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CNN Live Today

White House Responds to Criticism

Aired September 12, 2001 - 14:57   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I want to go to John King in Washington, our senior White House correspondent. John has found out an extraordinary piece of information. He joins us now. John, tell us what you got.

JOHN KING, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Aaron, some new information that somewhat conflicts, or isn't exactly consistent with information we were reporting yesterday. But let me tell you now what the White House is saying on the record now.

The White House saying publicly that one of the reasons the president did not come directly back to Washington from Florida yesterday was that it had quote, "reasonable and credible information that the White House and Air Force One were targets of terrorists."

One thing the White House is saying is that that plane that struck the Pentagon may have initially been planning to hit the White House, but instead at the last minute decided to veer course and hit the Pentagon. All this comes because of some criticism, including from Republicans from Washington, that it took too long for President Bush to get back to Washington.

Remember throughout the day yesterday we were reporting that there was an emphasis on the important political statement of getting the president back to Washington. The White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, going on the record and saying one of the reasons the president did not come directly back was because not only was the White House considered a target, but Air Force One as well.

I say that is somewhat contradictory to information we reported yesterday, because throughout the day I was in conversations with Secret Service officials and others who said that they never believed that Air Force One was at risk at all. They said one reason the president did not come directly back was as a precaution, that early on, remember the president started in Sarasota, Florida, then he went to Barksdale, Louisiana, Barksdale Air Force Base, then he went to a military installation in Nebraska.

When the president was in Louisiana, at that time the Federal Aviation Administration could not guarantee that there were no longer any airplanes in the sky. Obviously four planes had been hijacked. There was a concern that Air Force One should not be flying into potentially dangerous air place. But when the president did return under heavy fighter escort from Nebraska, at that time everyone had said there were no longer any planes, any unauthorized planes, any commercial air traffic over the United States.

But again today, the White House just recently saying on the record, one of the reasons the president did not come back right away was because Air Force One was considered to be a potential target and they're also saying that that plane that hit the Pentagon may have initially been aiming for the White House.

Now remember, the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, we also know that senior administration officials are telling members of Congress that they believe that plane also was turning south toward Washington for three potential targets: One perhaps the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland, one also the White House or United States Capitol as well.

So as the investigation continues, Aaron, obviously, new information coming out. This time, the White House extraordinarily going on the record to rebut criticism from some members of Congress, including Republicans, that the president should have gotten back to Washington sooner.

BROWN: John, let me ask you a couple of things, first, maybe one of those questions that is obvious to everyone but me, how did -- did they give you any indication how they think these terrorists were planning to take Air Force One out, any idea at all?

KING: That is the question we cannot get answered. Obviously we saw extraordinary pictures yesterday: Air Force One, the president's 747 in this case, traveling with fighter jets visible to those inside the plane.

Now, we know when we travel with the president he is often escorted by fighter jets. Never do we see them that close. Occasionally we will see one of them pass by when we are on these trips. This obviously was an effort by the military to demonstrate that Air Force One was safe.

But they are not saying how Air Force One could have been a target, whether they believe these hijackers were going to go to the extraordinary lengths of trying to ram a flying 747. And it is an extraordinary plane. It is not your average 747 with a commercial air travel.

They are not saying that. All they are saying right now is they had quote, "reasonable and credible information to believe that both the White House and Air Force One, the president's jet, may have been targets."

BROWN: And those pilots who fly Air Force One are not run of the mill commercial airline pilots, I mean no disrespect. These are Air Force pilots who have a great deal of training in avoiding all manner of dangers to the president, to themselves, to that airplane.

KING: They have a great deal of training. That plane is also equipped with some extraordinary devices, some of which we will not discuss publicly. But it has devices that are meant to help it in the case it is attacked, as military airplane would be. This is the president's plane, but it is a military aircraft.

And it also travels -- you see here, as you look at the wing of Air Force One here if you look out, you see the fighter jet right off the wing, that's an extraordinary site. Those of us who travel on Air Force One on occasion, every now and then you will see a fighter jet in proximity or you will land or leave a military base having just seen the fighter jets take off to be part of the president's escort, especially on international trips.

This, extraordinary, the president flying with a fighter escort just off of the wing. Again, given the events of yesterday, four commercial planes hijacked, rammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as well. No surprise that they would take such extraordinary security measures around the president of the United States. But the White House now saying one of the reasons for that was that they believed Air Force One was a potential target.

But again, I want to say, at the time of those pictures, those pictures taken when the president was flying back from Nebraska to Washington, D.C., at that time we had been told by government officials at the Transportation Department at the White House and elsewhere, that the government was certain there were no longer any planes in the skies over the United States that were not authorized to be there -- Aaron.

BROWN: John, just, I am -- quickly, one more thing, and again, one of the things that strikes me about this is that they are stating it at all. And that is the truth. Whether it was a target, not a target, this close to the event itself, I am a bit surprised that they would discuss this. This, you believe, is simply to respond to the criticism that some have offered up?

KING: That is right, Aaron. Remember this is a president who, this morning in the cabinet room, surround by his national security team, said he too considered this an act of war, and that the people of the United States and the government of the United States needed to dedicate financial resources, moral resources, if you will, and perhaps military resources down the road to responding to it.

This, a major test for a first-year president, eight months in office now. The White House bristling at the suggestion that the president did not come back to Washington as soon as possible, taking the extraordinary step today. One of the things we have heard throughout the past 24 hours is that the administration does not want to discuss the details of the investigation, does not want to give away certain clues because that could tip off of those responsible for this and perhaps help them elude the authorities.

But the White House going on the in the record in this case saying that one of the reasons that the president did not come straight back to Washington was again, because both the White House -- and remember the White House was evacuated just after that plane hit the Pentagon yesterday morning, and Air Force One -- the White House saying again, reasonable and credible information that they were targets. BROWN: John, our senior White House correspondent John King, I know you well enough to know that you want to get back to the phones and work the story. I will let you go, and we will hear from you as the day and night continues.