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Inside the Briefing Where George Bush Heard, 'Bin Laden Is Determined to Strike'

In this series, Newsweek maps the road to 9/11 as it happened 20 years ago, day by day.

August 6, 2001: In the doldrums of summer while on vacation in Crawford, Texas, President George W. Bush receives his daily intelligence briefing with an article entitled "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S." CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin draws the short straw and has the summer duty of briefing the president.

The Presidential Daily Brief article was intended to give a background summary of the al Qaeda threat. Contrary to subsequent claims, it was not a specific warning, nor did President Bush ignore the report. According to the 9/11 Commission Report he had, in fact, asked his briefers on several occasions "whether any threat pointed to the United States."

The CIA prepared the article to respond to Mr. Bush's questions and then decided to slot it in and deliver it on August 6 because little else of a crisis proportion was happening around the world—and because intense fear, on the part of the CIA, that a July attack would occur had passed. The CIA believed that the threat of a domestic attack by Osama bin Laden's organization remained both current and serious.

The partially declassified article stated that "Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate Bin Ladin since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US. Bin Ladin implied in US television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef [attacker in 1993] and "bring the fighting to America."

It stated that after U.S. missile strikes on Afghanistan in 1998 as retaliation for the simultaneous attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Bin Laden told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington itself. Egyptian intelligence reported from a spy that Bin Laden was planning to exploit easy access to the United States to mount a terrorist strike.

A videotape released by Al-Jazeera TV featuring Osama bin Laden is broadcast in Britain December 27, 2001. Getty Images

The article said that "Bin Ladin lieutenant Abu Zubaydah" had helped facilitate an attempt by Algerian Ahmed Ressam—then in U.S. federal prison—to attack Los Angeles International Airport during the 1999 millennium period. Ressam told the FBI that Zubaydah was planning his own attack on America. At this point, the CIA believed that Zubaydah was the "mastermind" behind U.S.-related plotting: they still had not identified Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the actual conceiver of 9/11.

Most important, the article said that al Qaeda members—"including some who are U.S. citizens"—had resided in or traveled to the United States for years, and that the group maintained some kind of support structure inside the country that could aid attacks. "A clandestine source said in 1998 that a Bin Ladin cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks," the article said.

The article goes on to say that the FBI had approximately 70 field investigations underway that it considered Bin Laden-related in some way. It says the CIA and the FBI are also investigating a May 2001 call to the embassy in the United Arab Emirates where the anonymous caller said that a group of Bin Laden supporters were in the U.S. and planning attacks with explosives.

Much of the evidence presented, even at the Top Secret compartmented level, is maddeningly vague: much of it extrapolation from the African embassies experience of three years earlier. The article states that the U.S. intelligence community had "not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting," including reports from 1998 that Bin Laden wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft to gain the release of "Blind Shaykh" Omar Abdel-Rahman. "FBI information since then," it says, "indicates 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."

Seventy investigations certainly sounds like a lot, though it turned out that the FBI was never asked to comment on the number, or to explain that it was an exaggeration—that many of them included minor cases of fund-raising for radical Islamic causes, and that the 70 number was derived from the number of individuals connected rather than separate full-field investigations. Senator Bob Graham of Florida, then chairman of the Intelligence Committee, would later write (in "Intelligence Matters") that many of the investigations should never have been included, that one related to a dead person, four concerned people who had been in long-term custody, and eight had already been closed. Though current domestic connections were certainly the crux of any actual and imminent warning, it appears in hindsight that the CIA was subtly shifting blame to the FBI if such an attack occurred, since the Bureau was responsible for domestic counter-terrorism.

In fact, no American citizens of any consequence was ever discovered to have played a role in the 9/11 attacks, though the phantom certainly was used in the immediate aftermath to justify warrantless surveillance and domestic intelligence expansion. The FBI, moreover, had a number of open investigations (and there was abundant intelligence) that Saudi embassy personnel and other Saudi government operatives in the U.S. were assisting the radical Islamic community, a too-sensitive-to-handle problem that would dog the United States through the present day.

George W. Bush Crawford Texas President Election2000
George W. Bush outside his home in Crawford, Texas, 2000. Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty Images

On August 17, CIA director George Tenet traveled to Crawford to meet with President Bush. Tenet claims in his autobiography "At the Center of the Storm" that the reason for his visit was to "make sure the president stayed current on events." It was Tenet's first visit to Bush's ranch and there is no evidence that terrorism was even discussed. There was a "lull" in threat reporting, Tenet says, demonstrating that the August 6 article wasn't as central of a warning as some believe. Moreover, though the August 6 article did relate to the possibility of an attack in the United States, it was the 36th Presidential Daily Brief item of the Bush administration that related to al Qaeda. That's just a little more than one item a week, hardly the "hair on fire" warning that many would later claim the CIA had issued before 9/11.

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Newsweek is reconstructing the road to 9/11 as it was constructed 20 years ago, day by day. Each day a new story will be published here. On September 11 we'll live tweet the events of the day, minute by minute, starting at 4:45 a.m. EST, @RoadTo911.