May 16, 2002


Bush Was Warned bin Laden Wanted to Hijack Planes : President Bush had been warned last August that Osama bin Laden was seeking to hijack aircraft, but the reports did not say that the planes would be used as missiles. (DAVID E. SANGER, May 16, 2002, NY Times)
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.

All of this should absolutely be investigated, but it seems pretty unlikely that we ever would have prevented the higjhjackings. Considering all the reluctance to investigate men of Middle Eastern descent after we had several thousand dead, there was just no way they could have investigated them beforehand. Even now our precautions to prevent another incident have been pretty lame. How long was carry-on luggage banned--about a week? Simply due to the openness of our society, we really need to prepare ourselves psychologically for the likelihood that something as bad, or worse, will happen in the future. We offer a target rich environment and quite properly won't accept the kind of government repression that might prevent another incident--after all, what would be the point of imposing totalitarianism on ourselves?

The broader question these reports raise though is why wasn't the Bush administration going after al Qaeda prior to 9-11? Republicans can't blame Clinton for his feckless response to stuff like the Cole bombing and then let the Bushies off the hook. Even if the administration didn't know precisely what was planned, it knew a well-organized, well-funded terrorist group was trying to kill Americans and so far as we know, they hadn't done much about it. We deserve either to know what was going on behind the scenes to combat al Qaeda, or an explanation of why nothing was.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 16, 2002 10:21 AM
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