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Some Doubt Seriousness Of Terror Scheme Described By Bush
Several U.S. intelligence officials are playing down the relative importance of an alleged al-Qaida plot to strike the West Coast after Sept. 11, 2001, cited by President Bush Thursday in defense of his campaign against terrorism.
Bush, under pressure from Congress, offered for the first time a vivid account of what he said was the foiled plot to crash 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. But Asian authorities captured the four first, he said.
The intelligence officials, who declined to be identified because they did not want to criticize the White House publicly, said there is deep disagreement within the intelligence community over the seriousness of the scheme to attack the 73-story building and whether it was ever much more than talk.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist with the Rand Corp., said Bush's account still leaves key questions unanswered.
"It doesn't really give us any more indication of whether this was a plot that was derailed or pre-empted, or a plot that was more in the realm of an idle daydream," Hoffman said.
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."
In his speech, Bush cited the episode as an example of international cooperation against terrorism and argued against complacency. "We cannot let the fact that America hasn't been attacked in 4½ years since September 11, 2001, lull us into the illusion that the threats to our nation have disappeared. They have not," he said.
The reported West Coast plot has 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. Aides said his comments were not related to the dispute over the program, but the intelligence officials attributed to timing to politics.
Bush, in his speech at the National Guard Memorial Building, said Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the reputed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, began planning the West Coast operation in October 2001. One of Mohammed's key planners was a man known as Hambali, the alleged operations chief of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, which is affiliated with al-Qaida.
The alleged target has since been renamed the US Bank Tower.
The president said the plot was derailed when a Southeast Asian nation arrested a key al-Qaida operative.
Townsend said it was not clear whether there was any connection between the plot and shoe bomber Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight in December 2001.
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