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The Memo: Hint Or Threat?

As the Sept. 11 commission turns its attention this week to law enforcement and intelligence before the 2001 terrorist attacks, the release of a presidential briefing paper hinting at a U.S. plot has increased the scrutiny of the FBI and CIA, as well as the Bush administration.

The Presidential Daily Brief of Aug. 6, 2001, said that al Qaeda had reached America's shores, had a support system in place for its operatives and that the FBI had detected suspicious activity that might involve a hijacking plot.

Click here to read the memo in PDF format.

Since 1998, the FBI had observed "patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks," according to the memo, declassified Saturday.

The PDB referred to evidence of buildings in New York possibly being cased by terrorists.

Mr. Bush insisted Sunday he was satisfied that federal agents were on top of the terrorist threat when he read that memo, which detailed Osama bin Laden's intentions on U.S. soil.

"I was satisfied that some of the matters were being looked into" and had any specific intelligence pointed to threats of attacks on New York and Washington, "I would have moved mountains" to prevent it, Mr. Bush said during a visit to Fort Hood in Texas.

But he said the document, which the White House released Saturday night, contained "nothing about an attack on America. It talked about intentions, about somebody who hated America — well, we knew that."

A White House "fact sheet" nodes that the PDP was based largely on background information, did not discuss the possible use of planes as weapons and simply did not warn of the Sept. 11 attacks, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante.

What the president said — perhaps suggesting that others might have dropped the ball — was that perhaps some other agencies in the government ought to be looking into what happened.

"That's what the 9/11 Commission should look into, and I hope it does," the president said. "It's an important part of the assignment of the 9/11 Commission. And I look forward to their recommendations, a full analysis of what took place"

The commission asked the White House to declassify the document at its meeting Thursday. It is significant because Mr. Bush read it, so it offers a window on what Mr. Bush and his top aides knew about the threat of a terrorist strike.

The CIA prepared the document "in response to questions asked by the president about the possibility of attacks by al Qaeda inside the U.S," one said.

But the senior officials refused to say what Mr. Bush's response to the memo was.

Democratic and Republican members of the 9-11 commission saw the document differently.

Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic commissioner and former Watergate prosecutor, said the memo calls into question national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's assertion Thursday that the memo was purely a "historical" document.

But Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison sold the CBS News Early Show, "I do believe that when you look at the totality of the situation, I think the president should be commended for asking for the memo, for having the information."

The document said that "some of the more sensational threat reporting" — such as an intelligence tip in 1998 that bin Laden wanted to hijack aircraft to win the release of fellow extremists — could not be corroborated.

"Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicated patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings and other types of attacks," it read.

The government's failure to grasp the threat posed by al Qaeda inside the United States before the 2001 attacks is blamed largely on a legal wall that for years divided FBI intelligence and criminal agents.

Nowhere was the problem better illustrated than in the case of Sept. 11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi; both were linked by the CIA to al Qaeda and the agency knew they had entered the United States in summer 2001.

On Sept. 11, they were aboard American Airlines Flight 77 that slammed into the Pentagon.

The legal wall, according to an FBI agent who worked the case, prevented New York agents involved in an al Qaeda criminal investigation from trying to track the two men down because officials at the FBI National Security Law Unit decided it had to remain as an intelligence case.

The problem, removed when the Patriot Act broke down the wall between criminal and intelligence cases, is expected to be among the topics when current and former Justice Department and FBI officials testify Tuesday and Wednesday before the Sept. 11 commission.

Some wonder if the legal barrier was the real problem. The CIA never asked the State Department to add al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi to a watch list, despite facing no legal restrictions on doing so.

Others aren't sure the post-Sept. 11 legal changes are sufficient to meet the terrorist threat.

"The FBI is a wonderful law enforcement agency," Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., told the Early Show. "But they were never a created, trained and intended to be a counterterrorist organization. Most western democracies have one. We don't. We need to ask ourselves maybe the time has come to do that."