Bush Administration Blasted
Over Pre-911 Clue Admission


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration defended itself Thursday from bipartisan criticism over its disclosure that several pre-September 11 clues suggested the United States would be the target of an al Qaeda attack.
But National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters that any potential threats were "very vague" and considered more likely to materialize overseas.
"This government did everything that it could -- in a period in which the information was very generalized, in which there was nothing specific in which to react -- and had this president known of something more specific or known that a plane was going to be used as a missile, he would have acted on it," Rice said.
The White House acknowledged Wednesday that President Bush received a warning last summer about a possible hijacking involving bin Laden. The warning was passed on in one of his daily intelligence briefings when the president was at his Texas ranch in early August. "Why did it take eight months for us to receive this information?" - U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, Senate majority leader
Several lawmakers, including some senior Republicans, demanded answers from the White House after the disclosure. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt called for some kind of congressional inquiry and public hearings into what was known about possible terrorist attacks before the deadly September 11 hijackings. (Excerpt from Gephardt's press conference)
"Was there a failure of intelligence? Did the right officials not act on the intelligence in the proper way? These are things we need to find out," Gephardt, D-Missouri, said.
U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, faulted the White House for not revealing until Wednesday evening that President Bush had received a warning last summer that Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network might attempt to hijack a U.S. airliner
"The fact that they've waited this long to get it out is troubling," said Shelby, R-Alabama.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said there are important questions that have yet to be answered, and he too called for a "comprehensive" investigation.
"Why did it take eight months for us to receive this information?" Daschle asked, adding later, "I'm concerned about whether or not the public was adequately protected."
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer insisted Thursday the administration took appropriate steps when terror warnings began surfacing, and he stressed that there had been no indication that jets would be deliberately crashed. He said the information was "generalized."
Warnings of a possible terrorist attack, Fleischer said, first emerged in May but focused on overseas.
"The president did not receive information of the use of airplanes as missiles by suicide bombers," he said. "This was a new type of attack that had not been foreseen. As a result, a series of changes and improvements have been made to the way the United States deals with a terrorist threat."
Politics playing a role?
U.S. Rep. Porter Goss, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the matter is being blown out of proportion and suggested politics is playing a role in questions being raised.
"It is not news that the president of the United States is briefed about Osama bin Laden and hijackings. That's just not news," said Goss, R-Florida. He added that he believes the White House took "appropriate" action in response to the warning and stressed that much of the information was not specific.
The revelation from the White House followed reports of an internal memo from an FBI agent in Phoenix, Arizona, who in July questioned what he thought was an unusual number of Arab students taking flight lessons and wondered whether bin Laden was involved.
Shelby also pointed to the arrest last summer of Zacarias Moussaoui, who had aroused suspicions at a Minnesota flight school. He was arrested on an immigration charge but has since been charged with conspiracy in the September 11 attacks.
"You put all that together, and you've dotted a lot of things, you've closed some circles, but it didn't happen," Shelby said. "I think it was a lost opportunity. If you put it all in context, not just the briefing of the president, but the FBI is involved here, and I think they could have done a better job, but they didn't."
Some victims' relatives said they're upset
Some relatives of people lost in the attacks said they were upset about the latest revelations.
"I have no faith in nobody now. Who can we trust? I can't trust anybody," said Carmen Shardone, who lost her brother, Jorge Velasquez, a Morgan Stanley employee in the World Trade Center.
Gephardt warned against jumping to conclusions but added, "We need to do better." He said he was surprised by the new reports. "The reports are disturbing that we are finding this out now." - U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt, House minority leader
"The reports are disturbing that we are finding this out now," he said. "I think what we have to do now is to find out what the president, what the White House knew about the events leading up to the events of 9/11, when they knew it and, most importantly, what was done about it at that time."
Another Democratic lawmaker went further, suggesting Bush might bear some responsibility for what happened September 11.
"Certainly if the White House had knowledge that there was a danger or an intent to hijack an American airplane and did not warn the airlines, that would be nonfeasance in office of the highest order," said U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York. "That would make the president bear a large amount of responsibility for the tragedy that occurred."
Daschle called on the White House to turn over to congressional intelligence panels "the entire briefing" he received in August that cited the possibility of a hijacking involving bin Laden. He also said the Phoenix FBI memo should be released.
Without commenting specifically on Daschle's request, Fleischer said the administration would cooperate with any congressional inquiries. "The White House is working with the congressional committees that are investigating this matter. We will continue to do so."
White House: Unfair to second-guess
On Wednesday -- before the White House revealed the warning about a possible hijacking -- U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said U.S. authorities failed to recognize clues before September 11 about a potential terrorist attack.
Graham, D-Florida, said the House and Senate intelligence panels soon will hold hearings about various memos and reports, including the Phoenix document. "Information about hijackings in the pre-9/11 world is totally different from information about hijackings in the post-9/11 world." - Ari Fleischer, White House spokesman
A key question, said Graham, would be "why these dots weren't seen and connected."
Asked whether the terrorist attacks might have been averted had the Phoenix document raised more red flags, Graham said, "Well, it might have been if this had been seen in the context of other information, which indicated that there was a potential conspiracy to use commercial airliners as weapons of mass destruction."
Fleischer, however, suggested the second-guessing in the wake of the attacks is unfair.
"I want to remind you information about hijackings in the pre-9/11 world is totally different from information about hijackings in the post-9/11 world," Fleischer said. "Traditional hijackings prior to September 11 -- it might as well be a different word in a different language from what we have all unfortunately come to know about the post-9/11 world."
-- CNN White House Correspondent John King and Producer Ted Barrett contributed to this report.


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