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White House, Air Force One possible targets

Administration considering how to strike back

Bush and Cheney
Bush and Vice President Cheney attend a National Security meeting Wednesday.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House said Wednesday it has "reasonable and credible" information that the White House and Air Force One were targets of Tuesday's terrorist attack on the nation's capital.

"We have real and credible information that the airplane that landed at the Pentagon was originally intended for the White House," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said in a late Wednesday afternoon briefing.

Fleischer also said Bush was pleased NATO had invoked "Article 5," which states that any attack on an alliance member is an attack on the alliance as a whole.

"It is a message of solidarity," Fleischer said, and "indicates a unified response." He refused to quantify what that means.

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Air Force One was diverted several times to keep the president out of harm's way and to keep potential assailants guessing about his whereabouts, Fleischer said.

"The manner in which Air Force One operated maintained the security of Air Force One at all times," Fleischer said.

He refused to detail how the White House, the military and the intelligence community may have received such information. He said only that the threat was divulged Tuesday morning after the president departed Sarasota, Florida.

Officials told CNN earlier that Bush was diverted on his return trip to Washington because they had received information that either the White House or the presidential jet may have been targeted by those flying two hijacked airliners toward Washington.

Rather than return directly to Washington from Sarasota, Bush was routed through Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, Louisiana, and Offutt AFB near Omaha, Nebraska.

One of the hijacked airliners, out of Dulles International Airport outside Washington, slammed into the Pentagon. The other, a 757 out of Newark, New Jersey, crashed under mysterious circumstances in rural Pennsylvania.

Bush personally assessed the damage at the Pentagon later Wednesday evening, traveling by motorcade to South Arlington, Virginia, where he surveyed the damage site and thanked rescue workers.

"Coming here makes me sad," Bush said. "It also makes me angry."


Bush's discussions with his top national security advisers turned Wednesday toward potential U.S. responses to the numbing terror attacks in New York City and Washington.

Without detailing the evidence they have gathered since Tuesday's attacks, senior officials told CNN that "everything points" to the al Qaeda network established by Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden.

The United States believes bin Laden and al Qaeda were responsible for the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. The network also is suspected in the 2000 bomb attack on the USS Cole in a Yemeni port.

The officials cautioned that nothing will be decided immediately. Bush, in a brief statement Wednesday morning, said the U.S. would be "patient."

There "are no absolutes yet," an official said.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld taped a message to America's troops Wednesday afternoon, and the reference to an upcoming conflict was almost explicit.

"More -- much more -- will be asked of you in the weeks and months ahead. This is especially true of those who are in the field. We face powerful and terrible enemies, enemies we intend to vanquish so that moments of horror like yesterday will be stopped."

Bush vowed earlier Wednesday the United States would spend as much money as needed to aid in search-and-rescue efforts following Tuesday's attacks.

And he said the government would exert every effort to fight a war against an unseen enemy that "hides in shadows."

The president sat grim-faced at the center of a White House conference table Wednesday morning, surrounded by senior national security advisers.

They had just briefed him on the latest from lower Manhattan and from South Arlington, where the southwest perimeter of the Pentagon still expelled columns of the thick gray smoke.

Official Washington began Wednesday to assess the magnitude of the previous day's violence. While recovery efforts continued in both locations, the administration quietly considered how and against whom it would retaliate.

The hijacking of four airliners, the attack on the Pentagon and the destruction of Manhattan's World Trade Center were nothing short of a declaration of war, Bush said.

"The deliberate and deadly attacks, which were carried out yesterday against our country, were more than acts of terror. They were acts of war," Bush said in measured tones.

He said the nation had to realize the enemy it now faces is not defined by force, strength or by national borders -- but by its brutality.

"This enemy hides in shadows and has no regard for human life," Bush said.

"This is an enemy who preys on innocent and unsuspecting people, then runs for cover, but it won't be able to run for cover forever," he said.

"This is an enemy that tries to hide, but it won't be able to hide forever. This is an enemy that thinks its harbors are safe, but they won't be safe forever," he said.

"The United States of America will use all our resources to conquer this enemy," he said. "We will rally the world. We will be patient. We'll be focused, and we will be steadfast in our determination. This battle will take time and resolve, but make no mistake about it, we will win."

The first order of business would be to ask Congress for quick approval of a special appropriation to cover the expense of rescuing survivors and recovering perhaps thousands of bodies from both locations, Bush said. Cost of the cleanup in Manhattan alone is expected to be in the millions.

Bush maintained a steady public profile Wednesday and immediately followed his morning security briefing by sitting down with members of the congressional leadership. He attended another security briefing later in the day.

Congress reconvened Wednesday after adjourning in haste Tuesday when fears arose that the Capitol building would be targeted by a skyjacked aircraft.

Expressions of sympathy, solidarity

During the day Bush took time to speak with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

In addition, officials said, more than a dozen nations have directly contacted senior U.S. officials to offer condolences and assistance.

They said a major goal of the president and Secretary of State Colin Powell was to use this list as the foundation for building an international coalition committed to "deeds, not just words" in the war on terrorism. "Out of this horror could come a little momentum," said one senior official involved in the discussions.

Among the nations that have offered condolences and help are France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, Canada, Russia, Belgium, Spain, Israel, China, Slovenia, Pakistan and Romania.

The NATO alliance and the European Union also have had representatives contact Washington offering help.

"We're building a strong coalition to go after these perpetrators, but, more broadly, to go after terrorism wherever we find it in the world," Powell said at a State Department briefing.

Earlier, Powell called the attacks "a war against civilization" and said the world must respond accordingly.

The White House also maintained an active hand in security arrangements for the downtown Washington area.

There was a stepped-up police presence at the White House, with snipers still deployed on nearby rooftops. Officers were seen up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol complex.

Airports in Washington are still closed to passenger traffic. The White House said late in the morning it would have to sign off on any decision made by aviation officials to reopen Reagan National and Dulles International airports.

National Airport is situated less than a mile from the Pentagon. Dulles is 25 miles west of Washington in suburban Virginia.

-- CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King and Ian Christopher McCaleb contributed to this report.

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