9/11 Panel Critical of Clinton, Bush
• A month after the Clinton administration launched missile strikes on al Qaeda targets in retaliation for the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, counterterrorism officials within the Pentagon prepared a paper proposing "a more aggressive counterterrorism posture" to "take up the gauntlet that international terrorists have thrown at our feet." The authors also warned that in case of more "horrific attacks . . . we will have no choice nor, unfortunately, will we have a plan."
The eight-point proposal went nowhere, in part because senior officials thought the plan was too aggressive, investigators found.
• In the spring of 1998, the Saudi government broke up a plot organized by bin Laden to launch attacks on U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia using portable missiles. Scores were arrested, but the Saudis did not publicize the case at the time, the commission report said.
• U.S. officials learned that Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistani intelligence, had assured Taliban leaders in July 1999 that he would provide three or four hours of warning before any U.S. missile launch as he had the "last time" -- an apparent reference to the failed 1998 missile strike.
Testifying yesterday were Albright, Powell, Rumsfeld and Clinton defense secretary William S. Cohen. The pairs of representatives agreed with one another on many broad issues, including the difficulties of targeting bin Laden and his allies before Sept. 11, 2001, and the perceived lack of political support for military action during those years. Some commissioners, particularly former senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), argued that both administrations could have rallied support for military operations just as they did in Kosovo and Iraq, respectively.
The officials from both administrations also struck a similar theme on the question of preventing the terror strikes, arguing that it is unclear how effective aggressive action might have been, given the extent of the plot and the determination of the participants. Powell noted that al Qaeda and its allies have launched attacks since the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan in late 2001.
"Anything we might have done against al Qaeda in this period or against Osama bin Laden may or may not have had any influence on these people who were already in this country," Powell said.
Albright said that "things looked very different before 9/11. We were mostly accused of overreacting, not underreacting."
But each side disparaged the other on several occasions. Albright, for example, bemoaned many of the policy changes pursued by Bush and his aides after they took office, while Rumsfeld said the new president was determined not to repeat the Clinton administration's tactic of "bouncing the rubble" by sending cruise missiles at al Qaeda sites of little strategic value.
Rumsfeld and Powell defended the administration's pace in adopting new strategies to battle al Qaeda and persuade the Taliban to give up bin Laden. Final plans for both were completed the week before the terrorist attacks.
Cohen and Albright similarly defended Clinton's actions against al Qaeda. Cohen said that missile strikes against bin Laden were called off in each instance because of CIA doubts about the accuracy of the intelligence involved.
In his testimony, Powell confirmed one claim by Clarke that Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary who strongly supported U.S. military action against Iraq, suggested an attack on the government of Saddam Hussein during a meeting at Camp David just four days after the 2001 attacks. President Bush "said first things first," Powell said. "He decided on Afghanistan." Wolfowitz, who appeared alongside Rumsfeld later, did not directly address the issue.
Research editor Margot Williams contributed to this report.
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