the memo states that members of the terrorist group "have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks."

    Democrats have seized on the briefing, making it a focal point of testimony by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice before the commission probing intelligence lapses in advance of the September 11 attacks. Democrats on the commission demanded its release, questioning whether Mr. Bush was keeping secret information that could have prevented the attacks.

    Commissioner Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, told the Associated Press yesterday that the memo's details should have given the president enough warning to push for more intelligence information about domestic hijackings.

    "The whole argument the government used that we were focusing overseas, that we thought the attack was coming from outside the United States -- this memo said an attack could come in the United States. And we didn't scramble our agencies to that," he said.

    Richard Ben-Veniste, another Democratic commissioner and former Watergate prosecutor, told the Associated Press yesterday evening that the details in the memo call into question Miss Rice's assertion that the memo was purely a "historical" document.

    "This is a provocative piece of information and warrants further exploration as to what was done following the receipt of this information to enhance our domestic security," he said. In particular, he said he wanted to know what Mr. Bush's reaction to the memo was.
    Miss Rice, in her three hours of questioning Thursday, repeatedly said the briefing contained mostly historical information and did not warn of any coming attacks inside the United States.

    "Most often," Miss Rice told the commission, "the threat reporting was frustratingly vague."

    Republican John F. Lehman, a member of the September 11 commission, told United Press International that he was "very glad" the document had been released.

    "It paints a very good picture -- that the American people need to see -- of the best intelligence available to the president. There was not a specific warning in there."

    Mr. Lehman said the document showed "increasing capacity and an intention" by al Qaeda to strike at the United States, but he said partial leaks that came from Democrats on the panel implying that the PDB warned of hijackings were "the opposite of the truth."

    "Rather it suggests that the intelligence services are on top of this," he said.

    The Bush administration had not initially released the brief memo for fear that doing so would bring more demands to release confidential and sensitive briefings the president receives from top staff.

    But the document gives neither a time nor a suspected target for an attack and provides almost no actionable intelligence. The senior official said it was not unusual for a PDB to be a compilation of known facts, scattered with a few bits of intelligence from clandestine operatives and foreign governments.

    "One of the biggest issues in intelligence and analysis these days is how much information is simply publicly available and can be used and analyzed and how much information comes from clandestine sources," the official said. "There's a whole cottage industry of people out there who in fact say, 'Look, if you spend enough time collecting, analyzing, compiling the open-source intelligence, you can tell a lot.' "