Aides: Bush Knew of Hijacking Threat Before Sept 11
May 15, 2002 9:38 pm EST
By Adam Entous
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Bush received intelligence in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks that Osama bin Laden might be plotting to hijack U.S. passenger planes, prompting his administration to put security agencies on alert, the White House said on Wednesday.
But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush and other senior administration officials had no information to suggest hijacked planes could be used as missiles as they were on Sept. 11 to attack the Pentagon and destroy the World Trade Center.
The disclosure comes amid questions about whether U.S. authorities failed to recognize and respond to warnings about possible terrorist attacks prior to the hijackings of the four passenger planes on Sept. 11.
Washington accused bin Laden and his al Qaeda network of masterminding the attacks, which killed more than 3,000 people.
"There's been a long-standing awareness in the intelligence community, shared with the president, about the potential for bin Laden to have hijackings in a traditional sense," Fleischer said.
"The information the president got dealt with hijackings in the traditional sense -- not suicide bombers, not using planes as missiles," he added.
Fleischer said this information was presented to Bush last summer, just months before the Sept. 11 attacks.
He said the information prompted the administration to put domestic law enforcement agencies on alert. The alert was not announced publicly, but Fleischer said it 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," he said.
Fleischer made the comments following reports that an FBI agent urged the bureau to investigate Middle Eastern men enrolled in U.S. flight schools several months before Sept. 11, even naming bin Laden.
When hijacked airliners plowed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, Middle Eastern men trained at U.S. flight schools were at the controls.
Fleischer said Bush had received general information about the threat of hijackings by bin Laden. "That was information that has been known and the president was informed of it," he said.
But Fleischer would not discuss specific information Bush received during his daily intelligence briefings. "We don't discuss the president's morning briefings as a matter of policy," Fleischer said.
CBS News reported that Bush was specifically alerted of a possible airliner attack during his daily intelligence briefings in the weeks before Sept. 11.
A U.S. intelligence official, on condition of anonymity, said the CIA had continuously informed policymakers throughout the summer before Sept. 11 that bin Laden and his network might try to harm U.S. interests and discussed a range of possibilities that included hijackings.
"That was among the many things that we talked about all the time as a potential terrorist threat," the intelligence official said, referring to hijackings.
"But when we talked about hijackings, we talked about that in the traditional sense of hijackings, not in the sense of somebody hijacking an aircraft and flying it into a building," the intelligence official said.
"We talked about concern about the general noise level about al Qaeda planning and we were trying to figure out what they would do," the intelligence official said. "We never had specifics about time, place, MO (method of operation)."