WASHINGTON -- An intelligence briefing two months before the Sept. 11 attack warned that Osama bin Laden would launch a spectacular terrorist attack against U.S. or Israeli interests, congressional investigators said Wednesday.
The briefing, for senior government officials, was part of "a modest, but relatively steady stream of intelligence information indicating the possibility of terrorist attacks inside the United States," said the 30-page statement by Eleanor Hill, staff director for the House and Senate intelligence inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks.
But Hill said the credibility of the sources was sometimes questionable and no specific details about the attacks were available.
"They generally did not contain specific information as to where, when and how a terrorist attack might occur and generally are not corroborated by further information," her statement said.
Hill's statement was being presented to committee members Wednesday at the inquiry's first public hearings. Lawmakers have been meeting behind closed doors since June, looking into intelligence failures leading up to the attacks and how they can be corrected.
"These public hearings are part of our search for the truth -- not to point fingers or pin blame, but with the goal of identifying and correcting whatever systemic problems might have prevented our government from detecting and disrupting al Qaida's plot," said Sen. Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, as the hearing opened.
Leaders of two groups of victims' relatives, Stephen Push and Kristin Breitweiser, were the first scheduled witnesses. Both lost spouses in the attacks.
The July 2001 briefing for senior government officials said that based on a review of intelligence information over five months "we believe that (bin Laden) will launch a significant terrorist attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks."
"The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against U.S. facilities or interests. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning," it said.
Among other intelligence reports mentioned by Hill:
* In September 1998, the intelligence community obtained information that Osama bin Laden's "next operation could possibly involve flying an aircraft loaded with explosives into a U.S. airport and detonating it."
* In the fall of 1998, intelligence agencies received information about a bin Laden plot involving aircraft in New York and Washington areas.
* Between May and July, 2001, the National Security agency reported at least 33 communications indicating a possible, imminent terrorist attack.
But intelligence agencies generally believed that any attack was more likely to occur overseas than in the United States.
On Tuesday, the top Republican on the Senate panel, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, said some of the most troubling information seen by the committees already has been made public: the so-called Phoenix memo, in which an FBI agent warned that U.S. flight schools may be training terrorist pilots, and the handling of the Zacarias Moussaoui case. Moussaoui was arrested in August 2001 after he raised suspicions when he sought training at a Minnesota flight school. He has since been charged with conspiring in the attacks.
"Those two events alone could have changed Sept. 11. Would it have? We don't know," Shelby said.
Both Shelby and Graham have complained that the Bush administration has not been cooperating with their investigation.
"What we are trying to do is get people who had hands on these issues," Graham said Wednesday on NBC's "Today" program, "...and what we're being told is no, they don't want to make those kinds of witnesses available."
"We can only talk to the top of the pyramid," Graham said. "Well, the problem is, the top of the pyramid has a general awareness of what's going on in the organization, but if you want to know why Malaysian plotters were not put on a watch list ... you've to talk to somebody at the level where those kinds of decisions were made."
The hearings are believed to mark the first time that standing committees from both houses of Congress have sat together for an investigation. Because House and Senate committees follow different rules in staging hearings, special procedures had to be adopted. The committees' leaders, Graham and Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., will alternate as chairman.
The Bush administration has looked to the intelligence inquiry to produce the definitive report on problems leading up to the attack. Committee members say they have become frustrated by delays, blamed on both the difficulties of declassifying information for public hearings and what they see as lack of cooperation by the administration.
Public hearings were to have begun in June. Delayed repeatedly, none has been scheduled beyond Wednesday's. Congressional staff have said the administration has been reluctant to provide high-level officials as witnesses, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
With just weeks left in the congressional year, momentum has grown in Congress for a separate, independent commission to look into the attacks. The White House has opposed an independent commission, saying it could lead to more leaks and tie up personnel needed to fight terrorism.
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