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White House says politics could hurt September 11 probe

From John King
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House complained Friday that the debate over what President Bush knew about a potential al Qaeda hijacking plot could hurt efforts by Congress to thoroughly investigate what the government knew before the September 11 terrorist attack and whether it failed to act on the information it had.

Press secretary Ari Fleischer said the administration, which for months told leading lawmakers it did not believe an investigation was necessary, supports a bipartisan inquiry so long as it does not become tainted by politics.

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Yet even as he urged Democrats not to "play politics," Fleischer himself raised questions about Democratic conduct in the months before the terror strikes.

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He quoted from a CNN appearance last year by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, in which she said reports to the Senate Intelligence Committee indicated that intelligence agencies believed the United States was at significant risk of some form of major terrorist strike. As Democrats question what Bush knew, Fleischer suggested this question: "What did the Democrats in Congress know and why weren't they talking to each other?"

Democrats have said they received general intelligence briefings last spring and summer that the CIA and others were picking up what they considered to be a significant increase in al Qaeda activities.

But Democrats on the intelligence committees said their briefings never warned of or discussed a potential al Qaeda plot to hijack American carriers. Bush received a classified CIA analysis August 6 that did raise the prospect of such a hijacking plot.

Senior administration officials said that document was an analysis of potential al Qaeda options -- not a warning of a specific threat. Conversations at that time, these officials said, focused traditional hijacking scenarios, in which terrorists would take over an airplane either to kill the passengers or to use them as ransom for an exchange, perhaps, for example, for the sheik jailed for being the ringleader of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

"Hijacking before 9/11 and hijacking after 9/11 mean two very different things," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters Thursday.

But many in Congress questioned that rationale, because of evidence from prior investigations in Washington and overseas of alleged plans by terrorists to hijack planes and fly them into major targets such as the CIA headquarters in the United States or the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Fleischer confirmed that, at the time of the September 11 strikes, the president's top national security team had settled on a strategy to move aggressively to disrupt al Qaeda activities.

Bush had requested the review because of indications in the spring and summer that al Qaeda was gearing up for a major attack against U.S. interests. The strategy endorsed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Rice included military strikes on al Qaeda facilities and other steps designed to disrupt its international network.

But Fleischer said the "presidential directive" to implement the strategy had not yet reached Bush himself before the attacks. Much of the administration's response to the strikes was based on that strategy, Fleischer said.

Rep. Porter Goss, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, suggested the controversy is hurting U.S. security.

"The only thing that this uproar does is give aid and comfort to the enemy and I don't think there's anybody who wants to give aid and comfort to the terrorists," said Goss, a Florida Republican.

Democrats push for probe

Democrats, however, continued to push for an inquiry. Several Democratic members on the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee Friday called for public hearings into "what the White House and key federal agencies knew about the events leading up to the September 11 terrorists attacks" and "the manner in which such information was acted upon."

In a letter to committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, five Democrats, led by ranking Democrat John Conyers of Michigan, wrote, "We cannot leave an investigation of this matter to a behind-closed-doors review by the intelligence community and intelligence committees."

Meanwhile, in response to Fleischer's comments, Feinstein charged that the Bush administration never responded to her concerns last summer that U.S. counter-terrorism and homeland defense efforts might be in need of reform.

"Despite repeated efforts by myself and staff, the White House did not address my request," Feinstein said in a statement.

She also criticized Fleischer for practicing politics and said she never suggested that anyone in the government knew what would happen on September 11.

"I, for one, do not believe that any of our nation's leadership had specific information last summer to know when and what kind of attack to anticipate," she said.

Feinstein was not the only Democrat criticized by Fleischer in his briefing to reporters Friday. The president's spokesman also singled out Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-New York, the former first lady, for her comments on the floor of the Senate about the flap.

Clinton later defended her comments. "We have a responsibility to ask for information and I think that is not only appropriate but necessary," she said. "I am seeking answers and information. I am not looking to point fingers or place blame on anybody."

-- CNN Capitol Hill producers Ted Barrett and Dana Bash contributed to this report.




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