Saturday, July 17, 2004

The Attack No One Could Have Anticipated, Unless They'd Bothered to Read the Memo 

From Steno Sue Schmidt of the Washington Post:
A secret intelligence document prepared for President Bill Clinton in December 1998 reported on a suspected plot by Osama bin Laden to hijack a U.S. airliner in an effort to force the United States to release imprisoned conspirators in the 1993 World Trade Center attacks.

The one-page declassified version of the President's Daily Brief dated Dec. 4, 1998, contains chilling information -- gleaned by the CIA from several sources -- indicating that al Qaeda was working with U.S.-based operatives of its deadly ally, the Egyptian group Gama at al-Islamiyya, in the purported hijacking plot.

The PDB shows that the intelligence community and the White House had been aware of al Qaeda's interest in hijacking U.S. airliners long before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. On the day the PDB was prepared, then-CIA Director George J. Tenet said in a memo to the intelligence community that "we are at war" and that no resources should be spared to defeat the terrorists.

When it is released this week, a report by the presidential commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks will include the newly declassified document and a previously declassified PDB dated Aug. 6, 2001. It will also contain details of what Philip D. Zelikow, the commission's executive director, described yesterday as an "energetic response" to the hijack threat information by the Clinton administration, including its efforts to determine whether the plot reports were true.

The 1998 document is "the most important PDB about hijacking published before 9/11," Zelikow said. The Aug. 6, 2001, PDB prepared for President Bush mentioned 1998 intelligence concerning a plot by bin Laden "to hijack a U.S. aircraft to gain the release of 'Blind Sheik' Omar Abdel Rahman and other U.S.-held extremists" . . . .

Though the CIA and other government agencies were clearly aware of the hijack threat, and though the Federal Aviation Administration distributed a circular referring to it in the summer of 2001, a White House official said yesterday that the Bush national security team was not apprised by the outgoing Clinton administration about the intelligence report on a suspected hijack plot to free Rahman.

Richard A. Clarke, who was the White House counterterrorism chief under Clinton and for a few months under Bush, testified before the commission that the Bush national security team was not sufficiently concerned about the threat information before the Sept. 11 attacks. He has cited the 2001 PDB as proof that the Bush team had reason to be concerned about hijack threats. But in her testimony Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, played down the importance of the hijack reference in that memo, saying it was based on "old reporting."

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