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They had much to talk about. Throughout the summer, top officials had become convinced, with a growing sense of foreboding, that a major operation by al-Qaeda was in the works. For many in the loop, it seemed likely that any attack would be aimed at Americans overseas. But sources tell TIME that the Aug. 6 briefing had a very different focus; it was explicitly concerned with terrorism in the homeland. The Aug. 6 briefing had been put together, says one official, because the President had told Tenet, "Give me a sense of what al-Qaeda can do inside the U.S." At a press conference last week, Rice said the brief concentrated on the history and methods of al-Qaeda. Since much of the material in it was a rehash of intelligence dating to 1997 and '98, it is doubtful that it was much use in answering Bush's question.
According to Rice, there was just a sentence or two on hijacking--and the passage did not address the possibility that a hijacked plane would ever be flown into a building. That was the first of four crucial mistakes made last summer. Administration officials insisted all last week that turning a plane into a suicide bomb was something that nobody had contemplated. But that just isn't so. In 1995, authorities in the Philippines scuppered a plan--masterminded by Ramzi Yousef, who had also plotted the 1993 World Trade Center bombing--for mass hijackings of American planes over the Pacific. Evidence developed during the investigation of Yousef and his partner, Abdul Hakim Murad, uncovered a plan to crash a plane into CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. And as long ago as 1994, in an incident that is well known among terrorism experts, French authorities foiled a plot by the Algerian Armed Islamic Group to fly an airliner into the Eiffel Tower. "Since 1994," says a French investigator into al-Qaeda cases, "we should all have been viewing kamikaze acts as a possibility for all terrorist hijackings." But if Rice's account is accurate, nobody significant in the Bush Administration did.
There might have been more discussion of the risks of hijackings in the President's briefing if its writers had known about the Phoenix memo. But they hadn't seen it, nor had anyone in the CIA or the White House. Yet Senator Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, calls the memo, which is said to contain detailed descriptions of named suspects, "one of the most explosive documents I've seen in eight years." The memo, on which the Senate Intelligence Committee was briefed last November, has now become the focus of a huge political row in Washington. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee--including Republican Arlen Specter, who had an angry exchange over the memo with FBI Director Robert Mueller on Saturday--are desperate to see it, and may yet subpoena it. "The fact that the Phoenix memo died on somebody's desk takes your breath away," says Senator Richard Durbin, a Democratic committee member from Illinois. "They just shuffled it off."