Senior Bush administration officials have said the United States was aware of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks. But in testimony before the joint House-Senate Intelligence Committee, the officials said not enough information was available to prevent the attacks.
U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told the joint intelligence committee during its second day of public hearings that the government was aware of the possibility of attacks before September 11 of last year. "I think we were generally aware that al-Qaida attacks could take place in the United States as well as abroad," Mr. Wolfowitz said.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said he received a classified memorandum at a briefing in August last year about the possibility that terrorists would use airplanes to crash into buildings.
"I saw that. It talked about a hijacking possibility," Mr. Armitage said.
But both Mr. Armitage and Mr. Wolfowitz said the intelligence warnings about potential terrorism were not specific enough to prevent the September 11 attacks.
Their testimony came a day after the committee's staff director Eleanor Hill said the government had many more warnings about the possibility of terrorist attacks in the United States prior to September 11 than U.S. officials had acknowledged. But she said none of the tips specifically predicted the September 11 attacks.
The committee which had been meeting in closed session since June is probing intelligence failures before September 11.
The probe is expected to be completed by February. But with just a few weeks remaining in the current session of Congress, there is concern that the committee will not finish its work in time.
Growing numbers of lawmakers are calling for an independent inquiry to investigate the attacks. Leading the effort is Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who is proposing creation of the commission in an amendment to the homeland security bill.
"It is an idea that we feel is a necessity in the public interest, to answer the plaintive cries of the families of those who died on September 11: how can this happen? And how can know everything that is possible to know so we can make sure it never happens again?" Mr. Lieberman said.
A vote on the proposal is scheduled in the Senate Monday.
The plan is winning support among Republicans though not all of them.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi says he is not an advocate of commissions.
"I have found they do not achieve very much. They take time, they take money, they come up with recommendations and they are then ignored," Mr. Lott said.
The White House has opposed establishing an independent commission, concerned about leaks of classified information and compromising intelligence.