Ex-Aide Recounts Terror Warnings
Clarke Says Bush Didn't Consider Al Qaeda Threat a Priority Before 9/11
By Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 25, 2004; Page A01
President Bush's top counterterrorism adviser warned seven days before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks that hundreds of people could die in a strike by the al Qaeda network and that the administration was not doing enough to combat the threat, the commission investigating the attacks disclosed yesterday.
Richard A. Clarke, who served as a senior White House counterterrorism official under three successive presidents, wrote to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice on Sept. 4, 2001, urging "policymakers to imagine a day after a terrorist attack, with hundreds of Americans dead at home and abroad, and ask themselves what they could have done earlier," according to a summary of the letter included in a commission staff report. Clarke also cites the same plea in his new book.
Clarke told the commission in testimony yesterday afternoon that whereas the Clinton administration treated terrorism as its highest priority, the Bush administration did not consider it to be an urgent issue before the attacks.
"I believe the Bush administration in the first eight months considered terrorism an important issue but not an urgent issue," Clarke told the 10-member panel. ". . . There was a process underway to address al Qaeda. But although I continued to say it was an urgent problem, I don't think it was ever treated that way."
Clarke's appearance before the panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, climaxed days of furor over claims in his book that the Bush administration did not do enough to pursue al Qaeda before Sept. 11, 2001, and has neglected the war on terrorism since then because of an obsession with waging war on Iraq.
The second day of this week's commission hearings also produced new revelations about events before the attacks, including a denial of the White House's long-standing claim that Bush requested a briefing on the domestic threat posed by al Qaeda in August 2001.
But perhaps the day's most dramatic moment came at the start of Clarke's testimony, when he issued an apology that prompted sobs and cheers from the front rows of the packed hearing room, which were filled with relatives of victims of the terrorist attacks.
"To the loved ones of the victims of 9/11, to them who are here in the room, to those who are watching on television, your government failed you," he said. "Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn't matter, because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask, once all the facts are out, for your understanding and for your forgiveness."
Administration officials inside and outside the commission's meeting room continued to wage fierce attacks yesterday on Clarke's motives and credibility. The White House authorized identifying Clarke as the official who anonymously gave a background briefing for reporters in 2002 that included positive comments about Bush's anti-terrorism strategies.
Rice, who has refused to testify publicly before the commission, met with reporters late yesterday and said that Clarke has sharply changed his view of the administration's war on terrorism. "This story has so many twists and turns now that I think he needs to get this story straight," Rice said.
She said he never raised concerns with her about the impact of the invasion of Iraq on counterterrorism efforts. Rice also characterized Clarke's Sept. 4 letter predicting deaths from a terrorist strike as a policy document that contained no specific warnings.
The White House released an e-mail from Clarke to Rice sent four days after the attacks that said the White House had warned law enforcement agencies and the Federal Aviation Administration that top counterterrorism officials feared a major al Qaeda attack "was coming and it could be in the US . . . and did ask that special measures be taken."
At the hearings, top officials of the Clinton and Bush administrations also resumed sparring over details of their counterterrorism policies and defending their respective efforts to guard against attacks.
The charged political climate enveloped the commission as well. Key Democrats and Republicans on the panel dropped the neutral posture they had shown in previous hearings and were openly partisan in questioning Clarke and other witnesses. Three GOP members of the group, for example, grilled Clarke on his motivations, suggesting that he had been contradictory in his statements and dishonest in the past about his misgivings about counterterrorism policies.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Victims' relatives applaud Richard A. Clarke's testimony before the panel. "To the loved ones of the victims of 9/11, to them who are here in the room, to those who are watching on television, your government failed you," he said.
(Bill O'Leary -- The Washington Post)
_____War on Al Qaeda_____
A Strategy's Cautious Evolution (The Washington Post, Jan 20, 2002)
U.S. Suspects Al Qaeda Got Nerve Agent From Iraqis (The Washington Post, Dec 12, 2002)
Broad Effort Launched After '98 Attacks (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2001)
Struggles Inside the Government Defined Campaign (The Washington Post, Dec 20, 2001)
U.S. Was Foiled Multiple Times in Efforts To Capture Bin Laden or Have Him Killed (The Washington Post, Oct 3, 2001)