|White House Drops Claim of Threat to AF1
By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 27, 2001; Page A08
The Bush administration appeared to back away yesterday from its claim that a threat was lodged against Air Force One on the day terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
After news reports Tuesday said administration officials could find no record of such a call, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was asked yesterday if the White House believes Osama bin Laden was trying to kill the president. Fleischer had said at a Sept. 13 briefing that a threat, "using code words," had been phoned in against Air Force One. He quoted the caller as saying, "Air Force One is a target."
Fleischer did not repeat that claim yesterday. "I'm not going to comment on any particular threats coming toward the White House," he said. "Unfortunately, as you all who work here know, it is not an uncommon occurrence for people to threaten the government of the United States, regardless of whether it's President Bush or any of his predecessors. And that's why there are security precautions taken at the White House as a matter of routine.
"But that's not what this is about," Fleischer continued. "This has nothing to do with anything . . . that may or may not have been directed at President Bush. This is about an attack that took place on our country."
A senior administration official said later that the White House believed at the time that the threat was real, and the official had received no new information to indicate otherwise.
On Tuesday, the Associated Press quoted administration officials as saying they now doubt the call was made. "They've been unsuccessful in trying to track down whether there was such a call, though officials still maintain they were told of a telephone threat Sept. 11 and kept Bush away from Washington for hours because of it," the AP said.
The "CBS Evening News" reported Tuesday that the call "simply never happened," and said White House staffers "apparently misunderstood comments made by their security detail."
Bush was criticized for flying to Louisiana and Nebraska before returning to Washington, and White House officials had disseminated their belief that the threats were specific and credible. Vice President Cheney said Sept. 16 on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he had urged Bush to stay away, in part because of a threat against the plane.
"It may have been phoned in by a crank, but in the midst of what was going on, there was no way to know that," Cheney said. "I think it was a credible threat -- enough for the Secret Service to bring it to me."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company