Pre 911 plan
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White House Reveals Pre-9/11 Plan
Fri May 17,11:17 AM ET
By CHRISTOPHER NEWTON, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - The White House acknowledged Friday it had a battle plan to topple Osama bin Laden (news - web sites) awaiting President Bush (news - web sites)'s approval in the days before the Sept. 11 attacks. The administration accused Democrats of seeking political gain by suggesting that Bush ignored warning signs of an attack.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of an anonymity, said the options memo was prepared by Bush's foreign policy team as threats of terrorism spiked. It was dated Sept. 10 and sat on national security adviser Condoleezza Rice (news - web sites)'s desk for Bush's review when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (news - web sites) were struck.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer (news - web sites) said the memo recommended dismantling bin Laden's network "through what you saw put into place frankly, rather quickly in our operations in Afghanistan (news - web sites) — through work with the northern alliance to dismantle al-Qaida and the Taliban."
He did not say whether the memo included airstrikes and ground troops, both of which were used in Afghanistan. The U.S. official said ground troops were not a primary option in the memo, having been approved by Bush only after considerable debate after Sept. 11.
The existence of the memo was made public in general terms late last year, but has gained new importance in light of revelations this week that Bush was told Aug. 6 that bin Laden wanted to hijack planes. Democrats and some Republicans in Congress have criticized Bush for not making the information public, and are questioning whether he could have done more to stop the attacks.
Democrats are demanding the Aug. 6 CIA (news - web sites) memo that mentioned the hijackings and another pre-Sept. 11 document — an FBI (news - web sites) memo that warned headquarters that many Middle Eastern men were training at American flight schools.
"Why did it take eight months for us to receive this information? And what specific actions were taken by the White House in response?" Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said. "I'm not going to jump to any conclusions, but it's hard to understand why the information was not released."
In Budapest, Hungary, first Laura Bush defended her husband.
"I know my husband. And all Americans know how he has acted in Afghanistan and in the war with terror. I think really, we need to put this in perspective and I think it's sad to prey upon the emotions of people as if there were something we could have done to stop" the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings, she said in an interview Friday.
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., posed a variation on the famous Watergate-era question: What did the president know and when did he know it?
Turning the tables, Fleischer noted Friday that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (news, bio, voting record), D-Calif., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told a TV interviewer in July that panel staff members had informed her of a "major probability" of a terrorist attack.
"And that raises the question," Fleischer said, "what did the Democrats in Congress know. And why weren't they talking to each other?"
He also warned anew that America is still vulnerable to attack.
"Threats remain. Risks remain," Fleischer said. "Despite all our efforts, is it possible that he'll hit us again? it is."
Some Republicans have raised questions.
Republican Sen. Richard Shelby (news, bio, voting record) of Alabama, vice chairman of the Senate 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."
But the administration argued there was no information about a specific threat, and Vice President Dick Cheney (news - web sites) cautioned Democrats to tread lightly as congressional panels investigate whether the government missed warning signs.
"They need to be very cautious not to seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions that were made by some today that the White House had advance information that would have prevented the tragic attacks of 9-11," Cheney said Thursday night. "Such commentary is thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war."
The dispute has primarily become focused on two documents — a classified CIA analysis given to Bush on Aug. 6 and a memo written even earlier in the Phoenix FBI office that warned headquarters that many Middle Eastern men were training at least one U.S. flight school.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Friday on NBC's "Today" that he was unaware of the Phoenix memo "until it showed up in the press very recently."
"The vast majority of the reports and scraps of information that come in tend to be eventually discounted as not being valid, or, at the minimum, not being actionable," Rumsfeld said.
Rice said the intelligence that discussed bin Laden, tucked in a 1-page terrorism report given to Bush, mentioned bin Laden's al-Qaida network and "hijacking in a traditional sense" — not suicide hijackers slamming fuel-laden planes into American landmarks.
"You would have risked shutting down the American civil aviation system with such generalized information," she told reporters.
The report discussed a variety of methods terrorists might deploy against the United States, including biological and chemical weapons, sources said. Hijacking was only mentioned twice, and the threats were vague and uncorroborated, Rice said.
Bush had no public comment on the developments for a second straight day.
Rice also described a series of threats uncovered by intelligence officials, beginning in September 2000 and reaching a peak in summer 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 (news - web sites) to the nation's airlines and airports, she said. There also were strong warnings to Americans to be careful overseas.
But the warnings to airlines were too vague to prompt action, said officials at United Airlines (news - web sites) and American Airlines (news - web sites), the two carriers whose planes were hijacked on Sept. 11.