Terror Watch: What the PDB Didn't Say

The CIA officials who prepared a special briefing for President Bush in the summer of 2001 about the prospect that Osama bin Laden might launch an attack inside the United States failed to include a goldmine of alarming evidence about Al Qaeda activities that had been developed by U.S. law-enforcement officials and federal prosecutors only a few months earlier.

The contents of the long-classified Aug. 6, 2001, PDB, or Presidential Daily Briefing, has been under intense scrutiny since its public release by the White House last weekend. While critics say the title alone--"Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."--should have jolted the president into immediate action, White House officials have pointed to the mostly historical nature of the memo and its sketchy details. "Frankly," the president himself said in his prime-time press conference on Tuesday, "I didn't think that was anything new."

Many counterterrorism experts agree that the content of the one-and-a-half-page memo is strikingly thin. The document is a boiled-down compilation of tidbits and scraps that contains only a small fraction of what the U.S. government actually knew about bin Laden's schemes to attack the United States, experts say. "For policymakers, the PDB is the intelligence equivalent of USA Today," Roger Cressey, a former top White House counterterrorism official, told NEWSWEEK. "It covers headlines, key issues and offers a cursory analysis. If you want more, you have to ask for it."

And there was plenty of detail available to Bush--had the CIA chosen to tell him or had the president happened to ask. Much of it--including specific intelligence about bin Laden's planning for poison-gas attacks and mass-casualty assaults on the U.S. civil-aviation system--had emerged during two federal court trials in New York City, including the July 2001 testimony in Manhattan federal court of Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian-born Al Qaeda operative who had been convicted in Los Angeles of trying to enter the United States from Canada in an explosives-filled rental car just before Christmas 1999.

Ressam initially contested federal terrorism charges. But after the Los Angeles conviction he turned government witness and became one of the U.S. government's most valuable informants on the inner workings of Al Qaeda--though some FBI officials acknowledged later that they did not fully recognize him as an Al Qaeda operative until after 9/11. Prosecutors brought Ressam to New York on July 3, 2001, to testify as a key government witness against a fellow Algerian emigre, whom the United States had extradited from Canada as an alleged co-conspirator in Ressam's plot to bomb a U.S. target.

In his testimony, Ressam described in detail how he had been trained in various terrorist tactics at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and that he had been in contact with Abu Zubaydah, an important bin Laden lieutenant. Ressam said that his training exercises included watching Al Qaeda instructors poison dogs with cyanide--as apparent practice for putting poison gas into the air-intake vents of public buildings. He said he had also been taught how to poison people by smearing lethal agents on doorknobs.

Just a few short weeks before the September 11 attacks, Ressam testified that among other terror tactics he learned was how to attack military installations, airports, railroads, large corporations and hotels where conferences were held. He described "urban-warfare training," which included lessons on how to assault buildings and block roads. Class instruction at the Al Qaeda camps included seminars about various notorious assassination attempts by Islamic militants, including the successful murder of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and the murders of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Also discussed was the bombing that killed more than 240 U.S. military personnel at the Marine barracks in Beirut during the Reagan administration.

Ultimately, after consulting with associates in Canada and a contact in London, Ressam crafted a batch of homemade explosives and a handful of timing devices in a motel room in Vancouver, stuffed them into the trunk of a rental car, and acquired a map of the Los Angeles area, on which he circled the locations of three airports. He testified that his principal plan was to set off a bomb in a suitcase at Los Angeles International Airport. If that proved impractical, he said, he would target one of the other circled airports.

Ressam testified that through contacts in Canada and London, he recruited a co-conspirator from Brooklyn and got money from several associates in Canada, several of whom, at the time of his July 2001 testimony, were still on the loose. Although all this detail was revealed by Ressam in public testimony, the PDB prepared for Bush devotes only a cursory single paragraph to Ressam's plot and is devoid of any of the particulars that might have grabbed the president's attention. The passage on Ressam concludes with one cryptic sentence: "Ressam says bin Laden was aware of the Los Angeles operation."

Had the analysts delved only a few months further back into public records related to Al Qaeda investigations, they would have been able to produce other equally, if not more, frightening scenarios for the president. In February 2001, for example, another Al Qaeda operative captured by the United States, Jamal al-Fadl, told a jury in the same New York courthouse complex how he had been assigned by Al Qaeda in l993 or l994 to try to buy uranium from a black-market middleman in Khartoum, Sudan, where bin Laden then was based.

Al-Fadl, testifying as a key prosecution witness against a handful of alleged co-conspirators in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, said that he met with the middlemen and was shown a bag containing a metal cylinder. He said the middlemen showed him a document claiming the uranium had come from South Africa. Al-Fadl said the price of the radioactive material was supposed to be $1.5 million, though he never completed the transaction. Among the defendants convicted in the case at which Al-Fadl testified was a former appointments secretary to bin Laden himself named Wadih el-Hage, who was married to an American woman and resided at various times in both Texas and Arizona. Again, the PDB document given to Bush on Aug. 6 makes oblique references to the presence of Al Qaeda operatives in the United States but leaves out virtually all of the telling detail.

The notion that Al Qaeda operatives might try to carry out spectacular attacks in Lower Manhattan--where both the federal court house and the World Trade Center were located--became apparent in late 2000 during the pretrial phase of the embassy-bombing case when one defendant, Mamdouh Mahmoud Salim, alleged to be a high-ranking Al Qaeda operative, and another accused embassy-bombing co-conspirator attacked a guard in the high-rise federal detention center where they were being held. The accused terrorists grabbed the guard, handcuffed him, and stabbed him in the eye with a knife fashioned out of a plastic comb. (The guard survived the attack but was permanently injured). Authorities later discovered evidence that Salim and his cohort apparently had crafted detailed plans for taking hostages inside the prison, located next to Manhattan's federal courthouse, possibly as part of a scheme to win the release of themselves and other Al Qaeda operatives in U.S. hands.

Sources familiar with the range of threat information coming into intelligence agencies and the White House in the months and weeks before the 9/11 attacks occurred say that the embassy bombing case demonstrated Al Qaeda's willingness to take hostages inside the United States and its interest in nuclear weapons. The Ressam case, moreover, indicated Al Qaeda's interest in making direct attacks on the U.S. civil-aviation system and that the bin Laden network had a range of contacts it could call on inside both the United States and Canada.

According to a staff report released this week by the 9/11 commission, after the September 11 attacks, Ressam told his American-government handlers that he recognized as a fellow Afghan training-camp student Zacarias Moussaoui, the French-born associate of the Hamburg-based 9/11 hijackers who was arrested by the Feds just before the 9/11 attacks for behaving suspiciously at a Minnesota flight school. Unfortunately, nobody at the White House was told about Moussaoui's arrest. Neither was Tom Pickard, the interim director of the FBI, nor Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Both Pickard and Ashcroft were also out of the loop on the PDB. Thanks in part, to a more restrictive policy imposed by President Bush when he took office, PDBs were not circulated to the Justice Department by the White House. Instead, Ashcroft was sent, on Aug. 7, 2001, a Senior Executive Intelligence Brief, a watered-down version of the bin Laden PDB that had even less information, leaving out, for example, one sentence that was provided to Bush: that the FBI has information that "indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks."

So, at the very moment when many in the U.S. intelligence community were bracing for an attack, Bush was not the only one who appears to have been uninformed about bin Laden's intentions inside the country--and just how catastrophic that attack could be.