- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

President Bush yesterday revealed newly declassified details of a foiled plot to ram a hijacked airplane into a Los Angeles skyscraper in 2002.

Mr. Bush did not say whether the al Qaeda plan was thwarted with the help of telephone intercepts, which have come under fierce fire by Democrats and which he repeatedly has rebutted in recent days while seeking to shore up support for the war on terrorism.

But Fran Townsend, his homeland security adviser, said later that the U.S. used “all instruments of national power” to foil the plot. Although the president alluded to the episode in October, he did not give a detailed description until yesterday.

“We now know that in October 2001, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad — the mastermind of the September 11 attacks — had already set in motion a plan to have terrorist operatives hijack an airplane using shoe bombs to breach the cockpit door, and fly the plane into the tallest building on the West Coast,” Mr. Bush said in a speech at the National Guard Building.

He was referring to the Library Tower — since renamed the U.S. Bank Tower — a revelation that angered Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

“I’m amazed that the president would make this [announcement] on national TV and not inform us of these details through the appropriate channels,” the Democrat told the AP. “I don’t expect a call from the president — but somebody.”

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the administration was not trying to blindside local authorities.

“My understanding was that we did reach out to officials in California and Los Angeles to let them know — I think it was yesterday — that the president would be talking about this,” he said. “And the word I heard was there is great appreciation for the notification that we provided.”

Other Democrats questioned the timing of yesterday’s disclosure about the Los Angeles plot, saying the president was trying to shift attention away from his domestic surveillance program.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Gen. Michael Hayden, principal deputy director of national intelligence, gave theSenate Select Committee on Intelligence a closed-door briefing on the program yesterday.

White House officials said terrorists initially planned to attack Los Angeles as part of the September 11 offensive, but al Qaeda could not recruit enough terrorists. So, they decided to stage a separate attack while the U.S. still was reeling from the events of September 11.

“Rather than use Arab hijackers as he had on September the 11th, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad sought out young men from Southeast Asia — whom he believed would not arouse as much suspicion,” Mr. Bush said. “To help carry out this plan, he tapped a terrorist named Hambali, one of the leaders of an al Qaeda affiliated group in Southeast Asia called J.I.”

Hambali, the reputed operations chief of Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), trained three other terrorists in Asia before taking them to Afghanistan, where they swore loyalty to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The four-person “cell” then returned to Asia for additional training.

“Their plot was derailed in early 2002, when a Southeast Asian nation arrested a key al Qaeda operative,” said Mr. Bush, who did not identify the nation. “Subsequent debriefings and other intelligence operations made clear the intended target and how al Qaeda hoped to execute it.

“This critical intelligence helped other allies capture the ringleaders and other known operatives who had been recruited for this plot,” he said. “The West Coast plot had been thwarted.”

Mrs. Townsend said “the cell leader was arrested in February of 2002.” Authorities arrested Muhammad in March 2003 and Hambali in August 2003.

Neither Mrs. Townsend nor Mr. McClellan would name the arresting Asian country.

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