LA shoe-bomb plot: Terrorists planned a West Coast 9/11 in 2002

George Bush says terrorists were close to attacking Los Angeles in 2002. But the timing of his announcement has prompted suspicion. Andrew Gumbel reports

Once again, President George Bush finds himself in deep political trouble. And, once again, he has chosen to invoke the spectre of a terrorist attack on US soil, only to draw immediate suspicion about his motives at the start of what promises to be a long, bruising mid-term election campaign.

The President's announcement last Thursday that al-Qa'ida had considered attacking the tallest skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles more than three years ago generated some eye-catching headlines. It may even have helped himto build public support for a once-secret domestic counter-terrorist wire-tapping programme that critics in both parties have denounced as unconstitutional.

But there are also signs that the political strategy that worked so well in the 2002 mid-term elections, helped to sell the war in Iraq and got Mr Bush re-elected in 2004 - that is, appealing to the country to stand by its President as he strives to protect them from outside attack - may be wearing distinctly thin.

No sooner had the President spoken on Thursday than his announcement was greeted with consternation in Los Angeles, the city supposedly in the firing line in 2002. Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of America's second largest city, said he felt "blindsided" to learn the details of the plan to attack the 73-storey Library Tower from the television instead of hearing it from the White House. Jim Hahn, who was mayor of LA at the time, said he too had never heard anything about it other than a vague outline already given by President Bush in a speech last October.

The chairman of the Los Angeles public safety commission, Jack Weiss, accused Mr Bush of wanting to alarm the country for political reasons and said it was doubtful how much of a plot there had really been in the first place.

President Bush claimed in his speech that the US, in concert with foreign governments, had "faced down a relentless and determined enemy" and "stopped a catastrophic attack on our homeland". He said the plot was orchestrated by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind behind the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, who recruited four Asian men to board a plane, breach the cockpit door with shoe bombs and then fly into the tower. (It did not help matters that the President called it the "Liberty Tower" instead of the Library Tower.)

The President's domestic security adviser, Frances Townsend, soon told reporters, however, that the attack on LA was originally conceived as part of the 11 September attacks but was postponed because al-Qa'ida did not have the resources to pull it off.

Several security experts said that they did not believe the plot ever went past the conceptual stage before it was disrupted by a series of arrests in Asia after 9/11. South-east Asian experts told the Associated Press that the man recruited to fly the plane into the Los Angeles tower, a Malaysian engineer called Zaini Zakaria, pulled out of the plot after he saw the scale of the destruction and death at the World Trade Center in New York. He later gave himself up to Malaysian authorities.

"Let's call this what it was," said Mr Weiss, the Los Angeles city council member. "President Bush is digging out of an extraordinarily large political hole ... He's trying to build support for the NSA [National Security Agency] wiretapping programme and so, to build that support, he dusts off details that are at best three years old, at worst closer to four years old ... But this plot was evanescent ... and it's not clear precisely how American assets interrupted the plot. It's just part of his constant speechifying, to impress upon people what he's doing in the war on terror."

The indignation rapidly spread beyond Los Angeles. Hillary Clinton, gearing up to run for President in 2008, said the White House was "playing the fear card". John Rockefeller, Senator for West Virginia who sits on the Intelligence Committee, was one of several Democrats who said he could see little security-related reason for President Bush's announcement.

In the past, the standard White House response to such criticisms has been to accuse the Democrats of being soft on terrorism and living in a "pre-9/11 world". But that line, too, may be fraying because of growing anger about what is widely seen as a highly political approach to national security. Much of the funding from the Department of Homeland Security is not distributed according to need or risk, but rather in proportion to states' showing in the presidential electoral college. That means an over-abundance of funds for reliably Republican Wyoming, and complaints of funding shortages in probable target cities such as New York and Los Angeles, which both happen to be staunchly Democrat.

Jack Weiss said he could have understood the President's announcement if he had followed it with a pledge of a few extra millions for Los Angeles's counter-terrorism operations. But, he charged, the President "doesn't get that part of the equation".

Security consultants, led by Stephen Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations, have been sounding the alarm for some time that the US remains dangerously vulnerable to attack and has not been assiduous enough in taking basic security precautions, such as securing the former Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal - a programme that is still years from completion.

In his book America the Vulnerable, Mr Flynn also describes ways in which the container shipping industry could be safeguarded, but largely has not been, because the Bush administration had other budgetary and geopolitical priorities - notably fighting the war in Iraq. The twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which account for almost half the container traffic coming in and out of the United States, are now fitted with radiation portals to help detect dirty bombs. But the giant X-ray machines generally regarded as essential accompaniments to the portals - to detect suspicious materials, including radioactive substances - are still in woefully short supply.

Senior members of the Bush administration almost never refer to such issues. Instead, they have been content to raise the alarm about possible attacks from time to time - especially at moments of particular political difficulty. Before the 2004 election, the administration would habitually raise the much-publicised, colour-coded threat level in the wake of negative publicity about the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, say, or even to coincide with the Democratic National Convention.

Tom Ridge, President Bush's first homeland security director, revealed shortly after he left office that he frequently disapproved of decisions to raise the alert. "Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment," he said. "Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on alert ... There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, 'For that?'"

The colour-coded system has all but disappeared from President Bush's second term, but the allusions to al-Qa'ida attacks have persisted nonetheless. Last October, when it appeared that the President's trusted political adviser Karl Rove might be indicted over the leaking of an undercover CIA operative's name - itself a highly political affair linked to the US case for going to war in Iraq - officials in New York issued a warning about a threat to the subway system, based on information from federal officials that later turned out to be either erroneous or a hoax.

Those seeking a political strategy behind the President's Library Tower announcement have pointed to a speech that Mr Rove gave two weeks ago, in which he made clear that the Republican mid-term election strategy would rely, once again, on painting the party as the only reliable guardian of the country's safety. That line, once successful, appears to be losing its potency.

With anxiety running high about Iraq, the economy, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina and a whirlwind of corruption scandals in the Republican Party, the President's approval rating remains below 40 per cent. Is the American electorate still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on national security? The anger and recriminations of the past two days would suggest that the President's prospects are slowly dwindling.

SCARES SINCE 9/11

MAY 2002

The alert: Newly formed Office of Homeland Security warns about attacks on railways and New York landmarks, including Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty.

The context: Presidential briefing of 6 August 2001, telling Bush of al-Qa'ida plans to attack the US, becomes public - and raises questions as to why he spent next three weeks on holiday.

JUNE 2002

The alert: The Attorney General, John Ashcroft, interrupts official trip to Russia to announce arrest of "dirty bomber" suspect Jose Padilla, although arrest had occurred a month earlier.

The context: FBI whistleblower Colleen Rowley reveals she failed to persuade superiors to conduct investigation into Zacarias Moussaoui, suspected of involvement in the 9/11 plot.

JULY 2003

The alert: Homeland security issues vague alert about suicide attacks involving aircraft.

The context: It emerges the CIA had had "strong doubts" about claim made in Mr Bush's State of the Union speech that Iraq had been seeking uranium in Africa.

DECEMBER 2003

The alert: Threat level raised from yellow to orange, based on "credible intelligence" about plans to crash more aircraft into US cities.

The context: Top US weapons inspector in Iraq, David Kay, quits after failing to find any WMD.

MARCH 2004

The alert: Homeland security warns of possible attacks on buses and trains.

The context: Charles Duelfer, the new chief weapons inspector in Iraq, says he too has come up empty.

AUGUST 2004

The alert: Code orange again. Homeland security warns of attacks on financial centres in New York, New Jersey and Washington, based on old intelligence.

The context: Democrats enjoymedia dominance during presidential nominating convention in Boston.

OCTOBER 2005

The alert: New York officials, acting on federal intelligence, publicise bomb threat to city subway system. Homeland security later says intelligence "of doubtful credibility".

The context: Karl Rove asked to testify for second time to grand jury in CIA leak case. Reports say President Bush's right-hand man might be about to be indicted.

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