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Crosses line { May 18 2002 }

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Fleischer had said Friday, “I think that any time anybody suggests or implies to the American people that this president had specific information that could have prevented the attacks on our country on September 11, that crosses the lines.”

White House Relents Somewhat
WASHINGTON, May 18, 2002

After first objecting to a congressional investigation of the administration's handling of warnings before the Sept. 11 attacks, the White House now says a probe could be legitimate, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Knoller, but only if it is conducted in a non-partisan manner and isn’t designed to give Democrats a political advantage.

The White House doesn't want "a fishing expedition" that becomes, in spokesman Ari Fleischer's words, "an endless waste of taxpayer money in an open-ended congressional investigation," Knoller says.

The position is in contrast to criticism by President Bush and other administration officials in recent days that Democratic questioning of the White House’s treatment of the intelligence was inappropriate in a time of war.

Democrats have been suggesting an expansion of inquiries into what the White House and federal law enforcement officials knew about possible attacks and when they knew it.

Fleischer had said Friday, “I think that any time anybody suggests or implies to the American people that this president had specific information that could have prevented the attacks on our country on September 11, that crosses the lines.”

But House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri said, “Our nation is not well served when the charges of `partisan politics' is leveled at those who simply seek information that the American people need and deserve to know.”

Democrats insisted their motive was simply to help avoid Sept. 11-like attacks in the future.

Mr. Bush stepped into the growing political firestorm for the first time Friday, calling Washington “the kind of place where second guessing has become second nature.”

"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," he said.

Meanwhile, American intelligence agencies have intercepted a vague yet troubling series of communications among Al Qaeda operatives over the last few months indicating that Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization is trying to carry out an operation as big as the Sept. 11 attacks or bigger, according to intelligence and law enforcement officials cited by The New York Times on its Web site Saturday.

But just as last summer's threats left counterterrorism analysts guessing about Al Qaeda's intentions, and believing that the attack might be carried out overseas, the new interceptions are so general that they have left President Bush and his counterterrorism team in the dark about the time, place or method of what some officials refer to as a second-wave attack, the Times says. As a result, the government is essentially limited to taking broad defensive measures.

"It's again not specific — not specific as to time, not specific as to place," one senior administration official is quoted by the Times as saying.

"There has been information of concern, enhanced activity of concern," a White House official told the Associated Press on Saturday.

The officials the Times spoke with compared the intercepted messages, which they described as cryptic and ambiguous, with the pattern of those picked up last spring and early summer, when Qaeda operatives were also overheard talking about a big operation.

In its print editions Saturday, the Times says the F.B.I. knew by 1996 of a specific threat that terrorists in bin Laden's network might use a plane in a suicide attack against the headquarters of the C.I.A. or another large federal building in the Washington area.

In his 1996 confession, a Pakistani terrorist, Abdul Hakim Murad, said he planned to use the training he received at flight schools in the U.S. to fly a plane into C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., or another federal building, the Times reports.

Murad, who was captured in the Philippines in 1995 and convicted in New York on charges of conspiring to blow up 12 American jumbo jets over the Pacific at the same time, received flight training at schools in New York, North Carolina, California and Texas, the Times says.

Information from that confession formed a basis for the analysis prepared for U.S. intelligence agencies in 1999 warning that bin Laden-associated terrorists could hijack a jet and fly it into government buildings such as the Pentagon, the Times adds.

But the officials told the newspaper that the FBI had discounted the possibility of a suicide attack using planes, partly because it had largely failed to draw together evidence gathered piecemeal over time that Al Qaeda pilots were training here.

Last week, the F.B.I. acknowledged the existence of a memo written last summer in which an agent in its Phoenix office (the agent was identified by the Los Angeles Times Saturday as Kenneth Williams) urged his superiors to investigate Middle Eastern men who had enrolled at American flight schools and who might be connected to bin Laden, the New York Times says.

The Washington Post reported Saturday that a 1998 top-secret briefing memo to the president was entitled, “Bin Laden Determined To Strike In U.S” and focused mainly on past efforts by the alleged terrorist mastermind to infiltrate the U.S. and hit targets here.

The document, known as the President's Daily Briefing, underscored that bin Laden and his followers hoped to "bring the fight to America," in part as retaliation for U.S. missile strikes on al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in 1998, the Post quotes knowledgeable sources as saying.

Mr. Bush had specifically asked for an intelligence analysis of possible al Qaeda attacks within the U.S., because most of the information presented to him over the summer about al Qaeda focused on threats against U.S. targets overseas, sources told the Post.

But one source said the White House was disappointed because the analysis lacked focus and did not present fresh intelligence.

The Los Angeles Times on Saturday named the Phoenix FBI agent who became suspicious about Middle Eastern men taking flying lessons in the U.S., and quoted colleagues as saying Kenneth Willliams is such a good agent that his warnings should have been heeded.

Federal law enforcement sources told the newspaper that Williams is a mild-mannered 10-year veteran with a gift for counterterrorism.

The Phoenix-based agent couldn’t be reached for comment by the L.A. Times about the July 2001 warning, and FBI spokesmen in Phoenix and Washington would not confirm that Williams was the one who wrote the memo.

But his former colleagues at the FBI told the L.A. Times that Williams' knowledge of terrorism alone should have been enough for superiors to immediately act on his suspicions. "Nobody listened to him," the Times quotes one top former FBI official as saying.

Reports surfaced this week that two years before the Sept. 11 attacks, during the Clinton administration, an analysis prepared for U.S. intelligence warned, “Suicide bomber(s) belonging to al-Qaida's Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives (C-4 and semtex) into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the CIA or the White House.”

Until the 1999 report became public, the Bush administration had asserted that no one in government had envisioned a suicide hijacking before it happened.

Fleischer said the administration was aware of the 1999 report prepared by the Library of Congress for the National Intelligence Council, which advises the president and U.S. intelligence on emerging threats.

He said the document did not contain direct intelligence pointing toward a specific plot, but rather included assessments about how terrorists might strike.

“What it shows is that this information that was out there did not raise enough alarm with anybody,” Fleischer acknowledged.

Former President Clinton, golfing Friday in Hawaii, also played down the intelligence value of the 1999 report.

“That has nothing to do with intelligence,” he said. “All that it says is they used public sources to speculate on what bin Laden might do. Let me remind you that's why I attacked his training camp and why I asked the Pakistanis to go get him, and why we contracted with some people in Afghanistan to go get him because we thought he was dangerous.”

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