Senior administration officials have admitted that President Bush's daily intelligence briefings in the weeks leading up to the September 11 terror attacks included a warning of the possibility that Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network would attempt to hijack a U.S.-based airliner. However, there was no speculation about the use of an airplane itself as a bomb or a weapon.
This is the first time the White House has acknowledged there was a warning of a potential hijacking linked to bin Laden prior to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
One of the administration officials said there was a "common theme at that time that bin Laden was up to something" and that intelligence reports in the weeks and even months prior to September 11 warned of the prospect of new attacks from al Qaeda. The reports were general and raised the possibility of strikes on the United States or its interests overseas, but had no specific information about potential targets.
This official pointed out that in the summer of 2001 the United States did publicly warn about the possibility of a terrorist attack on the Arabian peninsula. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says that in the summer of 2001 there was "a general awareness" that bin Laden's terrorist network was considering attacks " around the world, including the United States."
There had been among U.S. intelligence officials "longstanding speculation" about the possibility of a hijacking "but not suicide bombers, not using planes as missiles," Fleischer says. Appropriate U.S. agencies were put on alert about the intelligence suggesting possible hijackings.
Another U.S. official says the "chatter" about bin Laden dated back to the Clinton administration but "reached a pitch" in the spring of 2001, when it began to receive more attention in intelligence circles and at the highest levels of government. In May 2001, for example, Bush asked Vice President Dick Cheney to lead an administration task force to assess the country's counter-terrorism effort.
At that time Cheney said, "Well, the concern here is that one of our biggest threats as a nation is no longer?the conventional military attack against the United States but, rather, that it might come from other quarters. It could be domestic terrorism, but it may also be a terrorist organization overseas or even another state using weapons of mass destruction against the U.S., a hand-carried nuclear weapon or biological or chemical agents. The threat to the continental United States and our infrastructure is changing and evolving. And we need to look at this whole area, oftentimes referred to as homeland defense."
Senator Bob Graham, D-Florida, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says U.S. authorities failed to recognize clues prior to September 11 about a potential terrorist attack -- including a memo from an FBI agent who wondered whether bin Laden was behind Arab students taking aviation lessons in the United States. He says the House and Senate intelligence panels will hold hearings soon about various memos and reports, including one called the Phoenix document, written by an FBI agent last summer. A key question, Graham says, will be "why these dots weren't seen and connected."
The Phoenix document was the subject of a briefing for Congress last week. The memo, Graham says, said "an unusual number of Arab students" were taking flight lessons in Arizona and raised "the suspicion that they had been sent there in a coordinated plot by Osama bin Laden in order to learn the U.S. civil aviation procedures."
Could the September 11 attacks might have been averted had the government paid more attention to the Phoenix document? Graham says, "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.
"That could have started a chain of events, which would have disrupted September 11, but unfortunately because the information was not placed in the right hands or was distributed to too many places, there wasn't a single point of contact for analysis and reporting of what was going on. We failed to put the puzzle together before the horrific event."
Graham feels Congress "did not get a satisfactory answer" about why the memo did not cause more FBI action and investigation.
What other secrets is the government keeping from the media? Read ?Into the Buzzsaw? by Kristina Borjesson,click here.
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