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Bush Defends Hijack Warning Reaction
Fri May 17,12:41 PM ET By CHRISTOPHER NEWTON, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Bush firmly defended himself Friday against Democratic suggestions that he ignored warning signs of the Sept. 11 attacks, saying "I would have done everything in my power to protect the American people" had he known of Osama bin Laden's plans.
"I want the troops here to know that I take my job as commander in chief very seriously," he told Air Force cadets and officers in a Rose Garden ceremony honoring their football team.
Bush's remarks reflect heightened concern at the White House over political fallout from revelations this week that he was told Aug. 6 that bin Laden wanted to hijack planes. Democrats and some Republicans in Congress have criticized Bush for not making the information public, and are questioning whether he could have done more to stop the attacks.
"Washington is unfortunately the kind of place where second-guessing has become second nature," Bush said, carrying out a GOP strategy to accuse Democratic critics of playing politics.
In a brief interview Friday with The Associated Press, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., stood behind questions he and other lawmakers have raised.
"I don't think that anyone is second-guessing," he said. "We're simply trying to ensure that this never happens again. And the only way you assure that this never happens again is to ensure we have the right facts, and the confidence that mistakes that may have been made will not be repeated."
As for Bush's assertion that he would have reacted strongly had he known of bin Laden's plans, Daschle said, "I think the question is why didn't he know. If the information was made available, why was he kept in the dark? If the president of the United States doesn't have access to this kind of information, there's something wrong with the system."
Bush's unusually defensive statement came as White House officials confirmed they had a battle plan to topple bin Laden awaiting Bush's approval in the days before the attacks.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of an anonymity, said the options memo was prepared by Bush's foreign policy team as threats of terrorism spiked. It was dated Sept. 10 and was on national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's desk for Bush's review when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were struck.
The action plan was made public in general terms last year, but gained importance in light of the mushrooming controversy over what Bush knew and did about threats of terrorism.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the memo recommended dismantling bin Laden's network "through what you saw put into place frankly, rather quickly in our operations in Afghanistan — through work with the northern alliance to dismantle al-Qaida and the Taliban."
He did not say whether the memo included airstrikes and ground troops, both of which were used in Afghanistan. The U.S. official said ground troops were not a primary option in the memo, having been approved by Bush only after considerable debate after Sept. 11.
The memo, which was first reported by The New York Times in December, outlined an extensive CIA program to arm the northern alliance and other anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan, the U.S. official said. It included a $200 million CIA plan to arm anti-Taliban forces.
The plan was approved by Bush's team Sept. 4 and was awaiting Bush's review after a trip to Florida that began Sept. 10.
Meanwhile, two-thirds of Americans in a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll conducted Thursday said the Bush administration should have disclosed its hijack-threat information before Sept. 11. But only a third said failure to do so made them feel less favorably toward the popular president.
Democrats are demanding the Aug. 6 CIA memo that mentioned the hijackings and another pre-Sept. 11 document — an FBI memo that warned headquarters that many Middle Eastern men were training at American flight schools.
"Why did it take eight months for us to receive this information? And what specific actions were taken by the White House in response?" Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., asked. "I'm not going to jump to any conclusions, but it's hard to understand why the information was not released."
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., posed a variation on the Watergate-era question: What did the president know and when did he know it?
Turning the tables, Fleischer noted Friday that Sen. Dianne Feinstein D-Calif., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told a TV interviewer in July that panel staff members had informed her of a "major probability" of a terrorist attack.
"And that raises the question," Fleischer said, "what did the Democrats in Congress know. And why weren't they talking to each other?"
Feinstein, responding to Fleischer's comments, said she did not have information on potential threats beyond what the administration had. "I had a deep sense of foreboding something would happen. I was very public about that. I wasn't hiding it from anybody," she said in an interview.
She said the information she had was "too vague" to be of specific use. Feinstein said that on Sept. 10 she had talked to Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, to convey her concerns and discuss domestic security legislation.
Feinstein said she told Libby "I have a deep sense of urgency" and that the response was, "We'll get back to you in six months."
In Budapest, Hungary, first Laura Bush defended her husband.
"I know my husband. And all Americans know how he has acted in Afghanistan and in the war with terror. I think really, we need to put this in perspective and I think it's sad to prey upon the emotions of people as if there were something we could have done to stop" the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings, she said in an interview Friday.
Some Republicans have raised questions.
Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, "There was a lot of information. I believe and others believe, if it had been acted on properly we may have had a different situation on Sept. 11."
But the administration argued there was no information about a specific threat, and Cheney cautioned Democrats to tread lightly as congressional panels investigate whether the government missed warning signs.
"They need to be very cautious not to seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions that were made by some today that the White House had advance information that would have prevented the tragic attacks of 9-11," Cheney said Thursday night. "Such commentary is thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war."
The dispute has primarily become focused on two documents — a classified CIA analysis given to Bush on Aug. 6 and a memo written even earlier in the Phoenix FBI office that warned headquarters that many Middle Eastern men were training at least one U.S. flight school.
Rice said the intelligence that discussed bin Laden, tucked in a 1-page terrorism report given to Bush, mentioned bin Laden's al-Qaida network and "hijacking in a traditional sense" — not suicide hijackers slamming fuel-laden planes into American landmarks.
-- (email@example.com), May 17, 2002