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White House defends reaction to pre-9/11 warnings

Condoleezza Rice  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Government officials, politicians and those touched directly by the September 11 attacks spent Thursday assigning blame for what one senator termed their failure to "connect the dots" in the days leading up to the attacks.

The White House admitted Wednesday that intelligence reports last summer suggested the United States could be the target of a terrorist attack, perhaps a hijacking.

But officials said nothing in those reports could have prevented the attacks that struck New York and Washington on September 11, killing more than 3,000 people.

"At the time, we were looking at something very different," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters Thursday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney pledged that the Bush administration would cooperate with any investigation into the events leading up to September 11.

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But he and other Republicans lashed out at Democratic calls for congressional investigations, with Bush reportedly telling Republican senators there was "a sniff of politics in the air." (Full story)

Critics like Sen. Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said intelligence community did not sufficiently monitor suspected terror activity.

"The president of the United States can't be expected to be an intelligence analyst and a case officer," said Graham, D-Florida.

"The people who are responsible for taking action are the same people who wrote the intelligence information that was submitted to the president."

Some family members of those killed in the attacks expressed sorrow, shock and anger that the government had not issued a more concrete warning. But administration officials said Thursday the information was too vague to warrant a wider alert.

"I think it's shameful that they didn't warn the American people," said Stephen Push, whose wife was killed aboard the American Airlines jet that crashed into the Pentagon. (Full story)

Rice said the administration was justified in not publicizing the information at the time.

"There was no time. There was no place. There was no method of attack," she said.

"It simply said, 'These are people who train and seem to talk simply of hijacking.' You would have risked shutting down the American civil aviation system with such general information," she said during a presentation at the White House. (Transcript)

She said Bush's August 6 presidential briefing suggested that al Qaeda operatives might carry out a "hijacking in the traditional sense," most likely to demand the release of convicted terrorists held in U.S. prisons.

Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said the White House should have revealed the warning earlier.

"The fact that they've waited this long to get it out is troubling," said Shelby, R-Alabama.

However, he said the top members of the House and Senate intelligence committees -- himself; Graham; Florida GOP Rep. Porter Goss, the House Intelligence Committee chairman; and California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House panel's ranking Democrat -- received the same classified information as the president.

Rice also told Senate Democrats in a meeting Thursday that some of them were privy to the same information.

Graham told reporters he and his colleagues were given a less detailed briefing than the one given to the president, and said he was never given information about potential hijackings.

And some members of the intelligence committees complained that they had not been informed at all.

"That information should have been given to us, and it wasn't," said Rep. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Former CIA Director Stansfield Turner told CNN part of the problem is that U.S. intelligence analysts need a deeper understanding of Islamic fundamentalist movements like al Qaeda.

"We aren't thinking out of the box enough. We're thinking in terms of our Western Judeo-Christian culture," Turner said.

"I think we ought to have a team out there somewhere today of Islamicists, Middle Eastern experts, academic experts and those things that says to us what could come next."




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