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THE NATION

A Long Look at Response to Brief

The 9/11 panel to probe how Bush and FBI dealt with report. President says he saw no specifics.

April 12, 2004|Peter G. Gosselin and Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — 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 [2001], 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.

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