Hijack threats were vague, top White House aides say

Lawmakers demand details on Bush's briefing before Sept. 11 attacks

May 17, 2002|By Laura Sullivan, David L. Greene and Mark Matthews | Laura Sullivan, David L. Greene and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush's top aides fended off heated questions yesterday about why Bush failed to alert Americans after he was informed before Sept. 11 that Osama bin Laden wanted to hijack U.S. planes. They said the president had received only vague information.

Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, said Bush was given information in an August briefing that provided no specific time, method or site for any attack.

"This government did everything that it could, in a period in which the information was very generalized," Rice said. "Had this president known of something more specific, or known that a plane was going to be used as a missile, he would have acted on it."

Bush himself issued no public response yesterday. But at a previously scheduled closed-door meeting with Senate Republicans, he said: "We get threats all the time. Every day my schedule is disrupted by threat assessments," according to Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas.

Bush also reportedly said at the meeting, "There is a sniff of politics in the air."

The White House explanation came as Bush, whose popularity soared with his handling of the aftermath of the attacks, came under his first severe criticism surrounding Sept. 11.

Expressing anger, several key members of Congress called for hearings to determine whether the administration, as well as its intelligence agencies, missed obvious signs that pointed to the impending attacks.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, renewed his call for an independent commission to investigate the circumstances surrounding Sept. 11.

"It is irresponsible to point fingers and lay blame without all the facts," Lieberman said. "But it is equally irresponsible to allow this type of information to trickle out slowly and haphazardly, raising new questions, tearing at old wounds and alarming the public."

Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby, the senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said: "There was a lot of information I believe, and others believe, if it had been acted upon properly, we may have had a different situation on September the 11th."

Some congressional leaders also questioned why the administration failed until now to tell the public about the intelligence reports that pointed to bin Laden's interest in hijackings.

"Why did it take eight months for us to receive this information?" asked Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat.

Last night in New York, Vice President Dick Cheney said that congressional Democrats need to be "very cautious" about their criticism of the Bush administration's decision not to disclose intelligence before Sept. 11 that terrorists wanted to hijack U.S. airplanes.

In a speech at the state Conservative Party's annual dinner, Cheney warned Democrats "to not seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions ... that the White House had advance information that would have prevented the tragic attacks of 9-11."

Cheney said that Democratic attacks could backfire.

"The people and agencies responsible to help us learn to defeat such an attack are the very ones most likely to be distracted from their critical duties if Congress fails to carry their obligation in a responsible fashion," he said.

The administration, Rice said, recently alerted congressional investigators about Bush's briefing and others as part of a continuing inquiry into how U.S. intelligence failed to anticipate the Sept. 11 attacks.

The White House has repeatedly denied since September that it had had any warning of the attacks. Rice said yesterday that the information Bush had learned from the August briefing was not specific enough to be called a warning.

She recounted several threats that intelligence officials picked up, beginning in September 2000 and peaking last summer, that focused on likely targets overseas. Rice said that despite those signs, there was no way for Bush to have gleaned from the information that any specific attack was imminent.

But the White House faced enormous pressure yesterday because the disclosure of the president's briefing came after revelations last week that the FBI failed to act on a memo from an agent in the bureau's Phoenix office. That memo warned the agency in July that several suspicious students from Middle Eastern countries were taking flight lessons.

Those students did not take part in the September attacks, but administration officials said that at least one of them is under investigation. And the memo referred specifically to bin Laden and how he might use U.S. flight schools to train his agents.

The memo, sent electronically to FBI headquarters, also included an outline of steps the agency should take to look into other flights schools and a possible plot.

Last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who has read the memo, called it "very straightforward" and "much more descriptive and consequential" than most other intelligence memos she has read.

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