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White House Defends President's Actions Before 9/11 Attacks - 2002-05-16

The White House is defending its actions in the weeks and months leading up to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Officials acknowledge the president was briefed about a month before the attacks on the possibility of a hijacking by followers of Osama bin Laden. But they say there was no warning that terrorists planned to turn a hijacked plane into a missile, and stress the government responded appropriately.

The president got the information last August while at his Texas ranch.

White House national security advisor Condoleezza Rice says intelligence officials did not deliver a warning to the president, but a status report on existing terrorist threats. "On August 6th, the president received a presidential daily briefing that was not a warning briefing but an analytic report," she said.

She says that report did not mention any specific time or place and was extremely general in nature.

White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer says it was similar to information about possible hijackings that intelligence officials had delivered many times before.

"The possibility of a traditional hijacking in the pre-September 11th sense has long been a concern of the government dating back decades," he said.

The White House says the president asked for the report after a sudden increase in tips regarding possible terrorist activities. Ms. Rice says there was a sudden spike in information related to Al-Qaida and threats to American targets overseas. But she stresses none of this information was specific.

"It simply said these are people who train and seem to talk possibly about hijackings. You would had risked shutting down the American civil aviation system with such generalized information," he said. "You would have had to think five, six, seven times about that very, very hard."

Congressional critics say they want access to this information and stress this new admission from the White House warrants further scrutiny. They point to other indications that the Bush administration did not piece together several signs that Al-Qaida was planning something new and horrifying.

The top democrats in the House and Senate are calling for answers. During an appearance on ABC television, North Carolina Senator John Edwards posed the questions on the minds of many party leaders.

"Why are we finding this out now, so many months after this occurred? Why did the American people not get this information before?," he asked.

Senator Edwards pointed to another recent revelation, word that an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Arizona wrote a memo last July warning that a large number of Arabs were seeking flight training in the United States.

Alabama Senator Richard Shelby the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee told NBC television's "Today" show that similar information indicating a generalized threat was passed on to his panel.

"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 September 11th," he said.

Senator Shelby also discussed the issue in an interview with CNN. He wondered aloud why it took the White House so long to acknowledge the president knew of the hijacking threat.

The White House answer is simple. Officials say the president was only told of a generalized hijacking threat the kind of information the government has been getting for decades and handling behind the scenes.