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May 16, 2002, Thursday
BUSH WAS WARNED BIN LADEN WANTED TO HIJACK PLANES
By DAVID E. SANGER (NYT) 858 word s
WASHINGTON, May 15 -- The White House said tonight that President Bush had been warned by American intelligence agencies in early August that Osama bin Laden was seeking to hijack aircraft but that the warnings did not contemplate the possibility that the hijackers would turn the planes into guided missiles for a terrorist attack.
''It is widely known that we had information that bin Laden wanted to attack the United States or United States interests abroad,'' Ari Fleischer, the president's press secretary, said this evening. ''The president was also provided information about bin Laden wanting to engage in hijacking in the traditional pre-9/11 sense, not for the use of suicide bombing, not for the use of an airplane as a missile.''
Nonetheless the revelation by the White House, made in response to a report about the intelligence warning this evening on CBS News, is bound to fuel Congressional demands for a deeper investigation into why American intelligence agencies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had failed to put together individual pieces of evidence that, in retrospect, now seem to suggest what was coming.
In the past few days, government officials have acknowledged for the first time that an F.B.I. agent in Phoenix had urged the F.B.I. headquarters to investigate Middle Eastern men enrolled in American flight schools. That memorandum also cited Mr. bin Laden by name and suggested that his followers could use the schools to train for terror operations, officials who have seen the memorandum said.
Administration officials reached this evening said the warning given to Mr. Bush did not come from the F.B.I. or from the information developed by the Phoenix agent. Instead, it was provided as part of the C.I.A. briefing he is given each morning, suggesting that it was probably based on evidence gathered abroad.
The C.I.A. had been listening intently over the July 4 holiday last year, after what one investigator called ''a lot of static in the system suggesting something was coming.'' But then the evidence disappeared as quickly as it had arisen, and by August, officials have said, little was heard from Al Qaeda.
The warning of the hijacking was given to the president at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., where he was on vacation.
Taken together, the news of the C.I.A. warning and the information developed separately by the F.B.I. explains Mr. Bush's anger after Sept. 11 that intelligence gathered on American soil and abroad was not being centrally analyzed and that the agencies were not working well together.
Several times he has told audiences that he is working on solving that problem, and these days he is briefed jointly by the F.B.I and the C.I.A., ensuring that each hears information from the other agency.
It was not clear this evening why the White House waited eight months after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington to reveal what Mr. Bush had been told.
But Mr. Fleischer noted that in the daily flow of intelligence information the president receives, the warning of what appeared to be the threat of a conventional hijacking was not as serious as it appears in retrospect. ''We were a peacetime society, and the F.B.I. had a different mission,'' he said.
Mr. Fleischer said the information given to the president in Texas had prompted the administration to put law enforcement agencies on alert. But there was no public announcement.
Nonetheless, a senior administration official said tonight that there was speculation within the government that heightened security -- if it truly existed in August and September -- might have prompted the hijackers to use box cutters and plastic knives to avoid detection.
The C.I.A. warning might also explain why Mr. Bush's aides were so certain that Mr. bin Laden was behind the attacks almost as soon as they happened. ''We never had any real doubt,'' one senior official involved in the crucial decisions at the White House on Sept. 11 said several months ago.
Until recently, Mr. Bush has deflected demands for a lengthy and detailed investigation into the intelligence failures surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks. White House officials were concerned that the investigation would feed into demands by Senator Richard C. Shelby, the Alabama Republican who is the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, for the replacement of George J. Tenet as director of central intelligence.
But the news that the hijacking warning was in the president's brief, which Mr. Tenet sees and approves, and that it was linked to Mr. bin Laden is almost certain to widen the scope of the investigation.
Already, several lawmakers who have read the Phoenix memorandum written by the F.B.I. agent have described it as the most significant document to emerge in Congressional inquiries into whether the government might have been warned about possible hijackings.
Now those investigators are almost certain to demand the details of the president's August briefing by the C.I.A. and may ask to hear about how that evidence was developed.
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