WASHINGTON -- The White House released the confidential briefing about Al Qaeda's activities in the United States before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the hope that the full text would quell increasing public questions about whether President Bush should have been prepared for the suicide strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Like national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's testimony two days earlier, the simple act of declassifying the presidential daily briefing was intended to prove the White House has nothing to hide -- a critical task in this election year, with polls showing rising doubts about the president's performance. In a new Newsweek poll, 60 percent said they believed the administration underestimated the threat of terror attacks on US soil.
But the content of the briefing also handed fresh ammunition to Democratic critics who question whether the administration should have done more to prevent the attacks or should have been more forthright in the years since. In less than a page and a half, the document shows that Bush was told more than a month before Sept. 11 that Al Qaeda cells had infiltrated the country, were engaged in suspicious activity, and, according to the FBI, appeared to be making "preparations for hijackings and other types of attacks."
However brief, the memo titled "Bin Ladin [sic] Determined to Strike in the US" was enough to make Democrats pounce.
Immediately after administration officials sent the declassified paper to reporters, David Sirota, a Democratic operative, e-mailed a response pointing out what he saw as inconsistencies between the document and Rice's testimony. Labeled "claim vs. fact," the Democratic response juxtaposed a remark during Rice's sworn remarks -- that there was "no new threat information" in the PDB -- with a Reuters news story about the paper describing the content as "very current."
That was followed by an e-mail offering the dictionary definition of "perjury," an attack on Rice that did not mention her by name.
Anticipating a tough public relations fight, two administration officials conducted their own spin session as they released the document to reporters. They also circulated a fact sheet about the PDB that was twice as long as the document itself.
"The release of this PDB should clear up the myth that's out there that somehow the president was warned about September 11th, or was warned -- or, excuse me -- was briefed on information related to September 11th," one official said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity.
"The PDB article did not warn of the 9/11 attacks," the fact sheet says. "Although the PDB referred to the possibility of hijackings, it did not discuss the possible use of planes as weapons."
In the conference call, one of the officials went so far as to dissect the PDB sentence by sentence, calculating that of the 17 sentences in it, 14 of them pertained to information about Al Qaeda that had been discovered in the past.
The 15th sentence, the official said, showed the FBI was conducting dozens of ongoing bin Laden investigations. Only the remaining two sentences were "things that were closer to the present time," the official said. The official added that both items -- suspicious Yemeni men seen photographing federal buildings in New York, and an anonymous caller to the US Embassy in the United Arab Emirates warning about a bomb plot in the United States -- were investigated and discounted.
Officials of the White House and the Bush campaign hope the discussion will fade, leaving the president free to promote own agenda and recapture control of the political debate. Between the 9/11 Commission and the uprisings in Iraq, the Bush and John Kerry campaigns have struggled to keep public attention on their messages -- an especially important challenge for Bush, and one that could well continue this week.
Bush, celebrating the Easter holiday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, skipped a planned fishing excursion yesterday to focus on Iraq, though he did have a successful catch the day before.
Tomorrow, he is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, an event that will keep the spotlight on the troubling violence in the Middle East.
On Wednesday, Bush intends to meet with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, followed by a meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain at the White House at the end of the week. Whether he will be able to redirect the headlines in the meantime, with an economic speech in Des Moines on Thursday, is an open question.