Bush Warned of Hijackings Before 9-11

ByABC News
May 15, 2002, 5:58 PM

May 15 -- 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 thepresident, about the potential of hijackings in the traditionalsense," 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.