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White House, Air Force One may have been targets

Administration considering how to strike back

September 12, 2001 Posted: 3:50 PM EDT (1950 GMT)

Bush and Cheney
President Bush sits with Vice-President Cheney during a National Security meeting on Wednesday

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House revealed Wednesday afternoon that "reasonable and credible" information exists that the White House itself, and Air Force One, were targets of Tuesday's terrorist attack on the nation's capital.

Officials told CNN that President Bush was diverted on his return trip to Washington on Tuesday because they had received information that either the White House or the presidential jet may have been targeted by those flying two commandeered jets toward Washington earlier that morning. Rather than return directly to Washington from his overnight stay in Sarasota, Florida, Bush was routed through Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, and Offutt AFB in Omaha, Nebraska.

One of those two jets slammed into the Pentagon, while the other, a 757 out of Newark, New Jersey, crashed under mysterious circumstances in rural Pennsylvania.

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President Bush's discussions with his top national security advisers turned Wednesday toward potential U.S. responses to the numbing terror attacks in New York City and Washington.

Although administration officials are not characterizing in detail the nature of the evidence they have gathered in the day following the airliner attacks, senior officials tell CNN that "everything points" to the Al Qaeda network established by Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden. They caution, however, that nothing will be decided immediately, and even President Bush, in a brief statement Wednesday morning, said the U.S. would be "patient."

There "are no absolutes yet," an official said.

Bush vowed earlier Wednesday that the United States would spend as much money as needed to aid in search and rescue efforts following Tuesday's attacks, and would exert all effort necessary to fight a war against an unseen enemy that "hides in shadows."

Bush sat grim-faced in the center seat of a White House conference table Wednesday morning, surrounded by senior national security advisers who had just briefed him on the latest from lower Manhattan and from South Arlington, Virginia, where the southwest perimeter of the Pentagon still expelled columns of the thick gray smoke, 26 hours after being struck by a hijacked jetliner.

As Wednesday morning dawned, all of official Washington began to assess the magnitude of the previous day's unprecedented acts of violence, and while recovery efforts continued in both locations, the administration quietly considered how it would retaliate, and against whom.

The hijacking of four airliners, the attack on the Pentagon and the destruction of Manhattan's World Trade Center, Bush said, were nothing short of a declaration of war.

"The deliberate and deadly attacks, which were carried out yesterday against our country, were more than acts of terror. They were acts of war," Bush said in measured tones, adding the nation had to realize that the enemy it now faces is not defined by force, strength or by national borders, but by its brutality.

"This enemy hides in shadows and has no regard for human life," Bush said.

"This is an enemy who preys on innocent and unsuspecting people, then runs for cover, but it won't be able to run for cover forever. This is an enemy that tries to hide, but it won't be able to hide forever. This is an enemy that thinks its harbors are safe, but they won't be safe forever," he warned.

The United States of America will use all our resources to conquer this enemy," he warned. "We will rally the world. We will be patient. We'll be focused, and we will be steadfast in our determination. This battle will take time and resolve, but make no mistake about it, we will win."

The first order of business, Bush insisted, would be to approach Congress and urge quick passage of a resolution allowing withdrawals from U.S. coffers to cover the likely astronomical expense of recovering survivors from both locations, and perhaps thousands of bodies.

Costs of the clean-up in Manhattan alone, which lost the twin 110-story towers, and a nearby 47-story office tower, are expected to leap into the millions.

Second, the United States will have to make a determination of responsibility for the attacks. The focus of the investigation remained Wednesday on bin Laden and Al Qaeda, which claimed responsibility for the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, and is suspected in the 2000 bomb attack on the USS Cole in a Yemeni port.

Bush maintained a steady public profile Wednesday, and immediately followed his morning security briefing by sitting down with members of the congressional leadership. He was expected to attend another security briefing later in the day.

Congress reconvened Wednesday, after adjourning in haste Tuesday when fears arose that the Capitol building would be targeted by a skyjacked aircraft.

Bush also Bush spoke with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien early in the day.

Separately, officials said more than a dozen nations had directly contacted senior U.S. officials to offer condolences and assistance, and explained that a major goal of the president and Secretary of State Colin Powell in the days and weeks ahead was to use this list as the foundation for building an international coalition committed to "deeds, not just words" in the war on terrorism. "Out of this horror could come a little momentum," said one senior official involved in the discussions.

Among the nations that have offered condolences and help are: France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, Canada, Russia, Belgium, Spain, Israel, China, Slovenia, Pakistan and Romania. The NATO alliance and the European Union also have had representatives contact Washington offering help.

The White House also maintained an active hand in security arrangements for the downtown D.C. area. There was a stepped-up police presence at the White House, with snipers still deployed on nearby rooftops, and officers were seen up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol complex.

Airports in Washington are still closed to passenger traffic, and the White House said late in the morning that it would have to sign off on any decision made by aviation officials to reopen Ronald Reagan National and Dulles International airports.

Reagan is situated less than a mile from the Pentagon, while Dulles, 25 miles west of Washington in suburban Virginia, was the origination point of the passenger jet that found its way to the Pentagon on Tuesday morning.

-- CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King and Ian Christopher McCaleb contributed to this report.

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