WASHINGTON — With pressure mounting on the White House to more fully explain its anti-terrorism strategy, President Bush offered new details Thursday of a reported plot against downtown Los Angeles as evidence of success in foiling attacks.
Federal officials had revealed two years ago that they believed Al Qaeda operatives, in a West Coast follow-up to the Sept. 11 attacks, had planned to hijack an airliner and crash it into what was then called the Library Tower.
But Bush, offering new specifics in a speech designed to boost support for his national security policies, said Thursday that the terrorist operatives planned to use "shoe bombs to breach the cockpit door." He said Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had recruited and trained young Asian men to carry out the plot because suspicions of Arabs were running high, but that the plan was derailed when a Southeast Asian nation arrested a key Al Qaeda operative.
Bush did not name the nation or the operative, but his decision to reveal even the most incremental details of the reported plot underscored the effort the White House has undertaken recently to defend its anti-terrorism policies.
The details did little to counter skepticism from Democrats and some law enforcement officials who have questioned whether the reported scheme had ever been put into operation before it was thwarted.
"It didn't go," said one U.S. official familiar with the operational aspects of the war on terrorism. "It didn't happen."
The official said he believed the Library Tower plot was one of many Al Qaeda operations that had not gone much past the conceptual stage. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying that those familiar with the plot feared political retaliation for providing a different characterization of the plan than that of the president.
Bush's chief domestic security advisor, Frances Townsend, said the plotters had described their target only as the tallest building on the West Coast, and that it was the "analytic judgment" of the U.S. intelligence community that they intended to strike the Library Tower.
Bush misspoke when making a similar point: "We believe the intended target was Liberty Tower in Los Angeles," he said. The building was renamed in 2003 and is now known as the U.S. Bank Tower.
Bush first mentioned the Los Angeles plot in a speech in October, when he listed 10 post-Sept. 11 schemes that had been disrupted. At the time, he gave few details.
In his speech Thursday to the National Guard Assn., the president cited the reported plan as evidence of the ongoing danger of terrorism and of the success of his anti-terrorism strategy.
"As the West Coast plot shows, in the war on terror we face a relentless and determined enemy that operates in many nations -- so protecting our citizens requires unprecedented cooperation from many nations as well," Bush said. "By working together, we took dangerous terrorists off the streets. By working together, we stopped a catastrophic attack on our homeland."
Bush did not link the foiling of the plot to his controversial program of warrantless wiretaps conducted on certain international communications by the National Security Agency. But his remarks came as ongoing criticism of the spy program from lawmakers, including some Republicans, has appeared to force the administration to reverse course and provide more detailed information about the surveillance to congressional intelligence committees.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he was stunned that Bush revealed details of the reported terrorist plot without first relaying the information to city officials. Villaraigosa said local authorities had heard some of the new information Wednesday from California domestic security officials, but not the specifics mentioned by Bush in his address, which was carried nationally on cable television.
"I would have expected a direct call from the White House," said Villaraigosa, a Democrat, during a City Hall news conference. "We should have been aware of all the details much before today. We did not know all of the facts."
The mayor sought to reassure residents that Los Angeles was safe. He said the police and fire departments had taken precautions at high-rise buildings, including the one singled out by Bush. Villaraigosa said police had specifically evaluated security and evacuation plans at the U.S. Bank Tower.
"There is no imminent threat to Los Angeles," the mayor said, flanked by police and fire officials.
Critics on Thursday accused Bush of reaching far back into time as part of a public relations ploy to maintain focus on his battle against terrorism, an issue that continued to win him public approval. Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, said last month that Republicans in this year's elections would seek ways to paint Democrats as exhibiting a pre-Sept. 11 mentality, while programs such as the warrantless surveillance showed the president's toughness.