Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer (Hijack Warnings)
For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
May 16, 2002
Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
The James S. Brady Briefing Room
12:03 P.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. Let me give you a report on the President's day. Then I have a brief opening statement, and I'll be happy to take your questions. The President began this morning with his usual round of briefings. And 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 for 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 11th 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 to the way the United States deals with a terrorist threat. And I'll be happy to talk about those during the briefing.
Q 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 he gave -- a couple more -- who gave him the briefing, what agencies were warned about the threat, and what did those agencies do in response to that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Okay. Ron, as the President has said, throughout the summer, beginning in May, the President received, as I indicated, 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've talked about, vis a vis hijacking.
Q Wasn't Tenet --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the Director did not personally deliver that briefing.
Q What date?
MR. FLEISCHER: It was early August.
Q So before the arrest of Zacharias Moussaoui?
MR. FLEISCHER: Early August. I know it was the first week of August.
Ron, did you have anything else?
Q If you can get us the exact day. And then what happened with that threat? What agent -- what law enforcement or federal agencies were told about it, and what did they do in response?
Q And the threats -- just for clarification -- were related to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, right?
MR. FLEISCHER: Throughout the summer, they received numerous threat warnings, as I indicated. In fact, as the President -- let me cite you the President's words, as he described the information that was available to him. This was what the President himself said on December 20th, 2001, to The Washington Post in an interview he gave them.
"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 and notifications. It is important to note that this was non-specific threat that mentioned hijacking.
Q Well, I'm confused. Is that in response to the information that started coming on May 5th, or in response to the briefing he got the first week of August?
MR. 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 have described to you. So throughout this period, this information was conveyed to these agencies, throughout the summer period.
Q The agencies were warned before the President of the United States was?
MR. 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. That's how they can brief the President on it.
Q Anybody else besides DOT that was given a heads up?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me do this on the question of exactly how the information flowed, how it was conveyed, 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 clearer time line and she'll be able to share that with you in fuller length.
Q Just to clear up, when you say that DOT and FAA were given a warning relating to hijackers 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?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, this information was 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 11th. And their security people make the assessments they deem fit to make based on the information. 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 airplanes as missiles. The information was very generalized. And just as I read, that information -- the generalized information was conveyed.
Q The CIA also was warning about attacks against -- attacks on U.S. soil. So, in that context, raising the potential hijacking issue, why didn't 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?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think what I just read to you is that they were made aware of the information and it was passed on --
Q But they were not recommended to take increased security?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think we can get you a little more information about the exact specific nature. But when they receive 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 11th, it might as well be a different word and a different language from what we've 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 11th, where people used those airplanes as missiles and as weapons.
Q 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?
MR. 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 11th, and let --
Q But none of them used the word "hijacking," though. Vice President Cheney, when he spoke on Meet The Press on the 16th of September, said --
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, Terry, I think it's a fair point that you raise. But the simple answer is that you are using the post-September 11th knowledge of what a hijacking could be and applying it to August, prior to September 11th, and changing what was then the traditional understanding of what a hijacking represented. It was a total -- it was a total sea change.
Q These questions were asked after September 11th. These questions were asked after September 11th 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 planning hijackings.
MR. FLEISCHER: Because that information, as I indicated at the top of the briefing, that information is so generalized it did not contain any information specific to using airplanes as weapons, exactly what took place on September 11th. 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.
Q But even in hindsight -- even in hindsight, why didn't somebody come forward and say, by the way, we had information about a hijack?
MR. FLEISCHER: Steve?
Q Will the White House cooperate with any congressional investigation into these matters?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, the White House will, of course. The White House is working with the congressional committees that are investigating this matter, and we will continue to do so.
Q Will you hand over the -- any documents or information pertaining to the August briefing? Senator Shelby would like to see those.
MR. FLEISCHER: We'll continue to work with the Congress on that. Many documents have already been handed up, and we'll continue to work with them.
Q How about specifically on top secret briefing with the President? Can you imagine turning that over?
MR. FLEISCHER: We will continue to work with Congress on those matters.
Q Can you say how this story -- 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, or --
MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, I have no idea who leaks information.
Q Do you have any curiosity as to how --
MR. FLEISCHER: The story broke on the evening news last night.
Q -- the information got out?
MR. FLEISCHER: I always have curiosity about how information gets to reporters. But I don't know how it got to the reporters.
Q So you don't know where it came from?
MR. FLEISCHER: Of course not.
Q Ari, 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 that -- did new information go out to the departments, perhaps raising the level of alert?
MR. 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 that 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, that there were these series of intelligence hits over the course of the summer. And Director Tenet has talked about how there was a spike-up of information early on in the summer, and the President asked for a compilation of that information. And then it was shared with the President.
Q So was this a longer-than-usual briefing, if this was one the President specifically asked for?
MR. FLEISCHER: I was not present at the briefing. I don't know how long it lasted.
Q And who gave the briefing?
MR. FLEISCHER: His regular CIA briefer.
Q When did the White House find out about this report from the FBI agent in Phoenix about people taking aviation courses, and he was worried it could be terrorists?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know the exact date the White House heard about it. I've seen reports about it in the papers. I don't know the exact date the White House heard about it.
Q Would you say recently, or before?
MR. FLEISCHER: I just don't know the date.
Q 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 -- a heads-up, be on alert for potential hijackings?
MR. FLEISCHER: The information was provided to, as I described it, to the carriers, as a result of it being provided. And it was generalized information.
Q Are you aware of any extra security measures being taken at any American airports because of this information?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that would be idiosyncratic. As this information flows, different airports, different people do different things with the information.
Q 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?
MR. FLEISCHER: John, 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 has, as I indicated, long been a concern to the government, including this one.
Q So this information is conveyed to the President by the CIA in early August. And you say the concept then was that it was vague and general, and that the idea that this would be a traditional hijacking. Was there no discussion of the previous arrests 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 it into the CIA briefing? Any discussion about arrests in France, where people said there was a plan to fly a plane into the Eiffel Tower?
MR. 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 11th, our government learned a lot of things. There were a lot of lessons to be learned, and a lot of changes were made as we evolved from a nation at peacetime to a nation at war.
And as we became a nation at 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.
Q I understand the changes, but was there not enough threshold evidence to think of the threat of using a plane as a bomb?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the question is, how does the government connect the dots. And the answer to that question is the series of steps that the President took as a result of the lessons learned from the attack. 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 were a series of changes that we made together with the Congress.
Q Are you suggesting that before these changes there was no way to connect those dots, Ari?
MR. FLEISCHER: Goyal?
Q Ari, the Indian Prime Minister is very angry -- I'm changing the subject to India-Pakistan -- he's very angry, according to the report, that India and Pakistan border may bleed anytime. They got another bombing, bus bombing like in Israel, against innocent people, killing over 30. Now, I understand the President spoke with Prime Minister Vajpayee. If he spoke also with General Musharraf, and if he's going to give him the same word that he did to Arafat to stop terrorism, because now what they are saying, the Parliament of India and the Indian Prime Minister, that enough is enough, because he is under pressure from the public --
MR. FLEISCHER: Goyal, both the President and the Secretary of State have worked very hard directly with Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Musharraf to decrease the tension that has been longstanding in the Kashmir area.
The President did speak with the Prime Minister. I think you can -- 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.
Q Ari, you've spoken about how this is an entirely different world since September 11th. In this post-September 11th world, would this warning generate a different response?
MR. FLEISCHER: You know, Mark, 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 and does it get shared, or not? And that is 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 11th, 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.
Q But you're aware of what was briefed to the President in August. Why can't you say that --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, as I indicated, this is generalized information about potential hijackings.
Q Ari, 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.
MR. FLEISCHER: Correct.
Q But something you just said before made me think that perhaps this was a broader briefing on the compilation of everything that we knew about the --
MR. FLEISCHER: David, the President typically asks for information to be used for followed on for follow-up briefings.
Q So when this piece of information --
MR. 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 to 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.
Q 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 --
MR. 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.
Q I'm not sure you've fully responded to 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 --
MR. FLEISCHER: Oh, I assure you -- no, I assure you there was additional information in there, most of it dealing with threats abroad.
Q That were Osama related?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes.
Q Okay. And the second and related question to this is, we have previously, if I had understood it, been led to believe that there had been concern about Osama bin Laden and action in the United States through July 4th, 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 brief? Was it based on new --
MR. FLEISCHER: I think Dr. Rice will be in a fuller position to answer that.
Q Just to put a finer point on Jacobo's question, the FBI warning out of Phoenix, do you know if the President got that at all, or if he would have heard about that before --
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, Jacobo asked me that question. I indicated I don't have the answer to that.
Q You were asked this morning about that question. Can you get us an answer to that question?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm working on it. I just don't have it right now.
Q 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 11th attacks might occur?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me do this for you. Let me try to get to the nub of the matter, which as you're asking, did the President or did anybody in the administration have information that could have prevented the attacks, based on intelligence.
Q I'm not asking if they could have prevented the attacks. I'm asking if there's any other information --
MR. FLEISCHER: About -- let me answer your question.
Q -- that could have indicated that the attacks were on the way, that we don't know about?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me answer your question. And I want to refer you to an April 11th 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. And he said the following:
"We had very, very good intelligence on the general structure and strategies of the al Qaeda terrorist 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. And as a reality of the difficult and often frustrating fight against terror, the terror 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, when 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 -- had 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, the 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 have prevented the horrendous slaughter that took place on the 11th."
So the answer, again, as you will 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 specific than that? The answer is, we had that generalized information, Keith.
Q I want to get back a little bit to John King's question about thinking of a pre-September 11th version of a hijacking versus a post-September 11th. We know -- we knew publicly about the information that had been gathered in the Philippines, 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 the 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'm just -- I 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 here.
MR. FLEISCHER: As you cite, Lebanon, Paris, Cole, all these operations took place --
Q And the Philippines --
MR. FLEISCHER: 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.
Q Was the White House put on tactical alert?
Q Ari, can you say whether the President 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.
MR. 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 would 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.
Q 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 -- U.S.-based targets?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, 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 11th. And that's one of the reasons we had so much information of that general sense developed about Osama bin Laden, in our work with the Northern Alliance, for example. So a lot of that was developed, and led to the successful prosecution of the war.
Q So that was a reasonable thought, that U.S. --
MR. FLEISCHER: Listen, 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.
Q So the President --
MR. FLEISCHER: Jim?
Q Ari, were 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 the possibility of hijackings?
MR. 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.
Q On more than one occasion last summer?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct. That's correct.
Q 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.
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I indicated, we'll provide the exact chronology, but much of this took place as a result of May, earlier than August -- the May reporting indicated the threats. But again, all of this is in 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.
Q I'm just trying to determine -- there's a sense that suddenly the U.S. got new information in August that there were hijackings -- 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?
MR. FLEISCHER: Jim, I think the airlines have long known, for decades, that Muslim terrorists seeked to hijack United States airplanes. That is not news, that is not a surprise, that is longstanding. And as we developed generalized information it was shared with the airline industry, with the carriers, and that's the facts about what took place.
Q Could I just ask one more thing -- did the President ask, or was that information shared with the Senate or House Intelligence Committees?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me refer you to the words of 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.
Q Ari, the carriers last night told us --
Q I think he called on me.
Ari, did the President personally issue any orders or call for any action based on what he heard in August?
MR. 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. I think what you can look at August as --
Q At any point in this timeline --
MR. FLEISCHER: -- August was a summary of the earlier data that had been provided. The actions that were taken took place throughout the summer.
Q At any point in this May to August timeline, did the President personally issue any orders calling for any actions by people under him?
MR. 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 me 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.
Q Is he satisfied with the leadership of the intelligence agencies?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, he is.
Q Can I just follow?
Q Does he think anything was mishandled?
MR. FLEISCHER: Bob?
Q Ari -- and you're calling on me this time, right? I just don't want to set anybody off.
MR. FLEISCHER: Mr. Kemper.
Q But let me ask you, the carriers last night, United and American, told us that they had not been told by the FAA or by the government that there was a threat. Are you sure that the FAA talked to them?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, 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 the information, which was generalized.
Q 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?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me read you the statement again. So, 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 hijacking." And that's what we're dealing with here.
Q Can I follow on that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, sir.
Q Did that series of notifications expressly include a so-called NOTAM, or notice to air personnel, pilots, that there was a heightened -- did this go through the corporate channels of these airlines, or did it go to operations, or did it go to front office --
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me see if we can't get you an answer to the exact NOTAM -- I'm not familiar with the acronyms.
Q Ari, is there any sense in the White House that congressional Democrats may be pursuing this issue for political advantage? (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me just say -- let me just say that one of the things this President has done since September 11th 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, 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 11th especially.
Go ahead. We're going to people who have not had questions.
Q Ari, was the early August briefing the first one where the President received a warning about the word "hijacking"?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me -- 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 that, while Dr. Rice, of course, will not be able to describe every piece of classified information, she will 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 it shared with the American people. These are legitimate questions, and the fact of the matter is I 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" there than I think people first thought.
Q Ari, 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.
Q Careful, you're being set up. (Laughter.)
Q -- so 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, Ari?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President has made an announcement about who will be attending in East Timor, and that list is public.
Q 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?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, Les, I have no information for you on that.
Q Ari, 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?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I will let Dr. Rice speak about everything in the briefing. But the events of September 11th changed everything.
So -- John?
Q Ari, following on John and Terry's questions, which seem 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?
MR. FLEISCHER: Director Mueller is the first to say that the FBI has changed, and as a result of, now, an emphasis on more fusion and more synthesis, as he put it, and an ability to make certain that all information is shared in a centralized place, the FBI -- which 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. The mission now is focused much more on prevention of new attacks. And thanks to the Congress for giving the FBI more tools to do it, which they did not have prior to September 11th.
Q I understand that, but are you suggesting that prior to these changes they did not have the ability to connect the dots that were out there, that John mentioned?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the FBI Director has said that they've made changes to make it easier for the purpose of fusion and synthesis of information.
Q Just on Terry's 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 11th 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?
MR. FLEISCHER: John, I think the reason that people reached the conclusion Osama bin Laden did this was because there was abundance of information, public, from Osama bin Laden and other places, about bin Laden to do this. 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.
Q I fully understand that. But I'm just interested as to why the Vice President, you, the President -- nobody said, when asked after September 11th, was there any inkling that something like this might happen, none of them pointed to this briefing in early August.
MR. FLEISCHER: The reason for that is very simple --
Q And regardless of whether we're looking at this through a post-9/11 prism or not.
MR. FLEISCHER: But that does change everything, John. I think it's fair to say that if I had 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 --
Q If you said it was Osama bin Laden, I would beg to differ with you on that.
MR. FLEISCHER: The nature of the information about traditional hijackings prior to September 11th 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, which was not foreseen.
Q Ari, 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 11th?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I have no information suggesting that was the case, Terry. I don't think that's the case at all.
Q Okay. And then, just let me make sure, this "chatter", as you described it, that 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, and put it all together, what is the nature of the threat? And that was the August briefing, when someone said to him that part of this is they want to hijack airplanes?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct. That was one of the many pieces of information, most of which focused on events abroad.
I'll take one or two more, then I've got to leave with the President to get up to the Hill. Mike?
Q Ari, if I may rephrase John's question, why was the information that was provided last night not provided sometime in the previous eight months?
MR. 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.
Q But, Ari, the question was asked after 9/11.
Q -- "August briefing" or "hijacking" in that interview.
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the President described the generalized nature of the information. And the information we had prior to 9/11 was generalized.
Q But let me follow --
MR. FLEISCHER: John, and then Ron, and then I'm going to go.
Q Let me try this one more time. So if the hijackers on September 11th had 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?
MR. FLEISCHER: John, unfortunately, the threat of hijacking is not new. What was new was the manner in which this was done post -- on September 11th.
Q That's not the question here. Why did nobody mention -- 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?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because the hijacking information was so general it did not include any information about the use of airplanes --
Q A hijacking --
MR. FLEISCHER: -- about the use of airplanes as they were done on September 11th.
Ron? Last question.
Q Well, Ari, I'm still having a hard time understanding why, in the post-9/11 environment that we were in every day after 9/11, throughout that period, that you, the President, your allies made a very detailed case against Osama bin Laden to build up the rationale for going to war against the Taliban in Afghanistan -- why, in building that case, it was never mentioned, oh, and one more piece of evidence is we knew in August there was a threat that they wanted to hijack our airplanes?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because of the value attached to that information about hijackings was not the value attached to what we all know now about September 11th. As the Deputy Director --
Q You were putting out every little piece --
MR. FLEISCHER: -- of the CIA indicated --
Q -- putting out every other piece of information --
MR. FLEISCHER: -- the nature of the information we had was not specific enough to lend to that conclusion.
I've got to go. Thank you.
Q Ari, what time is the briefing?
MR. FLEISCHER: We'll let you know. We'll announce the time.
END 12:42 P.M. EDT