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Brief Raises Credibility Questions

Times Staff Writer

Questions about the Bush administration’s vigilance dominated Condoleezza Rice’s appearance last week before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But with the release Saturday night of a classified warning delivered to President Bush at his Texas ranch one month before the attacks, questions of credibility may become a growing challenge for Rice -- and the president she serves.

The virtually unprecedented publication of the classified Aug. 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing is bound to stir intense debate in the coming days over whether Rice was misleading commissioners in her testimony last week when she described the report as a “historical memo” and “not a warning.”

Much of the page-and-a-half document focuses on information about Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda developed from 1997 through 1999. But it also reported that “FBI information ... indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks.”

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Senior White House officials briefing reporters late Saturday said that assertion did not reflect any specific intelligence relevant to the Sept. 11 plot. But Bush now faces the likelihood that many critics will view the briefing as precisely a warning -- and ask whether the administration responded urgently enough at the time, or described it honestly in Rice’s testimony last week.

“Maybe I’m lost in a fog, but how much more information could you get?” asked James Carville, a veteran Democratic strategist. “Of course it was a warning.”

At once troubling and vague, the memo may prove to be something of a Rorschach test, offering evidence both for Bush’s supporters and critics.

The Bush administration had long resisted publication of the memo, and observers said the decision to release it underscored the pressure Bush was feeling amid criticism of his actions by former White House counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke, and public hearings by the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

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“They wouldn’t have released it unless they felt huge pressure, so they were up against it,” said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas. “And they released it in the knowledge that it would probably raise questions about what Condi Rice said, which further indicates a certain level of concern and anxiety -- if not desperation.”

Bush’s political situation, in fact, doesn’t appear that dire.

Several national polls conducted after Rice’s appearance before the commission last week showed a mixture of vulnerabilities and continuing strength for Bush on issues related to terrorism.

A Time/CNN poll released Friday found that only about one-quarter of Americans believed the Bush administration had a strategy for combating Al Qaeda before the Sept. 11 attacks. Likewise, in a Newsweek Poll released Saturday, just one-fourth said they believed the administration took the threat of global terrorism as seriously as it needed to before the attacks.

Yet less than one-fifth of those polled by Newsweek said the Bush administration should be blamed for the attacks; almost one-fourth said the Clinton administration bore the responsibility, and the largest group -- nearly 40% -- said both were equally culpable.

In the Time/CNN poll, 48% said the Bush administration did all it could to prevent the attacks -- a significant improvement from before Rice’s testimony. And in both surveys, at least 55% of those polled said they approved of the way Bush was handling the war on terrorism.

Yet the questions over the administration’s activities before Sept. 11 -- which will continue this week with commission hearings focusing on the FBI -- present an additional headache for Bush at a time when polls show rising public anxiety about his course in Iraq.

Last week’s commission hearing with Rice was dominated by questions about whether the administration acted aggressively enough on intelligence warnings of possible terrorist attacks during 2001. The Aug. 6 memo, although not yet publicly released, figured heavily in the proceedings, especially when Democratic commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor, closely questioned Rice.

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In several heated exchanges with Ben-Veniste, Rice declared that the memo was “not a warning. This was a historic memo -- historical memo prepared by the [Central Intelligence] Agency because the president was asking questions....”

Moments later, when Ben-Veniste asked whether there was any “reassuring” information in the memo, Rice replied: “Certainly not.... But I can also tell you that there was nothing in this memo that suggested that an attack was coming on New York or Washington, D.C. There was nothing in this memo as to time, place, how or where.”

The memo’s release supports Rice on that latter point. Brief, broad and at times hazy, it does not cite intelligence on any specific plot. Yet it does contain enough alarming information that many observers are likely to consider it at least a general warning, despite Rice’s claim to the contrary.

Among the key observations in the report:

* “After U.S. missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, Bin Laden told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington.”

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

* Al Qaeda had members inside the United States “and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks.”

* The FBI was conducting “approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the U.S. that it considers” related to Bin Laden.

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* The FBI and CIA were investigating a call to the U.S. Embassy in the United Arab Emirates in May 2001 “saying that a group of Bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives.”

Most dramatic was the sentence saying the FBI saw “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks.”

Briefing reporters Saturday evening, a senior White House official said that language did not refer to specific “FBI investigative observations.”

Rather, the official said, it reflected the conclusion of a CIA analyst preparing the document after observing a series of facts and talking with the FBI: the “spike” in intelligence that summer indicating a possible attack; the indications that Bin Laden wanted to retaliate for the conviction in May 2001 of four terrorists in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa; and reports of surveillance of federal buildings in New York City, which later turned out to be tourist-related.

“In her judgment,” the White House official said, “if you connected those dots, that seemed to be a pattern of possibly suspicious activity in this country.”

In the next few days, the political sparring over the memo will probably proceed on two levels. One set of questions will revolve around whether Rice tried to mislead the commission and the public in her description of the document.

She is already engaged in a semantic tangle with critics of her repeated claim that Clarke never presented her with a plan for combating Al Qaeda. In her testimony last week, Rice acknowledged receiving a memo from him soon after taking office, but characterized it not as a plan but rather a “set of ideas.”

On the second track, Bush probably faces a renewed set of questions about his response to the memo.

Cliff May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative advocacy group, said it would be unfair to criticize Bush because the memo did not ask him to take any action, and in fact suggested that the FBI was already aggressively pursuing Al Qaeda.

“It says we have 70 investigations going on,” May said. “I think it is very easy for anyone in elected office [reading that] to say the FBI is on top of it, we are taking care of it. You don’t hear anybody saying what we need to do next.”

But Democratic commissioners at last week’s hearings questioned whether Rice and Bush had done enough to convey a sense of urgency to the intelligence and law enforcement bureaucracy before the attacks. On Saturday, Ben-Veniste told Associated Press that the commission should further explore Bush’s reaction to the memo.

As such questions emerge, some Democrats believe, the memo may help them challenge the Bush reelection campaign’s effort to portray the president as a decisive wartime leader. “On Aug. 6, he is handed a briefing that says, ‘FBI picks up activity consistent with a hijacking,’ ” Carville said. “The thing is titled, ‘Bin Laden Determined To Strike Within the United States.’ He continues the longest presidential vacation in history.”

*

Staff writer Edwin Chen in Crawford, Texas, contributed to this report.


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