A May 18 article incorrectly stated that the joint congressional committee investigating intelligence before Sept. 11 had announced that Eleanor Hill has been hired to head its staff. Committee sources said she is the leading candidate, but no announcement was made. (Published 5/20/02)
The top-secret briefing memo presented to President Bush on Aug. 6 carried the headline, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," and was primarily focused on recounting al Qaeda's past efforts to attack and infiltrate the United States, senior administration officials said.
The document, known as the President's Daily Briefing, underscored that Osama bin Laden and his followers hoped to "bring the fight to America," in part as retaliation for U.S. missile strikes on al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in 1998, according to knowledgeable sources.
Bush had specifically asked for an intelligence analysis of possible al Qaeda attacks within the United States, because most of the information presented to him over the summer about al Qaeda focused on threats against U.S. targets overseas, sources said. But one source said the White House was disappointed because the analysis lacked focus and did not present fresh intelligence.
New accounts yesterday of the controversial Aug. 6 memo provided a shift in portrayals of the document, which has set off a political firestorm because it suggested that bin Laden's followers might be planning to hijack U.S. airliners.
In earlier comments this week, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and other administration officials stressed that intelligence officials were focused primarily on threats to U.S. interests overseas. But sources made clear yesterday that the briefing presented to Bush focused on attacks within the United States, indicating that he and his aides were concerned about the risks.
The new reports came amid continued demands for an independent investigation on Capitol Hill, along with more revelations about possible intelligence missteps before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Intelligence sources said last night that at least two names listed in a July 2001 FBI memo about an Arizona flight school have been identified by the CIA as having links to al Qaeda. The FBI memo was never acted upon or distributed to outside agencies prior to Sept. 11 and was not provided to the CIA until last week, sources said.
The memo, sent to FBI headquarters by a Phoenix FBI agent, warned that bin Laden could have been using U.S. flight schools to train terrorists and suggested a nationwide canvass for Middle Eastern aviation students. The CIA's discovery of an al Qaeda link was first reported by ABC News.
Sources cautioned that CIA officials are not sure that they could have linked the two names to al Qaeda had they been given the memo last summer.
Three of the Sept. 11 hijackers received flight training in the United States, although all had ended their classes by the time the memo was written. The document was never shared in August with FBI investigators in Minnesota, who were scrambling to ascertain whether French national Zacarias Moussaoui was part of an al Qaeda plot. He since has been charged as a Sept. 11 conspirator.
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said yesterday that criticism of the administration's intelligence actions before Sept. 11 is unfair.
"What you have are some folks trying to do -- and unfortunately in a fairly accusatory way -- take the benefit of 20-20 hindsight with pre-9/11 information and trying to impart upon it a post-9/11 wisdom," Ridge said in an interview.
Ridge said there were no formal mechanisms in place before Sept. 11 to guarantee that the FBI's activities in Arizona and Minnesota were put into the overall intelligence picture, and that he and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III were talking about ways to coordinate key agencies.
"The FBI's working on it; the CIA's working on it; we're working on it with them," he said. He added that the solution "is not more spies and satellites" but an analytic team devoted to intelligence about domestic terrorism.
Under growing criticism for a failure to act on the Phoenix memo and other potential warning signs, Bush administration officials have said repeatedly that U.S. intelligence analysts never envisioned the possibility that terrorists would use jetliners as suicide missiles and slam them into such buildings as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people . . . would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile," Rice said Thursday.
But a 1999 report prepared for the National Intelligence Council, an affiliate of the CIA, warned that terrorists associated with bin Laden might hijack an airplane and crash it into the Pentagon, White House or CIA headquarters.
The report recounts well-known case studies of similar plots, including a 1995 plan by al Qaeda operatives to hijack and crash a dozen U.S. airliners in the South Pacific and pilot a light aircraft into Langley.
"Suicide bomber(s) belonging to al-Qaida's Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives (C-4 and semtex) into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the White House," the September 1999 report said.
In other developments yesterday, CIA officials said Cofer Black, head of the agency's Counterterrorism Center for the past three years, has been assigned to another position. They described the move as part of normal turnover at the agency.
After weeks of interviews, a joint, bipartisan congressional committee investigating intelligence before Sept. 11 announced it has hired Eleanor Hill, a lawyer and former Defense Department inspector general, to head its staff. Hill served for 15 years as staff member for former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) on the Senate permanent investigation subcommittee and was Nunn's person on the joint Iran-contra investigation.
But the sharpest focus remained on the Aug. 6 presidential briefing memo, which Rice described Thursday as historic and analytic in nature. But she did not explicitly note that the memo, according to sources, was focused primarily on a discussion of possible domestic targets.
As an example, sources said the memo cited the case of Ahmed Ressam, who was caught attempting to smuggle explosives across the Canadian border for an al Qaeda attack on Los Angeles International Airport during the 2000 millennium celebrations.
The briefing also notes that al Qaeda members were known to live in or travel to the United States, and that still more would attempt to enter the country.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters yesterday said the headline on the document was, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike the United States." But sources who have read the memo said the headline ended with the phrase "in U.S."
Fleischer described the briefing as a summary containing "generalized information about hijacking and any number of other things."
Rice and other Bush administration officials have said the memo contains no reference to suicide attacks of the kind carried out on Sept. 11, focusing instead on "hijackings in the traditional sense." Hijackings were a minor part of the analysis, officials said.
In one brief mention, sources said, the memo noted that unconfirmed information from British intelligence in 1998 showed that al Qaeda members talked about using an airline hijacking to negotiate the release of imprisoned Muslim cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who had been convicted of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks.
Some sources familiar with the briefing told The Washington Post on Thursday that the FBI added the notion of hijackings to the document, and that it had not included such references in early drafts.
But other senior U.S. officials said yesterday that the report, prepared by the CIA, "was never looked at by the FBI." One source said the document also is incorrect in citing the FBI as providing information related to hijackings.
Staff writers Mike Allen, Bill Miller, Dana Priest and Walter Pincus contributed to this report.