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’
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt called today for a full investigation that is open to public scrutiny.
"I think what we have to do now is to find out what the president, what the White House knew about the events leading up to 9-11, when they knew it and most importantly what was done about it at that time," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., echoed Gephardt's call. "Why did it take eight months for us to receive this information?" Daschle asked, calling for a blue-ribbon commission to investigate. "And secondly, what specific actions were taken by the White House in response?"
Daschle said that Vice President Dick Cheney had "requested on several occasions that we not have an inquiry" into what intelligence the administration had before the hijackings and how they acted on it.
In a speech at a dinner marking the 40th anniversary of the New York State Conservative Party in New York tonight, Cheney criticized Democrats for using partisan tactics in a time of war and hoped an inquiry would not interfere with ongoing battle against terrorism.
"An investigation must not interfere with the ongoing efforts to prevent the next attack, because without a doubt a very real threat of another perhaps more devastating attack still exists," Cheney said. "The people and agencies responsible for helping us learn about and defeat such an attack are the very ones most likely to be distracted from their critical duties if Congress fails to carry out their obligations in a responsible fashion."
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., was outraged by the attacks on Bush, calling them reprehensible.
"I really think there's nothing more despicable … for someone to insinuate that the president of the United States knew there was an attack on our country that was imminent and didn't do anything about it," Lott said.
Lott suggested that the country has to remain united, especially as the U.S. war on terrorism continues.
"For us to be talking like our enemy, George W. Bush instead of Osama bin Laden, that's not right," Lott said.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., insisted the threats before Sept. 11 were not kept secret from anyone.
"It is common knowledge that the government of the United States was put on higher alert during the summer of 2001, in response to non-specific threats from terrorists," Hastert said in a statement. "The federal government took all appropriate steps to respond to that threat. Democrats now say that they were kept in the dark about these threats. That is not the case. These threats were relayed on a bipartisan basis to the House Intelligence Committee in real time."
Ignored Warning Signs
The revelation came as legislators were already demanding an explanation following the emergence of an FBI memo alluding to ignored warning signs about Sept. 11. Two months before the hijackings, FBI agents in Phoenix reported their suspicions about Arab students at a Phoenix flight school, and directly referred to the possibility of a connection to bin Laden.
"There should have been bells and whistles going off," Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., said today on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America.
There were "three huge warning signs," Edwards said, referring to a memo from the FBI about al Qaeda members training in flight schools in Arizona; the arrest of suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui — the alleged "20th hijacker" — in Minnesota; and the warning given to Bush in August while he was vacationing at his ranch.
In the memo from the Phoenix FBI office to headquarters, the agents recommended an urgent nationwide review of flight schools "for any information that supports Phoenix's suspicions" of a terrorist connection. The memo reportedly cited bin Laden by name.
The memo's existence apparently has been known for months, but until recently, lawmakers and congressional staff had not gained full access to it and the direct reference to bin Laden had not been revealed.
"Was anything done about any of those things?" Edwards asked. "Why are we finding out now, eight months later? … Was any action of any kind taken?"
The memo has still has not been publicly released. Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., are among the lawmakers asking the FBI to release it, and are demanding an investigation into the missed warning signs.
But Edwards said the White House has been resistant to allowing the investigation to proceed.
"We've had some tension about trying to get the investigation started," he said.
No Big Picture
FBI Director Robert Mueller, who took over the post after Sept. 11, has told Congress none of the signals was sufficient to prevent the attacks, but conceded the bureau failed to properly follow them.
"We did not have the people who were looking at the broader picture to put the pieces in place," he said at a recent hearing.
The White House also insists the FBI did not drop the ball. Mueller is seeking to address some of the flaws exposed by the Sept. 11 attacks by creating a new terrorism-fighting team in Washington that will oversee all U.S. terrorism investigations worldwide, officials told The Associated Press.
ABCNEWS' Terry Moran, Linda Douglass, Brian Ross and Lisa Sylvester contributed to this report.