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Friday, 17 May, 2002, 22:30 GMT 23:30 UK
Bush defiant on terror warnings
George W Bush
Bush says criticism is politically motivated
US President George W Bush has angrily defended his administration's handling of terrorism warnings issued before 11 September.

Speaking in public on the issue for the first time, Mr Bush said criticism of his administration - spearheaded by opponents in Congress - was politically motivated.

This issue now has become far more prominent... and needs to be investigated and clearly considered in a far more comprehensive way

Tom Daschle
Senate Majority leader

Demands have been growing for a wide-ranging investigation into allegations the administration was informed on 6 August that al-Qaeda militants might be planning to hijack aircraft.

One of Mr Bush's senior officials moved on Friday to suggest that the decentralised nature of America's security apparatus might have hindered its ability to pre-empt the attacks.

Mr Bush said Washington was a city "where second-guessing [had] become second nature".

"Had I known that the enemy was going to use aeroplanes to kill on that fateful morning I would have done everything in my power to protect the American people," he said, vowing to pursue the war on terrorism as long as he was in office.

'Unusual structure'

The president's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, confirmed on Friday that a memo had been written for Mr Bush regarding a battle plan to attack Osama Bin Laden, the head of al-Qaeda.

The memo was approved by the president's team on 4 September but was not seen by Mr Bush before the attacks.

World Trade Center
About 3,000 people died in the 11 September attacks

Mr Fleischer also played down a 1999 report by the Library of Congress on the possibility of al-Qaeda militants crashing planes full of explosives into US targets.

He said the Bush administration was not alerted to the report when it entered office in January 2001 and added that he thought the report had not "raised alarms" because it was not intelligence information but a psychological study.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has argued that the row over intelligence failures should be seen in the context of America's deliberate lack of an overall domestic law enforcement or domestic intelligence agency.

He suggested that this arrangement, maintained as a safeguard against political abuses, might have to change.

"You've got this unusual structure for a country that's served us well for a couple of hundred years," he said.

"The question has to be asked: How does it fit today? And I think that out of the discussion that's taking place will come some reflections on that, and I don't know what the answer is."

The BBC's Jonathan Marcus says that what Mr Bush was told about the possibility of hijacks appears to have been vague and difficult to act upon.

'Irresponsible leaks'

The disclosure of the alleged 6 August briefing has sparked the biggest row in Congress since the attacks, with many Democrats criticising the government for the first time over its war on terror.

Democrat Senator Jo Lieberman, who is among those demanding an inquiry, said it was irresponsible to point fingers without all the facts but just as irresponsible to "allow this type of information to trickle out slowly and haphazardly, raising new questions, tearing at old wounds and alarming the public".

But some legislators are opposed to any new inquiry on the grounds that investigations by the two houses' intelligence committees are already under way.

The joint investigation is due to begin hearings next month.

Meanwhile, our correspondent says, the US president's extraordinary popularity in the wake of 11 September may only change if more information is revealed. .

The BBC's Stephen Sackur reports from Washington
"America's united front has fractured"
US President George W Bush
"My most important job is to protect America"
Richard Pearl of Bush's Defence Policy Board
"We should have begun to take action against al-Qaeda years ago"
See also:

18 May 02 | Americas
US intelligence efforts fractured
17 May 02 | Americas
Row deepens over terror warnings
17 May 02 | Americas
Terror warnings: Who knew what when?
16 May 02 | Americas
Q&A: US terror intelligence
17 May 02 | Americas
Bush seeks damage control
17 May 02 | Americas
'Ground Zero' operation nears end
16 May 02 | Americas
Bush rapped over 11 September photo
25 Sep 01 | Americas
Profile: Condoleezza Rice
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