Bush and Clinton Teams Debate Pre-9/11 Efforts

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The election-year debate over terrorism has triggered a full-blown spat between the camps of President Bush and former president Bill Clinton as the two sides trade barbs over who was more responsible for failing to disrupt al-Qaeda before it could attack the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

Bush complained yesterday that Clinton was engaging in "finger-pointing" by attacking the current administration's actions before the hijackings. "I don't have enough time to finger-point," Bush said. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did, calling Clinton's version of events "flatly false." Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) returned fire on his behalf, asserting that he would have paid more attention to intelligence warnings in the weeks before the attacks than Bush did.

The unusual crossfire over the past few days effectively broke a tacit peace between the 42nd and 43rd presidents that has reigned for most of the past two years. Ever since Bush tapped Bill Clinton to work with his father, George H.W. Bush, on relief efforts after the Asian tsunamis of December 2004, the two have grown closer. Clinton and the older Bush teamed up again on Hurricane Katrina relief, and the president talked about growing to like his predecessor.

But with the hotly contested midterm elections just weeks away, Bush has tried to focus the nation's attention on the threat of terrorism, and Clinton has become more irritated at what he sees as attacks on his performance. The recent ABC miniseries "Path to 9/11" especially irked the former president because of what he saw as a skewed portrayal blaming him for not doing more to get Osama bin Laden.

Clinton, when asked about the matter on "Fox News Sunday," erupted in an angry, red-faced, finger-jabbing performance that has electrified the left and outraged the right. Clinton said that though he failed, at least he tried to kill bin Laden while Bush did not. "They had eight months to try," Clinton said. "They did not try. I tried."

Rice bristled at that in an interview in yesterday's New York Post. "The notion somehow for eight months the Bush administration sat there and didn't do that is just flatly false, and I think the 9/11 commission understood that," she said. "What we did in the eight months was at least as aggressive as what the Clinton administration did in the preceding years."

Hillary Clinton pointed to the intelligence memo presented to Bush in August 2001. "I'm certain that if my husband and his national security team had been shown a classified report entitled 'Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States,' he would have taken it more seriously than history suggests it was taken by our current president and his national security team," she said.

And Jay Carson, a spokesman for Bill Clinton, rejected Rice's contention: "Every single fact that President Clinton stated in his interview is backed up by the historical record -- including the 9/11 commission report. Everything President Clinton said was flatly correct."

Some of Clinton's statements on Fox have drawn scrutiny. He said that after the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, "I had battle plans drawn to go into Afghanistan, overthrow the Taliban and launch a full-scale attack search for bin Laden. But we needed basing rights in Uzbekistan." The Sept. 11 commission, though, found no plans for an invasion of Afghanistan or for an operation to topple the Taliban, just more limited options such as plans for attacks with cruise missiles or Special Forces. And nothing in the panel's report indicated that a lack of basing rights in Uzbekistan prevented a military response.

Clinton also asserted that the Bush administration "didn't have a single meeting about bin Laden for the nine months after I left office." In fact, the Bush team held several meetings on terrorism through the interagency group known as the deputies committee and one on Sept. 4, 2001, through the principals committee composed of Cabinet officers. What Clinton may have been referring to was counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke's frustration that the principals disregarded his urgent calls to meet sooner because of a months-long policy review.

Rice came under fire for her assertion that "we were not left a comprehensive strategy to fight al-Qaeda" by Clinton's team. In fact, Clarke sent Rice an al-Qaeda memo on Jan. 25, 2001, along with a strategy to "roll back" the terrorist network, but the Bush team decided to conduct the policy review.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company