News Analysis: CIA terror memo is the new campaign issue

Posted in United States | 13-Apr-04 | Author: Douglas Jehl| Source: The New York Times

Bush discloses text; effect on electorate remains to be seen

WASHINGTON - In a single 17-sentence document, the intelligence briefing delivered to President George W. Bush in August 2001 spells out the who, hints at the what and points toward the where of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that followed 36 days later.

Whether its disclosure does lasting damage to Bush's presidency and re-election prospects may depend on whether the White House succeeds in convincing Americans that, as a whole, its significance adds up to less than a sum of those parts.

In an addendum twice as long as the document itself, the White House sought Saturday night to drive home a single key point: that the briefing "did not warn of the 9/11 attacks."

The idea that Al Qaeda wanted to strike in the United States was already evident, senior officials argued. They also said that while the briefing cited fresh details to make the case, those details were not enough to prompt action.

Still, after two years in which the White House has sought to prevent disclosure of the briefing, Bush's critics are bound to seize on the details as evidence that he had something to hide. While the White House has said the briefing was mostly vague and historical, critics will now seek to paint it as something historic.

Bush and his advisers have said that in the summer of 2001, the vast bulk of intelligence information pointed to the danger of terrorist attacks abroad. But the Aug. 6 briefing can be read as a clear-cut warning that Osama bin Laden had his sights set on targets within the United States and had already begun operations within its borders.

Based in part on continuing investigations by the FBI and the CIA, the briefing spelled out reasons for concern about "hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York."

Depending on which side is making its political point, the "patterns of suspicious activity" cited in the briefing will be presented either as yet another sign that the warnings were always too vague to act on, as the White House has argued, or as new evidence that Bush and his advisers were too slow to sense the danger at hand.

In making their case, White House officials who spoke to reporters in a conference call and issued the three-page addendum sought to minimize the significance of the briefing document.

"None of the information relating to the 'patterns of suspicious activity' was later deemed to be related to the 9/11 attacks," the addendum said.

The idea that bin Laden and his supporters wanted to carry out attacks in the United States, a senior official said, "was already publicly known," and the fresh concerns outlined Aug. 6, about the surveillance in New York and a telephone warning to a U.S. Embassy in the Gulf, "were being pursued aggressively by the appropriate agencies."

Still, a preview of a very different assessment could be heard even last week, as Democratic members of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks confronted Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, with pointed questions about the briefing.

One of them, Timothy Roemer, a former congressman from Indiana, asked Rice why Bush, still vacationing in Texas, had not responded to the warnings by at least summoning his cabinet-level advisers for a meeting on terrorism in August, something that had not occurred in his administration.

In deciding to release a portion of a daily briefing, something no previous White House has done, Bush and his advisers were attuned to the potential political damage being caused as its contents began to leak out after Rice's testimony on Thursday. In taking the step, White House officials seemed determined to head off the protests before accounts in the Sunday newspapers and on talk shows inflicted more damage.

But in taking the step after 6 p.m. on Saturday, the day before Easter, the White House may also have been seeking to shorten the time that critics might have to offer their own interpretations of the briefing.

Particularly in recent weeks, since the former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke accused the administration of failing to treat terrorism as an urgent priority in the months before Sept. 11, Bush's advisers have asked that their actions be viewed in the proper context.

In the summer of 2001, they have argued, the wave of warnings about possible attacks was indeed alarming but was almost always too vague to prompt any concrete action. While the intelligence was often credible, they contend, it was rarely specific.

With the disclosure of the briefing document, however, the specific, contemporary nature of what it contained will almost certainly confront the White House with more what-ifs. Of the new information, the most tantalizing may be the warning to the U.S. Embassy in the United Arab Emirates on May 15, 2001, "saying that a group of bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives."

White House officials said Saturday that they had "no information" connecting that call to the Sept. 11 attacks, but they conceded that they could not rule out such a link.

"Nothing pointed to a specific attack in a specific location," a senior White House official said Saturday night in trying to minimize the significance of the CIA's concern about the "patterns of suspicious activities." Whether that lack of specificity should have made it any less arresting as a call to action by Bush and his aides will be debated, perhaps most importantly by the commission as it prepares to render a judgment on Bush's performance.