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Disputing Rice testimony


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BY KNUT ROYCE AND TOM BRUNE
WASHINGTON BUREAU

WASHINGTON -- The FBI on Friday disputed National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's testimony that it was conducting 70 separate investigations of al-Qaida cells in the United States before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Rice, testifying before the Sept. 11 commission Thursday, said that those 70 investigations were mentioned in a CIA briefing to the president and satisfied the White House that the FBI was doing its job in response to dire warnings that attacks were imminent and that the administration felt it had no need to act further.

But the FBI Friday said that those investigations were not limited to al-Qaida and did not focus on al-Qaida cells. FBI spokesman Ed Coggswell said the bureau was trying to determine how the number 70 got into the report.

The Aug. 6, 2001, memo was prescient in its title, which she divulged for the first time as "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States."

She said the briefing memo disclosed that the FBI had 70 "full-field investigations under way of cells" in the United States. And that, Rice said, explained why "there was no recommendation [coming from the White House] that we do something about" the flurry of threat warnings in the months preceding the attacks.

But Coggswell Friday said that those 70 investigations involved a number of international terrorist organizations, not just al-Qaida. He said that many were criminal investigations, which terrorism experts say are not likely to focus on preventing terrorist acts. And he said he would "not characterize" the targets of the investigations as cells, or groups acting in concert, as was the case with the Sept. 11 hijackers.

In addition to these investigations, Rice told the panel that FBI headquarters, reacting to alarming but vague intelligence in the spring and summer of 2001 that attacks were imminent, "tasked all 56 of its U.S. field offices to increase surveillance of known suspected terrorists" and to contact informants who might provide leads.

That, too, is news to the field offices. Commissioner Timothy J. Roemer told Rice that the commission had "to date ... found nobody, nobody at the FBI, who knows anything about a tasking of field offices." Even Thomas Pickard, at the time acting FBI director, told the panel that he "did not tell the field offices to do this," Roemer said.

Two and a half years after the terrorist attacks, it remains unclear why the FBI, given the general but dire warnings that preceded the attacks, did not go on full alert.

The agency clearly believed something was afoot. On July 12 of that year, Assistant FBI Director Dale Watson, chief of the counterterrorism division, told the National Governors Association that a significant terrorist attack was likely on U.S. soil. "I'm not a gloom-and-doom-type person," he said. "But I will tell you this. [We are] headed for an incident inside the United States."

The Aug. 6 CIA memo, called the president's daily brief, includes this passage: "The FBI indicates patterns of suspicious activity in the United States consistent with preparations for hijacking." This line was read into the record by Commissioner Bob Kerrey, but the memo itself remains classified. The White House said it may declassify it as early as next week.

Asked to elaborate on the nature of the suspicious activities, Coggswell, the FBI spokesman, said, "I can't speak to that classified document."

Some answers may come Tuesday, when Louis J. Freeh, the FBI's director until June 2001, and Pickard, who then served as acting director until a few days before Sept. 11, testify publicly before the commission.

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc. |  Article licensing and reprint options

 

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