WASHINGTON—Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and former Attorney General John Ashcroft received the same CIA briefing about an imminent al-Qaida strike on an American target that was given to the White House two months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The State Department's disclosure Monday that the pair was briefed within a week after then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was told about the threat on July 10, 2001, raised new questions about what the Bush administration did in response, and about why so many officials have claimed they never received or don't remember the warning.
One official who helped to prepare the briefing, which included a PowerPoint presentation, described it as a "10 on a scale of 1 to 10" that "connected the dots" in earlier intelligence reports to present a stark warning that al-Qaida, which had already killed Americans in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and East Africa, was poised to strike again.
Former CIA Director George Tenet gave the independent Sept. 11, 2001, commission the same briefing on Jan. 28, 2004, but the commission made no mention of the warning in its 428-page final report. According to three former senior intelligence officials, Tenet testified to commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste and to Philip Zelikow, the panel's executive director and the principal author of its report, who's now Rice's top adviser.
A new book by Bob Woodward of The Washington Post alleges that Rice failed to take the July 2001 warning seriously when it was delivered at a White House meeting by Tenet, Cofer Black, then the agency's chief of top counterterrorism, and a third CIA official whose identity remains protected.
Rice's deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, who became national security adviser after she became secretary of state, and Rice's top counterterrorism aide, Richard Clarke, also were present.
Woodward wrote that Tenet and Black considered the briefing the "starkest warning they had given the White House" on the threat posed by Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. But, he wrote, the pair felt as if Rice gave them "the brush-off."
Speaking to reporters late Sunday en route to the Middle East, Rice said she had no recollection of what she called "the supposed meeting."
"What I'm quite certain of, is that it was not a meeting in which I was told that there was an impending attack and I refused to respond," she said.
Ashcroft, who resigned as attorney general on Nov. 9, 2004, told the Associated Press on Monday that it was "disappointing" that he never received the briefing, either.
But on Monday evening, Rice's spokesman Sean McCormack issued a statement confirming that she'd received the CIA briefing "on or around July 10" and had asked that it be given to Ashcroft and Rumsfeld.
"The information presented in this meeting was not new, rather it was a good summary from the threat reporting from the previous several weeks," McCormack said. "After this meeting, Dr. Rice asked that this same information be briefed to Secretary Rumsfeld and Attorney General Ashcroft. That briefing took place by July 17."
Lt. Cmdr. Joe Carpenter, a Pentagon spokesman, said he had no information "about what may or may not have been briefed" to Rumsfeld at Rice's request.
David Ayres, who was Ashcroft's chief of staff at the Justice Department, said that the former attorney general also has no recollection of a July 17, 2001, terrorist threat briefing. Later, Ayres said that Ashcroft could recall only a July 5 briefing on threats to U.S. interests abroad.
He said Ashcroft doesn't remember any briefing that summer that indicated that al-Qaida was planning to attack within the United States.
The CIA briefing didn't provide the exact timing or nature of a possible attack, nor did it predict whether it was likely to take place in the United States or overseas, said three former senior intelligence officials.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because the report remains highly classified.
The briefing "didn't say within the United States," said one former senior intelligence official. "It said on the United States, which could mean a ship, an embassy or inside the United States."
In the briefing, Tenet warned in very strong terms that intelligence from a variety of sources indicated that bin Laden's terrorist network was planning an attack on a U.S. target in the near future, said one of the officials.
"The briefing was intended to `connect the dots' contained in other intelligence reports and paint a very clear picture of the threat posed by bin Laden," said the official, who described the tone of the report as "scary."
It isn't clear what action, if any, the administration took in response, but officials said Rumsfeld was focused mostly on his plans to remake the Army into a smaller, high-tech force and deploy a national ballistic missile defense system.
Nor is it clear why the 9/11 commission never reported the briefing, which the intelligence officials said Tenet outlined to commission members Ben-Veniste and Zelikow in secret testimony at CIA headquarters. The State Department confirmed that the briefing materials were "made available to the 9/11 Commission, and Director Tenet was asked about this meeting when interviewed by the 9/11 Commission."
The three former senior intelligence officials, however, said Tenet raised the matter with the panel himself, displayed slides from the PowerPoint presentation and offered to testify on the matter in public.
Ben-Veniste confirmed to McClatchy Newspapers that Tenet outlined for the 9/11 commission the July 10 briefing to Rice in secret testimony in January 2004. He referred questions about why the commission omitted any mention of the briefing in its report to Zelikow, the report's main author. Zelikow didn't respond to e-mail and telephone queries from McClatchy Newspapers.
Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism chief, Ben-Veniste and the former senior intelligence officials all challenged some aspects of Woodward's account of the briefing given to Rice, including assertions that she failed to react to the warning and that it concerned an imminent attack inside the United States.
Clarke told McClatchy Newspapers that Rice focused in particular on the possible threat to President Bush at an upcoming summit meeting in Genoa, Italy, and promised to quickly schedule a high-level White House meeting on al-Qaida. That meeting took place on September 4, 2001.
Ben-Veniste said the commission was never told that Rice had brushed off the warning. According to Tenet, he said, Rice "understood the level of urgency he was communicating."
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondents Matt Stearns and Drew Brown contributed to this report.)