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Bush, GOP blast calls for 9/11 inquiry

'Sniff of politics in the air,' Bush says

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Congressional Republicans circled the wagons around President Bush on Thursday after the White House admitted it had reports of a possible al Qaeda plan hijacking a month before September 11 for political gain.

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Leading Democrats, some Republicans and several relatives of those killed in the attacks on New York and Washington questioned why the White House did not disclose the warnings, which Bush administration officials described Thursday as "vague" and "nonspecific."

The White House said it would cooperate with any congressional inquiry. But in a private meeting Thursday, Bush told Republican senators there was a "sniff of politics in the air" and that Democrats were seeking a "political opportunity" in November's midterm elections over the disclosure.

Other Republicans echoed his comments after the meeting.

"Looks like November must be coming up," Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Missouri, told CNN. "The president is popular, and I'm really very saddened to know that out Democratic colleagues are trying to use this as a shot at the president."

The warning was passed on in one of Bush's daily intelligence briefings when the president was at his Texas ranch in early August. Several lawmakers demanded answers from the White House after the disclosure.

"Was there a failure of intelligence? Did the right officials not act on the intelligence in the proper way? These are things we need to find out," said House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said there are important questions that have yet to be answered, and he too called for a "comprehensive" investigation.

"Why did it take eight months for us to receive this information?" Daschle asked, adding later, "I'm concerned about whether or not the public was adequately protected."

Daschle called on the White House to turn over "the entire briefing" Bush received in August to congressional intelligence panels.

He also said an FBI memo questioning whether al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was behind Arab students taking aviation lessons in the United States should be released.

Daschle's GOP counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, accused Democrats of "talking like our enemy is George W. Bush," instead of bin Laden.

"Look, we get partisan and we get political sometimes around here, talking about a trade bill, a stimulus bill. But in the fight against terrorism we have risen above that for the most part."

And Vice President Dick Cheney picked up the theme at a New York fund-raiser, warning that any congressional probe must be conducted by lawmakers who are "committed to improving our ability to defend the nation" and it "must avoid sensational and outrageous commentary."

"Such commentary is thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war," Cheney said.

Two Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee urged both sides to avoid politicizing the issue. Florida Sen. Bob Graham, the committee's chairman, said the problem lies with the intelligence community not coordinating and analyzing all the information it is collecting.

"No one should expect the president of the United States nor members of Congress to put on their James Bond uniforms and start becoming CIA case officers. That's not our training. That's not our job," Graham said.

And Sen. John Edwards, D-North Carolina, called it "an issue of national security to the country, not a political question."

But at least one member of Congress treated the White House admission as a form of vindication: Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Georgia, called in April for an investigation into reports the Bush administration ignored warnings of the September 11 attacks.

She was widely criticized for her comments in which she also suggested that some people in the administration stood to profit from the war on terror.

McKinney -- an outspoken liberal -- charged Thursday that the administration had engaged in a "conspiracy of silence" and lashed out at her critics.

"I was derided by the White House, right-wing talk radio and spokespersons for the military industrial complex as a conspiracy theorist," she said in a written statement.

"Even my patriotism was questioned because I dared to suggest that Congress should conduct a full and complete investigation into the most disastrous intelligence failure in American history.

"Well, I won't sit down and I won't shut up until the full and unvarnished truth is placed before the American people," she said.




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