WASHINGTON, May 16 (UPI) -- Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Thursday he was "gravely concerned" that President George W. Bush was apparently warned in an August 2001 briefing of possible airline hijackings by Osama bin Laden's organization because since Sept. 11, the White House gave lawmakers and the public the impression the attacks were a complete surprise.
"It clearly raises some important questions that have to be asked and have to be answered," Daschle said.
Daschle called on the White House "today" to release documents and a transcript of that briefing and release the text of a July 2001 memo from the FBI's Phoenix, Ariz. Field office recommending an investigation because Osama bin Laden's men might be training at U.S. flight schools.
Daschle said reports that Bush might have known more than he has indicated warrants a broad investigation.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters Thursday that "throughout the summer, beginning in May, the government received heightened reporting on threats to the United States interests or territory" and Bush was briefed at his ranch in Crawford, Texas in the first week of August. But the "president did not receive any information about the possibility of use of airplanes as missiles by suicide bombers."
Fleischer said "all appropriate action was taken based on the threat of information we had," but he called the intelligence general and not dissimilar to a long history about threats naming Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaida. But Fleischer could not provide reporters specific actions taken at U.S. airports and several media reports said several air carriers said they were not warned.
Congressional democrats and some Capitol Hill republican were critical of the White House for not being forth coming with this information. Wed The president sent National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to brief members of Congress and Fleischer said that later Thursday she would do an on-camera briefing for the news media.
Daschle also said an ongoing investigation in Congress into the events prior to Sept. 11 should be expanded beyond the House and Senate Intelligence Committees to other committees and perhaps to an independent commission similar to the one that investigated the attack on Pearl Harbor that pulled the United States into World War II. Dashcle said he believed the investigation should be broadened even though Daschle said Vice President Dick Cheney on "several occasions" since Sept. 11 had asked that Congress not launch any investigation at all.
Last month Fleischer dismissed a question about what the president might have known about potential terror attacks prior to Sept. 11.
In an April 12 briefing, Fleischer responded to a question about Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., who in an interview with a Berkeley Calif. radio station had called for an investigation into whether President Bush had advance notice of possible terror attacks before Sept. 11.
"All I can tell you is the congresswoman must be running for the hall of fame of the Grassy Knoll Society," Fleischer told reporters, referring to conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
"I really don't have anything to say that would lend any credibility to what she said."
Three of the 12 hijackers on Sept. 11 had studied at aviation schools in the United States. Zacarias Moussaoui, a 33-year-old French citizen, was arrested by the FBI in August in Minnesota after a flight school became suspicious and reported him to authorities. Moussaoui is under indictment in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks and is awaiting trial.
Congress is investigating why the United States was caught off guard on Sept. 11 when terrorists hijacked four jetliners and crashed two into the World Trade Center towers in New York and one into the Pentagon near Washington. Apparently efforts by passengers aboard the fourth jetliner thwarted the hijackers' efforts to hit a third target -- believed to be either the White House or Capitol -- but resulted in the plane crashing in rural western Pennsylvania.
Wednesday, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked the Justice Department's Inspector General to investigate how the FBI handled an internal warning last summer that terrorists might be taking flight lessons in the United States. Grassley wrote Inspector General Glenn Fine that the FBI's "credibility is at risk."
Grassley asked for an investigation into how the FBI handled a July 2001 memo from the FBI's Phoenix field office recommending the bureau keep an eye on flight schools, obtain visa information on enrolled pilots and coordinate a nationwide investigation.
FBI Director Robert Mueller told a Senate panel last week that memo likely did not make it to high levels of the FBI or the CIA and that the agency should have made it a higher priority.
"This memo has emerged as one of the most significant and alarming warnings that the FBI had before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001," Grassley wrote. "It is essential that there be an outside review of this matter by your office to answer all outstanding questions, ensure accountability at the FBI and reaffirm the trust of the American people."
In a separate letter Wednesday, Grassley also called on Mueller to make the memo available to the public.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., this week also sent 19 pages of questions to Bush administration officials, mostly for Mueller, about U.S. intelligence actions prior to the SEPT. 11 attacks.
The questions posed by Leahy seek facts about:
-- How the FBI handled the July 2001 Phoenix memo.
-- Information on the August 2001 arrest of Moussaoui, the alleged "20th hijacker," particularly FBI efforts to obtain information from Moussaoui, his computer and his apartment.
-- Facts about a warning from French intelligence officials at least 10 days before SEPT. 11 that Moussaoui had connections to radical Islamic extremists.
-- News reports that in 1995 Filipino authorities warned the FBI that a Middle Eastern pilot trained at a U.S. flight school had proposed crashing a jet into federal buildings.
-- How the FBI has handled information that potential terrorists have taken advantage of U.S. flight schools. The FBI confirmed for United Press International this week that some individuals mentioned in the July 2001 Phoenix memo were not involved in the SEPT. 11 attacks and are under investigation.
Graham, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, also is seeking a personal meeting with Attorney General John Ashcroft, for this week if possible, to demand "cooperation with enthusiasm" instead of "cooperation out of grudging necessity" on that committee's investigation. Republicans on the committee agree with Graham.
(Mark Benjamin is UPI's Congressional Bureau Chief and Nicholas M. Horrock is the Chief White House Correspondent. White House correspondents Richard Tomkins and Kathy Gambrell contributed to this report.)