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White House deep in damage control over hijack warnings

Last Updated Fri, 17 May 2002 1:44:11


WASHINGTON - Some U.S. congressmen were demanding answers Thursday, a day after the White House revealed it had information before the Sept. 11 attacks that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network might try to hijack American planes.


House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt called for public hearings on who knew what prior to the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.


White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President George W. Bush and senior administration officials had no information to suggest hijacked planes could be used as missiles.


Fleischer said bin Laden had been a concern for years, but only in the sense of "traditional" hijackings.


"What took place in America was a sneak attack, an attack on our country while we were at a moment of peace," said Fleischer. "And now we are a nation that is firming up our defences to prevent future attacks."


FBI memo from Phoenix


Bin Laden's name was specifically mentioned by an FBI agent in Phoenix two months before the attacks in a memo urging headquarters to investigate Middle Eastern men enrolled in flight schools in that city.


Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, told CBS it seems impossible that such a memo would not set off "lights, firecrackers, or rockets" with someone who would think this was something "really important."


The hijackers flew their planes into American landmarks, killing more than 3,000 people. They commandeered four passenger planes and flew two of them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Another plane crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth crashed in rural Pennsylvania.


Fleischer told reporters Thursday the president received warnings throughout the summer of 2001 about what bin Laden's group might be planning, but he said the threats were "non-specific" and mostly involved U.S. targets overseas.


He said security was tightened at U.S. embassies and military installations.


U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters that the Federal Aviation Administration issued warnings to airlines in August, 2001 that terror groups were developing "disguised weapons" to use in hijackings.


"The overwhelming bulk of the evidence was that this was an attack that was likely to take place overseas," she said.


Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat, said he has asked Bush to hand over to Congress all the information he received about the terror threat.


Some relatives of Sept. 11 victims have also called for a congressional investigation. Donn Marshall, whose wife, Shelley died at the Pentagon, said the Bush administration should have acted even if it didn't think the planes would smash into buildings on U.S. soil.


Kristin Breitweiser, whose husband Ronald died at the World Trade Center, said if nothing else, an investigation may help prevent something like Sept. 11 from ever happening again.



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