Sunday, April 18, 2004

There were many more, and more specific, threats of domestic attacks by Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network during the Clinton presidency than during the Bush administration prior to September 11, 2001, investigators probing terror attacks said.

The Aug. 6 presidential terror briefing item released recently by the White House was “almost unique” for President Bush’s White House, because it dealt with threats against the homeland, rather than abroad.

But “more than a dozen” comparable domestic-threat items — some with more specific information than that in the Aug. 6 briefing — were prepared for President Clinton in the final three years of his tenure, said Philip Zelikow, executive director of the September 11 commission.

Bush administration officials have said there were more than 40 al Qaeda-related items, mostly relating to threats against U.S. targets abroad, in the eight months of presidential daily briefings (PDBs) before September 11.

“A lot of attention has been focused on this one,” largely because of its novelty, Mr. Zelikow said.

“It is almost unique for the Bush administration in that it deals with threats to the homeland, whereas most of the threat reporting during that spring and summer was focused abroad,” he said.

Some administration critics have seized on the Aug. 6 PDB, saying that it should have prompted more action from the president.

Rand Beers, a counterterrorism official in the Bush White House and now a senior foreign-policy adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, said last week, “That document was intended to tell the president of the United States that there was a serious problem.”

But Mr. Zelikow said alerts focused on domestic threats occurred much more frequently during the previous administration.

“There were more than a dozen PDB items dealing with domestic threats from al Qaeda during the last three years of the Clinton presidency,” which is the period of threat reporting that the commission is examining closely, he said.

“These included a few that dealt with specific threats to aviation and at least one that threatened the use of an aircraft laden with explosives in an attack against a U.S. city,” Mr. Zelikow said.

For his part, Mr. Bush says he was “comforted” by the news in the PDB that the FBI was conducting, as the document puts it, “approximately 70 full-field investigations they consider bin Laden-related.”

“It meant the FBI was doing its job,” Mr. Bush said. “The FBI was running down any lead.”

But, in fact, the information in the PDB about what the FBI was thinking and doing was misleading, according to testimony about it heard by the September 11 commission last week.

First of all, there were not 70 full-field investigations.

Thomas J. Pickard, who was acting director of the FBI at the time, explained that in fact there were investigations into fewer than 70 individuals. “The number 70 is somewhat inaccurate,” he cautioned the commission.

One question that has dogged investigators is how the CIA arrived at the statement that “FBI information … indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attack.”

An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told reporters when the PDB was released that “the patterns of suspicious activity here are not patterns based on FBI investigative observations,” but rather they were “the CIA analyst’s judgment.”

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