With pressure mounting on the White House to more fully explain its anti-terrorism strategy, President Bush offered new details Thursday of a reported plot against downtown Los Angeles as evidence of success in foiling attacks.
Federal officials had revealed two years ago that they believed Al Qaeda operatives, in a West Coast follow-up to the Sept. 11 attacks, had planned to hijack an airliner and crash it into what was then called the Library Tower.
But Bush, offering new specifics in a speech designed to boost support for his national security policies, said Thursday that the terrorist operatives planned to use “shoe bombs to breach the cockpit door.” He said Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had recruited and trained young Asian men to carry out the plot because suspicions of Arabs were running high, but that the plan was derailed when a Southeast Asian nation arrested a key Al Qaeda operative.
Bush did not name the nation or the operative, but his decision to reveal even the most incremental details of the reported plot underscored the effort the White House has undertaken recently to defend its anti-terrorism policies.
The details did little to counter skepticism from Democrats and some law enforcement officials who have questioned whether the reported scheme had ever been put into operation before it was thwarted.
“It didn’t go,” said one U.S. official familiar with the operational aspects of the war on terrorism. “It didn’t happen.”
The official said he believed the Library Tower plot was one of many Al Qaeda operations that had not gone much past the conceptual stage. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying that those familiar with the plot feared political retaliation for providing a different characterization of the plan than that of the president.
Bush’s chief domestic security advisor, Frances Townsend, said the plotters had described their target only as the tallest building on the West Coast, and that it was the “analytic judgment” of the U.S. intelligence community that they intended to strike the Library Tower.
Bush misspoke when making a similar point: “We believe the intended target was Liberty Tower in Los Angeles,” he said. The building was renamed in 2003 and is now known as the U.S. Bank Tower.
Bush first mentioned the Los Angeles plot in a speech in October, when he listed 10 post-Sept. 11 schemes that had been disrupted. At the time, he gave few details.
In his speech Thursday to the National Guard Assn., the president cited the reported plan as evidence of the ongoing danger of terrorism and of the success of his anti-terrorism strategy.
“As the West Coast plot shows, in the war on terror we face a relentless and determined enemy that operates in many nations -- so protecting our citizens requires unprecedented cooperation from many nations as well,” Bush said. “By working together, we took dangerous terrorists off the streets. By working together, we stopped a catastrophic attack on our homeland.”
Bush did not link the foiling of the plot to his controversial program of warrantless wiretaps conducted on certain international communications by the National Security Agency. But his remarks came as ongoing criticism of the spy program from lawmakers, including some Republicans, has appeared to force the administration to reverse course and provide more detailed information about the surveillance to congressional intelligence committees.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he was stunned that Bush revealed details of the reported terrorist plot without first relaying the information to city officials. Villaraigosa said local authorities had heard some of the new information Wednesday from California domestic security officials, but not the specifics mentioned by Bush in his address, which was carried nationally on cable television.
“I would have expected a direct call from the White House,” said Villaraigosa, a Democrat, during a City Hall news conference. “We should have been aware of all the details much before today. We did not know all of the facts.”
The mayor sought to reassure residents that Los Angeles was safe. He said the police and fire departments had taken precautions at high-rise buildings, including the one singled out by Bush. Villaraigosa said police had specifically evaluated security and evacuation plans at the U.S. Bank Tower.
“There is no imminent threat to Los Angeles,” the mayor said, flanked by police and fire officials.
Critics on Thursday accused Bush of reaching far back into time as part of a public relations ploy to maintain focus on his battle against terrorism, an issue that continued to win him public approval. Bush’s chief political strategist, Karl Rove, said last month that Republicans in this year’s elections would seek ways to paint Democrats as exhibiting a pre-Sept. 11 mentality, while programs such as the warrantless surveillance showed the president’s toughness.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) described Bush’s speech as a political stunt meant to draw attention from the mounting criticisms of the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program and other questions about administration tactics.
“I can’t think of a governmental reason to disclose these details at this time to the general public. Clearly, the goal was to create headlines,” said Sherman, who monitors security matters as the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee on international terrorism and nonproliferation.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he “didn’t find [Bush’s comments] very helpful ... from a professional point of view.”
When news of the reported plot surfaced two years ago, some counter-terrorism officials treated it with skepticism. By contrast, Bush on Thursday cast the foiling of the plot as a significant development that underscored the danger and persistence of Al Qaeda.
Townsend, the White House domestic security advisor, said after Bush’s speech that the so-called West Coast plot was initially designed as part of the Sept. 11 attacks.
But she said Osama bin Laden determined that the two-coast plan was too ambitious and scaled it back. Mohammed then began preparations for a “follow-on” attack on the West Coast, Townsend said, reiterating the findings of the Sept. 11 commission.
“It’s our understanding now that it was too difficult to get enough operatives for both the East and West Coast plots at the same time,” Townsend said.
Townsend said the cell leader of the reported Los Angeles plot and three other operatives went to Afghanistan, where they met with Bin Laden and swore an “oath of loyalty” to him before returning to Asia, where they continued to work for an operative named Hambali, the chief of operations for an Al Qaeda affiliate group in South Asia.
The reported scheme ended in 2002 with four arrests in Southeast Asia, she said. Four U.S. allies in Asia played a role in disrupting the plot, she said, refusing to name the countries.
Mohammed was arrested in Pakistan in March 2003. Hambali was captured in August 2003.
In defending Bush’s claim that the plot was foiled, Townsend said: “There is no question in my mind that this is a disruption.... And the American people are absolutely safer as a result of these arrests.”
Times staff writers Maura Reynolds in Washington and Duke Helfand and Greg Krikorian in Los Angeles contributed to this report.