- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 16, 2002

U.S. intelligence told President Bush before the September 11 terrorist attacks that Osama bin Laden's network might hijack American airplanes, prompting the administration to issue a private warning to federal agencies, the White House acknowledged last night.
But officials said the president and U.S. intelligence did not know that suicide hijackers were plotting to use the planes as missiles, as they did against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"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 warning was never made public, he said.
The development, first reported by CBS News, comes as congressional investigators intensify their study of whether the government did not respond adequately to warnings of suicide hijackings. It is the first direct link between Mr. Bush and intelligence gathered before September 11.
Mr. Fleischer would not discuss when or how the information was given to the president, but a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the president was made aware of the potential for hijackings of U.S. planes during one or more routine intelligence briefings last summer.
The CIA would not confirm what it told Mr. Bush, but the agency said the issue of bin Laden's attempting an airline hijacking was among a number of terrorist methods raised to U.S. government officials at the time.
But the information did not suggest that hijackers would crash planes into American landmarks, nor did it mention a date, a CIA official said.
The information was based on intelligence obtained by the U.S. government, the official said, without specifying.
"I will tell you there was, of course, a general awareness of Osama bin Laden and threats around the world, including the United States; and if you recall, last summer we publicly alerted and gave a warning about potential threats on the Arabian Peninsula," Mr. Fleischer said.
But he said Mr. Bush had never been told about the potential for suicide hijackers steering the planes toward U.S targets.
Still, acting on the information the government did have, the administration "notified the appropriate agencies," he said.
"I think that's one of the reasons that we saw the people who committed the 9/11 attacks used box cutters and plastic knives to get around America's system of protecting against hijackers."
Mr. Fleischer said he did not know which agencies were notified or what they were told.
The Associated Press reported earlier this month that FBI headquarters did not act on a memo last July from its Arizona office warning that there were a large number of Arabs seeking pilot, security and airport-operations training at at least one U.S. flight school and which urged a check of all flight schools to identify more possible Middle Eastern students.
A section of that classified memo also makes a passing reference to Osama bin Laden, speculating that al Qaeda and other such groups could organize such flight training, officials said. The officials said, however, that the memo offered no evidence that bin Laden was behind the students who raised the concern.
Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat and Senate Select Intelligence Committee chairman, said through a spokesman yesterday that the revelations in the memos marked an important discovery in Congress' investigation into why the FBI, CIA and other U.S. agencies did not learn of and prevent the September 11 plot.
"It represents a failure to connect the dots," said Graham spokesman Paul Anderson. "This was dismissed rather lightly at FBI headquarters."
The FBI also has faced tough questioning about whether it acted aggressively enough after arresting Zacarias Moussaoui, a Frenchman of Moroccan descent, in August after he raised concerns by seeking flight training at a Minnesota flight school.
Moussaoui has emerged as the lone defendant charged in the aftermath of the attacks, which killed more than 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. He is charged with conspiring with bin Laden and the 19 suicide hijackers to attack Americans.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III repeatedly has said he wished the FBI had acted more aggressively in addressing the Arizona and Minnesota leads but said nothing the FBI possessed before September 11 pointed to the multiple-airliner suicide-hijacking plot.


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