WASHINGTON -- With Democrats in Congress leading impassioned calls for answers, the White House on Thursday defended President Bush for not disclosing intelligence before the Sept. 11 attacks that Osama bin Laden wanted to hijack U.S. airplanes.
"You would have risked shutting down the American civil aviation system with such generalized information," said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. "You would have to think five, six, seven times about that, very, very hard."
As politically charged hearings loomed, the White House scrambled to shield Bush from damage, and Democrats sought to exploit a potential crack in the president's record-setting popularity. Worried aides dispatched an extraordinary number of senior advisers, including Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney, to public venues as the controversy mushroomed.
"What we have to do now is find out what the president -- what the White House -- knew about the events leading up to the events of 9-11, when they knew it and, most importantly, what was done about it," said House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo.
Rice said the intelligence, tucked in a 1 1/2-page terrorism report given to Bush during an Aug. 6 briefing while on vacation in Texas, mentioned bin Laden's al-Qaida network and "hijacking in a traditional sense" -- not suicide hijackers slamming fuel-laden planes into American landmarks.
"The most important and most likely thing was that they would take over an airliner, holding passengers and demand the release of one of their operatives," Rice said. The report discussed a variety of methods terrorists might deploy against the United States, including biological and radiation weapons, sources said.
Democrats and some Republicans pressed Bush to hand over the top-secret CIA analysis given to Bush on Aug. 6 and release an FBI memo written even earlier that warned headquarters that many Middle Eastern men were training at least at one U.S. flight school.
White House officials were divided over whether to release them.
Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said, "There was a lot of information. I believe and others believe, if it had been acted on properly we may have had a different situation on Sept. 11."
Bush had no public comment on the developments, but suggested in a closed-door meeting with GOP senators that politics might be at play.
"He said if there had been a strong warning to trust him that he would have reacted quite forcefully," said Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., who attended the Capitol luncheon.
"He reminded us this is the political season," Chafee said.
Rice described a series of threats uncovered by intelligence officials, beginning in September 2000 and reaching a height in the summer of 2001, that dealt mostly with American interests overseas.
Those threats prompted a series of alerts from the FBI to law-enforcement agencies and from the Federal Aviation Administration to the nation's airlines and airports, she said. However, officials with the airline said they did not receive any specific information about potential hijackings. White House officials said the government did not ask airlines to tighten security because the threat seemed standard fare. "Information about an Islamic terrorists seeking to hijack an airline is not news," press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
The increased focus did help U.S. intelligence disrupt terrorist attacks in Paris, Turkey and Rome, Rice said.
But she said the administration never considered alerting the public to a possible hijacking threat at home.
"Even in hindsight, there was nothing in what was briefed to the president that would suggest that you would go out and say to the American people, 'Look, I just read that terrorists might hijack an aircraft,"' she said.
However, there were reasons to suspect suicide attacks with airplanes. In 1994, for example, Algerian terrorists hijacked a plane in a foiled attempt to destroy the Eiffel Tower. And in 1995, terrorists in the Philippines plotted to hijack several U.S. planes, and there was even talk of crashing into CIA headquarters.
Rice said the Eiffel Tower and Philippines incidents were not part of Bush's briefing, and neither she or Bush could recall seeing the FBI memo.