- Ever since Watergate, the cardinal rule of Washington
political damage control has been simple: If you have nothing to hide,
don't behave like you do.
- More often than not, the Clinton administration routinely
ignored that common-sense adage in handling its scandals - withholding
information and parsing the English language until Bill Clinton's credibility
was in shreds.
- More recently, Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.) made the same
strategic error, managing to seem guilty even when cops said they had nothing
on him in the disappearance of Washington intern Chandra Levy.
- Bush had been briefed about potential hijackings prior
to 9/11. Now the control freaks of the Bush administration, which always
has thumped its collective chest over its tight discipline and abhorrence
of leaks, have belatedly been caught stonewalling what it knew and when
it knew it about the Sept. 11 hijackings.
- Ever since that miserable day, the Bush White House has
been content to let politicians and reporters think Bush's predecessors
were asleep at the wheel fighting the terrorist threat.
- Now it turns out, eight months after the fact, the Bush
government knew more about the danger than it had let on, until press secretary
Ari Fleischer's terse statement last night.
- How much more, and how culpable that makes a President
whose conduct of the anti-terrorist war has drawn widespread public approval,
is certain to be the subject of intense political debate in the weeks ahead.
- The fact that Fleischer confirmed details of the President's
intelligence briefing - something he and previous government spokesmen
never do - suggested the White House clearly is concerned about the appearance
of a coverup.
- But a Bush political source predicted the Democrats were
unlikely to try to capitalize on "a national tragedy."
- "It all depends on whether people conclude we did
everything we could and failed," he said. "Or whether we had
a warning and blew it. I tend to think we will get the benefit of the doubt.
- "I don't think the Democrats can play around with
such an explosive issue."
- The revelation that Bush had been briefed about potential
hijackings marks a shift in the official version of events surrounding
the Sept. 11 attacks.
- Bush and other administration officials have generally
characterized the terrorist hijackings as a sneak attack that could not
have been foreseen.
- "It's hard to envision a plot so devious as the
one that they pulled off on 9/11," Bush said in a January interview
with NBC's Tom Brokaw. "Never did we realize that the enemy was so
- The new information suggests there may have been less
of an intelligence failure before Sept. 11 than some lawmakers have alleged
- though it also raises new questions of whether more could have been done
to halt the terror attacks.
- Bush Had Hijacking Tip
But Wasn't Told Osama Plotted Suicide Flights
By Kenneth R. Bazinet in Washington and
Leo Standora in New York
Daily News Staff Writers
- Intelligence officials warned President Bush about a
month before Sept. 11 that terror mastermind Osama Bin Laden might be out
to hijack U.S. jetliners, the White House said last night.
- The warning prompted the administration to secretly put
security agencies on alert, but officials said neither Bush nor U.S. intelligence
gatherers had any idea suicide hijackers were plotting to use planes as
- Did George W. Bush know that this was going to happen?
"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."
- He said the administration, acting on the information
received last summer, notified the "appropriate agencies" that
hijackings "in the traditional sense" were possible.
- The Washington Post said Bush and his top aides got the
briefings in the first 10 days of August.
- A CIA official said there was no information that suggested
hijackers would crash planes into American landmarks and there was no mention
of a date.
- The disclosure comes amid growing questions about whether
U.S. authorities failed to recognize and respond to warnings about possible
terrorist attacks before Sept. 11, when four jetliners were hijacked.
- Two slammed into the World Trade Center, one rammed the
Pentagon and the other crashed in a field in Pennsylvania when passengers
- Washington accused Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network
of masterminding the attacks, which killed more than 3,000 people.
- Agencies Notified
- Fleischer said the security alert may have prompted the
hijackers to change their tactics.
- "The administration, based on hijackings, notified
the appropriate agencies and, I think, that's one of the reasons that you
saw that the people who committed the 9/11 attacks used box cutters and
plastic knives to get around America's system of protecting against hijackings,"
- Fleischer made the comments after reports that an FBI
agent in Phoenix urged the bureau in a memo to investigate Middle Eastern
men enrolled in U.S. flight schools several months before Sept. 11, even
naming Bin Laden.
- Several of the 19 hijackers trained at U.S. flight schools.
- A spokesman for Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), the Senate
Intelligence Committee chairman, said the revelations in the memos marked
an important discovery in Congress' investigation into why the FBI, CIA
and other U.S. agencies failed to prevent the attacks.
- "It represents a failure to connect the dots,"
said Graham spokesman Paul Anderson. "This was dismissed rather lightly
at FBI headquarters."
- Bush Was Warned bin Laden Wanted to Hijack
By David E. Sanger
- WASHINGTON - The White House
said tonight that President Bush had been warned by American intelligence
agencies in early August that Osama bin Laden was seeking to hijack aircraft
but that the warnings did not contemplate the possibility that the hijackers
would turn the planes into guided missiles for a terrorist attack.
- "It is widely known that we had information that
bin Laden wanted to attack the United States or United States interests
abroad," Ari Fleischer, the president's press secretary, said this
evening. "The president was also provided information about bin Laden
wanting to engage in hijacking in the traditional pre-9/11 sense, not for
the use of suicide bombing, not for the use of an airplane as a missile."
- Nonetheless the revelation by the White House, made in
response to a report about the intelligence warning this evening on CBS
News, is bound to fuel Congressional demands for a deeper investigation
into why American intelligence agencies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation
had failed to put together individual pieces of evidence that, in retrospect,
now seem to suggest what was coming.
- In the past few days, government officials have acknowledged
for the first time that an F.B.I. agent in Phoenix had urged the F.B.I.
headquarters to investigate Middle Eastern men enrolled in American flight
schools. That memorandum also cited Mr. bin Laden by name and suggested
that his followers could use the schools to train for terror operations,
officials who have seen the memorandum said.
- Administration officials reached this evening said the
warning given to Mr. Bush did not come from the F.B.I. or from the information
developed by the Phoenix agent. Instead, it was provided as part of the
C.I.A. briefing he is given each morning, suggesting that it was probably
based on evidence gathered abroad.
- The C.I.A. had been listening intently over the July
4 holiday last year, after what one investigator called "a lot of
static in the system suggesting something was coming." But then the
evidence disappeared as quickly as it had arisen, and by August, officials
have said, little was heard from Al Qaeda.
- The warning of the hijacking was given to the president
at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., where he was on vacation.
- Taken together, the news of the C.I.A. warning and the
information developed separately by the F.B.I. explains Mr. Bush's anger
after Sept. 11 that intelligence gathered on American soil and abroad was
not being centrally analyzed and that the agencies were not working well
- Several times he has told audiences that he is working
on solving that problem, and these days he is briefed jointly by the F.B.I
and the C.I.A., ensuring that each hears information from the other agency.
- It was not clear this evening why the White House waited
eight months after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington to
reveal what Mr. Bush had been told.
- But Mr. Fleischer noted that in the daily flow of intelligence
information the president receives, the warning of what appeared to be
the threat of a conventional hijacking was not as serious as it appears
in retrospect. "We were a peacetime society, and the F.B.I. had a
different mission," he said.
- Mr. Fleischer said the information given to the president
in Texas had prompted the administration to put law enforcement agencies
on alert. But there was no public announcement.
- Nonetheless, a senior administration official said tonight
that there was speculation within the government that heightened security
- if it truly existed in August and September - might have prompted the
hijackers to use box cutters and plastic knives to avoid detection.
- The C.I.A. warning might also explain why Mr. Bush's
aides were so certain that Mr. bin Laden was behind the attacks almost
as soon as they happened. "We never had any real doubt," one
senior official involved in the crucial decisions at the White House on
Sept. 11 said several months ago.
- Until recently, Mr. Bush has deflected demands for a
lengthy and detailed investigation into the intelligence failures surrounding
the Sept. 11 attacks. White House officials were concerned that the investigation
would feed into demands by Senator Richard C. Shelby, the Alabama Republican
who is the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, for the
replacement of George J. Tenet as director of central intelligence.
- But the news that the hijacking warning was in the president's
brief, which Mr. Tenet sees and approves, and that it was linked to Mr.
bin Laden is almost certain to widen the scope of the investigation.
- Already, several lawmakers who have read the Phoenix
memorandum written by the F.B.I. agent have described it as the most significant
document to emerge in Congressional inquiries into whether the government
might have been warned about possible hijackings.
- Now those investigators are almost certain to demand
the details of the president's August briefing by the C.I.A. and may ask
to hear about how that evidence was developed.