|Alerts tied to memo flap
Washington Times 05/22/02: Joseph Curl
Original Link: http://www.washingtontimes.com/national/20020522-217139.htm
The Bush administration issued a spate of terror alerts in recent days to mute criticism that its national security team sat on intelligence warnings in the weeks before the September 11 attacks.
The warnings, including yesterday's uncorroborated FBI report that terrorists might target the Statue of Liberty, quieted some of the lawmakers who said President Bush failed to act on clues of the September 11 attacks, although Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle yesterday reiterated his demand for an independent investigation.
The latest alerts were issued "as a result of all the controversy that took place last week," said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, referring to reports that the president received a CIA briefing in August about terror threats, including plans by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network to hijack U.S. commercial airliners.
Administration officials are making an effort to "answer questions, because they're reflecting things about the generalized level of alert and concern we have that's been out there," Mr. Fleischer said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday raised the potential of nuclear attack in the United States, saying terrorist-sponsoring countries "inevitably" would acquire weapons of mass destruction and "would not hesitate one minute in using them."
Yet some of the warnings simply stated the obvious, as Mr. Bush did yesterday in the Oval Office.
"The al Qaeda still exists, they still hate America and any other country which loves freedom, and they want to hurt us. They're nothing but a bunch of cold-blooded killers," he said.
Mr. Fleischer, however, said disarming critics is not the only motivation for the warnings. He said U.S. intelligence agencies have alerted the administration to an increase in communication among terror groups.
"There has been a recent increase in the chatter that we've heard in the system, and that was reflected in what they said," he said. "So I think they're doing their level best to answer questions that people have."
Both Republicans and Democrats raised harsh rhetoric after media reports that Mr. Bush had been told of terrorist activity a month before hijackers, using planes as missiles, killed more than 3,000 people on U.S. soil.
Some on Capitol Hill later indicated that Mr. Bush was correct in not alarming Americans by issuing a vague warning after his Aug. 6 daily intelligence briefing.
"If there is a specific threat if they have specific information of something coming in a particular sector, they've got to convey it, they've got to announce that," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat.
"But, when it comes to more general warnings," he said, "I think they have to be cautious about it. I don't think anybody has any bad intentions here, but it does have an effect — it scares people, including a lot of children, frankly."
After demanding a congressional investigation into what Mr. Bush knew before September 11 and declaring the administration negligent, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt this week said: "I never, ever thought that anybody, including the president, did anything up to September 11 other than their best."
Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill yesterday dampened accusations that Mr. Bush knew of the planned attacks and failed to act. Most said a proposed congressional probe into the matter would be concerned primarily with bureaucratic mistakes that missed red flags.
"I don't think the president knew," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Some on Capitol Hill planned to focus on what intelligence agencies knew and why they did not share that information.
"We intend to carry out that responsibility by conducting a thorough oversight of this horrific incident, which raised serious questions about the state of intelligence for the United States government," said Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat and chairman of the Senate intelligence panel.
One aide for a Democratic senator who initially criticized Mr. Bush said his boss got ahead of the story.
"We thought the story had legs. It didn't. Now we are focusing on what the intelligence agencies knew, not what the president knew," the aide said.
Democrats began to focus on a July 10 memo from a Phoenix FBI agent who was concerned about a large number of Arabs seeking training at an Arizona flight school. Administration officials said that memo never reached the president.
Since September 11, the White House has sought to inform Americans about credible threats while avoiding alerts based on general threats.
The "analysis report" on which Mr. Bush was briefed Aug. 6 contained no specific information and was focused more on past practices of terrorist groups such as the al Qaeda network.
But administration officials in recent days have issued a series of general warnings. On Sunday, Vice President Richard B. Cheney said future terrorist attacks on the United States were almost a certainty.
On Monday, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said suicide bombers, like those who had attacked public places in Israel, eventually would target the United States.
Mr. Rumsfeld said yesterday that Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and North Korea were developing weapons of mass destruction and would supply them to terrorist groups.
But many of the critics who said Mr. Bush should have informed Americans of his Aug. 6 briefing took issue with the new warnings.
"I know they were answering questions, so they've got to be responsive, but I think it may create more fear than is helpful," Mr. Lieberman said.
Meanwhile, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said the new reports have not prompted administration officials to raise the nationwide alert status because the intelligence is too vague.
Mr. Ridge said warnings Saturday that terrorists might target unnamed apartment buildings were not enough to change the nation's security alert from "yellow," the third-highest of five stages.