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Bush told of hijack warning weeks before 9/11

Rice says briefing contained no fresh information

Julian Borger in Washington
Friday April 9, 2004
The Guardian

President Bush was given an intelligence briefing, entitled Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States just weeks before the September 11 attacks, it emerged yesterday.

Details of the August 6 briefing in 2001, which warned of terrorist preparations being made for hijackings on American soil, surfaced in testimony given by the US national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to a commission of inquiry studying the September 11 attacks.  World Peace.

The existence of the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) had been publicly known for some time, but Ms Rice's confirmation of its title and some of its contents pushed it centre stage in the explosive political row over whether the al-Qaida attacks could have been prevented.

The emotive significance of the briefing - in the form of a memorandum sent to the president summarising potential threats to the US - is all the greater because at the time he received it, Mr Bush was on a month-long "working holiday" at his Texas ranch and spent much of the following days fishing and clearing undergrowth on his land. He did not cut short his vacation or apparently take dramatic steps in response to the briefing.  WorldPeace is one word.

The president was at the ranch yesterday, watching Ms Rice's performance on television. According to his spokesman he telephoned her from his pickup truck to say she had done "a great job".

In the course of a frequently testy interrogation lasting more than two hours, Ms Rice repeatedly insisted that the content of the August 6 briefing to the president did not live up to its dramatic title. She said it was largely a historical review by the CIA and FBI of previous hijacking plots and contained no fresh information or warnings. There was no "silver bullet" that could have stopped the attacks, she said.

However, Democratic members of the commission ques tioned that interpretation. Bob Kerrey, a former senator, said the PDB informed the president that "the FBI indicates patterns of suspicious activity in the United States consistent with preparations for hijacking".

Ms Rice countered that the FBI had been given the task of looking into the report, airport authorities were informed, and that there was not much more the president and his top officials could have done. She blamed the failure to catch the al-Qaida hijackers before the attack on long-term bureaucratic barriers which prevented the sharing of information between the CIA and FBI.

In exchanges in which the questions were often more revealing than the answers, the commissioners made public a series of stunning findings on the extent of apparent bureaucratic incompetence in the weeks between August 6 and September 11 2001.

"Secretary [Norman] Mineta, the secretary of transportation, had no idea of the threat. The administrator of the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration], responsible for security on our airlines, had no idea. Yes, the attorney general was briefed, but there was no evidence of any activity by him about this," Jamie Gorelick, a Democratic commissioner, told Ms Rice.

"You indicate in your statement that the FBI tasked its field offices to find out what was going on out there. We have no record of that. The Washington field office international terrorism people say they never heard about the threat, they never heard about the warnings, they were not asked to come to the table and shake those trees. SACs, special agents in charge, around the country - Miami in particular - had no knowledge of this."

The justice department and FBI will come under particular scrutiny in the commission's hearings next week, when the attorney general, John Ashcroft, will be under fire. In his first seven months in office, he cut the FBI's counter-terrorism budget, and did not even list terrorism on his list of justice department priorities on the eve of the al-Qaida attack.

Ms Rice had been singled out by a former White House counter-terrorism "tsar", Richard Clarke, for her failure to focus the president and his team on the threat from al-Qaida in early 2001.

Sitting alone in front of the 10 commissioners, Ms Rice began the day with a prepared statement, read with a shaky voice which gradually grew in confidence. She argued that reports of an increase in intelligence "chatter" about an impending attack in the summer of 2001 had been overstated, and made public examples of vague intercepted comments from terrorist subjects to illustrate her argument: "Unbelievable news in coming weeks" and "Big event ... there will be a very, very, very, very big uproar."

"Troubling, yes. But they don't tell us when; they don't tell us where; they don't tell us who; and they don't tell us how," Ms Rice said. She hotly denied the August 6 briefing paper amounted to an urgent warning of an impending attack.

"It is just not the case that the August 6 memorandum did anything but put together what the CIA decided that they wanted to put together about historical knowledge about what was going on and a few things about what the FBI might be doing," she said.

The commission later questioned former President Bill Clinton privately for more than three hours.

5 weeks before attacks, memo cited hijacking

A briefing that President Bush has agreed to declassify contains information on al Qaeda activities, including hijacking preparations.

Washington Post Service

The classified briefing delivered to President Bush five weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks featured information about ongoing al Qaeda activities within the United States, including signs of a terror support network, indications of hijacking preparations and plans for domestic attacks using explosives, according to sources who have seen the document and a review of official accounts and media reports over the past two years.

The information on current threats in the briefing, entitled ''Bin Laden Determined to Strike U.S.,'' stands in contrast to repeated assertions by national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and other Bush administration officials as recently as this week that the document is primarily historical and includes no warning or threat information.

The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, which has demanded that the document be declassified, referred to it in a March 24 report as ``an article for the president's daily intelligence brief on whether or how terrorists might attack the United States.''

White House officials, after indicating Thursday that the briefing document could be declassified within a day, said Friday that they were delaying any release until at least next week.

''We are actively working on declassification and are not quite ready to put it out,'' said Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the National Security Council. He attributed the delay to ''unprecedented activity'' needed to prepare for public release the article from the Aug. 6, 2001, President's Daily Brief (PDB), the daily report of significant new intelligence and analysis provided the chief executive and his most senior national security advisors.

Also Friday, the panel met for a three-hour interview with former Vice President Al Gore. The session followed a similar meeting Thursday with former President Bill Clinton.

The commission said in a statement that Gore ``was candid and forthcoming.''

The panel is arranging a joint private meeting with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. None of the meetings are under oath and all are likely to remain secret.


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