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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bush Knew of Hijacking Threat

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President George W. Bush was told a month before Sept. 11 that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network might hijack American airplanes, the White House acknowledged as the U.S. Congress studies whether the government failed to heed warning signs.

U.S. law enforcement agencies were quietly put on alert, but officials said the president and U.S. intelligence did not know that suicide hijackers were plotting to use planes as missiles, as they did against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"There has been longstanding speculation, shared with the president, about the potential of hijackings in the traditional sense," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Wednesday night. "We had general threats involving Osama bin Laden around the world and including in the United States."

He said the administration, acting on the information received in early August, notified the "appropriate agencies" that hijackings "in the traditional sense" were possible. The warning was never made public, he said.

The development comes as congressional investigators intensify their study of whether the government failed to adequately respond to warnings before Sept. 11. It is the first direct link between Bush and intelligence gathered before Sept. 11 about the attacks.

Republican Senator Richard Shelby, vice chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, said Thursday that the panel had received the news that the president was made aware of the potential for hijackings of U.S. planes during one or more routine intelligence briefings last summer.

The CIA would not confirm what it told Bush, but the agency said the issue of bin Laden attempting an airline hijacking was among a number of terrorist methods raised with U.S. government officials at the time.

But there was no information that suggested hijackers would crash planes into U.S. landmarks and there was no mention of a date, a CIA official said.

"I will tell you there was, of course, a general awareness of Osama bin Laden and threats around the world, including the United States; and if you recall, last summer we publicly alerted and gave a warning about potential threats on the Arabian peninsula," Fleischer said.

But he said Bush never had been told about the potential for suicide hijackers steering the planes toward U.S targets.

Earlier this month it was reported that FBI headquarters did not act on a memo last July from its Phoenix, Arizona office warning there were a large number of Arabs seeking pilot, security and airport operations training in at least one U.S. flight school and which urged a check of all flight schools to identify more possible Middle Eastern students.

A section of that classified memo also makes a passing reference to bin Laden, speculating that al-Qaida and other such groups could organize such flight training, officials said.

Democrat Senator Bob Graham, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, said the disclosures were important for congress' investigation into why the FBI, CIA and other U.S. agencies failed to learn of and prevent the Sept. 11 plot.

"How in the world could somebody have read this document and not had lights, firecrackers, rockets go off in their head that this is something that is really important?" Graham said of the Phoenix memo.