By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Members of Congress raised questions on Thursday as to whether the Bush administration should have reacted better to warnings in August that Osama bin Laden's followers might hijack U.S. passenger planes.
North Carolina Democratic Sen. John Edwards said on ABC's "Good Morning America" there were three "enormous red flags" that should have sent alarm bells ringing.
Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was troubled that the White House waited eight months to make the disclosure.
"There was a lot of information. I believe and others believe if it had been acted upon properly we may have had a different situation on Sept. 11, we don't know that," he said on NBC's "Today" show.
The White House revealed on Wednesday night that President Bush was briefed on U.S. intelligence in August, while at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, that bin Laden's network might hijack U.S. passenger planes.
But the White House insisted Bush received no information to suggest that bin Laden's al Qaeda network planned to use airplanes as missiles as they did to attack the Pentagon and destroy the World Trade Center. "Until the attack took place, I think it's fair to say that no one envisioned that as a possibility," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday.
The disclosure came amid questions about whether U.S. authorities failed to recognize and respond to warnings about possible terrorist attacks before the hijackings of the four passenger planes on Sept. 11.
Members of Congress were asking some tough questions, pointing to three pre-Sept. 11 warning signs: the U.S. intelligence Bush received, the fact that an FBI agent had written a memo urging FBI headquarters to investigate Middle Eastern men enrolled in American flight schools, and the arrest in Minnesota of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was believed to be training for a suicide hijacking.
"We've got terrorists connected to al Qaeda out in Arizona engaging in flight training, we've got Moussaoui arrested and being interrogated in Minnesota, we've got the president being briefed while he was on vacation in Texas about the possibility of these airplanes being hijacked. I mean, was anything done about any of those things?" Edwards said.
He called on the administration to help Congress investigate what happened, saying there has been some tension from the White House over starting a probe.
"A LOT OF QUESTIONS"
"We still have a lot of questions to ask and there has been some resistance to starting the investigation. Certainly immediately after Sept. 11 that made sense but we're clearly at the place now, we need to get to the bottom of this," he said.
Shelby said: "Does the FBI know what's going on in its own shop? Obviously not."
"We're not looking to cast blame. We're looking at ways to improve our intelligence and the sharing of intelligence to provide security for the American public," he said.
Bush made no immediate comment on the situation.
He attended a National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast in Washington and said prayer has helped Americans of faith to get through the last eight months.
"The last eight months have showed the world the American character is incredibly strong and confident. Yet, prayer reminds us that a great people must be humble before God, searching for wisdom -- constantly searching for wisdom from the Almighty," he said.
Washington accuses bin Laden's al Qaeda network of masterminding the attacks, which killed more than 3,000 people.
"There's been a long-standing awareness in the intelligence community, shared with the president, about the potential for bin Laden to have hijackings," Fleischer said. "The information the president got dealt with hijackings in the traditional sense -- not suicide bombers, not using planes as missiles."
After the information was presented to Bush, the administration put domestic agencies on alert in the summer, just months before the Sept. 11 attacks, Fleischer said.
That alert was not announced publicly but Fleischer said it may have prompted the hijackers to change their tactics.