updated 4/12/2004 10:14:10 PM ET 2004-04-13T02:14:10

Just one day after President Bush received a pre-Sept. 11 briefing on al-Qaida’s effort to strike on U.S. soil, senior government executives received a similarly titled memo that excluded information about current threats and investigations, say federal officials who have read both documents.

The Aug. 7, 2001 memo, known as the senior executive intelligence brief or SEIB, didn’t mention the 70 FBI investigations into possible al-Qaida activity that Bush had been told of a day earlier in a memo entitled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S.,” the officials said Monday.

The senior executives’ memo also did not mention a threat received in May 2001 of a U.S.-based explosives attacks or say that the FBI had concerns about recent casing of buildings in New York, the officials told The Associated Press.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because the senior executives’ memo remains classified.

Some members of Congress said Monday they were concerned that senior executive memos and other similar documents may have given policy-makers working for Bush an incomplete picture of the terror threat.

Two different audiences
But administration officials said there was nothing sinister about the deletions because the memos are destined for two different audiences. The CIA historically uses different standards for the president’s daily intelligence update and the one provided to senior policy-makers, officials said.

Typically, the senior executives’ memo goes to scores of Cabinet-agency officials from the assistant secretary level up and doesn’t include raw intelligence or sensitive information about ongoing law enforcement matters, officials said.

That is done to guard against unnecessary leaks and because that type of sensitive information isn’t deemed essential to be distributed to all policy-makers, they said.

Terrorism policy-makers and those on the front lines get that information directly from targeted raw intelligence reports. For instance, CIA, FBI, Customs and immigration and White House anti-terror officials had received the May 2001 intelligence report about a possible al-Qaida explosives plot on U.S. soil shortly after it arrived and were investigating it by the time the president learned of it, the officials said.

The senior executives’ memo “is not used as a way to transmit actionable (raw) intelligence,” a senior administration official said. “Instead, policy-makers making counterterrorism policy receive their information about particular threats through a variety of other ways such as human source reports, signal (electronic) intelligence and law enforcement reports.”

Nonetheless, some who saw the memo said they feared it gave policy-makers and members of the congressional intelligence committees a picture of the domestic threat so stale and incomplete that it didn’t provide the necessary sense of urgency one month before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham, D-Fla., said Monday he has not yet been able to compare the two memos, but would be concerned if senior policy-makers and key lawmakers weren’t aware they were missing some relevant information provided to the president.

“I think it is an important policy issue that we may not know everything the president knows, but we at least should know we don’t know some things, that there is something being withheld,” Graham said.

Members of Congress, outside experts and the independent commission investigating pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failures are more broadly questioning whether useful intelligence was, and still is, being held too restrictively.

'Issues of trust'
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Intelligence Committee, urged the release of all classified materials on bin Laden since 1998. He said the sharing of classified information is still being affected by “fundamental issues of trust” and turf battles.

“The system is dysfunctional. It is more than broken. It is more than the left hand doesn’t, from time to time, communicate with the right hand,” Wyden said Monday. “... Everybody feels that by sharing any information, that somehow this makes it hard for them to protect issues that are important to them.”

Bush administration officials stress that regardless of what was put in the two memos, nothing given to the president or senior policy-makers foretold of the horrors that would unfold five weeks later during the suicide hijackings in New York and Washington that killed 3,000 people.

Access to both the presidential and senior executive intelligence briefings was greatly reduced across government during the end of the Clinton administration and the beginning of the Bush administration because of concerns about repeated leaks.

Government watchdogs, however, question assertions by the Bush administration that the public release Saturday of the president’s daily intelligence memo from August 2001 set a potentially dangerous precedent that could hamper future presidents’ ability to get candid advice.

The private National Security Archive, which collects previously secret government documents, has published at least 10 declassified presidential daily briefings over the years.

Steven Aftergood, who oversees the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, said former CIA Director Robert Gates also was allowed to publish information from at least two presidential briefing memos in his memoir.

“It shows the claim that this whole category of documents must remain secret is utterly hollow,” Aftergood said. “There must be many more briefs that could be released like this one with absolutely no harm to security, and to the benefit of the public understanding.”

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