Bush renews warnings of possible attacks

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

WASHINGTON -- President Bush warned Tuesday that al-Qaida terrorists still "want to hurt us," while his Pentagon chief said terrorists inevitably will acquire weapons of mass destruction from countries like Iraq, Iran or North Korea.

In a shift from previous refusals to give Congress certain information, the administration showed members of the Senate Judiciary Committee portions of a July memo from a Phoenix FBI agent who issued a pre-Sept. 11 warning of Arabs attending U.S. flight schools.

Discovery of the memo, which didn't quickly catch the attention of top FBI officials, and last week's revelation that Bush was told before Sept. 11 of possibly hijackings by Osama bin Laden's terrorists have sparked new scrutiny of the administration's handling of threats.

The new situation also prompted calls of alarm from the administration.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell separately warned that terrorists might acquire weapons of mass destruction.

"Terrorists are trying every way they can" to get nuclear, chemical or biological weapons," Powell said.

Security tightened

Authorities tightened security around New York City landmarks after the FBI warned of uncorroborated information from detainees that sites such as the Statue of Liberty might be attacked.

Despite the increased concerns, the White House said it is not raising the nationwide terrorism alert status because intelligence on possible attacks is too vague.

"The al-Qaida still exists, they still hate America and any other country which loves freedom and they want to hurt us," Bush said. "They're nothing but a bunch of cold-blooded killers."

Bush said that if the government got a specific threat, "we would have used our assets to harden" the target.

Independent panel

Top congressional Democrats including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle on Tuesday repeated calls for an independent commission, saying it would be better suited than Congress for an inquiry.

House Republicans lashed out, calling the commission idea irresponsible, saying it would lead to public release of information that could help terrorists.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said terrorists are sure to obtain chemical, biological or nuclear weapons through their links with countries trying to develop them. He mentioned Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and North Korea as possible sources.

"Just facing the facts, we have to recognize that terrorist networks have relationships with terrorist states that have weapons of mass destruction and that they inevitably are going to get their hands on them, and they would not hesitate one minute in using them," Rumsfeld said.

Tuesday's warnings were the third in as many days from the Bush administration as the White House sought to head off calls for an independent commission to investigate intelligence failures before Sept. 11.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the intensifying rhetoric was the result of increased terrorist "chatter" detected by investigators and the controversy last week over the revelation that Bush learned in August that Osama bin Laden wanted to hijack U.S. airplanes.

The administration showed the Senate Judiciary Committee members portions of a July memo from Phoenix FBI agent Kenneth Williams -- who met the panel in closed session along with FBI Director Robert Mueller.

Committee members were not permitted to take copies out of the secure room.

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