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Cheney Says Bush Handled Hijack Warning Correctly

THE NATION

Terrorism: Senator says White House overreacted to debate. Vice president warns of another attack.

May 20, 2002|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Vice President Dick Cheney mounted a spirited defense Sunday of the way President Bush handled an August warning about possible airliner hijackings, while a key Democrat accused the administration of overreacting to questions about whether more could have been done to anticipate the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"I don't have any problem with a legitimate debate over the performance of our intelligence agencies," Cheney said on "Fox News Sunday." "I've got a real problem with the suggestion that somehow my president had information and failed to act upon it to prevent the attack of Sept. 11."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) said the administration was too defensive. "I don't believe any Democrat did suggest that the president had specific information that led to Sept. 11 that he didn't act on," he said on ABC's "This Week." "But I think it's just as wrong for the administration to say that any one of us who's raising questions about whether something could have been done to prevent Sept. 11 is somehow unpatriotic."

As debate continued over what was known--and what actions should have been taken--before Sept. 11, Cheney warned that a new attack on the United States is "almost a certainty."

"Not a matter of if, but when," he told NBC's "Meet the Press." Officials could not say when or where an attack might occur, and the Office of Homeland Security's alert system remained on yellow, or elevated alert, where it has been since the system was put in place in March. A yellow alert means a significant risk of attack without word of a specific target.

Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that the new threat was "nonspecific, didn't lead you to a particular course of action that you could take, other than a general increase in our level of sensitivity to possible terrorist activities."

In another development Sunday, government officials were eager to analyze a video of Osama bin Laden that was said to include sections filmed in March. If genuine, it would be the first sign that the Al Qaeda leader survived allied attacks on the Tora Bora mountain complex in Afghanistan, according to the Sunday Times of London, which obtained the video.

The clash continued Sunday between the administration and some members of Congress over who should investigate what intelligence and law enforcement agencies knew before Sept. 11 and what actions they took.

Lieberman is among a bipartisan group of lawmakers who want an independent commission to investigate, contending that such a probe would be the least susceptible to politics. But the administration favors an inquiry by the House and Senate intelligence committees, arguing that they have the expertise in dealing with security matters.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the Senate panel, told CNN's "Late Edition" that she favors a review by the intelligence committees. "We're in the middle of a war on terror. We need to be together," she said.

Some lawmakers want to see the Aug. 6 presidential briefing paper that warned Bush that the Al Qaeda network might have plans to hijack airplanes.

Cheney said Sunday that he reviewed the memo and found nothing in it that would have hinted that airplanes might be used as missiles. "It was more a matter of Al Qaeda has a desire to strike us, and one possibility is they might hijack an aircraft," he said.

"Are you going to shut down the nation's aviation system based on that report?" Cheney added. "You wouldn't."

Some lawmakers also want to see a July memo written by an FBI agent in Phoenix, urging his superiors to investigate Middle Easterners enrolled in U.S. flight schools.

Cheney said that the administration has turned over 180,000 pages of documents to the intelligence committees--and that he would consider releasing the agent's memo as long as it was kept confidential.

But he said he would resist turning over the memo from the president's Aug. 6 briefing, contending that the risk of leaks was too great. Any revelation of the memo's contents would damage intelligence gathering, he said.

"This is not about trying to protect the interests of Republicans in the White House," Cheney said. "It is very real about protecting our capacity to deal with these threats in the future."

Lieberman, who as chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee has threatened to subpoena the White House for documents related to his probe of Enron Corp.'s collapse, complained about the administration's "penchant for secrecy."

"People are wondering today why it took eight months for us to learn about the briefing that the president had ...," Lieberman said. "The truth is we don't know what information was given before Sept. 11....Was he given enough information?"

"There's no question that there were failures," Cheney said. " ... But I can't say at this point that even if we had all those pieces together that it would have led to the conclusion that they were going to hit the Trade Center [and] the Pentagon." Cheney said it was virtually impossible to create an indestructible defense against attacks, noting that Israel--with its highly regarded intelligence network--has still been hit by suicide bombings.

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