WASHINGTON — The White House took the extraordinary step Saturday of releasing a top-secret intelligence briefing President Bush received five weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, declassifying a document that contained no specific warning of the looming strikes in New York and the Pentagon but provided fresh information that Al Qaeda was bent on hitting targets in the United States.
The 1 1/2-page document cited intelligence on Al Qaeda dating to the mid-1990s. But it concluded with two items that pointed to possible domestic threats just months before Bush got the Aug. 6, 2001, briefing.
One passage warned that the FBI had observed "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."
Another noted that the CIA and FBI were investigating a call to the U.S. Embassy in the United Arab Emirates in May of that year "saying that a group of Bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives."
Senior White House officials who discussed the Aug. 6 briefing in a conference call with reporters late Saturday said neither of those contemporaneous cases had been shown to have any connection to the Sept. 11 plot. They also said an FBI investigation of the suspected surveillance of the buildings in New York centered on two Yemeni citizens who were observed taking pictures of federal structures, and that the bureau later determined they were simply tourists.
Still, the disclosure of these details seemed to undercut claims by national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and other administration officials that the briefing contained no fresh intelligence, did not represent a warning, and instead was merely a compendium of historical information about Al Qaeda's intentions.
Many details about the document -- including its ominous title, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." -- had already leaked out in press reports in recent days or were revealed during Rice's appearance last week before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
Even so, the public release of the briefing is in many ways unprecedented. Similar documents from other administrations have been declassified, but years after the presidents they were prepared for left office.
The Al Qaeda material released Saturday -- just 17 sentences in all -- was one section of a daily intelligence briefing that also covered other subjects. The contents of the other sections were not released. Intelligence officials have said a typical daily briefing runs 10 to 20 pages, with supporting material.
Five fragments of the document release Saturday were blotted out -- only a few words in each case. The White House officials said the markings were required to obscure the names of foreign intelligence services cited as sources in the document.
One of the senior White House officials who discussed the document said its declassification "should clear up the myth out there" that Bush was briefed on information that pointed specifically to the Sept. 11 plot.
"This PDB contains no warning of the attacks of Sept. 11," the official said, referring to the acronym for president's daily brief, the daily intelligence digest delivered by the CIA to the White House.
"It was not prompted by new threat information," the official said. Most of its contents were a "review of information already available." And the two items that were of fresh concern at the time "were being pursued aggressively by the appropriate agencies."
But as much as White House officials would like for the issue to be put to rest, a review of the document, and the reaction of analysts and experts, suggested that was unlikely to happen.
"There's enough substance in there to support a charge that the Bush team should have taken more decisive action," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst. However, Sabato said, "there's also support for what Rice said -- a lack of specifics and not much to hang your hat on.
"My guess is, the real effect is that it will give ammunition to both sides, and continue the increasing partisanship of this commission and therefore the American people on this subject," Sabato said.
The Aug. 6 PDB has been the subject of speculation and scrutiny for nearly two years, since it was first disclosed that Bush had received a briefing the month before the attacks that mentioned the possibility that Al Qaeda might attempt to hijack aircraft. The briefing followed a spring and summer in which there had been a tremendous spike in intelligence reporting warning that Al Qaeda was planning spectacular attacks against the United States.