Background: Hijack Alert
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MARGARET WARNER: The hijack warning: What did the White House know, and what did it do? We start with some background.
Yesterday evening, the White House confirmed a just-broadcast CBS News report that the CIA had warned President Bush last August that members of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network might try to hijack U.S. airplanes. But the White House spokesman said the warnings didn’t include the possibility that the hijackers would turn the planes into missiles for suicide attacks.He said the President received the information in his daily CIA briefing while vacationing at his Texas ranch.
The White House’s confirmation triggered front-page stories across the country this morning. They came on the heels of last week’s report that an FBI counter-terrorism agent in Phoenix sent a memo to FBI headquarters in Washington last July, warning that Islamic militants were trying to gain access to U.S. Flight schools. The memo mentioned bin Laden by name, and suggested that flight schools nationwide be checked for Middle-Eastern students.
FBI Director Robert Mueller conceded last week that the FBI didn’t follow up aggressively on the July memo. The following month, FBI agents in Minnesota arrested Zacarias Moussaoui on immigration charges after he raised suspicions while seeking training at a flight school there. But the Justice Department denied the agents’ request to examine Zacarias Moussaoui’s computer.
Moussaoui is now on trial in Virginia on charges of conspiracy, with the government alleging he was intended to be the 20th hijacker. At the Capitol this morning, Democratic leaders called the reports disturbing, and suggested there should be a public inquiry.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Why did it take eight months for us to receive this information? And, secondly, what specific actions were taken by the White House in response?
I think two things need to be done quickly: First, I think the President should turn over the entire briefing that he was given to the Joint Bipartisan Intelligence Committee investigation today or tomorrow at the earliest possible convenience.
And secondly, I think it is important that the President release the Phoenix FBI memorandum as soon as is possible.
MARGARET WARNER: At today’s noontime briefing, White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer began with a statement.
ARI FLEISCHER: Throughout the summer, the administration received heightened reporting on threats on U.S. interests and territories, most of it focused on threats abroad. As a result, several actions were taken to button down security.
All appropriate action was taken, based on the threat information that the United States government received. The possibility of a traditional hijacking in the pre-September 11th sense has long been a concern of the government, dating back decades. 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. As a result, a series of changes and improvements have been made to the way the United States deals with a terrorist threat.
MARGARET WARNER: Fleischer indicated that law enforcement agencies were put on alert about the warning long before President Bush was told in August.
ARI FLEISCHER: As a result of the information that came in beginning in that May period and throughout the summer, embassies were hardened throughout the world, military installations went through their normal procedures to harden against potential terrorist attacks. Those are a series of concrete actions that are taken by the embassies and by installations.
Domestically, through normal security channels, the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration were made aware of general information that while mentioning hijackings, did not include specific and detailed warnings. This information, as with all sensitive security information, was passed on to the carriers through a series of briefings and notifications. It is important to note that this was nonspecific threat that mentioned hijacking.
MARGARET WARNER: He was asked whether the Department of Transportation or the FAA had told the airlines to step up security at domestic airports, as security had been stepped up at U.S. installations abroad.
ARI FLEISCHER: I think we can get you a little more information about the exact, specific nature. But when they receive information of this generalized nature, they take the steps that they deem necessary.
But I want to remind you, information about hijackings in the pre-9/11 world is totally different from information about hijackings in the post-9/11 world. Traditional hijackings, prior to September 11th, it might as will be a different in a different language from what we have all unfortunately come to know about the post-9/11 world.
REPORTER: So this information is conveyed to the President by the CIA in early August, and you say the concept then was that it was vague and general, and the idea that this would be a traditional hijacking, was there no discussion of the previous arrests in the Philippines, information shared with the United States government about people who said perhaps not reliable, but who said that there was a plan to hijack a plane and fly it into the CIA building? Any discussion about arrests in France, where people said there was a plan to fly a plane into the Eiffel Tower?
ARI FLEISCHER: What you’re asking about is the so-called dots, and whether or not it was possible for anybody in the government to connect all those dots. And the simple answer to that is, as a result of September 11th, our government learned a lot of things. There were a lot of lessons to be learned, and a lot changes were made as we evolved from a nation in peacetime to a nation at war.
MARGARET WARNER: Later this afternoon, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice held her own briefing, she laid out a chronology of the events of summer of 2001.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: In the April may time frame there was specific threat reporting about al-Qaida attacks against U.S. targets or interests that might be in the works. Now, there was a clear concern that something was up, that something was coming, but it was principally focused overseas. The areas of both concern were the Middle East, the Arabian peninsula, and Europe.
Now the FAA was also concerned of threats to U.S. citizens, such as airline hijackings and, therefore, issued an information circular that and an information circular goes out to private carriers from law enforcement, saying that we have a concern. That was a June 22 information circular.
On July 18, the FAA issued another IC saying that there were ongoing terrorist threats overseas, and that there… although there were no specific threats directed at civil aviation, they told the airlines, we are urge you to use the highest level of caution.
MARGARET WARNER: When she got to the August 6 briefing for the President, she referred to bin Laden as UBL.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Now on August 6, the President received a Presidential daily briefing, which was not a warning briefing but an analytic report. This analytic report, which didn’t have warning information in it of the kind that said, they are talking about an attack against so forth or so on, it was an analytic report that talked about UBL’s methods of operation, talked about what he had done historically in 1997, in 1998.
It mentioned hijacking, but hijacking in the traditional sense, and in a sense said that the most important and most likely thing was that they would take over an airliner holding passengers and demand the release of one of their operatives.
REPORTER: What did the American public know about these facts before they got off planes in the summer and fall?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: It is always, as you’ve learned since September 11, a question of how good the information is, and whether or not putting the information out is a responsible thing to do. I’ve emphasized that this was the most generalized kind of information.
There was no time; there was no place; there was no method of attack. It simply said these are people who train and seem to talk possibly about hijackings — that you would have risked shutting down the American civilian aviation system with such generalized information, I think you would have had to think five, six, seven times about that very, very hard.
Steps were taken, and I’m sure security steps were taken. But you have to realize this — that when you’re dealing with something this general, there is a limit to the amount that you can do.
MARGARET WARNER: Rice said she didn’t believe the President had been told about the FBI memo from Phoenix, or Moussaoui’s arrest.