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White House Says No Evidence of Terrorism

Aired November 12, 2001 - 14:05   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF: The plane went down right about 9:16, 19:17 this morning Eastern time. And it was just about half an hour after that, President Bush was handed a note. He was in a meeting and was given a note saying that there had been a crash in New York City. Our White House correspondent John King is standing by there.

John, I actually am surprised the president wasn't informed sooner than that, or did I got that information wrong? I'm referring to what Ari Fleischer said in the briefing.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was a only matter of minutes, Judy. We are told that at about 9:25 am, just moments after the plane disappeared from radar, that a military aide walked into an ongoing National Security Council meeting, the president being updated on the military campaign in Afghanistan, handed by a military officer who works in White House situation room, a note saying a plane had crashed in New York.

Now, obviously, now, White House officials are telling us there is no evidence of terrorism, that they are treating this, for now, even though the investigation in its early stages, as an accident. But you can only imagine the sense of anxiety and urgency here in the White House when the president was handed that note. And it was not long afterwards the president left that meeting and went to the Oval Office and found himself on the phone, yet again, with officials in New York.



ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president called Mayor Giuliani and spoke with Governor Pataki. The president expressed to both of them his deepest sympathy for the people of New York to be enduring any other such trauma at a time when New York has already gone through so much.

The president said to both the federal government will do everything it can to help, and he informed them both the government was sending up teams is the were speaking.


KING: And we have seen, Judy, the White House new Homeland Security Operation kick into gear, the new homeland security director, former Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania went to the White House situation room. He immediately arranged a conference call with key government officials and agencies. The attorney general on that call, the secretary of transportation, the head of the FBI as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Department of Defense.

Some teams sent -- emergency teams sent immediately up to New York for the search-and-rescue operations. Other precautions taken as well, we are told, precautions that would not have been taken had this to occurred prior to September 11.


FLEISCHER: I think it is safe to say, that as a result of -- governments protections and other programs, and plans that were in place prior to September 11, as well as those that have been beefed-up since September 11, there are a series of steps that had been taken. I think you will hear additional information about that from appropriate government agencies.


KING: We're told those responses include the Pentagon sending more fighter jets into the skies over the United States for combat air patrol. Some of those patrols still ongoing since September 11, but some additional patrols ordered just in case. In early moments after this crash, again, though, officials now saying that the evidence they have, and they remind us, this is very preliminary, but they are operating under the assumption now that this an accident.

That is why the National Transportation Safety Board and not the FBI designated the lead agency in the investigation, but the FBI is involved. Officials saying the president is being updated as developments come into the White House. They say, most of all, he was stunned to hear, once again, tragedy hitting New York -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: John, how exactly is the president, how exactly is the White House getting its updates?

KING: From every federal agency that is involved. Some of the information comes directly from the FAA -- the Federal Aviation Administration -- and the Transportation Department.

That flows into the White House situation room. There is a system set up just in case anything like this happens, whether it be a plane crash, whether it be a train crash, whether it be an act of terrorism or the military operation overseas, the White House situation room is a control room, if you will. And federal agencies can call information into that. It also receives video feeds and other information from federal agencies.

It runs 24 hours a day, obviously, on a heightened sense of alert since the events of September 11. But there also is a system put in place where a conference bridge is set up immediately with key agencies after something like this happens, and it stays up until officials believe it is all right to take it down.

So the communications agencies all communicate directly with the White House. Say, for example, there was a debate this morning about whether to shut down the entire nation's airport system as a precaution when they didn't know much about what had happened in New York. The Federal Aviation Administration ultimately decided not to do that, but that decision was made in close consultation with the White House.

WOODRUFF: John, we already know the president has a fairly busy week. He is going to be heading to Texas to his ranch, for those meetings, with the Washington president Vladimir Putin. How, at this point, is it affecting the president's schedule today and beyond?

KING: It has disrupted his schedule today. He was to receive some briefings for his meetings. President Putin comes first here to Washington, and he and President Bush will meet here at the White House tomorrow, then they are scheduled to go to the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas for a day.

Mr. Bush was to meet with some journalists today to discuss that mini summit with President Putin. That was at least postponed. We don't have word as to whether it was canceled yet or rescheduled. And some of his briefings with staffers on the summit agenda also were postponed because of this. We are told the president is trying to get about his regular schedule. He had no public events scheduled today and we have no indications that we'll see or hear from him today, but he is trying get back about his schedule, but we also are told he is being updated quite frequently as information comes from scene in New York.

WOODRUFF: All right. John King at the White House, and Ari Fleischer, who we just heard from in John's report, among other things, reported to us, this was about a little after 12:00 today, that at that point they had word of no unusual communications with the cockpit, and that there was, evidently, at that point, the information they had was that there was no evidence of an explosion on board.

Now, having said that, the investigation into what happened is just getting under way. We are just five hours into this investigation, into the aftermath of this terrible crash. Joining me now in the Washington studio are Susan Candiotti.

Susan, what do they need to have, at this point, in order to carry out the kind of investigation that they would like to carry out?

CANDIOTTI: Well, what would be critical for them to recover are the black boxes. And good news on that front, because we do that they have recovered the flight data recorder. Still looking for that all- important cockpit-voice recorder, of course, which would document the voices of what was actually being said in the cockpit. But the flight data recorder will help too, because it also tell them all kinds of measurements that were going on from the various gauges inside the aircraft as well.

Just a short time ago, what's called a "go-team," whenever there is an accident, a go-team from the National Transportation Safety Board takes off to go to the crash site and here they are, leaving just a little while ago, including the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

As you know, they will be sending, as we learned, about 160 people on site working in about 16 different groups or specialties. To look into what happened here at the crash site. And the NTSB will try recover information from that flight data recorder about engine function, including speed, altitude, whatever the gauges were documenting before take-off, and at the time of the crash. That might help explain how or why one of the engines separated according to eyewitnesses.

What authorities are still looking for is that is cockpit-voice recorder. That, of course, will help to a great degree in this investigation, and the chairwoman of the NTSB, Marion Blakey, met with reporters just before she took off with the go-team to go to the crash site.


MARION BLAKEY, NTSB CHAIRWOMAN: We have been in close touch with White House today. I spoke immediately with both the White House, with Secretary Norman Mineta and with director Bob Mueller about coordination. We are coordinating very closely so we have all the information pulled together.


CANDIOTTI: Just to recap for you what the role of the NTSB is, it is an independent federal agency that investigates every civil aviation accident in the U.S., and significant accidents in other modes of transportation as well.

It conducts special investigations in safety studies, then issues safety recommendations to prevent future accidents. And the safety board investigators, as we know, are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That is how are they able to respond so quickly every time there is an accident.

But also, participating in this investigation, as we know, both the FBI the Federal Bureau Investigation as well as the ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms, to look into whether there is any possibility of any criminal activity. The FBI, of course, also leading counterintelligence efforts in the U.S., and paying strict attention to this in case there is some element of terrorism involved, though that does not seem to be the early indication.

So both those agencies will be involved here, as well as, of course, the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates civil aviation to promote safety and fulfill the requirements of national defense. It encourages and develops civil aeronautics, including new aviation technology, and develops and operates air traffic control system and navigation for both civil and military aircraft.

Now, one of the things we know they will be doing is taking a look at the passenger manifest to see who was aboard. They will also be interviewing ground personnel, who was doing what on the ground, at JFK airport before that plane took who have had access to the aircraft before it left the ground. And they will be looking at security cameras, as well, on site; everything that was looking at the aircraft to make sure there was no unusual activity going on.

Also, we know that just a short time ago, that Florida Senator Bob Graham, who of course chairs the Intelligence Committee, was briefed by intelligence officials, and he said that he was told that they do not have any information -- told by intelligence officials -- to believe that this was an act of terrorism at this time.

WOODRUFF: Susan, given the climate we are operating in, we are two months and day after September 11. The country is at a completely different state of alert. You've got the FBI, every investigative agency already on alert -- this happens, is it likely because of that we may know answers sooner than we might otherwise because people were poised, on the lookout, that we had various, you know, investigative teams already ready to look for something like this?

CANDIOTTI: Sure. And imagine the security that went on at the airport, checking passengers before they got on the flight as well as security checking air cargo, as well. But you know, Judy, look at the personnel that are being stretched in 8 million different directions right now.

They have already got parallel track investigations going on now into both the hijackings as well as the anthrax investigations, and this is a bureau that is stretched to the limits at this time. All of this at the same time that they are talking about concentrating their efforts more on counterintelligence.

So, yes, they are certainly poised to react quickly to this, but you are talking -- they have to be a tired group of people.

WOODRUFF: So, for people sitting around thinking maybe they will be able to rule out terrorism sooner rather than later, you are saying the reality that is they only have so many people working there.

CANDIOTTI: Sure, exactly -- on site -- but they certainly are thinking that direction, that is the first thing that all of us are wondering about at this time.

WOODRUFF: Susan Candiotti, thanks very much.




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