Bin Laden memo puts Bush on back foot

Click to follow
The Independent US

George Bush was forced on to the defensive yesterday as critics seized on a previously classified intelligence document that they said proved the President and his senior advisers were warned that al-Qa'ida was planning a terror strike inside the US. They also said Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, misled the public over the document's contents.

George Bush was forced on to the defensive yesterday as critics seized on a previously classified intelligence document that they said proved the President and his senior advisers were warned that al-Qa'ida was planning a terror strike inside the US. They also said Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, misled the public over the document's contents.

The document released by the White House late on Saturday was an intelligence briefing given to Mr Bush in August 2001 entitled "Bin Laden determined to strike in United States''. It said intelligence suggested there were al-Qa'ida sleeper cells inside the US, that terrorists had been carrying out surveillance of buildings in New York, and that the terror network wanted to hijack a US aircraft.

Mr Bush yesterday claimed his presidential daily briefing (PDB) of 6 August did not contain specific information about an attack on the US. "I cannot say this more plainly. If we knew, we would have acted. Any administration would have acted. The previous administration would have acted. I am saying that I never saw any intelligence that said there was going to be an attack on America ... that said the time and the place."

He added: "Had I known there was going to be an attack on America I would have moved mountains to prevent it."

Mr Bush's comments may have been technically correct in that the PDB prepared by the CIA did not provide specific details of al-Qa'ida's plans. But the document does contain previously unpublished warnings about the terror network's preparations for action.

It says: "Al-Qa'ida members - including some who are US citizens - have resided in or travelled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks."

Elsewhere it says: "We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a [foreign intelligence] service in 1998 saying that Bin Laden wanted to hijack a US aircraft to gain the release of 'Blind Sheikh' Umar Abd al-Rahman and other US-held extremists. 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."

These details would appear to directly contradict previous statements by Ms Rice, made before the release of the document, that its contents were "largely historical". When she gave testimony last Thursday before the independent commission investigating the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, she also said that the warning about sleeper cells was not something they were warned they "needed to do something about".

In exchanges with commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, Ms Rice said the memo was "not a warning. This was a historic memo - historical memo prepared by the [CIA] because the President was asking questions.... I can also tell you that there was nothing in this memo that suggested that an attack was coming on New York or Washington DC. There was nothing in this memo as to time, place, how or where."

With its eye to November's presidential election, the administration is desperately trying to counter a public perception that it did not appreciate the threat. A poll published yesterday by Newsweek suggests 60 per cent of Americans believe the administration focused too much on other security issues. James Carville, a veteran Democratic strategist, told the Los Angeles Times: "Maybe I'm lost in a fog, but how much more information could you get? Of course [the PDB] was a warning."

Meanwhile, it was reported yesterday that officials investigating the 2000 al-Qa'ida attack on the USS Cole came very close to detecting the 11 September plot but missed the significance of a series of clues.

The declassified document

Bin Laden determined to strike in US

"Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate Bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US. Bin Laden implied in US television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Centre bomber Ramzi Yousef and "bring the fighting to America".

After US missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, Bin Laden told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington ...

An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative [said] at the same time that Bin Laden [planned] to exploit the operative's access to the US to mount a terrorist strike.

The millennium plotting in Canada in 1999 may have been part of Bin Laden's first serious attempt to implement a terrorist strike in the US. Convicted plotter Ahmed Ressam has told the FBI that he conceived the idea to attack Los Angeles International Airport himself, but that Bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaydah encouraged him and helped facilitate the operation. Ressam also said that in 1998 Abu Zubaydah was planning his own US attack.

Ressam says Bin Laden was aware of the Los Angeles operation.

Although Bin Laden has not succeeded, his attacks against the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 demonstrate that he prepares operations years in advance and is not deterred by setbacks. Bin Laden associates surveilled our Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as early as 1993, and some members of the Nairobi cell planning the bombings were arrested and deported in 1997.

Al-Qa'ida members ... have resided in or travelled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks. Two al-Qa'ida members found guilty in the conspiracy to bomb our embassies in East Africa were US citizens, and a senior EIJ member lived in California in the 1990s.

A clandestine source said in 1998 that a Bin Laden cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks.

We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as [one] in 1998 saying that Bin Laden wanted to hijack a US aircraft to gain the release of 'Blind Sheikh' Umar Abd al-Rahman and other US-held extremists.

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.

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

Comments