WASHINGTON – Attorney General John Ashcroft was urged in May 2001 by his top security experts not to fly aboard commercial aircraft because of personal threats on his life, not out of fears about terrorist hijackings, the Justice Department said Thursday.
The department moved quickly to quell suggestions that Ashcroft, who routinely flies aboard a small jet operated by the FBI, took precautions for his own safety in the months before Sept. 11 based on warnings of any threats involving Usama bin Laden or the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
"It was completely unrelated to this," Justice spokesman Mark Corallo said, referring to what the White House described as general information conveyed to President Bush in August that bin Laden's group might be planning to hijack planes.
Ashcroft declined to discuss the issue while visiting Thursday with Bulgarian justice officials in his office. Ashcroft walked from the room without comment when a reporter asked about it.
The Justice Department said Ashcroft's travel patterns did not change after the White House learned of possible hijacking threats by Al Qaeda.
An FBI security review after Ashcroft took office recommended that the attorney general eschew flying on commercial planes whenever possible, citing nonspecific threats against Ashcroft's life. The earliest threat assessment from the FBI was presented May 8 to Ashcroft that recommended against flying commercial, and a follow-up assessment was made to Ashcroft on June 19.
Since July 2001, Ashcroft has typically flown aboard an FBI jet or aboard other jets leased by U.S. agencies, although he occasionally has traveled on commercial flights, such as during a recent trip to Trinidad, Corallo said.