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Ari Fleischer Conducts White House Briefing

Aired May 16, 2002 - 12:01   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Some pointed questions expected this hour at the daily White House briefing, amid the news that President Bush knew before September 11th of possible hijacking plots involving Osama bin Laden. That news adding fuel to charges that top officials failed to connect the dots that eventually spelled out 9/11.

Now as we await Ari Fleischer, we turn to our senior White House correspondent, CNN's Kelly Wallace -- Kelly.


Well, we are just less than a minute away from Ari Flesicher coming to the podium. As you said, he will be fielding a range of questions. Democrats and Republicans demanding answers on this day. Let's go now to Ari Fleischer at the podium.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: Good afternoon. Let me give you a report on the president's day, and I have a brief opening statement. I'd be happy to take your questions.

The president began this morning with his usual round of briefings. Then he departed the White House and attended the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast.

Later today the president will head up to Capitol Hill, where he will make remarks before the Senate Republican Conference, at which he will remind the Congress of the importance of passing the vital domestic agenda that we face, particularly in terms of securing trade agreements for the United States, getting welfare reform, passing a prescription drug program within Medicare to help seniors, including Medicare reform.

And then the president will make remarks at the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony with President and Mrs. Reagan. And then the president will return to the White House in the afternoon.

I want to make a statement about another matter. Throughout the summer, the administration received heightened reporting on threats on U.S. interests and territories, most of it focused on threats abroad. As a result, several actions were taken to button down security. All appropriate action was taken based on the threat information that the United States government received.

The possibility of a traditional hijacking in the pre-September 11 sense has long been a concern of the government, dating back decades. The president did not -- not -- receive information about the use of airplanes as missiles by suicide bombers. This was a new type of attack that had not been foreseen.

As a result, a series of changes and improvements have been made in the way the United States deals with a terrorist threat, and I'd be happy to talk about those during the briefing.

QUESTION: Can you tell us specifically what date the president was briefed that there was a threat of hijacking, where he was when he got the briefing? Who gave him the briefing? What agencies were warned about the threat, and what did those agencies do in response to that?

FLEISCHER: OK. As the president has said, throughout the summer, beginning in May, the president received, as I indicated, a reporting on threats and intelligence hits throughout the summer mainly focused on overseas.

In August, the president, as you know, was at his ranch in Crawford. As part of his morning daily intelligence briefing from the CIA, he received that generalized information that I talked about, vis-a-vis hijacking.


FLEISCHER: No, the director did not personally deliver that briefing.

QUESTION: And what date?

FLEISCHER: It was early August.

QUESTION: So before the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui.

FLEISCHER: Early August. I know it was the first week of August. QUESTION: If you can get us the exact date. And then, what happened with that threat? What law enforcement or federal agencies were told about it, and what did they do in response?

QUESTION: And the threats, just for clarification, were related to Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, right?

FLEISCHER: Throughout the summer they received numerous threat warnings, as I indicated. In fact, as the president -- and let me cite you the president's words as he described the information that was available to him. This is what the president himself said on December 20, 2001, to The Washington Post in an interview he gave them.

FLEISCHER: Quote, "We also had been getting some intelligence hits throughout the summer, mainly focused overseas by the way. And there had been a series of responses that we took to harden embassies, but it was clear that bin Laden felt emboldened and didn't feel threatened by the United States. "As a result of the information that came in, beginning in that May period and throughout the summer, embassies were hardened throughout the world. Military installations went through their normal procedures to harden against potential terrorist attacks. Those are a series of concrete actions that are taken by the embassies and by installations.

"Domestically, through normal security channels, the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration were made aware of general information that, while mentioning hijackings, did not include specific and detailed warnings.

"This information, as with all sensitive security information, was passed on to the carriers through a series of briefings (ph) and notifications.

"It is important to note that this was non-specific threat that mentioned hijacking."

QUESTION: Now I'm a little confused. Is that in response to the information that started coming May 5, or in response to the briefing he got in the first week of August?

FLEISCHER: As I indicated this morning, keep in mind exactly the process of how information flows to the president when it comes to these type of briefings. When the information comes to the president, it's because the agencies have developed in a period of time prior to the briefing.

So this information developed earlier in the course of the summer beginning in May. It was shared with the president in August in the sense of what I've described to you. So throughout this period, this information was conveyed to these agencies -- throughout the summer period.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the agencies were warned before the president of the United States was?

FLEISCHER: Well, of course, as the agencies get this information, they have it. The FBI, CIA, they get the information. They, of course, by definition, have it prior to the president, and that's how they can brief the president on it.


FLEISCHER: Let me do this. On the question of exactly how the information flowed, how it was conveyed, (inaudible) I'm giving you these answers. Dr. Rice will be available later this afternoon for an on-the-record, on-camera briefing. And she'll have a clear timeline, and she'll be able to share that with you in fuller length.

QUESTION: When you say that DOT and FAA were given a warning relating to hijackings, potentially, were they given any specific instructions, in terms of how they should deal with it? Or they were just -- "Here's the warning. Do whatever you think is necessary." FLEISCHER: This information is passed on, and it's part of the whole security environment, the security atmosphere that exists on a regular basis throughout America prior to September 11. And their security people make the assessments they deem fit to make based on the information.

FLEISCHER: The information, as you now know, has been very generalized. There was nothing specific, as I've indicated, about anybody using airplanes as suicide bombs or using airplane as missiles. The information was very generalized. And just as I read, that information, the generalized information, was conveyed.

QUESTION: The CIA also was warning about attacks on U.S. soil. So, in that context, raising a potential hijacking issue, why did the DOT and FAA not suggest to the airlines that they take greater steps to ensure security, as this administration did with embassies and military installations?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think what I just read to you is that they were made aware of the information and it was passed on...


QUESTION: ... increased security measures?

FLEISCHER: No, I think we can get you a little more information about the exact, specific nature. But when they received information of this generalized nature, they take the steps that they deem necessary.

But I want to remind you, information about hijackings in the pre-9/11 world is totally different from information about hijackings in the post-9/11 world. Traditional hijackings prior to September 11 -- it might as well be a different word in a different language from what we have all unfortunately come to know about the post-9/11 world. For decades, governments have taken steps about warnings on hijackings. Never did we imagine what would take place on September 11, where people use those airplanes as missiles and as weapons.

QUESTION: But, Ari, post-9/11, when hijacking had taken on -- that word, new context, new meaning, several administration officials, including, as you just pointed out, the president of the United States himself, was asked about, "What did the White House know?" And the president, when asked, said, "We had intelligence hits." He didn't say, "And, you know, we had a warning about hijackings." Why not? Why didn't he level with the American people about what he knew?

FLEISCHER: The president did level with the American people, and so did Director Tenet, so did all people that I have seen -- I have several statements from government officials exactly about what the government knew and what was said prior to September 11. And let me... QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) used the word "hijacking," though. Vice President Cheney, when he spoke on Meet the Press on the 16th of September, said...

FLEISCHER: Again, I think it's a fair point that you raise. But the simple answer is that you are using the post-September 11 knowledge of what a hijacking could be and applying it to August, prior to September 11, and changing what was then the traditional understanding of what a hijacking represented. There was a total...

QUESTION: These questions were asked...

FLEISCHER: ... it was a total sea change.

QUESTION: ... after September 11. These questions were asked after September 11 of the president, of the vice president, of you yourself. And no one in the White House said, "Yes, the information had come in that Al Qaeda was going to...

FLEISCHER: Because that information, as I indicated at the top of the briefing, that information was so generalized, it did not contain any information specific to using airplanes as weapons, exactly what took place on September 11.

FLEISCHER: That was the generalized nature of the information, which puts it in a totally different category. And again, the sense pre-9/11 of what a hijacking represented was how that information was heard and understood.


QUESTION: So will the White House cooperate with any congressional investigation into these matters?

FLEISCHER: Yes. The White House will of course. The White House is working with the congressional committees that are investigating this matter and will continue to do so.

QUESTION: Will you hand over the (inaudible) any documents or information pertaining to the August briefing? Senator Shelby would like to see them.

FLEISCHER: We'll continue to work with the Congress on that. Many documents have already been handed out. And we'll continue to work with Congress on those matters.

QUESTION: Can you (inaudible) how this story (inaudible) -- I mean, you always tell us that intelligence briefings, of course, are top secret. So how did this story break? I mean, were you surprised when it came to light? And what was your reaction? Was it leaked by the government itself, just to get it out on the table?

FLEISCHER: I have no idea who leaks information. The story broke in the evening news last night.

QUESTION: Do you have any curiosity as to how the information got out?

FLEISCHER: I always have curiosity about how information gets to reporters. But I don't know how it got to the reporters.

QUESTION: You don't know where it came from? FLEISCHER: Of course not.

QUESTION: Back on the August briefing. Since this information was floating around from May until August, what changed to make someone decide that it was time to tell the president? And who told the president in August? And after that information was conveyed to the president, did new information go out to the departments, perhaps raising the level of alert?

FLEISCHER: As I indicated, Condi will be available a little later today to go through the exact sequence and timing. I've indicated to you that the information was conveyed: conveyed to the FAA, conveyed to DOT, State, Defense, et cetera, and that the government took all appropriate actions based on the information we received.

What happened in August was the president asked for a summary of all the information that was known about the potential threats at that time. And that was as a result of, as he indicated -- there was a series of intelligence hits over the course of the summer. And Director Tenet has talked about how there was a spike of information early on in the summer. And the president asked for compilation of that information. And it was shared with the president.

QUESTION: So, was this a longer-than-usual briefing? If this was one the president specifically asked for?

FLEISCHER: I was not present at the briefing. I don't know how long it lasted.

QUESTION: And who gave the briefing?

FLEISCHER: His regular CIA briefer.

QUESTION: When did the White House find out about this report from the FBI agent in Phoenix, about people taking aviation courses and was worried it could be terrorists?

FLEISCHER: I don't know the exact date the White House heard about it.

FLEISCHER: I've seen reports about it in the papers. I don't know the exact date the White House heard of it.


FLEISCHER: I just don't know the date.

QUESTION: Ari, after the alert was sent out to federal agencies, do you know whether or not airports, like for instance Logan, actually had been given some kind of a warning to at least, you know, a heads up, be on alert for potential hijackings?

FLEISCHER: Again, the information was provided to, as I described it, to the carriers as a result of it being provided. And it was generalized information. QUESTION: Are you aware of any extra security measures being taken at any American airports because of this information?

FLEISCHER: I think that would be idiosyncratic. As this information flows, different airports, different people do different things with the information.

QUESTION: Two on this point. You say information about the threat of hijacking goes back many years, it has been a recurring theme from time to time. Was this August report the first time that this president received an intelligence briefing that linked the prospect of a hijacking to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda?

FLEISCHER: I cannot speak and will not speak about everything the president hears in his intelligence briefings, since I'm not in the room when he has his CIA briefing in the morning. But the general knowledge of hijackings, as I indicated, long been a concern to the government, including this one.

QUESTION: So this information was conveyed to the president by the CIA in early August, and you say the concept then was that it was vague in general and that the idea that this would be a traditional hijacking. Was there no discussion of the previous arrest in the Philippines, information shared with the United States government about people who said, perhaps not reliable, but who said that there was a plan to hijack a plane and fly into the CIA building, and a discussion about arrests in France, where people said there was a plan to fly a plan into the Eiffel Tower?

FLEISCHER: What you're asking about is the so-called dots, and whether or not it was possible for anybody in the government to connect all those dots. And the simple answer to that is, as a result of September 11, our government learned a lot of things. There were a lot of lessons to be learned and a lot of changes were made as evolved from a nation in peace time to a nation at war. And as we became a nation of war, the president made a series of changes involving how he receives his information and involving how we protect the United States.

I want to walk you through a couple of those changes that were the result of our nation being attacked.

QUESTION: I understand the changes. Was there not enough threshold evidence...

FLEISCHER: This is important.

QUESTION: ... to think of the threat of using a plane as a bomb.

FLEISCHER: Again, the question is, how does the government connect the dots? And the answer to that question is a series of steps that the president took as a result of the lessons learned from the attack.

FLEISCHER: And those actions were, one, the creation of the Office of Homeland Security, led by Governor Ridge, to pull information together from the various agencies.

The president changed the morning briefings. So the morning briefings, for the first time, began with both the FBI director and the CIA director present to share information fully with the president.

The FBI reorganized. The FBI reorganized to an entity that was set up not only now to catch criminals and find evidence and prosecute them in a court of law, but to prevent the United States from being attacked -- a major change that could only result as a result of, unfortunately, an attack on our country.

The very fact that we have gone to war is a change.

And finally, a recognition by the Congress that the tools available to the intelligence community and to the FBI were not sufficient, and that's why the Congress, to its credit, passed the Patriot Act, giving the administration and the intelligence community and the FBI greater resources to fight terrorism.

Those are a series of changes that we made together with the Congress.

QUESTION: Are you suggesting that before these changes there was no way to connect those dots, Ari?

QUESTION: Ari, Indian prime minister is very angry -- (inaudible) Pakistan -- is very angry. And according to the reports that India and Pakistan (inaudible) any time they saw another bombing (inaudible) against innocent people, killing over 30.

Now, I understand president spoke with Prime Minister Vajpayee. (inaudible) give him the same warning he gave to Arafat, to stop terrorism because (inaudible)...

FLEISCHER: Both the president and the secretary of state have worked very hard directly with Prime Minister Vajpayee and with President Musharraf to decrease the tension that has been longstanding in the Kashmir area.

The president did speak with the prime minister. I think, again, I would refer you to the State Department to learn about any other conversations that took place involving Pakistan. It's a very important region and it's a very important message that the president has worked long on to reduce the tensions, and the president condemned the terrorist attack that took place.

QUESTION: Ari, you've spoken about how this is an entirely different world since September 11. In this post-September 11 world, would this warning generate a different response?

FLEISCHER: You know, it's an impossible question to ask. It's a hypothetical about information.

The answer is, the approach the administration has to when we receive information that can contain a threat, even a vague or generalized one like this one, how does the administration react to that information whether (ph) it gets shared or not. And that's a judgment that is made involving the FBI, the CIA, the Office of Homeland Security, as they weigh whether the dissemination of this threat information can help to reduce or eliminate the possibility of an attack, whether it can be information that is used by law enforcement communities to gear up to prevent an attack versus a series of alerts that can be seen as false alarms if none of them come true.

The administration has repeatedly issued such alerts since September 11 based on the information we have. The answer will always come down to the exact nature of the information -- how specific it is, how corroborated it is, how accurate we believe it is.

QUESTION: Ari, you're aware of what was briefed to the president in August. Why can't you say that it was...

FLEISCHER: Well, again, as I indicated, this is generalized information about potential hijackings.

QUESTION: I have two related questions on this briefing. First is, my understanding from last night and this morning was that this was a point that came up in the course of his ordinary morning brief. Something you just said before made me think that perhaps this was a broader briefing on the compilation of everything we knew about...

FLEISCHER: The president typically asks for information to be used -- to be followed on for follow-up briefings.

QUESTION: So when this piece of information...

FLEISCHER: The briefing is an interactive process. The CIA will come to the president with bits of information. The president will say, "Here's what I want you to do. I want you to prepare this. I want you to look at that." And that's something -- it's an interactive briefing process.

QUESTION: I understand. So when he got this piece of information the first week of August, was that because they were coming back to him from a previous request, or was it at that meeting that he asked for...

FLEISCHER: That's why I'm drawing your attention to earlier in May as the information started to spike about potential threats. That information was in the system, that information was shared with the community. That's why -- you remember, it was very public at the time, the actions that were taken on the Arabian Peninsula to button down our installations. That was all a result of that chatter, so- called chatter that's in the system. And that's why all the actions based on the information developed beginning in that May period.

QUESTION: I'm not sure you fully understood (ph) my question, though. When he got this briefing in August, was it part of a broader review that morning of Osama bin Laden's activities, or was it just one piece of information... FLEISCHER: Oh, I assure you, no, I assure you there was additional information in there, most of it dealing with threats abroad.

QUESTION: That were Osama-related?


QUESTION: OK. And then the second, then, related question to this is, we had previously, if I had understood it, been led to believe that there had been a concern about Osama bin Laden and action in the United States through July 4, and that, after that, the intelligence stream sort of went much quieter.

Was the briefing the first week of August based on some new information gleaned from the end of the 4th of July through to whenever this briefing took place in August? Or was it simply that it finally came up in the president's briefing?

FLEISCHER: I think Dr. Rice would be in a fuller position to answer that.

QUESTION: The FBI warning out of Phoenix, do you know if the president got (ph) that at all or if he would have heard about that before...

FLEISCHER: I indicated I don't have the answer to that.

QUESTION: But you were asked this morning about that question. Can you get us an answer to that...

FLEISCHER: I'm working on it. I just don't have it right now.

QUESTION: And also, we found out about this now, about the early August briefing. Were there any other briefings over the course of the year where the president might have received a piece of information that could have indicated that the September 11 attacks might occur?

FLEISCHER: Let me do this for you. Let me try to get to the nub of the matter, which is you're asking, did the president, did anybody in the administration have information that could have prevented the attacks based on intelligence? This isn't...

QUESTION: I'm not asking if it could have prevented the attacks. I'm asking if there's any other information that could have indicated that the attacks were on the way, that we don't know about now.

FLEISCHER: OK. Let me answer your question. And I want to refer you to an April 11 speech, just a month ago, by Jim Pavitt, who is the deputy director of operations for the CIA. This is a speech he gave at Duke University.

FLEISCHER: And he said the following. Quote, "We have very, very good intelligence on the general structure and strategies of the Al Qaeda organization. We knew and we warned that Al Qaeda was planning a major strike. There need be no question about that.

"What didn't we know? We never found the tactical intelligence, never uncovered the specifics that could have stopped those tragic strikes that we all remember so well. As a reality of the difficult and often frustrating fight against terror, the terrorist cells that we're going up against are typically small. And all terrorist personnel in those cells participating in those cells, perpetrating the acts of terror, all those personnel were carefully screened. The number of personnel who knew vital information -- targets, timing, the exact methods to be used -- had to be smaller still."

He continued, "Some of you out there may have heard bin Laden himself speak about that on the shocking videotape that we recovered in Afghanistan. On that tape that he was speaking to his friends as he sat around a little room, he talks about the fact that some of the hijackers, indeed some of the most senior members of his inner circle, have been kept in the dark about the full extent of the destruction and the operation that took place in New York and in Washington on the 11th of September."

And then he concludes, "Against that degree of control, that kind of compartmentation (ph), depth of discipline and fanaticism, I personally doubt -- and I draw again upon my 30 years of experience in this business -- that anything short of one of the knowledgeable inner-circle personnel of hijackers turning himself in to us, would have given us sufficient foreknowledge to prevent the horrendous slaughter that took place on the 11th."

So the answer again, as you'll typically find in intelligence, and exactly as the vice president said to Tim Russert in an interview he did immediately after the attack, we had generalized information, we had broad knowledge that Osama bin Laden wanted to attack. Director Tenet has gone to the Hill and, on the record, told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2000, 2001, 2002, that Osama bin Laden wants to attack the United States.

But did we have information more than specific than that? The answer is we had that generalized information.

QUESTION: I want to get to the question about thinking of a pre- September 11 version of the hijacking of September 11. We knew publicly about the information that has been gathered (inaudible), because I believe it had actually come out in the course of one of the New York trials. We also knew publicly about the French plot against the Eiffel Tower. And we also knew that Cole bombing and the African embassy bombings and the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in the '80s were all suicide bombings against American targets.

So I just continue to be -- I just continue to have a question about why, at that moment in time, logic that would have been available to a person who read the newspapers did not seem to be in the flow of the thinking there?

FLEISCHER: As you cite, Lebanon, Paris, Cole. All these operations took place -- Philippines -- took place overseas. And as I indicated, as the president said in December, the preponderance of information that we were receiving of this general nature dealt with events abroad.

And you all were there, you saw it yourself and covered it yourselves about the actions that were taken to button down our embassies and our military installations, particularly in the Arabian Peninsula at that time, based on the information we had.

QUESTION: Can you say when the president first sort of asked his briefers whether or not they felt that domestic sites might be in Osama bin Laden's thinking? That would have been something the president might have thought of when they were talking about abroad, threats abroad.

FLEISCHER: In terms of asking what the president talked to his briefers about, I think Dr. Rice may be able to shed a little more insight into that than I am.

But again, I draw you to Director Tenet's public testimony where he has warned that Osama bin Laden wanted to hit the United States. He said that going back to the previous administration in 2000. I mean, that's general information that was well-known.

QUESTION: But you don't know when the president first started to discuss this with Director Tenet, to ask probing questions about how concerned they were about U.S. targets?

FLEISCHER: I think one of the reasons you saw the United States be able to move so quickly and effectively against the Al Qaeda was because we did have a real focus on the war against terrorism prior to September 11. And that's one of the reasons we had so much information of that general sense developed about Osama bin Laden and our work with the Northern Alliance, for example. So a lot of that was developed and led to the successful prosecution of the war.

QUESTION: So that was a reasonable thought, that U.S...

FLEISCHER: It's no surprise to anybody that Osama bin Laden wanted to attack the United States. But as the CIA deputy director for operations just pointed out, the question was, how, what methods, where, when? That information is a different category than the generalized information. QUESTION: Ari, where there any other pieces of information last summer that prompted the administration to warn the FAA and the airline carriers that there was an increased likelihood or should be a heightened awareness of possibility of hijackings?

FLEISCHER: As I indicated, information was passed on through the security channels by DOT and FAA to the carriers. So the information about that generalized nature was passed on on more than one occasion.

QUESTION: On more than one occasion last summer.

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: So I'm trying to determine if there was something particular about the information that was received in August or something new about the information that was received in August that prompted a different kind of warning to the FAA and the airlines.

FLEISCHER: Again, I indicated, we'll provide the exact chronology, but much of this took place as a result of May, earlier than August. It was the May reporting indicated the threats.

But again, all of this is the context of the pre-9/11 world about traditional hijackings and what they mean, which is such a far and different cry from what we all have come to learn now.

QUESTION: Yes, but I'm just trying to determine -- there's a sense that suddenly the U.S. got new information in August that there were threats of hijackings. What you seem to be saying is that that is not the case, that there were warnings for months, if not years in a general sense, but certainly months over the summer. And you're saying now that there were previous warnings given to airline carriers and to the FAA that there was an increased danger of hijackings?

FLEISCHER: I think the airlines have long known for decades that Muslim terrorists seek to hijack United States airplanes. That is not news, that is not a surprise, that is longstanding.

And as we develop generalized information, it was shared with the airline industry, with the carriers, and that's the facts about what took place.

QUESTION: Could I just ask one more thing?

FLEISCHER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Did the president ask -- or was that information shared with the Senate or House Intelligence Committee?

FLEISCHER: Let me refer you the words Congressman Porter Goss, who is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. I think that's a very important question. He, this morning, has indicated that the House Intelligence Committee got generalized information on threat reporting, including potential hijacking by Osama bin Laden.

Again, the question about, are there Muslim extremists, including Osama bin Laden, who seek to hijack American airplanes? Everybody knows that's the case dealing with terrorism.

QUESTION: Ari, did the president personally issue any orders or call for any actions based on what heard in August at that briefing?

FLEISCHER: Again, the information developed earlier than that in May, and that's when the timeline begins about the information that was shared.

And again, the key actions taken, particularly abroad, were the buttoning down which took place earlier than August of our facilities abroad, because that's when the threats had spiked up.


FLEISCHER: August was a summary of the earlier data that had been provided. The actions that were taken took place throughout the summer.

QUESTION: Ari, at any point in this May to August timeline did the president personally issue any orders calling for any actions by people (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: What typically happens is the president reviews the information, discusses it with his national security team, and they work together and they say we need to get the word to DOD, get the word to State, get the word to DOT, FAA, to button up and take these security measures. That all flows from one team.

You know, if you're asking did the president particularly himself, the answer is, he works this together with his team, they all come to these ideas together. The president, of course, is part of those morning briefings.

QUESTION: Is he satisfied with the leadership of the intelligence agencies?

FLEISCHER: Yes, he is.

QUESTION: Let me ask you, the carriers, last night, United and America told us that they had not been told by the FAA or by the government that there was a threat.

QUESTION: Are you sure that the information got to them?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think that -- I think, frankly, it's very important for the press, as they ask people about the threat, to define it. If you were to say, "Did you receive generalized information, not specific to 9/11, about potential hijackings," that information was conveyed. But if you ask people, "Did you receive information about the possibility of a 9/11 attack," that information could not have been conveyed because that information was not at the hands of the United States Government.

So I think it's important here for the press to make sure you don't jump to conclusions in the way you present information which was generalized.

QUESTION: You're certain that the airlines were, in fact, told of this after the August briefing, that there's a heightened possibility of a hijacking?

FLEISCHER: No, let me read you the statement again. See, again, you changed the words of what I said as you described the information the government conveyed.

Here's what I said: Through normal security channels, the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration were made aware of the general information that, while mentioning hijackings, did not include specific and detailed warnings. This information, as with all sensitive security information, was passed on to the carriers through a series of briefings and notifications. It is important to note that this was a non-specific threat that mentioned hijackings. And that's what we're dealing with here. QUESTION: Does that series of notifications expressly include a so-called NOTAM (ph) or notice to air personnel, pilots, that there was a heightened -- did this go through the corporate channels or these airlines, or did it go through operations, or did it go to the pilots themselves?

FLEISCHER: Let me see if we can't get you an answer to the exact NOTAM (ph). I'm not familiar with the acronyms.

QUESTION: Ari, is there any sense in the White House that congressional Democrats may be pursuing this issue for political advantage?

FLEISCHER: Let me just say that one of the things this president has done since September 11 is bring our country together. This president has done so on the basis of bipartisanship and a spirit that says that we, as a nation, were attacked and we're all in this together.

And I think it is important to know what information the Hill has. As Congressman Goss said, members of the Intelligence Committee were provided with this generalized information on threat reporting, including potential hijackings.

So on the one hand, I mean, there's a lot of information that's there that was provided, as it should be provided, to the House Intelligence Committee. And we will continue to cooperate with the Congress because that's the spirit that the president will continue to govern in as he leads this nation, since September 11 especially.

QUESTION: Was the early August briefing the first one where the president received a warning about the word "hijacking"?

FLEISCHER: Again, I do not, as you all know, sit in on the president's classified CIA briefings. We're going to provide a briefing to you later today.

FLEISCHER: Although Dr. Rice, of course, will not be able to describe every piece of classified information, she'll be able to help you more to develop the timeline and the information. That's why she's coming out. I think it's important to share this information.

The president wants to share it with the American people. These are legitimate questions. And the fact of the matter is, I would think you will all come to the conclusion that, as you see them having been answered from the morning, there appears to be a whole lot less there than I think people first thought.

QUESTION: I do believe I am not alone in being very impressed with the large number of issues in which you are well informed, as well as your dedication in seeking information where you're not.


QUESTION: Evidently you're being set up.


QUESTION: that you can now assure us that the president is not sending a still-criminally-investigated man to the Independence Day ceremony of East Timor on Sunday, because the Pardongate investigation of Mr. Clinton is over, isn't it?

FLEISCHER: The president has made an announcement about who will be attending in East Timor, and that list is public.

QUESTION: Does your hailing of former President Carter as a champion of human rights mean that the president is considering asking Mr. Carter to go to Jerusalem next?

FLEISCHER: I have no information for you on that.

QUESTION: The August briefing. At that point, it seems like that briefing was a culmination of everything that had been building up over the summer. Was there discussion at that point about bombing Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan?

FLEISCHER: Again, I will let Dr. Rice speak about everything in the briefing. But the events of September 11 changed everything.

QUESTION: (inaudible) which seems so long ago now. Are you suggesting that before the president enacted these changes in the intelligence community, that there was no way for them to connect the dots?

FLEISCHER: Director Mueller has the first to say that the FBI has changed. And as a result of now the emphasis on more fusion, more synthesis, as he put it, the ability to make certain that all information is shared in a centralized place.

The FBI was previously, in peacetime, an entity set up mostly to catch domestic spies and to provide information for the purpose of prosecution of typical-type domestic crimes, kidnapping, things of that nature.

The mission of the FBI has changed, because our nation got attacked. And the mission now is focused much more on prevention of new attacks. And thanks to the Congress, we're giving the FBI more tools to do it, which they did not have prior to September 11.

QUESTION: Are you suggesting that prior to these changes, they did not have the ability to connect the dots that were out there?

FLEISCHER: I think the FBI director has said that they've made changes to make it easier for the purpose of fusion any synthesis of information.

QUESTION: If the warning about potential hijackings by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda was what, as intelligence officials said, led this administration so quickly to suspect Osama bin Laden in the September 11 attacks, why, when administration officials were asked if they had any inkling that something like this could happen, nobody said, "by the way, we had a warning about potential hijackings at the hand of Al Qaeda"?

FLEISCHER: Because the reason that people reached the conclusion Osama bin Laden did this was because there was an abundance of information -- public -- from Osama bin Laden and other places, about bin Laden to do this.

FLEISCHER: But this is very important. I want you to understand something. The fault lies with Osama bin Laden and the terrorists who did this. That's who's to blame.

QUESTION: I totally understand that. But I'm just interested as to why the vice president, you, the president, nobody said when asked after September 11 -- "Was there any inkling to something like this might happen?" -- none of them pointed to this briefing in early August.

FLEISCHER: And the reason for that is very simple.

QUESTION: And regardless of whether we're looking at this through a post-9-11 prism or not.

FLEISCHER: But that does change everything. I think it's fair to say that if I walked up to you in August of 2001 and said, "We have information that Muslim extremists seek to hijack American airplanes." You'd have said, "So what. Everybody's known that for a long, long time."

The nature of the information about traditional hijackings prior to September 11 is a totally different issue from what we have unfortunately come to learn as a nation about what they did in a hijacking, using an airplane as a missile, was not foreseen.

QUESTION: Two quick questions. In buttoning down U.S. installations, was the White House itself on a heightened state of security because of these warnings on September 11?

FLEISCHER: No. I have no information suggesting that was the case. I don't think that's the case at all.

QUESTION: And then, just let me make sure. This chatter, as you described it, it was coming through the system, through the spring and summer of last year, at some point the president said, "I need to know exactly what's going on here. Put it all together. What is the nature of the threat?" And that was the August briefing when someone said to him, and part of this...

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: ... they want to hijack airplanes.

FLEISCHER: That was one of the many pieces of information, most of which focused on events abroad. I'll take one or two, then I've got to leave with the president to get up to the Hill.

QUESTION: I might rephrase John's (ph) question? Why was the information that was provided last night not provided some time in the previous eight months?

FLEISCHER: Again, the president in his interview with your newspaper, The Washington Post, explicitly talked about the generalized nature of the information we received. But again, you're attaching a different definition, post-9-11, to a traditional hijacking, pre-9-11, which I don't think is a fair or accurate way to describe what was known at the time.


FLEISCHER: Again, the president described the generalized nature of the information. And the information we had prior to 9-11 was generalized.

QUESTION: So if the hijackers (OFF-MIKE) September 11 that hijacked those planes and shot the passengers, somebody after the fact might have said, "Damn. You know, we had this generalized briefing, I wish we knew more." But because they flew them into buildings and killed the people, nobody said, "Damn. We had this generalized information, I wish we knew more."

FLEISCHER: Unfortunately, the threat of hijacking is not new. What was new was the manner in which this was done on September 11.


QUESTION: ... nobody mentioned, nobody's trying to blame anybody, but why in eight months has nobody said there was this general mention of the possibility of a hijacking, I sure wish we knew more?

FLEISCHER: Because the hijacking information was so general it did not include any information about the use of airplanes, as they were done, on September 11.

FLEISCHER: Last question.

QUESTION: I was just thinking why in the post-9/11 environment that we were in -- everyday after 9/11, there and throughout that period did you, the president, your allies, made a very detailed case against Osama bin Laden -- to build up the rationale for going the war against the Taliban, Afghanistan. Why in building that case it was never mentioned -- only one more piece of evidence is, we knew in August there was a threat that they wanted to hijacker?

FLEISCHER: Because of the value attached to that information about hijackings was not the value attached to what we all know now about September 11. As the deputy director of the CIA indicated, the nature of the information we had was not specific enough to lend to that conclusion. Thank you.

QUESTION: What time does it...


FLEISCHER: We'll let you know; we'll announce the time. HARRIS: And with that, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer is wrapping up his briefing with the press, which was as heated as we thought it was going to be, or at least as concentrated as we thought it was going to be on this issue of how President Bush was informed about any possible threats to the U.S. in terms of hijackings by any Al Qaeda members or whatever. And Ari Fleischer, we should mention, is leaving to go accompany President Bush to Capitol Hill. There is going to be a ceremony in a few moments, awarding President Ronald Reagan with the Congressional Gold Medal. Nancy Reagan, his wife, will be accepting ti, and we're going to be happy to have coverage of that, so you'll have that right here.

But let's go right now to our Kelly Wallace, who has been standing by and listening as well. And, Kelly, lots of questions, it seems, that still in the air and remain to be solved about exactly timeline as to when these threats first came in and how President Bush was briefed and what happened after that.

WALLACE: Exactly, Leon, more and more questions. We did learn something new. Ari Fleischer saying that the threats, the general threat information coming in beginning in May, and that information was coming in throughout the summer. He did say that the Department of Transportation and the FAA did notify commercial airline about what he was calling general information, not specific, about the possibility that Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network could try to hijack a U.S. commercial airliner.

Very interesting that that information was out there throughout the summer, but it wasn't until August that President Bush was notified about this generalized information, according to the White House during his CIA briefing. A lot of questions, Leon, as you heard, about why since September 11th, when the president, the vice president, other U.S. officials were asked, if this administration this any warning whatsoever, no information was brought up there was a so-called general information about the possibility of a commercial hijacking.

Here is Ari Fleischer's answer. Here is what he said exactly what this administration knew and it didn't know over the summer of 2001.


FLEISCHER:: The president did not not -- not -- receive information about the use of airplanes as missiles by suicide bomber. This was a new type of attack that had not been foreseen. As a result, a series of changes in improvements have been made in the way the United States deals with the terrorist threat.


WALLACE: And Ari Fleischer's answer, though, leaving open other questions. My colleague John King, in fact, asking about how the FBI was warned years ago, excuse me, in the mid 1990 about a plot in the Philippines to try and use commercial airliners to ram into some U.S. buildings, including CIA, that was out there, widely known. Why didn't the administration consider that?

If there was general information out there about the possibility that Bin Laden's group could try to hijack a U.S. airliner, why couldn't U.S. officials think it could be used in this way, to ram into U.S. buildings, and again, Ari Fleischer saying that this sort of post-9/11 thinking is very, very different from how U.S. officials were thinking before September 11th attack -- Leon.

HARRIS: I heard him a number of times trying to make that distinction. He went out of his way, as a matter of fact, a number of times to make this distinction between pre-9/11 and post-9/11 thinking and awareness about these sorts of things, but one matter that did not seem to be answered at all to me, in my listening -- you tell me if you heard it and I didn't -- is why the administration has not said or was complete about this for the past eight months or so. John King tried to pin him down on that.

WALLACE: Exactly, a number reporters, Ari Fleischer's answer continued to be that there was sort of this general information that when U.S. officials were asked, were they warned, no, Ari Fleischer said, they didn't have any specific warning that there would be terrorists who would hijack U.S. planes and ram them into the World Trade Center, into the Pentagon, and then, of course, the crash in Pennsylvania.

So he said you have to think about how the question was phrased and how these U.S. officials responded. You do have members of Congress who were very, very upset, saying they didn't even know about this generalized information out there. You saw Fleischer trying to respond to that, saying that chairman, Congressman Porter Goss, of Florida, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, saying today that he was informed of this generalized information about the possibility of hijackings by Bin Laden's group.

Fair to say, Leon, many, many more questions, and that is why this White House is putting out Condoleezza, the president's national security adviser a bit later today to answer more questions about the timeline, again, what the administration knew, what it didn't and how it responded -- Leon.

HARRIS: Good deal, Kelly. We did hear a number of times about this briefing that Condoleezza Rice is going to be brief the press later this afternoon. No exactly idea about when this is going to happen. If there is anyway we can bring that to you live, we will here on CNN.

Kelly Wallace, thank you very much at the White House.

As we're trying to make these distinctions about what the White House knew and when it knew it and who happened to be in these briefings, there is still, as we said, lots of background information we're trying to dig up in all of this.

Let's check in now with our David Ensor, who's standing by in our Washington bureau -- David. DAVID ENSOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Leon, let me come at this from the other angle, not the White House, but the intelligence community, and give you what I can, kind of a timeline of whatever warning signs there may have been that were offered to the Bush administration. Perhaps we should start as Ari Fleischer did in May and June of 2001, when the CIA was warning the White House over a period of briefing for the president and others, of possible Al Qaeda attack plans again the United States.

Now there was at thought that a target date might be on or around July 4th, the nation's birthday. That passed by, without any kind of an attack, and then the CIA, I am told, continued to advise the bush administration. There is a lot of intelligence out there, suggesting activity, suggesting interest in some kind of an attack on the United States. And we still think it is likely.

In late July, 2001, the Phoenix FBI memo that we've all heard about went back to headquarters, urging the FBI to investigate Middle Eastern men in U.S. flight schools, and the memo also said that Osama bin Laden's followers might be planning to use the flight training they were getting for some sort of terrorism. Then we have this latest incident now where at a briefing in first week of August, in Crawford, Texas, when the president was at his home there. They had suggestions that the bin Laden group might, among other possibilities, try to hijack aircraft.

Now he did not suggest, the briefer, at that time that there was any kind of a suicide plane attack, as we have heard from Ari Fleischer subsequently, that was a surprise. Then we go on to August 15, 2001, when a Minnesota flight school called the Minneapolis Office of that FBI warned that a student there named Zacarias Moussaoui was seeking training to fly 747s, but not land them, and they thought that was suspicious, so did the FBI. Within a day or two, Moussaoui was arrested, and the Minneapolis FBI office suggested to FBI Washington they would like permission to search his laptop computer on August 17th, this request came in.

The Justice Department took the view that there wasn't enough evidence to justify going to a special court that would give permission for that, so they did not do that, they denied permission, which is unfortunate, because on Moussaoui's computer, there was information about crop dusters and various other data that might have suggested what was up.

And then, of course, finally, on the timeline of September 11th, when suicide hijackers attacked World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

As Kelly and John mentioned earlier, there were also two other signals, much earlier, that could have gone into U.S. government thinking as they considered these other clues that we've just talked about. One was the 1996 message from the Philippine police, that they had information from the Ramsey Yusef (ph) group, the ones that were finally -- well, Ramsey Yusef, of course, is serving time now for the original World Trade Center bombing, the first one.

They had information that this group might be plotting to try to hit CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia with an aircraft.

And there was also, of course, an earlier report from French authorities that they had gotten wind a possible plot to fly a plane into the Eiffel Tower. So the idea that an aircraft might be used as a weapon, was at least out there.

Now having mentioned all of this, it's important to stress that officials say, intelligence officials say, President Bush was -- it was never suggested to him that there was any kind of intelligence -- and there was not -- that an aircraft could be used in the way that it was.

So, there were some clues. There will now have to be a lot of discussion in this country, and there will be a Congressional inquiry into whether those clues should have led the government to do more than it did -- Leon.

HARRIS: And David, just to follow up on that point you just made, I have here in my hand right here, I have a transcript from the "Meet the Press" program on September 16th when Vice President Cheney was the guest, and he was being questioned about whether or not the administration had received any word regarding any threats, and as you just said here, what Vice President Cheney said, was he said, first of all, that there had been information coming in that a big operation was planned, but it's the sort of trend you see all of time in these kinds of reports, and he goes on to say there was no specific threat, as you just said, involving a domestic operation, involving what happened.

Obviously, the cities, airliner and so forth, we did go on, with our overseas forces a number of times during the course all right with overseas forces a number of times for course of summer we thought this threat level had risen significantly. So clearly, we were surprised by what happened here.

And that really does ties in well with what we heard Ari Fleischer say that perhaps the administration looked at all the information coming in, and surmising that the threat was more overseas than domestic, but here's the thing that jumps out at me in looking at the timeline you put together here, and I think maybe this is where most of the questioning is going to be about. When you look at what happened there at the end of July, when you had the report coming in from the FBI, saying -- this memo from the FBI that's raised a lot of questions now, when it warned that there were Middle Eastern men in this country here, right at the time rather, training at flight school, and then what follows right behind that is the CIA briefing about a possible hijacking plan afoot, and Osam bin Laden's name being mentioned in both of those reports.

With those two things coming so close together, and right before President Bush was being briefed, question it was he told that time, and was that the reason why that briefing at the Crawford, Texas ranch was actually arranged, and who knew about it and what happened with the FBI's information from that point on.

ENSOR: As you heard, Ari Fleischer say, the August briefing was the culmination of some answers that the president had asked the intelligence community to come up with. Give me the full readout on this intelligence you've been getting all summer about there could be an attack against us, give me all the possibilities, and it sounds as if that's what he was giving in August.

As far as the FBI information, as we know, now unfortunately, from you director Mueller, those clues that were sent in by various officers, which were working pretty hard, weren't picked by headquarters in the way that they now would be, with the FBI having been organized to try to face this kind of threat.

HARRIS: Yes, and the fact that no matter how this reflects on the White House, it reflects very badly on the FBI, correct?

ENSOR: There is certainly going to be a lot of questions, I think from the intelligence committees on the Hill, as to why those clues were dropped, and you already see, as we just said, action by the FBI director to try to correct, to reorganize things so that can't happen again, at least.

HARRIS: And again, we have to say that we have to be careful to not trying to do too much Monday morning quarterbacking here.

But so many questions in the air, kind of got lots of dancing around to here.

David Ensor, thank you very much.

Let's go in now and check in with our Jon Karl, who is on Capitol Hill. Jonathan Karl, I know you are quite aware of fact there will be some congressional hearings. Many calls being made from that already coming from the Democrats. What are you hearing now in the wake of this briefing? Anything?

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, no shortage of Monday morning quarterbacking up here on Capitol Hill, Leon. Some very pointed words came right from the Democratic leader of the Senate, Tom Dashcle, who had this to say this morning.


SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D-SD), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: I am greatly concerned about the information provided us just yesterday. The president received a warning in August about the threat of the hijackers by Osama bin Laden and his organization. We should not jump to any conclusions. Clearly, there is a lot more to be learned before we can come to any final conclusion about all of the facts. But it clearly raises some very important questions that have to be asked and to be answered.


KARL: And Daschle called for two things from the White House. First, he wants the White House to release in total the intelligence briefing that the president received in August that warned of possible hijacking by Al Qaeda. He wants the oral presentation and also whatever written documents were associated with that released to the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Intelligence Committee. And he also wants publicly released the full memo from the Phoenix FBI office that you just talked so much about with David Ensor.

Now in addition to that, you mentioned a call for hearings. We do have Intelligence Committee hearings that are scheduled to happen sometime probably by June, joint House and Senate Intelligence Committee hearings, but, Leon, those hearings will be by and large, at least partially private, closed-door hearings, where intelligence matters can be discussed. Up until now, Senator Daschle has abided by the White House wishes to keep the investigation limited to the Intelligence Committee, but now Senator Daschle saying he is very much open to the possibility of a much broader investigation of public airing of all these matters. He says these matters must be aired before the public and questions must be answered.

Now meanwhile, you also have people going further than Senator Daschle. This morning, you had Representative Jerry Nadler, a Democrat from New York, actually saying that this suggested that President Bush may bear some culpability for what happened on 09/11.

Listen to this.


REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: If the White House had knowledge that there was a danger or an intent to hijack an American airplane and did not warn the airlines, that would be nonfeasance in office of the highest order. That would make presidential almost -- bear a large amount of responsibility for the tragedy that occurred.


KARL: Now, Leon, one thing that's interesting is, even as we speak now, the Democrats are meeting with Condoleezza Rice, who has a previously scheduled briefing at their lunch. Condoleezza Rice up here talking to Democrats. And over on Republican side of the Senate, President Bush is up here meeting with Republicans. So I assure you, we'll be hearing much more about this the rest of the day, and clearly, also in the coming weeks.

HARRIS: No doubt. No doubt. We'll hear more you from as well. Jonathan Karl on Capitol Hill, thank you very much. We'll take a quick break and come back with more coverage of this as this issue will be topic of discussion quite a bit today here on this network, as well as others no doubt.




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