Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) called for an independent commission May 21 to investigate what the Bush administration knew about terrorist threats before Sept. 11 and why stronger measures were not taken to avert a possible attack.

“The time has come for us to do what they did after the invasion of Pearl Harbor, do what they did with the assassination of President Kennedy,” Daschle said, referring to Blue Ribbon commissions that probed those past disasters.

The White House is facing a torrent of demands that it release a CIA memo shown to George W. Bush last August warning of a plot by Osama bin Laden’s network to hijack jetliners in a dramatic terrorist attack. Bush received a briefing on the memo’s contents Aug. 6, yet did nothing to warn airline officials or step up airport security in the weeks leading up to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in which 3,000 people died. There is growing anger that the White House kept the memo secret for eight months. It was leaked first by CBS.

In the months after Sept. 11, Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and a host of other White House officials claimed repeatedly that the Sept. 11 attack was a bolt from the blue with “no specific warning.”

In addition to the CIA memo, FBI field offices in Phoenix and Minneapolis also sent warnings to FBI headquarters that an unusually high number of men of Middle Eastern background were enrolled in flight training schools and could pose a threat to U.S. civil aviation. The Phoenix memo apparently reported that these trainees voiced open hatred of the United States.

The administration has admitted that it has received many warnings that Al Qaeda was plotting a terrorist attack. All federal security agencies were placed on full alert last summer but were ordered to “stand down” a few weeks before Sept. 11. Airline and airport officials report that they received no warnings of the threat of hijackings.

House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) said a full investigation is needed. “We need to know what people knew and when they knew it and what they did about it,” he said.

“I am simply here today on the floor of this hallowed chamber to seek answers to questions,” declared Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), “questions being asked by my constituents … by our newspapers in New York, such as the one with the headline, ‘Bush Knew.’ The President knew what? My constituents would like to know the answers to those questions.”

These questions touched off a blind fury in the ranks of the GOP ultra-right. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who connived in the impeachment of President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair, accused the Democrats of “salivating to bring the president down.” Administration officials fanned out on Capitol Hill in an attempt to squelch the demands for a full probe. Cheney was the point man in rebuffing demands for release of the classified memos, claiming it would compromise national security.

Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) pointed out that many weeks ago she called for congressional hearings into what warnings the Bush administration received before the Sept. 11 attacks. “I was derided by the White House, right-wing talk radio and spokespersons for the military-industrial complex as a conspiracy theorist,” said McKinney, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. “Even my patriotism was questioned because I dared to suggest that Congress should conduct a full and complete investigation into the most disastrous intelligence failure in American history.”

The revelations that the administration and Bush “were given months of notice that a terrorist attack was a distinct possibility point out the need for a complete congressional investigation,” Mc Kinney said. “It now becomes clear why the Bush administration has been vigorously opposing congressional hearings. The Bush administration has been engaged in a conspiracy of silence.”

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and four other members of the House Juiciary Committee wrote to Judiciary Committee Chair James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-Wisc.), urging full committee hearings, open to the public.

“The questions about what was known prior to Sept. 11 continue to grow and multiply each day,” their letter said. “We cannot leave an investigation of this matter to a behind-closed-doors review by the intelligence community and intelligence committees. Our concerns are not ones of public relations or politics but of substance and a commitment to ensuring that similar errors are prevented in the future.”

Among the questions, Conyers and the others wrote, is “why the administration waited eight months to disclose to the American people the information it had prior to Sept. 11 on possible terrorist attacks.”

The author can be reached at