WASHINGTON - President Bush rose forcefully to his own defense yesterday, insisting that had he known about Osama bin Laden's plot to attack the United States on Sept. 11, he would have acted boldly to safeguard the country.
"I take my job as commander in chief very seriously," Bush said in his first public comments since this week's revelation that a CIA briefing in August had cautioned him that bin Laden might be planning hijackings. "Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to kill on that fateful morning, I would have done everything in my power to protect the American people."
The president's remarks coincided with an aggressive effort by the White House yesterday to strike back at critics. Many of them have raised pointed questions about what Bush knew about terrorist plots before Sept. 11 and why he failed for eight months to disclose what he learned in the briefing.
Bush's aides have insisted that the White House received only vague information about terrorist threats and knew nothing specific about bin Laden's plans. But as long ago as 1999, reports had surfaced that al-Qaida might consider using hijacked airplanes to crash into U.S. government buildings.
It seemed clear yesterday that the air of bipartisanship that has surrounded Sept. 11 has all but evaporated. Some of Bush's Republican allies charged that Democrats were pointing fingers at the administration to try to erode the president's high approval ratings.
"They are salivating at the opportunity to try to bring the president down," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. "What's going on here is very transparent."
In a bristling offensive that seemed to depart from Bush's stated desire for bipartisanship, White House officials singled out individual Democrats, saying they received much of the same intelligence last summer that the president had but had chosen not to speak out explicitly about possible attacks.
The White House even issued a statement of support from his wife, Laura, who said, "It's sad to play upon the emotions of people as if there were something we could have done to stop [the attacks], because that's just not the case."
She added, "There was no way he could have predicted what would happen from this intelligence."
Speaking yesterday at a ceremony honoring the Air Force Academy's football program, Bush said, "What is interesting about Washington, it's a town - unfortunately, it's the kind of place where second-guessing has become second nature."
Vice President Dick Cheney was less restrained in a speech Thursday evening. He warned that Democrats should not make "incendiary suggestions" that are "thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war."
Democrats asserted yesterday that their goal was not to heap blame on Bush, but to fully investigate any intelligence failures leading to Sept. 11 - and whether the president was involved in those failures.
Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the House Democratic leader, said: "Our nation is not well-served when the charge of 'partisan politics' is leveled at those who simply seek information that the American people need and deserve to know. This is not about placing blame or assigning motives to people. This is about working together as a team and trying to do better in the future."
On Thursday, Democrats had zeroed in on Bush's failure to caution Americans about terrorist plots before Sept. 11 and to make public over the past eight months what he was told in his August CIA briefing.
Yesterday, those Democratic critics joined Republicans in focusing more on the broader intelligence breakdowns that contributed to the nation's failure to anticipate the terrorist attacks. Still, the heated political exchanges seemed to threaten the thoughtful investigation that both sides say is necessary.
The White House has said that throughout the summer, it had been flooded with intelligence reports suggesting that al-Qaida might be planning an assault. Most of the reports, officials said, indicated that an attack might target U.S. interests overseas rather than on American soil.
But lawmakers, Democrats as well as Republicans, are demanding a full investigation of what the FBI, CIA and other agencies knew about bin Laden's plans, and whether better communication between the agencies might have prevented the attacks. They also want to know exactly what Bush was told Aug. 6 at the CIA briefing at his Texas ranch.
Aides to Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the senator would formally request something that many other lawmakers have been calling for: that Bush's briefing materials be made public, which the White House has refused to do.
Shelby is also expected to demand that a July FBI memo from an agent in Phoenix be released to the public. That memo, which was never acted upon, expressed concern that bin Laden might have been using U.S. flight schools to train hijackers. White House officials said Bush was not aware of the memo before Sept. 11.
Options on Bin Laden
Information disclosed in recent days, though, suggests that before his summer briefing, Bush was deeply concerned about bin Laden's activities. In a hastily called meeting July 5, the president, said a senior administration official, ordered top security and intelligence officials to give him options on how the United States could begin targeting al-Qaida.
Possible scenarios, some of them involving military action, were on the desk of his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, on Sept. 10 and awaiting review by Bush, the official said.
Aides say the president learned in his August briefing that bin Laden was considering hijacking jetliners. But they insist there was no clear sign that al-Qaida planned to use planes as missiles to attack buildings. That possibility, White House officials said, was unfathomable before Sept. 11.
Administration officials were asked yesterday about a report, drafted by the Library of Congress in 1999 and delivered to the executive branch, that bin Laden's network could hijack an airliner and ram it into the Pentagon or other government buildings. That report, Bush officials said, did not amount to intelligence about a specific plan - only a study of the thinking of terrorists.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle suggested that vital information about terrorist threats and methods possibly never reached the president's desk.
"I think the question is why didn't [Bush] know," the South Dakota Democrat said. "If the information was made available, why was he kept in the dark? If the president of the United States doesn't have access to this kind of information, there's something wrong with the system."
As part of the White House offensive yesterday, Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman, repeated assertions that Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, like the president, had received information over the summer about possible terrorist attacks.
"The question arises, What did the Democrats know, and why weren't they talking to each other?" Fleischer said.
One of the Democrats on the Intelligence Committee he named, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, responded, "The issue is too important to our nation to engage in the kind of politics Mr. Fleischer is practicing."
Singling out another Democrat, Fleischer expressed "disappointment" that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York invoked a headline in the New York Post - "9/11 Bombshell: BUSH KNEW" - to try to pressure the White House to release more information. Clinton, Fleischer argued, "did not call the White House, did not ask if it was accurate or not."
Clinton said she does not "favor people who jump to conclusions, point fingers, play the blame game," but "I also believe strongly that I and others are raising legitimate questions."
Shaping a review
Lawmakers debated how best to proceed with their investigation. A bipartisan group of senators has called for an independent commission to look at possible intelligence failures as well as the president's involvement.
Bush and some Republican lawmakers, though, favor keeping all investigations in the congressional intelligence committees - where they would probably focus more on agencies such as the CIA and FBI and less on Bush.
McConnell argued that an independent commission would further politicize matters and open the door to more "grandstanding" by lawmakers.
Yet Democrats have accused White House officials of sending mixed messages, saying they paint Democrats as unpatriotic when they question Bush's handling of Sept. 11 - but then try to invoke his leadership after the attacks for political gain.
For example, Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, has said the White House will highlight Bush's handling of the war this election year to try to persuade voters that Republicans are better able to bolster the military and protect the nation.
Bush's approval ratings, though down from 90 percent, where they peaked soon after Sept. 11, remain high - above 70 percent.
In a USA Today/CNN poll taken Thursday, only one-third of those surveyed said the latest revelations made them feel less favorable toward the administration. But 68 percent of respondents said the administration should have revealed earlier that it had had some advance knowledge of a hijacking threat.
ABC News reported that the White House has been shaking up intelligence agencies. Cheney, the network reported, played a role in ousting the chief of the CIA's counterterrorism center, Cofer Black.
But a spokesman for the CIA said that Black was highly regarded and that he left because his three-year tour had ended. And a White House staff member said that Cheney did not know Black was leaving and that the vice president "has nothing to with personnel decisions made at agencies."
Sun staff writers Laura Sullivan and Mark Matthews contributed to this article.