New Sept. 11 questions surface

Posted: Friday, May 17, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Revelations that President Bush was told of hijacking dangers prior to the Sept. 11 attacks are providing fuel for an intelligence blame game.

Democrats, hesitant in the past to criticize the administration's handling of the crisis, are pouncing on what they see as a new vulnerability.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, CIA Director George Tenet and the president himself are coming under sudden, intense scrutiny.

''Why did it take eight months for us to receive this information? And what specific actions were taken by the White House in response?'' asked Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. ''I'm not going to jump to any conclusions, but it's hard to understand why the information was not released.''

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., joined the refrain with a variation on the Watergate-era question: What did the president know and when did he know it?

A series of disclosures of pre-Sept. 11 intelligence warnings -- which in hindsight could seem to have pointed to the crashes in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania -- have raised fresh questions about the performance of the CIA, the FBI and the White House.

Could officials have done more to prevent the terror attacks? Why was the government unable to put together the pieces of evidence? Why did it take so long for the information to be disclosed to the public? Is someone to blame for a failure to act?

Democrats were initially reluctant to criticize the administration's post-Sept. 11 performance in a show of national unity. But eight months have now passed. And Bush's approval ratings, while still in the 70 percent range in most surveys, are drifting down from the astronomical 90s.

Bush was informed early last August, as part of his daily intelligence briefing, that Islamic militants associated with Osama bin Laden might hijack American airliners. The administration quietly put law enforcement, certain federal agencies and U.S. embassies on alert.

White House officials said the information was not specific enough to predict or prevent the terror attacks -- and did not anticipate that hijacked planes would be turned into guided missiles. ''This was a new type of attack that had not been foreseen,'' White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Thursday.

Even so, U.S. intelligence officials were well aware that terrorists inspired by bin Laden had considered using airliners as weapons in the past.

In 1994, Algerian terrorists hijacked a plane with the intention of crashing it into the Eiffel Tower, but the attack was thwarted by French authorities, who stormed the plane before it took off. In 1995, terrorists in the Philippines considered hijacking several trans-Pacific planes to crash into U.S. targets, including CIA headquarters, but that plot never got beyond the planning stages.

The disclosure of Bush's briefing follows the revelation that FBI headquarters did not act on a memo last July from its Phoenix office urging an investigation of Middle Eastern men enrolled in U.S. flight schools. That memo mentioned bin Laden by name, speculating his followers could organize such flight training.

The FBI also has been faulted for not acting more aggressively in the case of accused Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested in August after he raised concerns by seeking flight training at a Minnesota flight school.

Having the benefit of hindsight is easy, suggested Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge.

''But the notion that somehow there was a piece of intelligence ... that al-Qaida was massing to turn commercial airplanes into missiles, I don't think that existed,'' Ridge said in a phone interview.

Ridge said that evaluating intelligence ''is arduous, cumbersome and complex. I think a lot of professionals do as good as they can. But in the war against terror, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to design a fail-safe system.''

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a longtime critic of CIA Director Tenet, called the administration's failure to put the pieces together before Sept. 11 ''a lost opportunity.''

White House officials said Bush had confidence in Tenet and the director's job was not in jeopardy.

Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested administration detractors were overreacting, largely for political reasons.

''We need to understand that, no matter how we improve the intelligence effort, we still are going to have some successful attacks. And, probably in most cases when we look back, we're going to see there were some kind of indicators.''

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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