Bush defends handling of terror threats

If he had known of plot to attack U.S., he would've acted on it, president says

`I take my job ... very seriously'

Done with bipartisanship, White House lashes back at Democratic critics

May 18, 2002|By David L. Greene and Karen Hosler | David L. Greene and Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush rose forcefully to his own defense yesterday, insisting that had he known about Osama bin Laden's plot to attack the United States on Sept. 11, he would have acted boldly to safeguard the country.

"I take my job as commander in chief very seriously," Bush said in his first public comments since this week's revelation that a CIA briefing in August had cautioned him that bin Laden might be planning hijackings. "Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to kill on that fateful morning, I would have done everything in my power to protect the American people."

The president's remarks coincided with an aggressive effort by the White House yesterday to strike back at critics. Many of them have raised pointed questions about what Bush knew about terrorist plots before Sept. 11 and why he failed for eight months to disclose what he learned in the briefing.

Bush's aides have insisted that the White House received only vague information about terrorist threats and knew nothing specific about bin Laden's plans. But as long ago as 1999, reports had surfaced that al-Qaida might consider using hijacked airplanes to crash into U.S. government buildings.

It seemed clear yesterday that the air of bipartisanship that has surrounded Sept. 11 has all but evaporated. Some of Bush's Republican allies charged that Democrats were pointing fingers at the administration to try to erode the president's high approval ratings.

"They are salivating at the opportunity to try to bring the president down," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. "What's going on here is very transparent."

In a bristling offensive that seemed to depart from Bush's stated desire for bipartisanship, White House officials singled out individual Democrats, saying they received much of the same intelligence last summer that the president had but had chosen not to speak out explicitly about possible attacks.

The White House even issued a statement of support from his wife, Laura, who said, "It's sad to play upon the emotions of people as if there were something we could have done to stop [the attacks], because that's just not the case."

She added, "There was no way he could have predicted what would happen from this intelligence."

Speaking yesterday at a ceremony honoring the Air Force Academy's football program, Bush said, "What is interesting about Washington, it's a town - unfortunately, it's the kind of place where second-guessing has become second nature."

Vice President Dick Cheney was less restrained in a speech Thursday evening. He warned that Democrats should not make "incendiary suggestions" that are "thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war."

Seeking information

Democrats asserted yesterday that their goal was not to heap blame on Bush, but to fully investigate any intelligence failures leading to Sept. 11 - and whether the president was involved in those failures.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the House Democratic leader, said: "Our nation is not well-served when the charge of `partisan politics' is leveled at those who simply seek information that the American people need and deserve to know. This is not about placing blame or assigning motives to people. This is about working together as a team and trying to do better in the future."

On Thursday, Democrats had zeroed in on Bush's failure to caution Americans about terrorist plots before Sept. 11 and to make public over the past eight months what he was told in his August CIA briefing.

Yesterday, those Democratic critics joined Republicans in focusing more on the broader intelligence breakdowns that contributed to the nation's failure to anticipate the terrorist attacks. Still, the heated political exchanges seemed to threaten the thoughtful investigation that both sides say is necessary.

The White House has said that throughout the summer, it had been flooded with intelligence reports suggesting that al-Qaida might be planning an assault. Most of the reports, officials said, indicated that an attack might target U.S. interests overseas rather than on American soil.

Lawmakers' efforts

But lawmakers, Democrats as well as Republicans, are demanding a full investigation of what the FBI, CIA and other agencies knew about bin Laden's plans, and whether better communication between the agencies might have prevented the attacks. They also want to know exactly what Bush was told Aug. 6 at the CIA briefing at his Texas ranch.

Aides to Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the senator would formally request something that many other lawmakers have been calling for: that Bush's briefing materials be made public, which the White House has refused to do.

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