9/11 Panel Critical of Clinton, Bush
Officials From Both Administrations Defend Response to Al Qaeda Threat
By Dan Eggen and John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 24, 2004; Page A01
The commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks issued a stinging condemnation yesterday of the U.S. government's failed hunt for Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network, finding that both the Clinton and Bush administrations focused too heavily on diplomacy that did not work and were reluctant to consider aggressive military action.
The criticism prompted spirited defenses from top Clinton and Bush officials, who testified in a day-long public hearing that the government proceeded as aggressively as possible given what was known about the threat from al Qaeda.
Several of the witnesses, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, also suggested that there was little public or congressional appetite for military action against Afghanistan, which harbored al Qaeda, until after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and that even removing bin Laden may not have prevented the hijackings.
"This administration came in fully recognizing the threat presented to the United States and its interests and allies around the world by terrorism," Powell said. "We went to work on it immediately. The president made it clear it was a high priority."
But the new reports by the commission's investigative staff portray the Bush administration as giving terrorism scant attention during its first eight months, noting that officials did not draw up concrete plans to confront al Qaeda and its Afghan protectors until just days before the Sept. 11 attacks.
The reports suggest that many of the Clinton administration's policies also were ineffectual, revealing significant new details about as many as four missed opportunities to kill or capture bin Laden in 1998 and 1999.
The reports also appear to confirm some of the key criticisms made by Richard A. Clarke, the former counterterrorism coordinator for Clinton and Bush, in a book released Monday that has revived the bitter debate over the government's war on terror. Clarke set off a political firestorm with allegations that the current administration neglected the al Qaeda threat in part because senior officials were obsessed with attacking Iraq, and accused both administrations of failing to act aggressively enough. He is scheduled to testify before the commission today, along with CIA Director George J. Tenet, Clinton national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger and Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage.
Addressing what more could have been done, Madeleine K. Albright, Clinton's secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, said: "I can say with confidence that President Clinton and his team did everything we could, everything that we could think of, based on the knowledge we had, to protect our people and disrupt and defeat al Qaeda. We certainly recognized the threat posed by the terrorist groups."
The panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, is a 10-member bipartisan commission established by Congress to examine the missteps leading up to the attacks. Unlike previous efforts, including a joint inquiry by the House and Senate intelligence committees, the commission is conducting a wide-ranging probe that reviews foreign policy, aviation, border control and other issues. It is scheduled to issue a report this summer.
The panel has engaged in repeated battles with the Bush administration over access to documents and witnesses, and several commissioners repeated their request yesterday that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice be permitted to testify. Rice, citing the opinion of White House lawyers, has declined to appear, but has submitted to private interviews with the commission. The current and former presidents and vice presidents also are scheduled to be interviewed privately.
The panel's staff issued reports earlier this year showing that the government fumbled repeated opportunities to stop many of the hijackers from entering the country. Among the new findings disclosed yesterday:
• The Clinton administration had as many as four chances to kill or capture bin Laden between December 1998 and July 1999, but all the operations were scuttled because of uncertain intelligence and fears that civilians or dignitaries might be killed. In one example, in May 1999, sources provided detailed reports about bin Laden's whereabouts in the Kandahar area over a period of five nights, but strikes were not ordered because the military was concerned about the accuracy of the reports and the risk of collateral damage, investigators found.
"Having a chance to get [bin Laden] three times in 36 hours and foregoing the chance each time has made me a bit angry," a CIA unit chief wrote to a colleague, adding that Tenet "finds himself alone at the table, with the other princip[als] basically saying 'we'll go along with your decision Mr. Director,' and implicitly saying that the Agency will hang alone if the attack doesn't get [bin Laden]."
• Rumsfeld told the commission in earlier interviews that he "did not recall any particular counterterrorism issue that engaged his attention before 9/11," other than the debate over preparing armed drones to target bin Laden.
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