WASHINGTON – Under pressure from Democrats, the Bush administration is giving a glimpse of pre-Sept. 11 intelligence documents that are likely to be the focus of a congressional post-mortem on the terror attacks.
The administration on Tuesday, marking a shift from previous refusals, showed members of the Senate Judiciary Committee portions of a July 10, 2001, memo to FBI headquarters from a Phoenix FBI agent who had warned of Arabs attending U.S. flight schools.
Discovery of the memo, which didn't quickly catch the attention of top FBI officials, and last week's revelation that President Bush was told before Sept. 11 of possible hijackings by Osama bin Laden's terrorists have sparked new scrutiny of the administration's handling of threats.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., on Tuesday joined other Democrats have who called for a special commission to investigate how the government might have missed or failed to act on warnings.
``The time has come for us to do what they did after the invasion of Pearl Harbor, do what they did with the assassination of President Kennedy ... to ensure that we get all the facts,'' Daschle said.
The Bush administration opposes a special commission and has said it is cooperating with a joint investigation by the House and Senate intelligence committees. Bush officials say an independent inquiry would tie up too many officials involved in fighting terrorism and could lead to release of classified information.
The White House got some backing on the House floor on Tuesday.
``If we have a public commission, all of it will be right there for our enemies to see,'' said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M. ``Stay together, stay focused on the enemy, and stop pointing fingers at each other. This is exactly the wrong time to tear apart .... and start pointing fingers at each other.''
Meanwhile, the administration continued to warn of impending terror threats.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said terrorists inevitably will acquire weapons of mass destruction from countries like Iraq, Iran or North Korea. And Secretary of State Colin Powell warned: ``Terrorists are trying every way they can'' to get nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
Authorities tightened security around New York City landmarks after the FBI warned of uncorroborated information from detainees that sites such as the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge might be attacked.
Still, the White House said it was not raising the nationwide terrorism alert status because intelligence on possible attacks was too vague. In an interview with Italy's RAI television, Bush echoed the general warnings given by administration officials in recent days.
``The al-Qaida still exists, they still hate America and any other country which loves freedom and they want to hurt us,'' Bush said. ``They're nothing but a bunch of cold-blooded killers.''
Bush, who was beginning a four-nation European tour on Wednesday, also warned that U.S. allies could face terror attacks. In an address to the German Parliament on Thursday, he plans to emphasize the need for continued cooperation among nations in the anti-terror fight.
``I know America can't win the war on terror alone,'' he told the German TV station ARD on Tuesday.
Behind all of the warnings was the continuing criticism over the FBI memo about Arab students at an Arizona flight school.
Agent Kenneth Williams, the memo's author, testified behind closed doors Tuesday to lawmakers looking into what the government knew about terrorist threats before Sept. 11.
He said he hoped his memo would lead to future screening of Middle Easterners who came to study U.S. airport operations, according to government officials familiar with his account.
In the memo, Williams had urged FBI headquarters in Washington to canvass flight schools across the country to identify other possible Arab students. But FBI middle managers decided late last summer to set Williams' plan aside because his memo was based on information they considered speculative and they had more pressing counterterrorism work under way, such as the investigation into the bombing of USS Cole in Yemen, said a government official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush was not upset that news of the memo did not reach him before Sept. 11.
``Those are the judgments that the professionals make in the law enforcement community and ... the intelligence community,'' Fleischer said.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., related that FBI Director Robert Mueller said he saw the memo shortly after Sept. 11 but still could not explain why it didn't quickly catch the attention of top bureau officials.
Attorney General John Ashcroft learned of the general topic of the Phoenix memo in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks but was not briefed extensively on the memo until several weeks ago, a Justice Department official said.
Ashcroft met for nearly an hour Tuesday with the four lawmakers heading the congressional investigation of the events leading up to Sept. 11 and pledged to cooperate with the inquiry, they said.