The Bush administration defended its handling of the information about possible hijackings of American planes by Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network as congressional leaders called for a public inquiry into what White House officials knew and how they responded.
White House officials acknowledged that U.S. intelligence officials informed President Bush weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks that bin Laden's terrorist network might try to hijack American planes, and that information prompted administration officials to issue a private warning to transportation officials and national security agencies.
In a press briefing, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said the threats were very general and did not mention a specific time, place or mode of terrorist attack. Rice described a chronology of events detailing the how agencies dealt with the information about terrorist threats and how Bush was informed.
Officials, Rice said, were primarily concerned that the attacks would take place overseas in the Middle East, the Arab Peninsula and Europe, and thought terrorist groups would choose a more "traditional" mode of hijacking. They thought terrorists would hijack an airplane and hold passengers captive and demand the release of one of their operatives. The FBI, Rice said, reported that there was no way to predict a terrorist attack domestically, but that it remained a concern.
In July, there was a heightened sense that there would be an attack because of unrest in the Middle East, and officials were concerned that terrorists were targeting Paris, Rome and Turkey, she said. The Federal Aviation Administration became so concerned it issued several information circulars in June, July and August and ordered officials to be on a heightened state of alert, particularly overseas.
Sources told ABCNEWS that one circular released in June said, "Although we have no specific information that this threat is directed at civil aviation, the potential for terrorist operations, such as an airline hijacking to free terrorists incarcerated in the U.S. remains a concern." One July circular, sources told ABCNEWS, did mention bin Laden, but only in a very general way.
No One Predicted the ‘Non-Traditional’ Hijacking
On Aug. 6, Rice said, Bush received an "analytical report" at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where officials described the methods bin Laden had used in past terrorist attacks. She defended the administration's decision not to issue a warning to the American people, saying that the threats were not specific.
"It is always a question of how good the information is and whether putting the information out is a responsible thing to do," Rice said. "You would have risked shutting down the American civil aviation system with such generalized information. You would have to think five, six, seven times about that, very, very hard."
Rice stressed that there was no way anyone could have predicted that terrorists would use hijacked planes as missiles and attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
She, and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer earlier in the day, said that before Sept. 11 "hijacking" had a different meaning to people than it did afterwards.
"Had this president been aware that terrorists would have used airplanes as missiles and attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he would have acted on it," Rice said.
‘We Need Facts on the Table’