Declassified Memo Said Al Qaeda Was in U.S.

Posted in Terrorism | 11-Apr-04 | Author: Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus| Source: Washington Post

Aug. 6 Report to President Warned of Hijacking

CRAWFORD, Tex., April 10 -- President Bush was warned a month before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that the FBI had information that terrorists might be preparing for a hijacking in the United States and might be targeting a building in Lower Manhattan.

The information was included in a written Aug. 6, 2001, briefing to Bush that was declassified Saturday night by the White House in response to a request from the independent commission probing the Sept. 11 attacks.

The short article, titled "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US," also included information that the FBI had "70 full field investigations" underway in the United States that were believed related to Osama bin Laden, and that a caller to the U.S. Embassy in the United Arab Emirates in May 2001 said a group of bin Laden supporters was in the United States planning attacks with explosives.

The document, citing a foreign intelligence service whose identity was redacted, said bin Laden told followers he wanted to "retaliate in Washington" for the United States' 1998 missile attack on his facilities in Afghanistan.

In a conference call Saturday with reporters, administration officials who insisted on anonymity said there was no evidence that either the call to the U.S. Embassy in the UAE or the surveillance of federal buildings in New York by Yemenis was related to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The officials said the photographing of the federal buildings was later judged to be "tourist activity," but they did not say whether that judgment was made before or after the attacks.

The White House originally resisted releasing the article, part of the President's Daily Brief, or PDB, citing the sensitivity of intelligence information. It characterized the document as a historical summary with little current information on which the president could have acted.

In her testimony to the 9/11 commission on Thursday, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said, "this was a historical memo. . . . It was not based on new threat information."

While the two-page document included information dating to 1997, it also contained information that the government suspected al Qaeda was actively preparing for an attack in the United States. While it gave no information about specific targets or dates, the briefing warned that U.S. intelligence believed bin Laden had serious plans to hit the United States.

The PDB said U.S. intelligence could not confirm "some of the more sensational threat reporting," such as information from a foreign intelligence service in 1998 saying bin Laden "wanted to hijack a US aircraft" to gain the release of U.S.-held Muslim extremists. The identity of the foreign service was redacted.

"Nevertheless," it said, "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."

The brief continued: "The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers Bin Ladin-related. CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our Embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group of Bin Ladin supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives."

The CIA author of the document wanted to make clear to the president that, despite the many threats being centered abroad, agency analysts believed there was a real and continuing danger that bin Laden was determined to attack the United States.

As one former administration official who has read the PDB said last week: "The agency doesn't write a headline like that if it doesn't want to get attention." In this case, the former official said, "the CIA did not believe Bush policymakers were taking the threat to the U.S. seriously."

The White House noted Saturday night that the Federal Aviation Administration and the FBI issued several warnings between June and September 2001, including specific warnings about the possibility of a hijacking to free al Qaeda members imprisoned in the United States.

The two White House officials who held the teleconference call said that they would not divulge whether Bush asked questions when given the Aug. 6, 2001, briefing, saying the president's response was "confidential." They also declined to say whether the president or others followed up on the warnings or sought more information, other than to say that the government spread to various agencies the warning about the call to the embassy in the UAE.

In a fact sheet released with the PDB, the White House asserted that the document "did not warn of the 9/11 attacks" and noted: "Although the PDB referred to the possibility of hijackings, it did not discuss the possible use of planes as weapons."

The White House also asserted that the PDB "was based largely on background information" and that "there is no information" that the call to the UAE embassy or the surveillance of buildings in New York "was related to the 9/11 attacks."

At the same time, the document indicated that the government knew of widespread al Qaeda activity in the United States. "Al-Qa'ida members -- including some who are US citizens -- have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks," it noted. ". . . A clandestine source said in 1998 that a Bin Ladin cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks."

In its historical section, the document cites bin Laden's television interviews in 1997 and 1998 in which he said he would "bring the fighting to America," ironically telling his followers he would "follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef."

"After US missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, Bin Ladin told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington," the report said, redacting the name of the foreign intelligence service that supplied the information.

Also in 1998, the PDB said, an Egyptian Islamic Jihad operative told a foreign service, the identity of which was also redacted, "that Bin Ladin was planning to exploit the operative's access to the US to mount a terrorist strike."

The PDB judged that the millennium plotting in Canada in 1999 may have been a bin Laden attempt, noting that convicted plotter Ahmed Ressam said that he was encouraged by bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaida in his plan to attack Los Angeles International Airport and that bin Laden was aware of the operation. Zubaida was planning his own attack, Ressam told the FBI.

The PDB also said bin Laden "prepares operations years in advance and is not deterred by setbacks," and it noted that the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania began with surveillance by bin Laden associates as early as 1993. The report noted that two of those convicted in the embassy bombings were U.S. citizens.

PDBs have been released in the past, but CIA Director George J. Tenet has tried to put them in a non-releasable category.

The items in the PDB on the surveillance of New York buildings and the call to the UAE were obtained at the last minute by the CIA from the FBI in an effort to get new information, a U.S. government official said. The CIA's intent was to sound sufficient alarm about bin Laden's potential.

The CIA analyst who prepared the article called an FBI analyst dealing with the subject, and that analyst supplied the material about bin Laden's threats of hijackings or other attacks in the United States.

The FBI analyst did not make a survey within the bureau for information but rather reported a new incident that seemed relevant to the request -- the interviewing of Yemeni tourists taking photographs of the Foley Square courthouse in downtown New York where Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and others had just been convicted.

There was other relevant information in the FBI bin Laden unit, including the now well-publicized Phoenix document from an agent in that city, written on July 10, 2001, which raised questions about a bin Laden supporter taking flying lessons and suggested a nationwide survey to see what else was going on.

On the call to the embassy in the UAE in May 2001, the White House officials said they responded within two days to get investigations started. But it was still unresolved on Aug. 6 when the item was provided to the president. On Saturday, officials said that the matter was still not resolved but that they were able to determine it did not relate to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Pincus reported from Washington.

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