Thursday, May 16, 2002|
intelligence agents told President Bush before Sept. 11
that Usama bin Laden's terror network might hijack American
planes, though the president had no specific information
of the plot and no way of knowing the planes
would be used in suicide attacks.
"There has been long-standing speculation,
shared with the president, about the potential of hijackings
in the traditional sense," White House press secretary Ari
Fleischer said Wednesday night. "We had general threats
involving Usama bin Laden around the world and including in
the United States."
He said the administration, acting on the
information received in early August, notified the
"appropriate agencies" that hijackings were possible. The
warning was never made public, he said.
The development comes as congressional
investigators intensify their study of whether the government
failed to adequately respond to warnings before Sept. 11. It
is the first direct link between Bush and intelligence
gathered before Sept. 11 about the attacks on the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., vice chairman
of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Thursday his
panel had received the same general warning that "was not
specific in its content."
However, he said on NBC's
Today: "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."
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., the Senate
Intelligence Committee chairman, said the disclosures in the
memos marked an important discovery in Congress' investigation
into why the FBI, CIA and other U.S. agencies failed to learn
of and prevent the Sept. 11 plot.
||White House Press Secretary Ari
The Associated Press reported earlier this
month that FBI headquarters did not act on a memo last July
from its Arizona office warning there were a large number of
Arabs seeking pilot, security and airport operations training
at at least one U.S. flight school and which urged a check of
all flight schools to identify more possible Middle Eastern
"How in the world could somebody have read
this document and not had lights, firecrackers, rockets go off
in their head that this is something that is really
important?" Graham, interviewed on CBS, said of the classified
Phoenix FBI memo.
"It represents a failure to connect the
dots," Graham spokesman Paul Anderson said Wednesday. "This
was dismissed rather lightly at FBI headquarters."
Fleischer would not discuss when or how the
information was given to Bush, but a senior administration
official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the
president was made aware of the potential for hijackings of
U.S. planes during one or more routine intelligence briefings
The CIA would not confirm what it told
Bush, but the agency said the issue of bin Laden's attempting
an airline hijacking was among a number of terrorist methods
raised to U.S. government officials at the time.
But there was no information that suggested
hijackers would crash planes into American landmarks and there
was no mention of a date, a CIA official said.
The information was based on intelligence
obtained by the U.S. government, the official said, without
"I will tell you there was, of course, a
general awareness of Usama bin Laden and threats around the
world, including the United States; and if you recall, last
summer we publicly alerted and gave a warning about potential
threats on the Arabian peninsula," Fleischer said.
But he said Bush never had been told about
the potential for suicide hijackers steering the planes toward
Still, acting on the information the
government did have, the administration "notified the
appropriate agencies. I think that's one of the reasons that
we saw the people who committed the 9/11 attacks used box
cutters and plastic knives to get around America's system of
protecting against hijackers," he said.
Fleischer said he did not know what
agencies were notified, what they were told or what they did
A section of the FBI memo from Phoenix
makes a passing reference to bin Laden, speculating that Al
Qaeda and other such groups could organize such flight
training, officials said. The officials said, however, that
the memo offered no evidence bin Laden was behind the students
that raised the concern.
The FBI also has faced tough questioning
about whether it failed to act aggressively enough after
arresting Zacarias Moussaoui, a Frenchman of Moroccan descent,
in August after he raised concerns by seeking flight training
at a Minnesota flight school.
Moussaoui has emerged as the lone defendant
charged in the aftermath of the attacks, which killed more
than 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. He
is charged with conspiring with bin Laden and the 19 suicide
hijackers to attack Americans.
FBI Director Robert Mueller repeatedly has
said he wished the FBI had acted more aggressively in
addressing the Arizona and Minnesota leads but said nothing
the FBI possessed before Sept. 11 pointed to the
multiple-airliner hijacking plot.
The Associated Press contributed to this