Bush was warned of threat of hijack, link to bin Laden

Revelation likely to fuel calls for investigation of intelligence agencies

May 16, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The White House said last night that President Bush had been warned by intelligence agencies in August that Osama bin Laden was seeking to hijack aircraft, but the reports did not include the possibility that the hijackers would turn the planes into missiles for a terrorist attack.

"It is widely known that we had information that bin Laden wanted to attack the United States or United States interests abroad," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

"The president was also provided information about bin Laden wanting to engage in hijacking in the traditional pre-9/11 sense, not for the use of suicide bombing, not for the use of an airplane as a missile."

Nonetheless the revelation by the White House, in response to a report last night on CBS News, is bound to fuel congressional demands for a deeper investigation into whether U.S. intelligence agencies and the FBI failed to link pieces of evidence that were in front of them.

In the past few days, government officials have acknowledged for the first time that an agent in Phoenix had urged the bureau headquarters to investigate Middle Eastern men enrolled in U.S. flight schools.

That memo mentioned bin Laden by name and said his followers could use the schools to train for terror operations, officials who have seen it said.

Administration officials reached last night said the warning given to Bush did not come from the FBI or from the information developed by the Phoenix agent. Rather, it was provided as part of the CIA briefing he is given each morning, suggesting it was based on evidence gathered abroad.

But taken together, the news of the CIA warning and the information developed separately by the FBI explain Bush's anger after Sept. 11 that intelligence gathered on American soil and abroad was not being centrally analyzed and that the agencies were not working well together.

It was not clear why the White House waited eight months to reveal what Bush had been told.

But Fleischer noted that in the daily flow of intelligence information the president receives, the warning of what appeared to be the threat of a conventional hijacking was not as serious. "We were a peacetime society, and the FBI had a different mission," he said.

Fleischer said the information given to the president in Texas had prompted the administration to put law enforcement agencies on alert. But there was no public announcement.

A senior administration official said last night that there was speculation within the government that heightened security - if it truly existed in August and September - might have prompted the hijackers to use box cutters and plastic knives to avoid detection.

The CIA warning might also explain why Bush's aides were so certain that bin Laden was behind the attacks almost as soon as they happened.

"We never had any real doubt," one senior official involved in the crucial decisions at the White House on Sept. 11 said several months ago.

Until recently, Bush has successfully deflected demands for a lengthy and detailed investigation into the intelligence failures surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks. White House officials were concerned that the investigation would feed into demands by Sen. Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican who is the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to replace George J. Tenet as the director of central intelligence.

But news that the hijack warning was in Bush's brief, which Tenet sees and approves, and that it was linked to bin Laden is almost sure to widen the scope of the investigation.

Already, several lawmakers who have read the Phoenix memorandum written by the FBI agent have described it as the most significant document to emerge in congressional inquiries into whether the government might have been warned about possible hijackings.

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