A Long Look at Response to Brief
One day after the release of a top-secret report delivered to President Bush only five weeks before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the spotlight shifted to a pair of new questions: How did the president respond? And what did the FBI do?
The 1 1/2-page document, dated Aug. 6, 2001, cited intelligence from 1997 and 1998 as well as more recent information that terrorists in the United States might be planning to hijack an airplane or use explosives.
Experts fiercely debated Sunday whether the report -- titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” -- constituted a substantial warning of the attacks to come or was, in the words of national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, little more than a “historical memo.”
Largely lost in the charges and countercharges was how the president and the FBI, the agency principally responsible for protecting Americans from terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, reacted to the information in the CIA-drafted report, which was declassified and released Saturday.
But that is about to change. The bipartisan commission investigating the events leading up to the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is expected to make the once-classified document -- and the Bush administration’s reaction to it -- a prime focus of its hearings Tuesday and Wednesday. Top FBI and Justice Department officials in the Clinton and Bush administrations, along with CIA director George J. Tenet, are scheduled to testify.
“The 9/11 commission is going to want to know what was the White House’s reaction to the analysis and judgment of the CIA and the FBI about the threats,” said Roger W. Cressey, who served as a deputy White House counterterrorism official in both administrations and now heads a security consulting firm.
The president and his top aides have acknowledged there were mounting signs during spring and summer 2001 that Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist network were planning new attacks on U.S. interests. But they have argued that the information was not specific enough for them to take steps that might have prevented the airliner assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
On Sunday, Bush reiterated that argument, saying that at no time did he receive specific warning about the sort of attacks that Al Qaeda ultimately carried out.
“I am satisfied that I never saw any intelligence that indicated there was going to be an attack on America -- at a time and a place, an attack,” he told reporters accompanying him on a visit to Ft. Hood, Texas. “Had I known there was going to be an attack on America, I would have moved mountains to stop the attack....
“I can’t say it as plainly as this: Had I known, we would have acted. Of course we would have acted,” Bush said. “Any administration would have acted. The previous administration would have acted. That’s our job.”
Critics contended Sunday that with its insistence that it could not have done more to thwart the attacks without further details of the terrorists’ plans, the administration displayed a disturbing passivity in the weeks leading up to Sept. 11. The critics include Bush’s former counterterrorism expert, Richard Clarke; Democratic members of the Sept. 11 commission; and the president’s presumptive Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.
Rand Beers, a former Bush administration counterterrorism official who is now Kerry’s top advisor on national security matters, said on CNN’s “Inside Politics” Sunday: “With all the information of that summer , certainly ... someone should have been out shaking the trees to find out what more we knew and what we could do about it.”
The critics say the Aug. 6 report is a case in point of the problem with the administration’s actions in advance of the attacks. Although the report was strikingly thin in places, some people familiar with such documents said it should have set off alarm bells in the White House.
One former counterterrorism official who spent years working closely with the White House, the National Security Council, the FBI and the CIA said the report -- part of the presidential daily brief, or PDB -- was designed to alert the president and his national security advisor to a danger so they could use their authority to prod sluggish bureaucracies into action.
“The PDB, by definition, is to raise information to the president’s attention and alert him to threats,” said the former official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity. The official said the “central question” confronting the administration in the weeks leading up to the attacks was: “Do you want to be proactive or reactive?”
The president and his top aides had been reactive, the former official said.
Other former national security officials interviewed Sunday were somewhat less critical of the administration.
“I can’t judge how they handled their threat assessment,” said James B. Steinberg, the former deputy national security advisor to Clinton.
“We obviously were aware that these guys did not consider the United States off-limits. It was not a sanctuary,” Steinberg said. “Presumably [the Aug. 6 report] was part of a stream of regular reporting about the threat.
“I don’t understand the characterization of it as a historical document; it contained current information,” he said.
Both Steinberg and Cressey said Clinton had received regular briefings about the Al Qaeda threat and pushed the White House’s Counterterrorism Security Group -- the umbrella organization in charge of protecting against attacks -- to follow up on leads and provide better information.
Clinton “made notations about [threats], asking what did we do about this or that, and we’d respond back,” Cressey said. “If the information was bad or uncorroborated or the sourcing was suspect, we would say so. Or if it was good, we’d respond to it and ask the FBI and CIA what they were doing about it.”
Bush may have done something similar after receiving the Aug. 6 report. But administration officials have refused to discuss the president’s response.
Asked about it during testimony last week before the Sept. 11 commission, Rice declined to answer. During a background briefing Saturday after the report was released, a senior administration official said: “We can’t give any information about the president’s reaction. We don’t know the president’s reaction, and it would not be the sort of thing that we would discuss.”
Besides raising questions about the president’s response, the release of the Aug. 6 report has revived concerns about the FBI’s behavior in the period leading up to the 2001 attacks.
The report noted that “FBI information ... indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparation for hijackings or other types of attacks.”
It said that the agency was “conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers Bin Ladin-related.” But some critics were skeptical that the FBI was taking all the steps it could to track down terrorists.
“All they did was send out [an electronic warning to field offices] in late June or July,” said the former counterterrorism official, who spent years working closely with most of the agencies involved in national security.
“We don’t know whether they ever instructed [the FBI-led terrorism squads around the country] to do anything in specific to respond to the growing threat picture that summer,” the former official said. “They were asked to by the CSG, but we don’t know what was ever done.
“Our problem was always that we could never see what the FBI was doing, because they never sent us reports about what was being done,” the former official said.
Such criticism of the FBI is hardly new. Long after the Sept. 11 attacks, congressional overseers and the FBI’s own senior staff acknowledged significant problems in getting the agency’s field offices to aggressively tackle terrorism cases.
In November 2002, the FBI’s deputy director, Bruce Gebhardt, sent a scathing memo to the agency’s 56 field offices, saying that he was “amazed and astounded” that some had failed to commit adequate resources to counterterrorism.
“You need to instill a sense of urgency” in agents, Gebhardt told field office leaders. “They need to get out on the street and develop sources.”
Former FBI officials scheduled to testify this week before the Sept. 11 commission are expected to accuse Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft of cutting the government’s counterterrorism budget just before the 2001 attacks. Ashcroft has insisted that counterterrorism was a top priority.
Times staff writer Edwin Chen in Crawford, Texas, contributed to this report.