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Wp warning not specific { May 17 2002 }

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Bush Aides Seek To Contain Furor
Sept. 11 Not Envisioned, Rice Says

By Dan Eggen and Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 17, 2002; Page A01

The White House yesterday offered a detailed timeline showing that President Bush was first told on Aug. 6 that Osama bin Laden's associates might be planning airline hijackings -- speculation that was repeated several times in briefings the president received leading up to Sept. 11.

As the administration sought to contain an uproar over Bush's handling of information he received before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters that the intelligence briefing given to Bush at his Crawford, Tex., ranch included two references to aircraft hijackings.

It mentioned the possibility that bin Laden and his operatives might be planning to hijack an aircraft "in the traditional sense" and might seek, for example, to exchange passengers for the release of imprisoned Muslim cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who had been convicted of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks.

But Rice said Bush was not told, and U.S. intelligence analysts never envisioned, that terrorists would use jetliners in the type of suicide attacks carried out in New York and Washington on Sept. 11. Rice and other administration officials said that the threat was not specific enough to warrant a public warning, but that the Federal Aviation Administration urged the airlines to be cautious.

Rice characterized the briefing document for the president as an "analytic report" that summed up bin Laden's methods of operation. "It was not a warning," she said. "There was no specific time or place mentioned."

The disclosure of details of the briefing for Bush touched off a furor on Capitol Hill. Democratic Party leaders and some Republicans demanded a public investigation of the administration's handling of intelligence before Sept. 11. But Republican leaders accused Democrats of seeking political advantage and dividing the country.

Bush, who did not address the issue publicly yesterday, told Senate Republicans during a private lunch that he would have acted forcefully if he had advance knowledge of any credible threat, according to participants. He also suggested that much of the criticism was politically motivated.

At a fundraising dinner in New York yesterday evening, Vice President Cheney said the United States faces the threat of a new attack even worse than the Sept. 11 assaults. He condemned Democratic Party criticism of the White House's handling of the terror warnings as "thoroughly irresponsible . . . in a time of war."

Revelations about the CIA-generated briefing also came amid growing criticism by lawmakers of the FBI for failing to act aggressively enough in the wake of possible warning signs before the attacks.

Sources familiar with Bush's Aug. 6 briefing said the FBI added the notion of hijackings to the document -- which had not included such references in the early drafts. FBI officials have acknowledged, however, that the bureau failed to alert other agencies, including the National Security Council and the CIA, about a report from an Arizona agent that terrorists might have been training at U.S. flight schools.

Lawmakers from both parties demanded that the White House release a copy of the August briefing document.

Many lawmakers also repeated demands that the FBI release the classified July memorandum in which a Phoenix agent warned that bin Laden might be using U.S. aviation schools as a training ground for terrorists. The Phoenix memo was never shared with FBI investigators in Minnesota, who were scrambling before Sept. 11 to determine whether detained French national Zacarias Moussaoui, now charged as a terrorist conspirator, was planning to hijack an airplane and crash it into a building.

"There were two separate FBI reports plus a CIA warning, none of which were coordinated," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "The question is, if all three had been connected, would that have led to more vigorous activity?"

Members of the congressional committees investigating the pre-Sept. 11 warnings said yesterday that there is far more damaging information that has not yet been disclosed about the government's knowledge of and inaction over events leading up to Sept. 11.

"We've just scratched the surface," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), ranking Republican member of the Senate intelligence committee.

Shelby called the Phoenix memo "an explosive document" that, when combined with information from the Moussaoui case, amounts to a "botched opportunity" to stop terrorism.

"The FBI didn't serve the country well," said Shelby. "They were either asleep or inept."

Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, however, blamed the media for jumping to conclusions without evidence and creating "a firestorm" over nothing substantial.

McCain, Bush's opponent in the Republican presidential primary in 2000, and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), the Democratic vice presidential candidate in the general election, announced that they will push for legislation to create a 14-member commission to investigate the matter. The administration had previously resisted that idea.

The families of some of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks were angry that the administration did not issue public warnings about a hijacking threat.

"If a threat is serious enough to brief the president about, it's serious enough to warn the American public," said Stephen Push of Great Falls, whose wife, Lisa J. Raines, died on American Airlines Flight 77, which slammed into the Pentagon. "I am certain that if she knew what the president knew, she would not have been on the plane. . . . By allowing this information to come out in drips and drabs, the administration is making it worse for themselves."

Most members of Bush's Cabinet, including CIA Director George J. Tenet and Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, gave no comments on the issue yesterday. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who since Sept. 11 has participated in daily briefings with Bush, also did not speak publicly.

In her lengthy afternoon news conference, Rice said the State Department, the FBI and the FAA issued eight separate warnings about terrorist activities between June 22 and Aug. 1. The FAA alone issued four general security alerts about possible hijackings to airlines and airports between May and mid-August, officials said.

Rice also said the FAA believed that terrorists had learned how to turn pens, key chains and cell phones into weapons.

But officials of airlines, pilot associations and airports all said they had received no warnings of substance. Accusations flew yesterday between the government and the airlines, which argued that the FAA's circulars on terrorism were not particularly helpful.

"During 2001, there were no alerts or cautions that indicated a September 11 scenario was credible or possible," United Airlines spokesman Joe Hopkins said in a statement.

American Airlines, also in a statement, said that there was "no specific information from the U.S. government advising the carrier of a potential terrorist hijacking in the United States in the months prior to Sept. 11, 2001."

Stephen Luckey, security chairman for the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents more than 62,000 cockpit crew members, said he was aware last summer of generalized threats involving al Qaeda and hijackings. "Everyone was aware there was an ongoing threat, but the targets were not specific," he said.

Rice said the intelligence received last summer included information provided to U.S. interrogators by imprisoned terrorist Ahmed Ressam, who was convicted of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in December 1999.

Ressam has provided significant help in the investigation of the hijacking attacks and information about the detainees captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. His sentencing has been delayed a year as he continues to provide testimony against al Qaeda operatives.

The Bush briefing document did not include in its analysis information about plots similar to that of Sept. 11, such as an al Qaeda-linked plan in 1995 to commandeer and crash a dozen U.S. jetliners in the South Pacific, Rice said.

"It is always a question of how good the information is and whether putting the information out is a responsible thing to do," she said. "You would have risked shutting down the American civil aviation system with such generalized information."

The document, known as the President's Daily Briefing, or PDB, is prepared at Langley by the CIA's analytic directorate, and a draft goes home with Tenet each night. Tenet edits it personally and delivers it orally during his early morning meeting with Bush. On most days it contains a distillation of the most noteworthy "current intelligence."

The Aug. 6 briefing, according to officials with first-hand knowledge, was different. Along with current intelligence, it had a 1 1/2-page analysis -- largely speculative -- of what bin Laden might have been planning. The summary analysis was requested by Bush, according to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

That portion was reprinted verbatim in the Aug. 7 Senior Executive Intelligence Briefing, which has a wider, though still strictly limited, distribution among top national security officials, sources said.

Officials familiar with the Aug. 6 memo said it contained no references to hijacking in its early drafts, prepared at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. When the CIA circulated the draft for comment, before transmitting it to the president, the FBI's counterterrorism division proposed adding hijacking to the list of possible al Qaeda attacks.

Most of the Aug. 6 briefing centered on threats to U.S. warships, Air Force bases in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, U.S. or Israeli facilities in Israel, and embassies overseas. All of those had been the subjects of actual threat reports collected over the summer.

Hijacking, however, was not mentioned in any of the thousands of threat reports sifted in June and July by the Counterterrorism Security Group, an interagency panel.

But links between the associates of bin Laden and U.S. flight schools have been surfacing for years in terrorism investigations and court cases.

Staff writers Barton Gellman, Helen Dewar, Steve Fainaru, Bill Miller and Don Phillips and researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

2002 The Washington Post Company

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