CRAWFORD, Texas - President Bush was told a month before September 11, 2001, that al Qaeda members were in the United States and the FBI had detected suspicious activity "consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks," according to a secret memo the White House released under pressure on Saturday.
White House officials were quick to say in the wake of the document's evening release that the Aug. 6, 2001, memo did not warn of the Sept. 11 attacks and that although it referred to the possibility of hijackings, it did not discuss the possible use of planes as weapons.
"There's nothing in here that's tied to the 9/11 plot," a senior White House official told reporters.
But the President's Daily Brief, entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside the United States," was likely to intensify the election-year debate in Washington over whether the Sept. 11 attacks could have been prevented in spite of Bush's insistence the US government did everything it could to head them off with the information on hand.
The report said it had not been able to corroborate some of the "more sensational threat reporting," such as one in 1998 that Osama bin Laden wanted to hijack a US aircraft to gain the release of those responsible for the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center.
But the document said the FBI since then had detected "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 report also said al Qaeda members, including some US citizens, "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 (sic) cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks," it said.
The page-and-a-half memo, requested by Bush to find out the extent of the al Qaeda threat domestically, told the president of desires by al Qaeda to "bring the fighting to America" dating to 1997.
It was highly unusual for the US government to make public a sensitive presidential intelligence memo. Its release had been demanded by members of the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks, and Democrats on the commission had questioned whether Bush could have done more to stop the attacks based on the memo.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice insisted in her public testimony to the 9/11 commission last week that the memo contained mostly historical information and did not warn of any coming attacks inside the United States.
ATTACK WITH EXPLOSIVES
Her account could be contradicted by the fact that the memo included information from three months beforehand that al Qaeda members were trying to enter the United States for an attack with explosives.
"The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers Bin Laden-related. CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our Embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group or Bin Laden supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives," the document said.
That part of the document could set up a Washington blame game over whether the FBI was doing its job.
The document gave neither a time nor a suspected target for such an attack with explosives. It was based on a May 2001 intelligence report that suggested bin Laden followers wanted to cross from Canada into the United States.