Bush briefed on hijacking threat before September 11
Bin Laden 'chatter' since Clinton administration
CNN Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- 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, senior administration officials said Wednesday.
But, the officials said, there was no speculation about the use of an airplane itself as a bomb or a weapon, and no specific, credible information about the possibility of a hijacking of any sort.
It marks 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.
The disclosure also comes at a time Congress is examining the government's preparedness prior to the terror attacks and whether an FBI agent's warning about the possibility of potential terrorists attending U.S. flight training schools was appropriately considered by agency superiors.
White House officials, however, said vague talk of the threat of potential hijackings was a recurring issue in U.S. intelligence data, and cautioned against considering this new information with "post 9/11 thinking."
"A general warning of the prospect of a hijacking would be looked at much more differently today than it was pre-9/11," one senior official said.
Hijackers took over the controls of four planes on September 11, 2001. Two of those planes plowed into the World Trade Center, another jetliner nose dived into the Pentagon and the fourth aircraft crashed into Pennsylvania woodlands after passengers tried in vain to overcome the terrorists. More than 3,000 people died in the terrorist attacks.
Only one person, Zacarias Moussaoui, has been charged in connection with the attacks. He was arrested in August after coming under suspicion while taking flying lessons in Minnesota.
No specific targets
Another administration official 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 did point 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 refused to discuss specifics of the president's daily intelligence briefings, but said there was back in the summer of 2001 "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 said.
Appropriate U.S. agencies were put on alert about the intelligence suggesting possible hijackings, Fleischer said.
Senator: U.S. failed to connect the dots
Another U.S. official said the "chatter" about bin Laden dated back to the Clinton administration but "reached a pitch" in the spring of 2001 that it began to receive more attention in intelligence circles and at the highest levels of government.
It was in May 2001, for example, that Bush asked Vice President Dick Cheney to lead an administration task force to assess the country's counter-terrorism effort.
At that time Cheney told CNN in an interview: "Well, the concern here is that one of our biggest threats as a nation is no longer, sort of, 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," he said. "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."
Appearing on CNN earlier Wednesday, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Florida, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said 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. (Full story)
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