WASHINGTON -- US government agencies issued repeated warnings in the summer of 2001 about potential terrorist plots against the United States masterminded by Osama bin Laden, including a possible plan to hijack commercial aircraft, documents show.
While there were no specific targets mentioned in the United States, there was intelligence indicating Al Qaeda might attempt to crash a plane into the US Embassy in Nairobi. Other reports said Islamic extremists might try to hijack a plane to gain release of comrades.
The escalating seriousness was reflected in a series of warnings issued by the State Department, Federal Aviation Administration, Defense Department, and others detailing a heightened risk of terror attacks targeting Americans.
Whether the Bush administration had enough information to take more strident action is at the heart of the dispute over the contents of an Aug. 6, 2001, intelligence briefing the White House was working to declassify at the urging of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. White House officials said the document probably would not be ready for release until early next week.
Several Democrats on the commission say the memo, called a presidential daily brief, or PDB, included current intelligence indicating a high threat of hijackings. It was titled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States."
"Something was going to happen very soon and be potentially catastrophic," said one of the Democrats, Timothy Roemer, a former congressman from Indiana. "I don't understand, given the big threat, why the big principals don't get together."
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice repeatedly told the panel Thursday that the document was a history of Al Qaeda threats and contained no new imminent threat information requiring different government action. The possibility of hijackings was being investigated by the FBI and the FAA, she said, adding that most of the summer 2001 threats concerned US interests abroad.
Congress already has conducted an investigation into the attacks, and its final report includes a detailed timeline of the increasing threats US officials picked up during the summer of 2001. It also includes some of the material from the PDB.
The memo mentioned intelligence that bin Laden wanted to hijack aircraft to gain release of prisoners in the United States. The PDB also contains FBI information about "patterns of activity consistent with preparations for hijackings or other attacks," according to congressional investigators.
A key event occurred on June 21, 2001, when a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., returned a 46-count indictment charging 13 Saudis and one Lebanese with the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 US service personnel.
Rumors of the coming indictment had been circulating for weeks before that, according to officials familiar with the intelligence, leading to increased worries that terrorists might take some action in connection with the case.
The next day, June 22, the FAA issued a nationwide circular "referring to a possible hijacking plot by Islamic terrorists to secure release of 14 persons incarcerated in the United States" in the Khobar Towers case. In fact, the 14 were still at large, although the circular did not mention that. They remain fugitives today.
More terrorism warnings quickly followed, including:
A worldwide caution issued June 22 by the State Department warning Americans abroad of increased risk of attacks.
Four Defense Department alerts between June 22 and July 20 alerting US military personnel that "bin Laden's network was planning a near-term, anti-US terrorist operation."
A July 2 bulletin from the FBI to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies describing "increased threat reporting" about bin Laden or groups allied with Al Qaeda.
Intelligence received by US agencies in August about the plot to either bomb the US Embassy in Nairobi from a plane or crash an aircraft into the building.