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U.S.: Bush Administration Says Early Warning On 11 September Not Specific

  • Andrew Tully

Some members of the U.S. Congress are demanding that the White House surrender a transcript of an intelligence briefing that President George W. Bush received in August. In the briefing, Bush learned that Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network might hijack American airplanes. Bush's critics say the government might have used the information to perhaps avert the 11 September terrorist attacks. But the White House says the briefing was not specific enough to act on.

Washington, 17 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The White House says U.S. President George W. Bush did not have enough information from intelligence officials to prevent the terrorist attacks of 11 September, even though he had learned a month earlier that Osama bin Laden's network might hijack American airplanes.

In separate press briefings at the White House yesterday, Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and his chief spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said that beginning in May 2001, Bush's daily briefings included reports of increasing numbers of general terrorist threats against the United States.

But Rice and Fleischer emphasized that most of these threats involved targets outside the United States, not specific targets in the country. Fleischer put it this way during his briefing of reporters: "Throughout the summer [of 2001] the [U.S.] administration received heightened reporting on threats on U.S. interests and territories, most of it focused on threats abroad. As a result, several actions were taken to button down security. All appropriate action was taken based on the threat information that the United States government received."

The White House said that during a briefing on 6 August at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, Bush was told specifically that bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network had threatened to hijack U.S. airplanes. But in his briefing, Fleischer stressed that the report did not say the would-be hijackers intended to use the planes as weapons, as they did on 11 September. "The president did not receive information about the use of airplanes as missiles by suicide bombers. This was a new type of attack that had not been foreseen."

During her meeting with the press, Rice said the intelligence briefing that day was not a warning of an impending attack, but an analysis of how Al-Qaeda had operated until then, and how they might be expected to act if they followed through on their desire to hijack an American airplane. She said the report anticipated their actions this way: "The most important and most likely thing was that they would take over an airliner, holding passengers [hostage], and demand the release of one of their operatives."

Both Rice and Fleischer said the report was one of many on terrorist threats against the United States. They said it included no indication that terrorists were targeting landmarks such as the World Trade Center in New York or the Pentagon in Washington. Nor was the date 11 September ever mentioned.

According to Fleischer, the intelligence agencies relayed this warning to federal agencies and airlines. One spokesman for the U.S. airline industry said he was not aware that the carriers had been warned of any specific threats. But Fleischer said the information given to the industry was "unspecific," as he put it.

Members of Congress already are investigating whether a failure of intelligence may have kept the U.S. government from preventing the attacks.

One focus of the congressional probes is a recent news report that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) -- which is responsible for domestic intelligence -- did not act on a report from a field office that was issued about two months before the September attacks.

The FBI field-office report warned that many Arabs were seeking training as pilots, security guards, and airport personnel at one flight school in the country, and it urged a check of other flight schools. FBI headquarters did not follow that recommendation.

After the latest revelations, members of Congress from both parties began demanding more information from the White House.

Senator Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota), the Democratic Party leader in the Senate, said congressional investigators should be given a transcript of the entire briefing that Bush received on that August day.

Senator Kit Bond (R-Missouri), who is a member of Bush's Republican Party, said Daschle was merely trying to turn the event into a scandal. But another Republican -- Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), who is the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- said the White House may not have responded appropriately to the information.

In an interview yesterday on American television (NBC's "Today"), Shelby said the events of 11 September might have been different if the Bush administration had acted properly on the information. In another television interview on CNN, Shelby also questioned why the White House waited until now to say it had even a vague warning about terrorist attacks before the September acts of terror.

The controversy raises the question about whether the matter was handled properly by the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which is in charge of foreign intelligence. CIA Director George Tenet and FBI Director Robert Mueller are both in the process of making drastic changes to the agencies, and are reportedly not in danger of being fired.

At the daily White House news briefing, reporters repeatedly asked Fleischer whether anyone in Bush's administration had made errors in judgment in responding to the terrorist threats that surfaced in August. Fleischer replied: "The fault lies with Osama bin Laden and the terrorists who did this. That's who's to blame."

In response to one question, Fleischer said that before September, it would come as little surprise to anyone inside and outside the U.S. government that Al-Qaeda, which has long been hostile to the U.S., was considering hijacking American planes.