White House Defends Threat Response
By RON FOURNIER
.c The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (May 16) - Under fire from angry lawmakers, the White House on Thursday defended its decision not to alert Americans to information before the Sept. 11 attacks that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network wanted to hijack U.S. airplanes.
President Bush had received general, nonspecific information during a vacation briefing at his ranch Aug. 6 that bin Laden's group was considering hijackings, and he never considered making the information public, said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
''You would have risked shutting down the American civil aviation system with such generalized information,'' Rice said. ''You would have to think five, six, seven times about that, very, very hard.''
Democrats led the calls for Bush to hand over the top-secret CIA briefing he received in August about the threats, saying it was important to know what he had learned, and when. Lawmakers also called for the release of an FBI memo before Sept. 11 that warned headquarters that many Middle Eastern men were training at at least one U.S. flight school.
''What we have to do now is find out what the president - what the White House - knew about the events leading up to the events of 9-11, when they knew it and, most importantly, what was done about it,'' said House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo.
Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said, ''There was a lot of information. I believe and others believe, if it had been acted on properly we may have had a different situation on Sept. 11.''
Rice described a series of threats uncovered by intelligence officials, beginning in September of 2000 and reaching a height in the summer of 2001, that dealt mostly with American interests overseas.
Those threats prompted a series of alerts from the FBI to law-enforcement agencies and from the Federal Aviation Administration to the nation's airlines and airports, she said. There also were strong warnings to Americans to be careful overseas.
But Rice said the administration never considered alerting the public to a possible hijacking threat at home, and had no idea that hijackers might consider using an airplane as a missile in a suicide attack.
''In the pre-9-11 world, we never even considered issuing a warning,'' Rice said.
Despite the statements that U.S. officials had no warnings of suicide attacks with airplanes, The Associated Press reported in March that Filipino police turned over to the United States in 1995 a confession of convicted terrorist Abdul Hakim Murad in which he proposed such an idea.
''Murad's idea is that he will board any American commercial aircraft pretending to be an ordinary passenger, then he will hijack said aircraft, control its cockpit and dive it at the CIA headquarters,'' one Filipino police report from 1995 said.
As politically charged hearings loomed, the White House scrambled to shield Bush from damage, and Democrats sought to exploit the first crack in the president's record-setting popularity since Sept. 11.
Bush had no public comment on the developments, but suggested in a closed-door meeting with GOP senators that politics might be at play.
''He said if there had been a strong warning to trust him that he would have reacted quite forcefully,'' said Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., who attended the Capitol luncheon.
''He reminded us this is the political season,'' Chafee said.
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said there was ''no specificity to the information'' that his agency passed on to airlines and airports last summer.
''There was no way we could have, let's say, connected the dots to point to what happened on the 11th of September,'' Mineta said.
In August, the Federal Aviation Administration warned airlines and airports that supporters of bin Laden or other terrorist groups could hijack airplanes, said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The warning was similar to several FAA notices earlier in the year, said the official.
Some family members of the Sept. 11 victims reacted with anger.
''I believe our whole government let people down,'' said Bill Doyle of New York City, whose son, Joseph was killed inside the World Trade Center.
Other family members said the government probably did all it could.
''It's time to put aside the anger, the frustration,'' said Peggy Neff of Hyattsville, Md., who lost her partner of 17 years, Sheila Hein, in the Pentagon attack.
Though Bush and his advisers spent weeks building a public case against bin Laden after the attacks, they never mentioned that U.S. intelligence had picked up threats of hijackings over the summer.
A senior CIA official said it's still not clear whether the information given to Bush was a bona fide hint of the Sept. 11 plot or something entirely unrelated.
Democrats weren't buying the explanation.
''Why did it take eight months for us to receive this information?'' asked Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
He said Bush should turn over the CIA briefing, as well as an FBI memo drafted by an Arizona agent who warned before the attacks of suspicious activity by Arabs at U.S. flight schools. White House officials would not say whether Bush would comply.
Congressional intelligence committees were already trying to determine whether there were any intelligence lapses. Daschle said this week's development will throw the investigation to other panels.
Some Republicans demanded answers, too.
''There were two separate FBI reports plus a CIA warning, none of which were coordinated. The question is, if all three had been connected, would that have led to more vigorous activity? That's the reason why we need the commission to look at it.'' said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Gephardt and several members of intelligence panels, primarily Democrats, said they had not been advised of the threats - although the White House insisted that committee members were told.
The airline industry also said it was caught off guard.
''I'm not aware of any warnings or notifications,'' said Michael Wascom, spokesman for the Air Transport Association.
White House officials said Bush was steadfast that CIA Director George Tenet and FBI Director Robert Mueller had done a good job overhauling their agencies to close the gaps exposed by the attacks. Their jobs are not in jeopardy, officials said.
One Bush associate quoted the president as saying ''no one knew'' that bin Laden was plotting to make the leap from traditional hijackings to the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
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