By Peter Baker and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 10, 2006
President Bush, under pressure from Congress, defended his campaign against terrorism yesterday, offering for the first time a vivid account of a foiled al Qaeda plotto strike the United States after Sept. 11, 2001, by crashing a hijacked commercial airliner into a Los Angeles skyscraper.
Bush said four Southeast Asians who met with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in October 2001 were taught how to use shoe bombs to blow open a cockpit door and steer a plane into the Library Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast. The four were captured by Asian authorities before they could execute the plan, he said.
Declaring that "America remains at risk," Bush cited the episode as an example of international cooperation against terrorism, and cautioned against complacency. "We cannot let the fact that America hasn't been attacked in four and a half years since September 11, 2001, lull us into the illusion that the threats to our nation have disappeared. They have not."
The reported West Coast plot had been disclosed before but never in as much detail. The president's speech came on the same day as a Senate hearing into the Bush-ordered warrantless surveillance of telephone calls and e-mail by Americans and their contacts overseas, but aides said his comments were not related to the dispute over the program.
White House officials, who were unwilling to publicly disclose details of the alleged plot as recently as last fall, said they decided in the past three weeks to declassify the case so that Bush could have an example to provide the public.
But several U.S. intelligence officials played down the relative importance of the alleged plot and attributed the timing of Bush's speech to politics. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to publicly criticize the White House, said there is deep disagreement within the intelligence community over the seriousness of the Library Tower scheme and whether it was ever much more than talk.
One intelligence official said nothing has changed to precipitate the release of more information on the case. The official attributed the move to the administration's desire to justify its efforts in the face of criticism of the domestic surveillance program, which has no connection to the incident.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist who heads the Washington office of Rand Corp., said Bush's account adds some interesting detail to the Library Tower episode. But he said it still leaves key questions about the case unanswered.
"It doesn't really give us any more indication of whether this was a plot that was derailed or preempted, or a plot that was more in the realm of an idle daydream," Hoffman said.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, mocked the idea of raising the alleged Library Tower plot. "Maybe they're tired of talking about [the] Brooklyn Bridge and they're trying to find a different edifice of some sort," he said, referring to another alleged terrorist plot that some have said was inflated by the government.
But Frances Fragos Townsend, the president's chief counterterrorism adviser, told reporters that "there is no question in my mind that this is a disruption. It's not about credit; it's about protecting the American people. And the American people are absolutely safer as a result of these arrests."
Bush first alluded to the incident in a speech in October when he said the United States and its allies had thwarted 10 serious planned al Qaeda attacks since Sept. 11, 2001. A White House list released at the time referred to a plotto fly a hijacked plane into an unspecified West Coast city in 2002. Citing unnamed sources, news organizations reported that the target was the Library Tower, since renamed the U.S. Bank Tower, and that the plot's author was Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks who was captured in 2003.
Mohammed's original plan for Sept. 11, as presented to bin Laden in 1998 or 1999, called for hijacking 10 jetliners on both coasts, according to interrogations of Mohammed cited by the commission that investigated the 2001 attacks. U.S. officials concluded that bin Laden had instructed Mohammed to initially focus on the East Coast because it was too difficult to recruit enough operatives to seize 10 planes. After the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were knocked down, Mohammed set about putting his West Coast plan in motion.
Speaking at the National Guard Memorial Building yesterday, Bush offered a fuller account of what ensued, and the White House later provided a briefing to elaborate. In this account, Mohammed deputized Hambali, head of the affiliated Southeast Asian group Jemaah Islamiya, to set up a West Coast attack, and they put together a four-man cell. Asians were chosen, Bush said, on the theory that they would draw less suspicion.
The four Asians traveled to Afghanistan to meet with bin Laden in October 2001 just as U.S. forces were hunting al Qaeda, officials said. After swearing loyalty to the al Qaeda leader, the four reportedly returned to Asia to train in the use of shoe bombs like those later found on Richard Reid, who was convicted of trying to take down an airliner over the Atlantic in December 2001.
But the cell leader was captured by authorities in a Southeast Asian country in February 2002, and the three others were later detained, as well. The officials said four Asian countries were involved but would not identify them.
Bush mistakenly identified the target as the "Liberty Tower," and aides later corrected him.
"As the West Coast plot shows," Bush said, "in the war on terror, we face a relentless and determined enemy that operates in many nations, so protecting our citizens requires unprecedented cooperation from many nations."