Bush offers plot details as criticism increases

Posted in Other | 10-Feb-06 | Author: Brian Knowlton and David Stout| Source: International Herald Tribune

US President George W. Bush speaks about the 'War on Terrorism' at the National Guard Memorial Building in Washington, DC.
WASHINGTON President George W. Bush defended his anti-terrorist policies anew Thursday, asserting that the United States, with important help from four Asian allies, had foiled a 2002 terrorist plot meant to bring down a Los Angeles building that is the tallest in the western United States.

Bush revealed new details of a plot, whose broad outlines had been known, at a time when his administration is under fire for its secret surveillance program. He said that just a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, terrorists planned to hijack an airplane by using "shoe bombs" to breach the cockpit door.

His homeland security adviser, Frances Townsend, later told reporters that the plot was meant to be part of the Sept. 11 attacks, but that Al Qaeda could not train enough agents in time.

The target of the West Coast plot was the U.S. Bank Tower, formerly known as the Library Tower, the officials said.

Osama bin Laden himself was involved in the preparations, Bush told the National Guard Association in a speech here. "Their plot was derailed in early 2002, when a Southeast Asian nation arrested a key Al Qaeda operative," he said. "Subsequent debriefings and other intelligence operations made clear the intended target and how Al Qaeda hoped to execute it."

The central planning role in this plot by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, had been known. In October, Bush mentioned the Los Angeles plan as one of 10 terror plots derailed through counterterror and intelligence efforts.

Bush said Thursday that Mohammed had recruited four Southeast Asian militants because men with Middle Eastern features were under close scrutiny. All four, Townsend said, had flown to Afghanistan to meet with Osama bin Laden and to swear loyalty to him.

Townsend said that Bush, who has often spoken of the need for secrecy concerning U.S. intelligence efforts, revealed the new details to underline the importance of timely international cooperation against terrorism and the crucial worth of information obtained from prisoners.

With Bush's secret, warrantless surveillance program under rising political pressure - including from Republicans - and the interrogation of prisoners a persistent sore point, it appeared that the administration wanted to create some political space around that program with the description of a plot that could have produced a calamity.

Townsend declined to say whether the secret surveillance of electronic communications between people in the United States and terror suspects abroad had played a role in finding the terror cell that was involved.

She said only: "We use all available sources and methods in the intelligence community, but we have to protect them, and so I'm not going to talk about what we did or did not use in this particular case."

Lawmakers have pressed administration officials to cite cases in which the secret surveillance had produced successful results, and a reporter asked Townsend whether that was a reason for the president's disclosures Thursday. She said the timing was unrelated.

The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, later told reporters that the timing of the speech was unrelated to the surveillance matter. Bush had delivered the speech "to highlight today the strong international cooperation in the war on terrorism," he said. "I would discourage you from suggesting otherwise."

Many Democrats and a growing number of Republicans in Congress have begun questioning Bush's authority to order domestic surveillance outside the special court created by a 1978 law.

On Thursday, a group of former senior U.S. officials issued a statement saying "that domestic surveillance must be undertaken in a manner that reassures American citizens that their privacy is protected and that surveillance is being conducted in a prudent and supervised manner," a carefully worded criticism of the administration's approach.

The group included the former CIA director John Deutch, the former FBI director William Sessions and John Hamre, a former deputy secretary of defense.

Townsend told reporters that authorities in four countries - she described them only as two in Southeast Asia and two in South Asia - had played critical roles in unwinding the West Coast plot.

She said it ultimately had led to the arrests of all four members of a Qaeda cell, and eventually to a key figure in Thailand, Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali. He was the alleged operations chief of the Qaeda-related terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah.

She would not say where the four had been arrested or where they were now being held.

At a time of great tension in much of the Muslim world over the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, Bush made a point of praising the governments of several Muslim countries for their cooperation against terrorism, which he said had proved vital.

"In one of the most significant developments of this war," Bush said in a 45-minute speech to the National Guard Association here, "many nations that once turned a blind eye to terror are now helping lead the fight against it." He cited Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Townsend said that while the Los Angeles plan was to involve shoe bombs, it was unclear whether the members of the cell had any ties to Richard Reid, the British Qaeda militant arrested in December 2001 while attempting to detonate a bomb hidden in his shoe during a flight from Paris to Miami. But, she said, "It was clearly the same technique."

She also said it was not known which plane or flight the plotters had planned to take - or even if their planning had gotten that far. What was clear, Townsend said, was "that these people continue to plot against us."

She added, "The American people are absolutely safer as a result of these arrests."

The Los Angeles skyscraper targeted is 1,018 feet, or 310 meters, tall and topped by a glass crown that is illuminated at night. As the tallest building west of the Mississippi River, it has some of the iconic status that attracted the Qaeda plotters to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks said in its 2004 report that Mohammed had originally envisioned an even broader assault on America, with as many as 10 hijacked aircraft flying into buildings on both coasts.