White House, CIA Kept Key Portions of Report Classified
By Dana Priest
President Bush was warned in a more specific way than previously known about intelligence suggesting that al Qaeda terrorists were seeking to attack the United States, a report on the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks indicated yesterday. Separately, the report cited one CIA memo that concluded there was "incontrovertible evidence" that Saudi individuals provided financial assistance to al Qaeda operatives in the United States.
These revelations are not the subject of the congressional report's narratives or findings, but are among the nuggets embedded in a story focused largely on the mid-level workings of the CIA, FBI and U.S. military.
Two intriguing -- and politically volatile -- questions surrounding the Sept. 11 plot have been how personally engaged Bush and his predecessor were in counterterrorism before the attacks, and what role some Saudi officials may have played in sustaining the 19 terrorists who commandeered four airplanes and flew three of them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
To varying degrees, the answers remain a mystery, despite an unprecedented seven-month effort by a joint House and Senate panel to fully understand how a group of Arab terrorists could have pulled off such a scheme. The CIA refused to permit publication of information potentially implicating Saudi officials on national security grounds, arguing that disclosure could upset relations with a key U.S. ally. Lawmakers complained it was merely to avoid embarrassment.
The White House, meanwhile, resisted efforts to pin down Bush's knowledge of al Qaeda threats and to catalogue the executive's pre-Sept. 11 strategy to fight terrorists. It was justified largely on legal grounds, but Democrats said the secrecy was meant to protect Bush from criticism.
And while the report contains extensive details about counterterrorism policy and operations under President Bill Clinton, it also leaves out substantial material deemed classified. The panel took testimony from former senior advisers to Clinton and Bush but did not interview either president.
Still, the report offers bits of new information about both presidents and the Saudis, and lays out a possible road map for the independent commission charged by Congress to pick up the investigation of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. It also offers pointed criticism of both Bush and Clinton, concluding that neither "put the government or the intelligence community on a war footing before September 11" -- despite ample evidence of al Qaeda's dangerous designs.
With respect to Bush, the congressional panel indicated that it tried to determine "to what extent the President received threat-specific warnings during this period" -- but obtained only limited information.
Among the only clues cited in the report about Bush's knowledge of al Qaeda's intentions against the United States is an Aug. 6, 2001, President's Daily Briefing (PDB) -- described in the report only as a "closely-held intelligence report" -- that included information "acquired in May 2001 that indicated a group of [Osama] Bin Laden supporters was planning attacks in the United States with explosives."
The PDB also said "that Bin Laden had wanted to conduct attacks in the United States for years and that the group apparently maintained a support base here." It cited "FBI judgments about patterns of activity consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks," according to the report.
In a May 16, 2002, briefing for reporters, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the PDB was a historical look at bin Laden's methods dating to 1997. She characterized the briefing as an "analytic report" that summed up bin Laden's methods of operation. "It was not a warning," she said. "There was no specific time or place mentioned."
The CIA declined to declassify the PDB, and the White House, which had the authority to release it, declined to do so, citing "executive privilege." Executive privilege allows the president to withhold from public disclosure all advice and communications he receives from advisers so that they feel free to offer frank advice without fearing that it will become public.
The Aug. 6 PDB came amid a barrage of intelligence reporting indicating that al Qaeda was planning attacks, somewhere, against U.S. interests. The intelligence community has said its focus was on possible attacks overseas.
Deputy national security adviser Steve Hadley, who refused to testify before the panel but submitted written responses to questions, told the panel that the National Security Council held four deputy committee meetings between May and the end of July 2001 in an effort to adopt a more aggressive strategy vis-a-vis al Qaeda. The review was finalized Sept. 4, 2001. Bush had not reviewed the proposal before Sept. 11, Hadley wrote the panel.
The committee also unsuccessfully sought budget information from the Office of Management and Budget to determine where in the Bush administration the decision was made not to provide more funding for counterterrorism activities.
CIA Director George J. Tenet said in a closed-door session on June 18, 2002, that he had told other members of the administration that his counterterrorism budget would be as much as $1 billion short each year for the next five years. "We told that to everybody downtown for as long as anybody would listen and never got to first base," Tenet told the panel.
On the issue of Saudi Arabia, the report cited a CIA memorandum that said connections between some hijackers and some Saudis living in the United States amounted to "incontrovertible evidence that there is support for these terrorists" from Saudi officials.
This section of the report refers only to "foreign support." Officials from various branches of the U.S. government said those two words refer to Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, the report said, further investigation of these allegations "could reveal legitimate, and innocent, explanations for these associations."
The report makes no accusation that it was ever the policy of the Saudi government to support terrorism. Rather, the questionable activity involved Saudi citizens, some of whom worked for the Saudi government.
The panel also took the FBI to task for not aggressively pursuing allegations against Saudi individuals, including a network of businessmen and religious figures in San Diego who, together, provided two key hijackers with seemingly unlimited money, an interpreter and other support.
The report said that because Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally, "the United States had not established heightened screening for illegal immigration or terrorism by visitors from Saudi Arabia."
One U.S. official told the panel "he believed the U.S. government's hope of eventually obtaining Saudi cooperation was unrealistic because Saudi assistance to the U.S. government on this matter is contrary to Saudi national interests."
Yesterday, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, issued a statement refuting the criticism of his country. "It is unfortunate that false accusations against Saudi Arabia continue to be made by some for political purposes despite the fact that the kingdom has been one of the most active partners in the war on terrorism," he said.
Members of the panel offered differing assessments of the impact of the administration's efforts to keep secret certain politically sensitive subjects.
"We were never able to get much of the material we requested from the National Security Council," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), former ranking member of the House intelligence committee. "The nation was not well-served by the administration's failure to provide this critical information."
Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, said he doubted Bush was complacent about warnings he received. "The intelligence community was providing him information. He wasn't AWOL," Goss said. "In hindsight, it might take on a little more significance . . . but it's a huge stretch to say the president had information he should have acted on."