WASHINGTON -- The White House acknowledged Friday it had a battle plan to topple Osama bin Laden awaiting President Bush's approval in the days before the Sept. 11 attacks. The administration accused Democrats of seeking political gain by suggesting that Bush ignored warning signs of an attack.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of an anonymity, said the options memo was prepared by Bush's foreign policy team as threats of terrorism spiked. It was dated Sept. 10 and sat on national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's desk for Bush's review when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were struck.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the memo recommended dismantling bin Laden's network "through what you saw put into place frankly, rather quickly in our operations in Afghanistan -- through work with the northern alliance to dismantle al-Qaida and the Taliban."
He did not say whether the memo included airstrikes and ground troops, both of which were used in Afghanistan. The U.S. official said ground troops were not a primary option in the memo, having been approved by Bush only after considerable debate after Sept. 11.
The existence of the memo was made public in general terms late last year, but has gained new importance in light of revelations this week that Bush was told Aug. 6 that bin Laden wanted to hijack planes. Democrats and some Republicans in Congress have criticized Bush for not making the information public, and are questioning whether he could have done more to stop the attacks.
Democrats are demanding the Aug. 6 CIA memo that mentioned the hijackings and another pre-Sept. 11 document -- an FBI memo that warned headquarters that many Middle Eastern men were training at American flight schools.
"Why did it take eight months for us to receive this information? And what specific actions were taken by the White House in response?" Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said. "I'm not going to jump to any conclusions, but it's hard to understand why the information was not released."
In Budapest, Hungary, first Laura Bush defended her husband.
"I know my husband. And all Americans know how he has acted in Afghanistan and in the war with terror. I think really, we need to put this in perspective and I think it's sad to prey upon the emotions of people as if there were something we could have done to stop" the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings, she said in an interview Friday.
The administration argued there was no information about a specific threat, and Vice President Dick Cheney cautioned Democrats to tread lightly as congressional panels investigate whether the government missed warning signs.
"They need to be very cautious not to seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions that were made by some today that the White House had advance information that would have prevented the tragic attacks of 9-11," Cheney said Thursday night. "Such commentary is thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war."
The dispute has primarily become focused on two documents -- a classified CIA analysis given to Bush on Aug. 6 and a memo written even earlier in the Phoenix FBI office that warned headquarters that many Middle Eastern men were training at least one U.S. flight school.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Friday on NBC's "Today" that he was unaware of the Phoenix memo "until it showed up in the press very recently."
"The vast majority of the reports and scraps of information that come in tend to be eventually discounted as not being valid, or, at the minimum, not being actionable," Rumsfeld said.
Rice said the intelligence that discussed bin Laden, tucked in a 1 1/2-page terrorism report given to Bush, mentioned bin Laden's al-Qaida network and "hijacking in a traditional sense" -- not suicide hijackers slamming fuel-laden planes into American landmarks.
"You would have risked shutting down the American civil aviation system with such generalized information," she told reporters.
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