9/11 Panel Told Terrorism Initially Not 'Urgent' for Bush
Clarke said he had urged National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in a memo on Jan. 25, 2001 -- a few days after President Bush's inauguration -- to hold an urgent high-level meeting to review proposals to deal with al Qaeda. In response, Clarke said, he was told that he should report to a committee of deputies, and not the "principals," such as Rice and Cabinet-level officials, on his package of recommendations.
That decision "slowed it down enormously," as did a decision to consider the proposals only "as part of a cluster of policy issues" that also included such matters as nuclear proliferation in South Asia and democratization in Pakistan, Clarke said.
Clarke said he became so frustrated that he asked to be assigned to a new position dealing with cyber security.
"My view was that this administration, while it listened to me, either didn't believe me that there was an urgent problem, or was unprepared to act as though there was an urgent problem," Clarke said.
He said he wrote a memo to Rice on Sept. 4, 2001, that criticized the Defense Department for reluctance to use force against al Qaeda and the CIA for impeding the deployment of unmanned Predator drones to hunt for bin Laden. The memo urged officials to imagine a day when hundreds of Americans lay dead from a terrorist attack and ask themselves what more they could have done.
His proposals were eventually implemented, Clarke said, but only after Sept. 11. "I didn't really understand why they couldn't have been done in February" 2001, he said.
He said that with a more robust intelligence and covert action program in the years before the attacks, "we might have been able to nip [the plot] in the bud." But the gathering and sharing of intelligence was so poor that it hardly mattered that there was no specific information pointing to an attack in the United States before Sept. 11 and that attention was focused overseas, he said.
"I hate to say it [but] I didn't think the FBI would know whether there was anything going on in the United States by al Qaeda," Clarke said. He said neither he nor senior FBI officials were provided with information that two known al Qaeda members, who eventually participated in the attacks, had entered the United States.
Rice has refused to testify in open session before the commission, citing the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches. Instead, the Bush administration sent Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage to defend the administration's actions.
But Armitage stressed that "I'm not here as Dr. Rice's replacement," citing his own expertise on national security matters. He said there had been "stunning continuity" between the Bush administration's initial approach to al Qaeda and the policies of the Clinton administration and that the new government "vigorously pursued" policies inherited from Clinton while developing its own response to al Qaeda.
Echoing remarks he had made in interviews with the commission staff, Armitage said the Bush administration's early policy toward al Qaeda was headed in the right direction, although he conceded that deliberations were slow.
"We were on the right track. We weren't going fast enough," he said.
Earlier, Tenet told the commission that intelligence officials appreciated the danger of al Qaeda and had a growing sense of urgency in the summer of 2001 about an impending disaster, but they thought it would come overseas, not in the United States.
That, rather than the failure to kill bin Laden, was the more serious "systemic" failure.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Former U.S. counterterrorism official Richard Clarke testifies before the 9/11 Commission.
(Kevin Lamarque - Reuters)
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