WASHINGTON — A month before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush received a top-secret briefing memo that included information about suspected terrorist preparations for hijackings, surveillance at federal buildings in New York and an anonymous tip that supporters of Osama bin Laden were in the United States "planning attacks with explosives."
The memo, delivered to Bush at his Texas ranch on Aug. 6, 2001, did not include specific information pointing to the attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon about five weeks later.
Even so, the public release of the once-classified document seems certain to fuel criticism that Bush did not act aggressively enough in the summer of 2001 to prevent terrorist attacks, as his former White House counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke maintained in his new book and in public testimony before investigators last month.
The one and one-third page memo reported that U.S. intelligence officials had not been able to corroborate that bin Laden "wanted to hijack a US aircraft" in 1998. "Nevertheless," it continued, "FBI information since that time indicates 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.
"The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers Bin Laden-related," the memo said. "CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our Embassy in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) in May saying that a group of Bin Laden supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives."
After releasing the briefing document Saturday - its title is "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US" - senior administration officials attempted to undercut its importance by telling reporters, on condition of anonymity, that the FBI later determined that the suspected surveillance in New York turned out to be "tourist-related activity" by two visitors from Yemen.
The officials also said that the anonymous tip, which came in a May 15, 2001, phone call to the U.S. embassy in the United Arab Emirates, did not appear to have any connection to the Sept. 11 attacks.
But President Bush did not know at the time of the briefing how either suspicious incident would evolve. Yet he did not order a top-level national security meeting in response to it. His first Cabinet-level meeting on the al-Qaida threat was on Sept. 4, after the Bush administration had already held 33 other top-level meetings on other national security issues.
White House officials declassified the briefing paper under pressure from the independent commission that is investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. The memo was released in full except for three phrases in the text blacked out. The senior officials said that was necessary to protect the identity of foreign intelligence services that cooperated with U.S. intelligence.
Bush's critics on the panel contend that the government's information on al-Qaida should have prompted more action.
The senior administration officials took issue with suggestions that Bush should have convened a top-level meeting on terrorism to energize the federal bureaucracy.
Two days after the UAE embassy phone tip, the officials said, counter-terrorism adviser Clarke discussed it with a staff-level terrorism task force made up of representatives from the State Department, Justice Department, Defense Department, FBI and CIA.
And the FAA and FBI issued a number of warnings about possible terrorist attacks from June through September, the officials said.
At a contentious hearing Thursday before the investigative panel, commissioner Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, observed sharply that those alerts had failed to catch the attention of either the secretary of transportation, the head of the FAA, or key FBI field offices, according to earlier testimony.
Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, testified Thursday about the August 6 memo that "there was nothing in this memo that suggested an attack was coming on New York or Washington, D.C. There was nothing in this memo as to time, place, how or where. ... There was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9-11 attacks," Rice said.
The CIA arranged the Aug. 6 briefing in response to questions from Bush prompted by a dramatic increase in intelligence about a possible terrorist attack. The intelligence reports had spiked in June and July, then tapered off in August.
At the time of the Aug. 6 briefing, Bush had just started a month-long visit to his Texas ranch. The briefing was a compilation of information about the al-Qaida threat from U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies, the FBI and news accounts.