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White House, Air Force One were targets, official says

Administration spokesman says plane that hit the Pentagon may have been headed for the White House

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WASHINGTON — The White House and Air Force One, two potent symbols of the American presidency, were targets of Tuesday's suicide bombers, President Bush's spokesman said.

Ari Fleischer said Wednesday that government officials had credible information the hijacked plane that slammed into the Pentagon "was originally intended to hit the White House." He said White House aides learned this during Bush's flight Tuesday from Sarasota, Fla., to an air base in Louisiana.

"That also was one of the reasons why Air Force One did not come back to Andrews, when people may have thought it would," Fleischer said. He declined to give further information about the form of threat posed to the presidential mansion and airplane.

Vice President Dick Cheney worked at the White House on Tuesday, but was moved to a secure location within its grounds, Fleischer said.

Attorney General John Ashcroft also said the White House and Air Force One were targets.

The administration, eager to explain why Bush did not immediately return to Washington and take clear charge in Tuesday's chaos, said the executive mansion and presidential jet had been threatened by the terrorists who struck at New York's World Trade Center minutes before turning to the nation's capital.

Bush was in Sarasota for an education speech, when he was informed of the New York attacks. He told his elementary school audience that he was returning to Washington but that plan was immediately scrambled when the Pentagon was struck.

Under a tight wrap of secrecy, Bush first flew to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and then to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, home of the U.S. Strategic Command, before returning to the White House at dusk. Officials said they were deferring to Secret Service and military counsel.

Bush's Boeing 747, operating as a kind of airborne White House, was escorted by military fighter jets and guarded on secured air base tarmacs by military personnel.

Early in the crisis, Fleischer seemed sensitive to any appearance the president was in hiding and not in charge.

At midday Tuesday, as Air Force One left Louisiana, Fleischer told reporters: "The president is looking forward to returning to Washington. He understands at a time like this caution must be taken, and he wants to get back to Washington."

Hours before Bush's return, the White House was evacuated and Secret Service agents with automatic rifles sealed off a two-block perimeter around the mansion.

Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, joined by a few aides, were the only officials to remain at the White House. They worked from the Situation Room, in touch with Bush by telephone and videoconference.

Throughout Tuesday, images of the Pentagon in flames — smashed by a hijacked airliner — and White House aides fleeing across Pennsylvania Avenue provided a sharp contrast with pictures of Bush headed into a small underground bunker at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.

When Bush returned to Washington, he took a helicopter from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., arriving on the South Lawn of the White House under cover of three decoy Marine choppers.

On Wednesday, security was extraordinarily tight at Andrews, home base for the presidential air fleet. The main gate was blocked by a Humvee, a heavy truck and a bus. Guards were armed with machine guns.