WASHINGTON – Accusing critics of politicizing the attacks of Sept. 11, President Bush said Friday that he would never do anything knowingly to hurt his country.
"What is interesting about Washington is that it's a town where unfortunately second guessing has become second nature," the president said during an address to celebrate the Air Force football team on Armed Forces Day. "The American people know this about me, my national security team and my administration. Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to kill on that fateful morning, I would have done everything in my power to protect the American people."
His comments came as the White House acknowledged that it was putting together a plan to topple terrorist leader Usama bin Laden in the weeks before Sept. 11, but it was not completed until after the terror attacks.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the review recommended dismantling bin Laden's network "through what you saw put into place frankly, rather quickly in our operations in Afghanistan –through work with the Northern Alliance to dismantle Al Qaeda and the Taliban."
But he added that the review, conducted by the National Security Council, had not been shared with the president by time of the attacks.
The action plan was part of a follow-up to an existing report that dated back exactly two years before the Sept. 11 attacks. The report, written during the Clinton administration, cautioned the executive branch that bin Laden's terrorists might hijack an airliner and dive bomb it into the Pentagon or other government building.
The report, entitled the "Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why?," described the suicide hijacking as one of several possible retribution attacks Al Qaeda might seek for the 1998 U.S. airstrike against bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan. It was not immediately known what action, if any, had been taken by the Clinton administration in response to the report.
Former President Clinton emphasized Friday that the 1999 document was not an intelligence report, as it was not issued by the FBI or CIA and relied on information available to everyone.
"All that says is they used public sources to speculate on what bin Laden might do," Clinton said. "That was a report by a congressional research service and the Library of Congress using public information and it basically says he's a dangerous guy that might do a lot of things.".
"That's why I did everything I could to get bin Laden, because I thought he was a dangerous man," he said. "And as we've seen, he is."
To read the report, click here.
The finger-pointing had reached peak partisanship Thursday, when congressional Democrats accused the White House of not acting on information it may have had that an attack was imminent in the days before Sept. 11.
Vice President Dick Cheney Thursday night warned Democrats not to assail the White House for withholding analytical briefings about a general threat of hijackings.
Democrats should not "seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions," Cheney said, "that the White House had advance information that would have prevented the tragic attacks of 9-11.
"Such commentary is thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war," he added in his speech, given at the New York state Conservative Party's annual dinner.
Cheney said the White House would be willing to participate in an inquiry that it had originally rebuffed in favor of a House-Senate intelligence panel review of intelligence failures. The intelligence committee's findings led to reports Wednesday night that more than a month before the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush was told that Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network might try to hijack domestic jetliners. That prompted the administration to issue a private warning to federal agencies.
On Friday, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., continued calls for a full accounting by the administration of the days before Sept. 11, and fended off criticism that he and other Democrats were trying to politicize the tragedy.
"Our nation is not well served when the charge of 'partisan politics' is leveled at those who simply seek information that the American people need and deserve to know," he said in a written statement. "This is not about placing blame or assigning motives to people. This is about working together as a team and trying to do better in the future."
Capitol Hill was buzzing Thursday with calls for an investigation to find out, to use a Watergate-era expression, what the White House team knew and when they knew it.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle led the charge, saying, "additional examination of the facts in broader forms" is needed to determine whether the Bush administration failed to adequately protect the public from the Sept. 11 attacks. The Senate and House intelligence panels are conducting a coordinated investigation now.
"Why did it take eight months for us to receive this information? And what specific actions were taken by the White House in response?" Daschle, D-S.D., said. "I'm not going to jump to any conclusions, but it's hard to understand why the information was not released."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said he may attach an amendment to a defense-spending bill near completion that would call for an independent investigation of the administration's handling of FBI information.
On Friday, Fleischer said that the administration would be willing to participate in an investigation if it is not conducted in a circus ring, something the administration tried to avoid when Congress first began an investigation of intelligence failures in the days following Sept. 11.
"We've made it clear that we support investigation, so long as it's done by the responsible people, and done in manner that would be – allow for the experts to have access to the information," he said. "We always work with Congress, and we continue to work with Congress on what they are working on. And the method that the Congress has set up right now we believe is the appropriate method, and we're working very well with them. I think it's fair to say Congress doesn't know how it feels about all these matters. Congress is still grappling with it. There are difference of opinions in the Congress."
He also asked how Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill went unaware of the information in the president's briefing, which the intelligence panels receive in a similar fashion.
"The question is 'What did the Democrats know and why didn't they talk to each other?'" Fleischer said.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, acknowledged that his committee had been given a "summary of a summary of a summary" given to the president, but pointed out that none of the material constituted a "general warning."
Democratic and Republican sources said it would be inaccurate to characterize the "innocuous" information as a "warning," calling it consistent with the intelligence assessments that are provided to the Hill on a daily basis.
Though Congress had also been in recess during the August period when the briefings were made, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, appearing on Fox News Thursday, said the intelligence panel had been kept in the loop.
"There's no question that the intelligence committee of the Congress and the administration had reason to suspect that hijackings were a possibility," Lott, R-Miss., said. "I don't think anyone knew that they would possibly be used as a missile into a high-rise building."
On Friday, Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said that Daschle and Gephardt "owe the president an immediate apology" for suggesting the president failed to act on intelligence of a hijacking.
"Some Democrats have recklessly charged that President Bush somehow could have divined from general, non-specific intelligence information that the Sept. 11 attacks were coming. That charge is as irresponsible as it is baseless. It is amazing how sharp some Democrats' eyesight becomes in hindsight," he said.
On Thursday, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters that the Aug. 6 intelligence briefing to the president while he vacationed at his Texas ranch was the most generalized type of "analytic report" and not a "warning" of imminent attack.
"There was no time, there was no place, there was no method of attack," she said. "Steps were taken. And I'm sure security steps were taken. But you have to realize that when you're dealing with something this general, there's a limit to the amount that you can do."
Rice said the details were so vague about possible hijackings that the administration didn't want to shut down the national aviation system with an alert.
The White House says Bush was informed in August that a large number of Arabs were seeking pilot, security and airport operations training in at least one U.S. flight school. The appropriate agencies were given the information and urged to identify more possible Middle Eastern students at flight schools around the country.
The information also included details about Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker, who was in custody at the time of the attacks. Moussaoui, the lone defendant in the aftermath of the attacks, is charged with conspiring with bin Laden and the 19 suicide hijackers to attack Americans.
Within the case notes of an FBI agent who investigated Moussaoui is the speculation that "he might be planning to fly a plane into the [World Trade Center.]"
Fox News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.