The White House, under increasing public pressure, on Saturday released an intelligence document President George W. Bush received on Aug. 6, 2001 that warned of possible terror attacks inside the United States by supporters of Osama bin Laden.
Analysts said the disclosure may be "seriously damaging" to the credibility of the Bush administration, for it appears to contradict the White House's repeated assertions that it had not received credible intelligence before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that pointed to terrorist attacks inside the United States.
Warning of attacks within the US
Bush received the document at his ranch in Crawford, Texas as part of the Presidential Daily Briefings (PDB). It included public and secret reports regarding the attempt of the al-Qaeda network to attack the United States and judgments by law enforcement and intelligence over possible means it might use.
Titled Bin Laden Determined to Attack in the United States, the PDB said bin Laden was set on striking the United States as early as 1997 and through 2001.
Bin Laden implied in US television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and "bring the fighting to America," it said.
"After US missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, bin Ladin told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington," the document said, quoting a foreign service whose name was blacked out by the White House before its release.
"The millennium plotting in Canada in 1999 may have been part of bin Ladin's first serious attempt to implement a terrorist strike in the United States," the document said.
"Convicted plotter Ahmed Ressam has told the FBI that he conceived the idea to attack Los Angeles International Airport himself, but that bin Ladin lieutenant Abu Zubaydah encouraged him and helped facilitate the operation. Ressam also said that in 1998Abu Zubaydah was planning his own US attack," it said.
Ressam was caught trying to cross the Canadian border with explosives in late 1999. Zubaydah was captured in 2002.
The document also listed other intelligence reports indicating that terrorists might strike within the United States. For example, it said al-Qaeda members have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks.
"A clandestine source said in 1998 that a bin Ladin cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks," it said.
'Historical' facts or updated warnings? Vague or specific?
The intelligence memo appears to stand in contrast to repeated assertions by the Bush administration in several major aspects.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other Bush administration officials asserted as recently as this week that the document is primarily historical and includes no warning or threat information.
While the memo referred most events back to 1997, or 1998, it said the attacks against the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in1998 demonstrate that bin Laden "prepares operations years in advance." This was interpreted by some critics of the Bush administration as a forward-looking warning.
In most sharp contrast to the "historical" claim of White House was the statement that "the FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers bin Ladin-related" in the memo.
"CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our Embassy in UAE in May saying that a group of bin Ladin supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives," the document said, meaning the warning was only three month old when Bush received the briefing.
Rice and other administration officials have said no one would have imaged that terrorists might use hijacked passenger planes as weapons. The Aug. 6 memo said "some of the more sensational threat reporting," such as an intelligence tip in 1998 that bin Laden had been considering ways to hijack American planes to win the release of operatives who had been arrested in 1998 and 1999, could not be corroborated.
"Nevertheless, 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 memo said.
Credibility of Bush administration at stake in intensified debate
The White House released the intelligence briefing as requested by an independent commission looking into the Sept. 11 attacks. The commission said it was important for American people to make their own judgment since the document has become a source of controversy.
During her three hours of public testimony before the commission Thursday, Rice was asked by one Democratic commissioner about the title of the document. The document was brought up several times at the hearing.
"What this says is, the White House knew what bin Laden was capable of planning, where he intended to do it, which was New York or Washington, D.C., how he was going to do it," CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider said.
"There was only one thing missing, which was exactly when he was going to do it, which turns out to be Sept.11," he said.
Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, who pressed Rice about the title of the Aug. 6 memo at her testimony, said after the declassifying of the document that the details in the memo call into question Rice's assertion that the memo was purely a "historical" document.
"It appears to bring the president up to date with respect to the potentiality for this spectacular attack the intelligence communities are anticipating," he said.
After releasing the memo, the White House said in a statement that the document did not warn of the 9/11 attacks. "Although it referred to the possibility of hijackings, it did not discuss the possible use of planes as weapons," the statement said.
Republican commissioner James R. Thompson said the memo confirmed that the Bush administration had no specific information regarding an imminent attack involving airplanes as missiles. He told CNN that the memo mainly included old information instead of updated warnings.
It is expected that the declassified document would intensify the debate about the performance of the Bush administration on the war against terrorism as the election campaigns get more and more heated. The White House would face very severe criticism over the issue of battling terrorism, which has long been seen as Bush's strongest point.
(Xinhua News Agency April 12, 2004)