Bush opposes independent commission to investigate pre-Sept. 11 terror warnings

Thursday, May 23rd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BERLIN (AP) _ President Bush wants congressional intelligence committee members, not a special commission, to investigate how the government dealt with terror warnings before Sept. 11, saying the lawmakers know the importance of keeping the nation's secrets.

The Senate and House intelligence committees ``understand the obligations of upholding our secrets and our sources and methods of collecting intelligence,'' Bush said Thursday. ``Therefore, I think that's the best place for Congress to take a good look at the events leading up to Sept. 11.''

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and others, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have called for a special commission to conduct the investigation, along with the intelligence committees, which have already begun their own joint inquiry. McCain said Thursday he hoped the Senate would vote on the special commission shortly after next week's Memorial Day recess.

During a news conference with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on the first stop of a four-nation European trip, Bush also expressed reservations about releasing a memo he received last August that carried a warning that Islamic extremists might try to hijack an airliner.

``We're still at war,'' the president said. ``We've still got threats to the homeland that we've got to deal with, and it's very important for us not to hamper our ability to wage that war.'' He said it is important to act in a manner that does not jeopardize intelligence-gathering.

Recent revelations about advance intelligence that terrorists might hijack an airplane have not shaken Bush's faith in the CIA and FBI. He said he still has ``great confidence'' in both.

But new information about how the FBI handled possible warnings fueled more controversy Thursday.

The FBI has requested an internal investigation into an agent's allegations that the agency's headquarters hampered the pre-Sept. 11 terrorism investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui, officials said.

Moussaoui is a suspected terrorist and is the only person charged with the attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, ravaged the Pentagon and killed more than 3,000 people.

Agent Coleen Rowley, who works as a lawyer in the Minnesota office that arrested Moussaoui last August, made the allegations in a letter Tuesday to FBI Director Robert Mueller and members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, officials said.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said Thursday he hopes Bush can be persuaded an independent commission ``is the right thing to do.''

``We will do nothing but gain from having an independent commission ... get the facts out on the table for the American people so that we can all do better the next time something like this happens,'' Gephardt said at a news conference. ``This is a bipartisan idea.''

Bush's remarks came a day after Vice President Dick Cheney said a new series of public terror warnings was based on increased threats and was not a political strategy to deflect criticism of the administration's handling of pre-Sept. 11 intelligence.

A senior White House official said Thursday that the White House, within days of the Sept. 11 attacks, asked the FBI and other intelligence agencies for threats by al-Qaida that should have been reported but had not been.

The request did not turn up the July 2001 memo by FBI agent Kenneth Williams in Phoenix, Ariz., that connected several students at Arizona aviation schools to a militant Muslim group whose founder talked of attacking airports and who received a letter from Osama bin Laden encouraging the downing of commercial airliners. Williams had asked for checks of aviation schools around the country.

Later, in an attempt to head off a second attack, the White House request was updated for any threats 18 months prior to the Sept. 11, the White House official said.

FBI Director Robert Mueller was briefing senators behind closed doors Thursday.

Meanwhile, authorities continued to tighten security around New York City landmarks after the FBI disclosed uncorroborated information from detainees that sites such as the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge might be attacked.

They canceled a 119th birthday celebration for the Brooklyn Bridge because of the threat.

Cheney also said having an independent commission in addition to the congressional inquiry would ``just multiply potential sources of leaks and disclosures of information we can't disclose.''

Daschle questioned the administration's motive for resisting the commission and said the administration has shown ``an unwillingness to share information _ not only with us but within their own administration; one department not telling the other, people in positions of responsibility not telling the president.''