President Bush insisted Sunday he was satisfied that federal agents were on top of the terrorist threat after reading a pre-Sept. 11 briefing detailing Osama bin Laden's intentions on U.S. soil.
For two years, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice left Americans with the impression that the memo from Aug. 6, 2001, focused on historical information dating to 1998 and that any current threats mostly involved overseas targets. Yet the release, under public pressure, of the briefing showed that Bush had received intelligence reporting as recent as May 2001 and that most of the current information focused on possible plots in the United States.
"I was satisfied that some of the matters were being looked into" and had any specific intelligence pointed to threats of attacks on New York and Washington, "I would have moved mountains" to prevent it, Bush said Sunday during a visit to Fort Hood in Texas.
But he said the document, which the White House released Saturday night, contained "nothing about an attack on America. It talked about intentions, about somebody who hated America — well, we knew that."
Should the memo — a leading topic of the Sunday talk shows — have raised "more of an alarm bell than it did? I think in hindsight that's probably true," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He said the Clinton and Bush administrations bear responsibility for Sept. 11.
The existence of the president's briefing memo was disclosed to the public at a news conference in May 2002. The "overwhelming bulk of the evidence" before Sept. 11, Rice declared, was that any terrorist attack "was likely to take place overseas."
Most of the CIA reporting during the summer of 2001 did focus on possible overseas targets. But the memo specifically told Bush that al-Qaida had reached American shores, had a support system in place and was engaging in "patterns of suspicious activity ... consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks."
In May 2002, Rice said "there was specific threat reporting about al-Qaida attacks against U.S. targets." She did not mention that it was in the report sent to the president.
To accentuate the potential domestic threat, the memo told Bush the FBI had 70 investigations related to bin Laden under way.
The president's memo mentioned two current threats: suspected al-Qaida operatives might have cased federal buildings in New York and that, according to a phone call to an American embassy in the Middle East, a group of bin Laden supporters was in the United States to plan attacks with explosives. The FBI later concluded the two Yemeni men photographing buildings in New York were tourists.
Slade Gorton, a member of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, said the memo "did talk about potential attacks in the United States," but "it didn't give the slightest clue as to what they would be or where they would be."
"The FBI has more questions to answer than Condoleezza Rice or (former presidential anti-terrorism adviser) Dick Clarke or anyone we've had testify before us so far," said Gorton, a former Republican senator from Washington state.
Gorton said the reference in the memo sent to the president about 70 FBI investigations "would be sort of comforting to the person who read it the first time around."
Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democrat, saw as significant the memo's references to May 2001 intelligence about a possible al-Qaida explosives plot inside the United States.
The "leadership at the top," said Ben-Veniste, should have "butted heads together, get them in the same room, and then pulse the agencies: 'What do you know?' Get all of your agents out there with messages to say, 'Tell us everything you know at this moment.'"
But Richard Perle, a former Pentagon (news - web sites) adviser who was an assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration, said there was "not enough specificity to take any action."
"What could a president have done under those circumstances? Shut down the United States? Grounded all aircraft? Gone into a panic mode?"
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said it is easy to "go back now and pick out a clue here and a tidbit there ... but we have to keep in mind the environment. We have to keep in mind the volume of reporting that the president and his advisers are dealing with each and every day."
To Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., however, the memo should have created a sense of urgency at the top levels of government.
"If you are having a brief that is entitled `Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.,' and then it lays out specific things ... you would think that that would raise enough caution flags that you would haul in the FBI, that you'd put out an all-points bulletin," he said.