Contrasting Approaches to Terrorism
Two months later, shortly after Bush took office, he received a CIA briefing and received the same "preliminary judgment." Lower-level aides who had worked for Clinton pressed for action against bin Laden, but Bush and his senior advisers worried that an ineffective airstrike would merely give bin Laden a propaganda advantage.
The report, which noted that the "procedures of the Bush administration were at once more formal and less formal" than the Clinton operation, said that ultimately senior Bush officials never had a "formal, recorded decision not to retaliate" for the Cole attack. Instead, through conversations involving Rice and Bush, Bush and Tenet, and Rice, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a consensus was reached that "tit-for-tat" responses would be counterproductive, the report said.
Only after the Sept. 11 attacks did Bush formally declare that al Qaeda had been responsible for the Cole incident.
On the morning of the attacks, Bush was attending an elementary school event in Florida when he was told that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. He sat there, appearing emotionless, for another five to seven minutes. Bush told the commission he did this because "he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening."
In the weeks immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, some key advisers, such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, pressed for an attack against Iraq. The report said Bush shrugged off the advice.
When Bush met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair nine days after the attacks, Blair asked about Iraq. According to a memo of the conversation obtained by the commission, Bush replied that Iraq was not an immediate problem.
Bush told the commission that former White House counterterrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke had mischaracterized an incident in his book, "Against All Enemies." In the book, Clarke said Bush, wandering into the situation room, pressed him in an intimidating fashion to find out whether Saddam Hussein was behind the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush dismissed the idea that he would have wandered into the situation room alone.
Bush acknowledged he might have asked Clarke about Iraq shortly after the attacks, and another aide recalled an exchange between Clarke and Bush on Iraq but did not find the president's manner intimidating, the report said.
Bush told the commission that before the attacks there had been an appetite in government for trying to kill bin Laden, but not for going to war. Bush also said he believed a policy approved the day before the attacks might have led to an invasion of Afghanistan.
He told the commission that "would have seemed like an ultimate act of unilateralism," the report said. "But he said he was prepared to take that on."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
CIA Director George J. Tenet, left, gave President Bush daily briefings; Condoleezza Rice, second from right, served as Bush's conduit with other officials.
(Eric Draper -- White House Via AP)