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Democrat support { May 17 2002 }

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May 17, 2002
Democrats Say Bush Must Give Full Disclosure

ASHINGTON, May 16 After months of unstinting support for President Bush's handling of the war on terror, leading Congressional Democrats changed course today and demanded full disclosure of what Mr. Bush was told last summer about the danger of terrorist hijackings. They also called for a broad public inquiry into what the government knew before Sept. 11.

The sharp questions about possible intelligence lapses and about the vigor of the administration's response to terrorist warnings came a day after the White House announced, eight months after the terror attacks, that President Bush had been alerted by the Central Intelligence Agency last summer to the danger of hijackings by terrorists affiliated with Osama bin Laden.

Even some Republicans questioned the government's response to information gathered last summer.

"I think it should have been acted upon, and it wasn't," said Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee.

Mr. Shelby was particularly critical of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, saying officials there had been "asleep."

But Democrats were the fiercest. For the first time since Sept. 11, the bipartisan unity over how Mr. Bush has conducted the war on terror appeared to be dissolving in sharp questions, accusations and partisan finger-pointing.

Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the majority leader, said he was "gravely concerned" and asked, "Why did it take eight months for us to receive this information?" Mr. Daschle added that the president should immediately hand the Congressional intelligence committees "the entire briefing that he was given" in August.

Democrats were also seeking an F.B.I. memorandum warning that many Middle Eastern men were training at American flight schools.

Representative Richard A. Gephardt, the House minority leader, said, "I think what we have to do now is to find out what the president, what the White House, knew about the events leading up to 9/11, when they knew it and, most importantly, what was done about it at that time."

Mr. Gephardt, of Missouri, said the long-planned investigation by the intelligence committees was no longer enough. "I don't think this can just be a closed-door secret intelligence investigation," he said. (The joint committee is planning to hold both public and closed hearings.)

In a Senate speech, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, called on Mr. Bush to "come before the American people at the earliest possible time to answer the questions so many New Yorkers and Americans are asking."

Most of the Republicans who spoke publicly today rallied around Mr. Bush, arguing that the information he had received in August in a briefing paper several pages long was too generalized to act on. They said the Democrats were playing election-year politics.

Senator Christopher S. Bond, Republican of Missouri, accused the two Democratic leaders of an "effort to blow this up into a scandal."

"Their unspoken implication," Mr. Bond said, "is that the president knew these attacks were coming and did nothing. That is an insult to the U.S. intelligence community, to the president and the American people."

Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, said in a Senate speech tonight that "there is nothing more despicable and `despicable' is a tame word in American politics than to insinuate the president of the United States knew that an attack on the United States was imminent and did nothing to stop it."

"For us to be talking like our enemy is George W. Bush and not Osama bin Laden, that's not right," Mr. Lott added.

But Democrats, who until now have been reluctant to speak out against Mr. Bush on foreign policy, said it was their duty to seek information.

"We have a right and responsibility to speak out," said Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who may run for president. "Preventing another Sept. 11 undoubtedly requires understanding our past vulnerabilities."

The questions over what the administration knew ignited a battle over whether to create a special commission to look into the events surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks.

Senators Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona, have long argued for an independent commission. They said they would move quickly to try to create one in an attachment to other legislation, perhaps as early as next week. Mr. Daschle suggested he might support the idea.

Mr. Lieberman, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 2000, pointed to an array of warnings to intelligence agencies last summer that have recently been made public.

"If there had been one person receiving all that information, would it have been possible to prevent Sept. 11?" he asked. "That's the question an independent commission has to answer so we never have to ask it again."

Senator Robert G. Torricelli, Democrat of New Jersey, who has also pushed hard for a commission, noted that Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly pressed Congress last fall to avoid an investigation while troops were in Afghanistan. In light of recent disclosures, Mr. Torricelli said, "that argument just became extremely disingenuous."

One dispute that simmered across the day was about just how much members of Congress knew last August about intelligence warnings.

After Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, pointed to an assertion by Representative Porter J. Goss of Florida, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, that the Congressional panels had been given similar information, Senate Democrats quickly contested the remark.

Senator Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who is chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said that the committees were given more general information than the president received last August and that it did not include references to hijackings.

Mr. Daschle, at Mr. Graham's side at a news conference, said, "There is no one in Congress who had that information."

Mr. Goss said all the information in the president's intelligence briefing had been given to his committee as well, but over time. The information, he said, included "no specificity as to time, place, date or method."

The senior Democrat on the intelligence committee, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, who is also the No. 2 Democrat in the House leadership, joined Mr. Goss at his news conference and agreed that some of the information in the president's memorandum had been available to the lawmakers.

But, Ms. Pelosi added, the president's briefing paper had three pieces of specific information that day in August that the intelligence committees had learned over several months. That, she said, "raised it to a different level" and needed to be part of the Congressional investigation into Sept. 11.

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