- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

Vice President Richard B. Cheney yesterday warned congressional Democrats against trying to score political points by making "incendiary" assertions about what the White House knew about terrorist threats before the September 11 attacks.

"They need to be very cautious not to seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions that have been made by some today that the White House had advance information that would have prevented the tragic attacks of 9/11," the vice president said in a speech last night in New York.

"Such commentary is thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war," he told a Manhattan gathering in honor of the New York state Conservative Party.

Democratic leaders yesterday called for investigations into what the president knew before the terrorist hijackings.

"I'm gravely concerned that the president received a warning in August about the threat of hijackers by Osama bin Laden and his organization," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat. "Why was it not provided to us, and why was it not shared with the general public for the last eight months?"

Mr. Daschle called on President Bush to turn over documents from his intelligence briefings and a classified FBI memo written last July that outlined attempts by Arabs to train as pilots in the United States.

The furor erupted Wednesday night with a television network's report that Mr. Bush had received warnings from the CIA last August that bin Laden was planning to hijack American airliners. White House officials said those warnings were never specific, and they did not know terrorists planned to use planes as missiles to crash into buildings.

Behind closed doors, Mr. Bush himself passionately denounced the media reports as politically motivated and that he would have "unleashed the full force and fury" of the military if he had known.

"There's a sniff of politics in the air," Mr. Bush told Republican senators at a private meeting at the Capitol, his voice rising. "Someone may be trying to use this as a political opportunity."

Those who heard the president speak said there was no doubt he was referring to congressional Democrats and their calls for investigations.

Mr. Bush said that if he had "gotten wind" of such plans to kill thousands of Americans, "I would have unleashed the full force and fury of the U.S. military" against the terrorists. The administration said it did alert the appropriate authorities about the hijack warnings.

American intelligence officials had been warning about potential attacks by bin Laden on U.S. targets since the Clinton administration.

Time magazine reported in December 1998 that bin Laden was planning strikes on Washington or New York to avenge a U.S. missile strike on his headquarters in Afghanistan. The report was widely picked up by other press outlets, including the New York Daily News and Agence France-Presse.

"We've hit his headquarters, now he hits ours," the article quoted a State Department aide as saying. The report said Attorney General Janet Reno had organized a training exercise, code-named Poised Response, at FBI headquarters in October 1998 to plan for a terror attack by bin Laden.

But on Capitol Hill, Democrats and a few Republicans demanded a fuller explanation.

Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, and John McCain, Arizona Republican, revived their bill to create an independent commission to probe intelligence failures before September 11. The House and Senate intelligence committees already are conducting a joint investigation.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, also called for an investigation. So did Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, who said she was not playing "Monday-morning quarterback."

"Having experienced that from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, I will not play that game," the former first lady said. "I do hope and trust that the president will assume the duty that we know he is capable of fulfilling, exercise the leadership we know he has and come before the American people to answer the questions so many New Yorkers and Americans are asking."

Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney, Georgia Democrat, posted a statement on her official Web site saying she had been vindicated for saying several weeks ago that the Bush administration knew about the pending terrorist attacks.

"I've been told to 'sit down and shut up' over and over again," Miss McKinney said. "Well, I won't sit down and I won't shut up until the full and unvarnished truth is placed before the American people."

In an interview with a Berkeley, Calif., radio station, Miss McKinney also had said Mr. Bush's motivation for ignoring the warnings might have been that "persons close to this administration are poised to make huge profits off America's new war."

While Mr. Cheney said "a thorough investigation of the events that led up to 9/11 is entirely appropriate," he hinted in his speech last night that some members of Congress leak sensitive intelligence information for the sake of political grandstanding.

"For the most part, the members of the intelligence committees of both houses have conducted themselves in a responsible fashion. That's not necessarily true of every member of Congress," he said. Any investigation of pre-September 11 intelligence failures "must protect sensitive sources and methods and must be devoid of leaks and must avoid sensational and outrageous commentary."

Earlier yesterday, Republicans on Capitol Hill accused Democrats of exploiting a national tragedy for political gain against a president whose popularity has soared since September 11.

"I am disappointed in the deplorable, unconscionable way the Democrats are trying to make this a political issue," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican. "This was a national tragedy that was met by a courageous administration with conviction and action and the president should be appreciated for this."

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, called the accusations against the White House "malicious."

"For us to be talking like our enemy is George W. Bush instead of bin Laden, that's not right," Mr. Lott said.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said CIA briefings to the president had contained only general threat information including word that bin Laden planned to hijack U.S. planes since May 2001.

There was confusion, too, about whether lawmakers on the House and Senate intelligence committees had access to the same warnings that the White House did. After a briefing with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Daschle said committee members had not seen the same intelligence reports as the president.

"The only people that had this information are those in the White House," Mr. Daschle said. "It's critical everybody understands that."

But some committee members, such as Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, said Congress was aware of the same general warnings that were provided to the president.

"The intelligence provided to the president was very general in nature," Mr. Roberts said. "It lacked any specifics. It was a general alert in regards to hijackings."

White House officials did not speculate about the source of the news report. But Miss Rice said that "this all came out as a result of our preparations to help the committees on the Hill that are getting ready to review the events."

"Frankly, it didn't pop to the front of people's minds, because it's one report among very, very many that you get. And so it's out of that review that it became clear that this was there," she said.

Joseph Curl contributed to this report.

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