Storm on Capitol Hill

The president smells "the sniff of politics in the air," but as the 9/11 story hits Washington, Democrats and Republicans alike demand "a sniff of truth."


Anthony York
May 18, 2002 4:34AM (UTC)

The White House shifted desperately into firefighting mode Thursday, after the administration admitted on Wednesday evening that it had received a warning in August that al-Qaida might try to hijack American airliners. But as the day went on, White House efforts at spin control raised more questions than they answered, and congressional Republicans joined Democrats in challenging President Bush to make public other pre-9/11 intelligence his administration had received.

It seemed a particularly bad day for White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who recited what began as the official White House talking points in a noon press conference. But they would not hold up well to the day's scrutiny.

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Fleischer's first troublesome assertion was his bizarre defense, repeated later by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, that neither law enforcement nor intelligence agencies could have possibly guessed that a "traditional hijacking" might lead to what ultimately happened on Sept. 11.

"The possibility of a traditional hijacking, in the pre-September 11th sense, has long been a concern of the government, dating back decades," Fleischer said. "The president did not -- not -- receive information about the use of airplanes as missiles by suicide bombers. This was a new type of attack that had not been foreseen."

But while the president may not have been able to foresee such a scenario, intelligence experts surely could. The idea of using "airplanes as missiles" was not unprecedented. Before the attacks, in just one concurrent example, an FBI agent in Minneapolis warned that Zacarias Moussaoui -- the so-called 20th hijacker who was arrested after telling instructors at a Minnesota flight school that he wanted to learn how to fly, but not land, a 747 -- could decide to "fly something into the World Trade Center."

Fleischer's second talking point was that intelligence sources had warned of attacks overseas and had only received "generalized" threats of domestic hijackings. But that would later be undermined in a briefing by Rice, who gave a detailed account of the lengths the Federal Aviation Administration went to alert airlines of an increased risk of domestic hijackings throughout the summer.

In fact, the possibility of a coordinated plot to hijack a number of domestic airliners surfaced as early as 1995, when officials in the Philippines seized a computer left behind by the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, Ramzi Yousef, after an apartment fire. Yousef had sketched a plot to hijack up to 11 American planes simultaneously and blow them up over the Pacific Ocean.

There was also some dispute about how much information the White House shared with intelligence committee members on Capitol Hill.

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"Members of the Intelligence Committee were provided with this generalized information on threat reporting, including potential hijackings," Fleischer said.

House Intelligence Committee chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla., told reporters that indeed, the White House had provided all the information it received to congressional intelligence committee members. But that was disputed by Republican and Democratic intelligence committee members in the Senate.

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"The fact that they've waited this long to get it out is troubling," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., also disagreed with Fleisher's characterization, saying the Senate "did not have identical information," as the White House. Senate Intelligence Committee chair Bob Graham, D-Fla., said a broad memo was given to his committee in August, but it contained "no mention of domestic hijacking. What we got was a summary of a summary of a summary," he said."

It was also a difficult day for Rice, who when she wasn't contradicting Fleischer by detailing domestic terrorism threats, was providing confusing justification for why the public was not warned about those threats.

"You would have risked shutting down the American civil aviation system with such generalized information," Rice said. "You would have to think five, six, seven times about that, very, very hard."

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Of course, after the Sept. 11 attacks, all civilian air traffic was shut down for two days, and the full air-traffic schedule did not resume for weeks.

In her afternoon briefing, Rice gave reporters a detailed breakdown of the kinds of intelligence information President Bush received during his first eight months in office. By April 2001, Rice said, there was "clear concern that something was up" involving al-Qaida, but she repeated Fleischer's assertion that most of those concerns focused on potential attacks in Europe, the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula.

But on June 26, Rice said, there was another "threat spike," prompting the FAA to issue a warning to airlines of an increased risk of hijacking. On July 5, President Bush asked Rice to "see what was being done about all the chatter." At that time, according to Rice, intelligence forces were focused on possible attacks in Paris, Turkey and Rome.

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In mid-July, Rice said, there was a threat surrounding the G8 summit in Genoa, Italy, that was "specific to the president." On July 18, the FAA issued another memo to airlines urging them to use "the highest level of caution."

On Aug. 6, Rice said, the president received an "analytic report" that mentioned Osama bin Laden and hijacking. But, Rice insisted, it was "hijacking in the traditional sense," adding that there was no indication terrorists planned to fly airplanes into buildings. This was a reiteration of Fleischer's earlier spin: The White House may have received a greater number of warnings about hijackings but no indication that planes could be used to fly into buildings.

"Before and after 9/11, 'hijacking' means two very different things," Rice said, delivering a line that was clearly straight off the White House "talking points of the day" memo.

On Capitol Hill, claims by Bush officials that they knew nothing about potential hijacking plots sparked new questions about the so-called Phoenix memo, sent by FBI counter-terrorism agents in Arizona to FBI headquarters. The memo outlined concerns about some Middle Eastern students enrolled at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.

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"Phoenix believes that the FBI should accumulate a listing of civil aviation universities/colleges around the country," the memo said. "FBIHQ should discuss this matter with other elements of the U.S. intelligence community and task the community for any information that supports Phoenix's suspicions."

Rice said Thursday that, to the best of her recollection, the briefings Bush received "did not include Moussaoui and the Phoenix memo." But she did not deny the possibility that Bush knew about either threat outright; she said her office was looking into whether that information may have come across her desk, or the president's, at any other point.

On Capitol Hill, steady -- if cautious -- criticism increased throughout the day. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., renewed his criticism of the administration and intelligence agencies, arguing that the government should have been able to predict something like Sept. 11 with the information they had. "A pattern of terrorists supporting Osama bin Laden, and the use of aviation training, had been established," prior to Sept. 11, Durbin said.

The 9/11 story hit Washington just as key legislators began preparing for joint House-Senate intelligence committee hearings on the terror attacks. In addition, speaking on the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Joe Lieberman said the new information underscored the need for an independent commission to investigate the events leading up to Sept. 11, and what if anything could have been done to prevent it. Lieberman said he is looking to introduce such a proposal on the Senate floor in the next week or so.

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Some Republicans agreed with Lieberman. "This just reconfirms the need for an outside commission," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., referring to the bipartisan proposal sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Lieberman and others.

In a Thursday afternoon press conference, Graham noted that the American public should "avoid overreacting to partial information." But by then, both House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., and Daschle had publicly raised concerns about the latest revelations.

Daschle said he was "gravely concerned about the information provided us just yesterday that the president received a warning in August about the threat of hijackers by Osama bin Laden and his organization. Why did it take eight months for us to receive this information?"

Meanwhile, on the east side of the Senate chambers, Rice provided a closed-door briefing to Senate Democrats, while behind another closed door just a couple hundred feet away, the president kept his previously scheduled meeting with Republican senators. A swarm of more than 50 reporters was flanked in triple stakeout formation, with one cluster posted outside each room, and another outside the Senate's north doors, where Daschle, Durbin and Graham eventually came to talk to reporters.

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CNN reported that President Bush told congressional Republicans today that he sensed "the sniff of politics in the air," as Democrats press the White House on this issue. Hagel noted that the dust-up comes just "six months away from an important election." When asked if he thought the Democrats were trying to exploit the revelations about the pre-9/11 warnings, Hagel said, "I wouldn't impugn anybody's motives, but we are on a high state of political alert here."

But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., countered the president's efforts to downplay the controversy. "Sniff of politics? We want a sniff of truth. Why didn't we [Congress] know about this a lot sooner?"


Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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