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Memo to Clinton in ‘98 warned of hijack plans

Susan Schmidt Washington Post

WASHINGTON – A secret intelligence report prepared for President Bill Clinton in December 1998 reported on a suspected plot by Osama bin Laden to hijack at U.S. airliner in an effort to force the United States to release imprisoned conspirators in the 1993 World Trade Center attacks.

The one-page declassified version of the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) dated Dec. 4, 1998, contains chilling information the CIA had gleaned from several sources indicating that al Qaeda was working with U.S.-based operatives of its deadly ally, the Eqyptian group Gama at al-Islamiyya, in the purported hijack plot.

The PDB shows that the intelligence community and the White House were aware of al Qaeda’s interest in hijacking U.S. airliners long before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The day the PDB was prepared, then-CIA director George Tenet said in a memo to the intelligence community that “we are at war,” and that no resources should be spared to defeat the terrorists.

A report by the presidential commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks will include the newly declassified document and a previously declassified PDB from Aug. 6, 2001, when it is released this week. It also will contain details of what the commission’s executive director, Philip Zelikow, described Saturday as an “energetic response” to the hijack threat information by the Clinton administration, including its efforts to determine if the reports were true.

The 1998 document is “the most important PDB about hijacking published before 9-11,” said Zelikow. The Aug. 6, 2001, PDB prepared for President Bush mentioned 1998 intelligence concerning a plot by bin Laden “to hijack a U.S. aircraft to gain the release of ‘Blind Sheik’ Omar Abdel Rahman and other U.S.-held extremists.”

The 2001 PDB said intelligence officials “have not been able to corroborate” the plot reports from 1998.

The 1998 PDB is titled: “Bin Laden preparing to hijack U.S. aircraft and other attacks.” It was declassified, with redactions, by the White House last Monday at the request of the Sept. 11 commission. The text of the 1998 PDB was read to a reporter by an administration official who had access to the declassified document.

It said intelligence reports “suggest Bin Laden and his allies are preparing for attacks in the United States, including an aircraft hijacking to obtain the release of Shaykh Umar Abd al-Rahman, Ramzi Yousef and Muhammad Sadiq Awda. One source quoted a senior member of Gama at al-Islamiyya (I.G.) saying that as of late October the group had completed planning for an operation in the United States on behalf of bin Laden but that the operation was on hold. A senior bin Laden operative from Saudi Arabia was to visit I.G. counterparts in the United States soon thereafter to discuss options – perhaps including an aircraft hijacking.”

While the CIA and other government agencies were clearly aware of the hijack threat, and the Federal Aviation Administration distributed a circular referring to it in the summer of 2001, a White House official said Saturday that the Bush national security team was not apprised by the outgoing Clinton administration about the intelligence report on a suspected hijack plot to free Rahman.

“There is no record or recollection of the new White House team having been briefed on that threat information,” said an administration official, who said the 2001 memo, based on information provided by the CIA, “is the first record of the new White House having that information.”

Richard Clarke, who was White House counterterrorism chief under Clinton and for a few months under Bush, testified before the commission that the Bush national security team was not sufficiently concerned about the threat information prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. He has cited the 2001 PDB as proof the Bush team had reason to be concerned about hijack threats, but Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, in her testimony, played down the importance of the hijack reference in that memo, saying it was based on “old reporting.”

The details of that reporting and what the government did about the intelligence will be explored publicly for the first time in the commission report.

The 1998 PDB said that some members of bin Laden’s network had received hijack training but no group directly tied to bin Laden had carried out a hijacking. “Bin Laden could be weighing other types of operations agains U.S. aircraft,” the PDB said. In October 1998, the memo said, “the I.G. obtained SA-7 missiles and intended to move them from Yemen into Saudi Arabia to shoot down an Eqyptian plane or if unsuccessful a U.S. military or civilian aircraft.”

Zelikow said the whole story of the 1998 hijack threat and the government’s response will be detailed in the commission report this week.

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