WASHINGTON — Seeking to justify his tactics in the war on terrorism, President Bush on Thursday disclosed new details of an alleged al-Qaida plot to hijack a plane and fly it into the tallest high-rise on the West Coast in 2002.
The plot, aimed at a Los Angeles office building, had been known for some time, but Bush said that it “was derailed in early 2002 when a Southeast Asian nation arrested a key al-Qaida operative.”
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Thursday he was blindsided by Bush’s announcement and described communication with the White House as “nonexistent.”
“I’m amazed that the president would make this [announcement] on national TV and not inform us of these details through the appropriate channels,” the mayor told The Associated Press. “I don’t expect a call from the president — but somebody.”
The White House and the state Homeland Security Office said they informed city officials Wednesday of Bush’s upcoming remarks.
Following Bush’s disclosure, a Homeland Security official added more details, telling reporters that the leader of a four-man cell trained for the hijacking was arrested in February 2002, and that the three others were later arrested as well.
Frances Townsend, assistant to the president for homeland security, also emphasized that the president’s speech was aimed at showing the importance of international cooperation, not as an attempt to support Bush's controversial eavesdropping program run by the National Security Agency.
“It was not meant to be a speech about the NSA program,” she emphasized.
Bush has been fighting criticism of his decision to authorize the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without court warrants inside the United States on international emails and phone calls placed to and from people with suspected ties to terrorism.
West Coast tower
In a speech at the National Guard Memorial Building, Bush said the cell planned to use shoe bombs to gain entry to the cockpit door and then fly the plane into a Los Angeles high-rise. The president called it the “Liberty Tower” but the White House later corrected that to the Library Tower, since renamed the US Bank Tower.
Townsend said that the plotters did not specifically cite the Library Tower but stated that they intended to bomb the tallest high-rise on the West Coast as a continuation of the Sept. 11 attacks on the East Coast. Intelligence analysts concluded that meant the Library Tower, she added.
Bush has referred to the 2002 plot before. In an address last October, he said the United States and its allies had foiled at least 10 serious plots by the al-Qaida terror network in the last four years, including plans for Sept. 11-like attacks on both U.S. coasts.
The White House initially would not give details of the plots but later released a fact sheet with a brief, and vague, description of each.
Cell members not named
The president on Thursday said that Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks who was captured in 2003, had already begun planning the West Coast operation in October, just after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
One of Mohammed’s key planners was Hambali, the alleged operations chief of the al-Qaida related terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah. Instead of recruiting Arab hijackers, Hambali found Southeast Asian men who would be less likely to arouse suspicion and who were sent to meet with Osama bin Laden, Bush said.
Bush said the plot was derailed when a Southeast Asian nation arrested a key al-Qaida operative. Bush did not name the country or the operative.
Townsend would not release the names of the four men arrested or which countries arrested them.
She did say that Mohammed trained the cell leader “in the shoe bomb technique” used by Richard Reid, the man convicted of trying to blow up a Paris-to-Miami flight with a shoe bomb in December 2001. He was sentenced to life imprisonment by a U.S. court in January 2003.
White House: L.A. officials informed
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Los Angeles officials were told about the president’s remarks a day before his speech.
“And the word I heard was that there was great appreciation for the notification that we provided,” he said during a briefing.
A spokesman for the state Office of Homeland Security confirmed that the agency’s chief personally contacted a deputy mayor Wednesday to share the president’s planned comments.
“We were assured that that information would go to the mayor,” spokesman Chris Bertelli said.
Villaraigosa later confirmed that City Hall was called Wednesday by state officials in Sacramento. But that information was only general, city officials said, giving no hint that the announcement would contain extensive new details on the hijacking plot that targeted the nation’s second-largest city. That message never reached the mayor.
“I would have expected a direct call from the White House,” Villaraigosa said at a news conference.
In addition, the mayor said, he had twice pushed for meetings with Bush on visits to Washington to discuss security risks in the city. Those requests were made “to no avail,” Villaraigosa said.
Spy program not cited
Bush has been on a campaign to defend his controversial eavesdropping program.
But Townsend would not say whether the 2002 plot was thwarted as a result of the program, which eavesdrops on the international emails and phone calls of people inside the United States with suspected ties to terrorists.
Bush said only that “subsequent debriefings and other intelligence operations” after the arrest of the unnamed operative led to information about the plot, and to the capture of other ringleaders and operatives involved in it. Hambali, for instance, was captured in Thailand in 2003 and handed over to the United States.
“It took the combined efforts of several countries to break up this plot,” the president said. “By working together, we took dangerous terrorists off the streets. By working together, we stopped a catastrophic attack on our homeland.”
Bush’s speech in October cited two other attacks inside the United States that were foiled, including one to use hijacked planes to attack the East Coast in mid-2003.
The third was the case of Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member who converted to Islam and allegedly plotted with top al-Qaida commanders to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” in a U.S. city.
Prosecutors were unable to come up with enough evidence to go to court, and Padilla now is being held without bail in civilian custody on charges that he was part of a secret network that supported Muslim terrorists. He was arrested in May 2002 and had been held as an enemy combatant without criminal charge at a Navy brig in South Carolina until last month.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.