U.S. intelligence officials warned President Bush weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network might hijack American planes, but White House officials stressed the threat was not specific.
A White House official acknowledged to ABCNEWS that the information prompted administration officials to issue a private warning to transportation department and national security agencies weeks before the attacks. But, the official said the threat of a hijacking by bin Laden's al Qaeda organization was general in nature, did not mention a specific time or place and was similar to the variety of different terrorist threats U.S. intelligence monitors frequently.
"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. "We had general threats involving Osama bin Laden around the world and including in the United States."
Fleischer insisted that Bush did not ignore the threats, saying that hijacking warnings were something that past White Houses have faced for decades. No one, Fleischer said, could have conceptualized what happened on Sept. 11. White House officials believed the hijackings could occur in a more traditional manner.
Ignored Warning Signs
The revelation came as legislators demanded an explanation after an FBI memo alluding to ignored warning signs about Sept. 11 emerged. 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.
In a memo from the Phoenix FBI 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 Osama bin Laden by name.
The memo's existence has apparently been known for months, but until recently, lawmakers and congressional staff have not gained full access to it, and the direct reference to bin Laden had not been revealed.
The memo has still has not been publicly released. Sens. Charles E. Grassley, Dianne Feinstein and Patrick Leahy are among the lawmakers asking the FBI to release it, and are demanding an investigation into the missed warning signs.
Not Until After 9-11
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who has read the memo, told ABCNEWS today: "They raised a very serious terrorism concern and threat to the United States, and it involved the use of training at aviation schools and terrorists from the Middle East. That should have been fair warning."
The memo said terrorists might be seeking jobs with U.S. airlines or airports and urged FBI headquarters to "obtain visa information" on all "individuals obtaining visas to attend these types of schools" around the country.
None of that was done until after Sept. 11, after four hijacked airliners plowed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. More than 3,000 people were killed and the World Trade Center was destroyed.
The mastermind was later identified as bin Laden.
Flight school owners in Phoenix, where alleged hijacker Hani Hanjour trained, say they had their own suspicions. "[If the FBI] were concerned, we would have been concerned and something would have happened. Investigations would have happened," said Richard Hastie, president of CRM Airline Training Center in Scottsdale, Ariz.