Top Focus Before 9/11 Wasn't on Terrorism
McClellan also said, "The plan to eliminate al Qaeda was something the president directed this administration to pursue when we came into office. Remember, it is the president who said, I'm tired of swatting at flies, and he directed the administration to pursue a comprehensive plan to eliminate al Qaeda."
On Thursday, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to the White House requesting the immediate release of the text of Rice's undelivered speech.
"Dr. Rice 's speech suggests that at the very least there was a disconnect between the public security message and the policy prescriptions top White House officials were pushing and the private warnings federal agencies were issuing about imminent threats to our homeland," Schumer wrote in the letter, a copy of which was released by the senator's office Thursday afternoon. "More ominously, it may demonstrate that top White House officials did not take the warnings they received seriously enough."
A review of major public pronouncements in the first eight months of 2001 found relatively few extensive statements by Bush, Vice President Cheney or Rice about al Qaeda, bin Laden or other Islamic extremist groups.
The president set the tone. In his first address to Congress, on Feb. 27, 2001, Bush acknowledged the danger of bomb-wielding terrorists, but also promoted missile defense as the priority in protecting the United States.
"Our nation also needs a clear strategy to confront the threats of the 21st century, threats that are more widespread and less certain. They range from terrorists who threaten with bombs to tyrants and rogue nations intent on developing weapons of mass destruction. To protect our own people, our allies and friends, we must develop and we must deploy effective missile defenses," he said. Later this year, the administration plans to put into operation the first phase of a system to intercept and destroy incoming ballistic missiles.
In most public comments about Afghanistan before Sept. 11, Bush talked mainly about limited freedoms afforded under Taliban rule. One of the few presidential statements citing bin Laden and al Qaeda was on June 30, 2001, in a letter renewing Clinton administration-era sanctions on the Taliban.
During the summer of 2001, as al Qaeda operatives were in flight training and finalizing plans for the attacks, the administration's public focus was on other matters.
After his first meeting with NATO heads of state in Brussels in June 2001, Bush outlined the five top defense issues discussed with the closest U.S. allies. Missile defense was at the top of the list, followed by developing a NATO relationship with Russia, working in common purpose with Europe, increased defense spending in NATO countries, and enlarging the alliance to include former East European countries. The only reference to extremists was in Macedonia, where Bush said regional forces were seeking to subvert a new democracy.
Top officials continued that public focus right up to the eve of the al Qaeda attacks. On Aug. 2, 2001, Cheney emphasized the bold new U.S. plan for a 21st century approach to security. "We're fundamentally transforming the U.S. strategic relationship around the world as we look at missile defenses and modifications to our offensive strategic arms," he said at a news conference with Republican congressional leaders on Capitol Hill.
And two days before Sept. 11, appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Rice said the administration was ready "to get serious about the business of dealing with this emergent threat. Ballistic missiles are ubiquitous now."
In the speech prepared for Sept. 11, Rice intended to point out that the United States had spent $11 billion on counterterrorism, about twice as much as it spent on missile defense, during the previous year, although the speech did not point out that that was when President Bill Clinton was still in office.
Rice's text noted that Bush appointed Cheney to oversee a coordinated national effort to protect against a terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction. At the time, the U.S. concern about terror was heavily focused on Iraq and rogue states, and missile defense was viewed as a weapon against that terrorism -- a different interpretation of the leading threats and responses that would take hold after jetliners hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
In April 2002, Rice followed through on her postponed Sept. 11 speaking engagement at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. But the speech she delivered did not contain any of the original text, former U.S. officials said.
In the revamped speech, Rice's focus was on the threat of international terrorists -- and missile defense was mentioned only once, almost in passing.
"An earthquake of the magnitude of 9/11 can shift the tectonic plates of international politics," she noted.
Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford and staff writer Mark Stencel contributed to this report.
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