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Not So Tough on Terror?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, September 26, 2006 1:36 PM

President Bush's all-important terror-fighting credentials are taking a bruising this week.

Former President Clinton has revived charges that Bush didn't take the threat of terrorism seriously enough before Sept. 11.

And an intelligence report indicates that Bush's signature response to terror since the attacks -- invading Iraq -- has actually backfired.

The result: A potential erosion of Bush's strongest political suit -- at the worst possible moment for a White House already fearful of losing Republican majorities in Congress in November.

Pre-9/11 Thinking

The subject of Bush's inaction on terror before 9/11 roared back into public consciousness over the weekend, when Clinton responded to conservative attempts to blame him for not having prevented the al Qaeda attack.

Here's the transcript and video of Clinton's interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News.

Clinton said he came "closer to killing" Osama bin Laden in a 1998 missile strike on terrorist training camps in Afghanistan than anybody has since.

"I didn't get him," Clinton said. "But at least I tried. That's the difference in me and some, including all the right-wingers who are attacking me now. They ridiculed me for trying. They had eight months to try. They did not try. I tried.

"So I tried and failed. When I failed, I left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy and the best guy in the country, Dick Clarke, who got demoted."

White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend, appearing on CNN yesterday afternoon with Wolf Blitzer, issued a classic non-denial denial.

"BLITZER: Let me go back to the first eight months of the Bush administration. We heard over the weekend former President Clinton suggests the CIA and the FBI had certified at the end of his administration that al Qaeda was, in fact, responsible for the attack on the USS Cole. That when President Bush came into office, he was told this, yet, he didn't do anything between the time he took office and 9/11 to go after al Qaeda, even though he knew that al Qaeda was responsible for the attack of the USS Cole. Do you want to respond to that?

"TOWNSEND: I do, Wolf. You know, the notion that anybody is not doing all they could do to combat the war on terrorism, to defeat al Qaeda and prevent the next attack is just offensive."

But the Associated Press reports that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was then national security adviser, fired back yesterday with a more fervent (though similarly undetailed) defense: "'What we did in the eight months was at least as aggressive as what the Clinton administration did in the preceding years,' Rice said during a meeting with editors and reporters at the 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.

"Rice also took exception to Clinton's statement that he 'left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy' for incoming officials when he left office.

"'We were not left a comprehensive strategy to fight al-Qaida,' she told the newspaper, which is owned by News Corp., the same company that owns Fox News Channel."

Rice made it clear she'd rather be talking about something else: "'I think this is not a very fruitful discussion,' she said. 'We've been through it. The 9/11 commission has turned over every rock and we know exactly what they said.'"

New Evidence

Indeed, the 9/11 Commission Report very diplomatically concluded that both Bush and Clinton could have done more to prevent the terrorist threat.

But up until now, it's remained a mystery what exactly Bush said to the commissioners when he grudgingly consented to an interview with them in the Oval Office, back in April of 2004.

Pretty much all we knew about that interview was that Bush insisted that it be held in private, unrecorded -- and with Vice President Cheney at his side. (See, for instance, my April 8, 2004, column , and this Tom Toles cartoon .)

But yesterday afternoon, Democratic former commission member Richard Ben-Veniste dramatically broke his silence about that meeting in an interview with CNN's Blitzer. Here's the transcript . Forgive me for quoting so extensively, but it's fascinating stuff.

"BLITZER: All right. You, in your questioning in your investigation, when you were a member of this commission, specifically asked President Bush about efforts after he was inaugurated on January 20, 2001, until 9/11, eight months later, what he and his administration were doing to kill bin Laden, because by then it was certified, it was authorized. It was, in fact, confirmed that al Qaeda was responsible for the attack on the USS Cole in December of 2000.

"BEN-VENISTE: It's true, Wolf, we had the opportunity to interview President Bush, along with the vice president, and we spent a few hours doing that in the Oval Office. And one of the questions we had and I specifically had was why President Bush did not respond to the Cole attack. And what he told me was that he did not want to launch a cruise missile attack against bin Laden for fear of missing him and bombing the rubble.

"And then I asked him, 'Well, what about the Taliban?' The United States had warned the Taliban, indeed threatened the Taliban on at least three occasions, all of which is set out in our 9/11 Commission final report, that if bin Laden, who had refuge in Afghanistan, were to strike against U.S. interests then we would respond against the Taliban.

""BLITZER: Now, that was warnings during the Clinton administration. . . .

"BEN-VENISTE: That's correct.

"BLITZER: . . . the final years of the Clinton administration.

"BEN-VENISTE: That's correct.

"BLITZER: So you the asked the president in the Oval Office -- and the vice president -- why didn't you go after the Taliban in those eight months before 9/11 after he was president. What did he say?

"BEN-VENISTE: Well, now that it was established that al Qaeda was responsible for the Cole bombing and the president was briefed in January of 2001, soon after he took office, by George Tenet, head of the CIA, telling him of the finding that al Qaeda was responsible, and I said, 'Well, why wouldn't you go after the Taliban in order to get them to kick bin Laden out of Afghanistan?'

"Maybe, just maybe, who knows -- we don't know the answer to that question -- but maybe that could have affected the 9/11 plot.

"BLITZER: What did he say?

"BEN-VENISTE: He said that no one had told him that we had made that threat. And I found that very discouraging and surprising.

"BLITZER: Now, I read this report, the 9/11 Commission report. This is a big, thick book. I don't see anything and I don't remember seeing anything about this exchange that you had with the president in this report.

"BEN-VENISTE: Well, I had hoped that we had -- we would have made both the Clinton interview and the Bush interview a part of our report, but that was not to be. I was outvoted on that question. . . .

"BLITZER: Now, you haven't spoken publicly about this, your interview in the Oval Office, together with the other commissioners, the president and the vice president. Why are you doing that right now?

"BEN-VENISTE: Well, I think it's an important subject. The issue of the Cole is an important subject, and there has been a lot of politicization over this issue, why didn't President Clinton respond?

"Well, we set forth in the report the reasons, and that is because the CIA had not given the president the conclusion that al Qaeda was responsible. That did not occur until some point in December. It was reiterated in a briefing to the -- to the new president in January....

"BLITZER: Well, let me stop you for a second. If former President Clinton knew in December. . . .

"BEN-VENISTE: Right.

"BLITZER: . . . that the CIA and the FBI had, in his words, certified that al Qaeda was responsible, he was still president until January 20, 2001. He had a month, let's say, or at least a few weeks to respond.

"Why didn't he?

"BEN-VENISTE: Well, I think that was a question of whether a president who would be soon leaving office would initiate an attack against a foreign country, Afghanistan. And I think that was left up to the new administration. But strangely, in the transition there did not seem to be any great interest by the Bush administration, at least none that we found, in pursuing the question of plans which were being drawn up to attack in Afghanistan as a response to the Cole.

"BLITZER: Now, as best of my recollection, when you went to the Oval Office with your other commissioners, the president and the vice president did that together. That was a joint interview.

"BEN-VENISTE: At the request of the president.

"BLITZER: Did the vice president say anything to you? Did he know that this warning had been given to the Taliban, who were then ruling Afghanistan, if there's another attack on the United States, we're going to go after you because you harbor al Qaeda? And there was this attack on the USS Cole.

"BEN-VENISTE: The vice president did not at that point volunteer any information about the Cole.

"BLITZER: So what's your -- did the president say to you -- did the president say, you know, 'I made a mistake, I wish we would have done something'? What did he say when you continually -- when you pressed him? And I know you're a former prosecutor, you know how to drill, try to press a point.

"BEN-VENISTE: Well, the president made a humorous remark about the fact that -- asking me whether I had ever lost an argument, and I reminded him that -- or I informed him that I, too, had two daughters. And so we passed that."

Recently Uncovered Evidence

And let's not forget: It was only a few weeks ago that Ron Suskind revealed in his book, "The One Percent Doctrine," just how cavalierly President Bush responded to being briefed on the al Qaeda threat, just a month before the attack.

From Barton Gellman 's review in The Washington Post: "The book's opening anecdote tells of an unnamed CIA briefer who flew to Bush's Texas ranch during the scary summer of 2001, amid a flurry of reports of a pending al-Qaeda attack, to call the president's attention personally to the now-famous Aug. 6, 2001, memo titled 'Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US.' Bush reportedly heard the briefer out and replied: 'All right. You've covered your ass, now.'"

A Little More Background

Richard Clarke, who Clinton alluded to so favorably, published a book in March of 2004, detailing how the Bush White House failed to take the al Qaeda threat seriously before 9/11 -- and by Sept. 12 was trying to pin the attack on Iraq. (Here are my March 22 and March 23 , 2004 columns.)

Here's what Barton Gellman wrote in his Washington Post review of that book: "Acknowledged by foes and friends as a leading figure among career national security officials, Clarke served more than two years in the Bush White House after holding senior posts under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. . . .

"The president, he said, 'failed to act prior to September 11 on the threat from al Qaeda despite repeated warnings and then harvested a political windfall for taking obvious yet insufficient steps after the attacks.' The rapid shift of focus to Saddam Hussein, Clarke writes, 'launched an unnecessary and costly war in Iraq that strengthened the fundamentalist, radical Islamic terrorist movement worldwide.'"

You may recall that Rice, unlike Bush and Cheney, testified in public before the commission (see my April 9, 2004 column for background.) And it was Ben-Veniste who forced Rice to read the memo's title out loud.

David E. Sanger wrote in the New York Times at the time: "In one tangle after another with members of the commission, she did not put to rest questions about why the administration had not taken stronger action after learning of evidence that not only was Al Qaeda intent on striking the United States, but also that airplanes could somehow figure in the attack."

And yet somehow the story just petered away over time.

Well, now it's back.

Iraq and the War on Terror

Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "Democratic lawmakers yesterday seized on elements of a new classified intelligence assessment as validation of their long-standing position that the Iraq war has been a distraction from the broader war against terrorists, seeing the new study as an opportunity to undermine President Bush's determined offensive to turn terrorism to political advantage in the midterm elections. . . .

"Democratic lawmakers said the NIE finding undermines Bush's frequent claim that the toppling of Saddam Hussein's government has made the world more secure and confirms the need for a major change in strategy in Iraq. The findings were featured prominently at a hearing Senate Democrats held yesterday to review the conduct of the war and were cited by several retired generals offering harsh critiques of the administration's preparation for the Iraq war. . . .

"After weeks in which White House officials believed they had partly succeeded in reframing the elections around terrorism, rather than Iraq, the new report threatened to reverse those gains. . . .

"According to officials familiar with the classified report interviewed by The Washington Post over the weekend, the study found that rather than contributing to eventual victory in the international counterterrorism struggle, the war in Iraq has worsened the U.S. position. Many experts on terrorism regard that finding as unexceptional -- indeed the CIA predicted it before the Iraq invasion -- but it runs counter to the argument presented by the president and his senior advisers.

"On prominent GOP pollster said the new disclosures could put at risk any gains the White House may have made in recent weeks tying the war in Iraq to a broader war on terrorism. 'Anything that undermines the connection between the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq is not helpful to us,' said pollster Tony Fabrizio. 'If nothing else, it puts the president on the defensive.'"

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte said last night that the war in Iraq is generating a new generation of jihadist leaders and operatives but that the United States can still root them out by continuing to fight in Iraq. . . .

"In describing reasons for the growth and spread of terrorist groups, Negroponte listed the 'Iraq jihad' behind others, such as corruption and injustice of secular governments as well as 'fear of Western domination' and 'the slow pace of real and sustained economic, social and political reforms in many Muslim-majority nations.'"

The White House response thus far appears to be that the finding about Iraq is only a small part of the report, taken out of context, and that while the report may say that the war in Iraq has created more terrorists, it doesn't directly say the war has increased the threat to the homeland.

Opinion Watch

MSNBC host Keith Olbermann sees Clinton's lashing out at Bush as a sign that Bush's "free pass has been withdrawn." Here's the transcript and the video of his latest commentary: "[I]nstead of some explanation for the inertia of your first eight months in office, we are told that you have kept us 'safe' ever since -- a statement that might range anywhere from zero, to 100 percent, true.

"We have nothing but your word, and your word has long since ceased to mean anything."

E. J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The Republicans cannot try to curry favor with a 'silent majority' that favors the Iraq war because a majority of Americans, both vocal and quiet, have come to see the war as a mistake.

"President Bush's defenders have cast opponents of the war as weak on terrorism. Yesterday, Vice President Cheney accused Democrats of 'resignation and defeatism.' But the charges have not taken hold, because most Americans don't agree with the premise linking the war on terror with the war in Iraq."

Detainee Watch

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "Republican lawmakers and the White House agreed over the weekend to alter new legislation on military commissions to allow the United States to detain and try a wider range of foreign nationals than an earlier version of the bill permitted, according to government sources. . . .

"The government has maintained since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that, based on its reading of the laws of war, anyone it labels an unlawful enemy combatant can be held indefinitely at military or CIA prisons. But Congress has not yet expressed its view on who is an unlawful combatant, and the Supreme Court has not ruled directly on the matter."

The new definition "applies to foreigners living inside or outside the United States and does not rule out the possibility of designating a U.S. citizen as an unlawful combatant. . . .

"Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, said that by including those who 'supported hostilities' -- rather than those who 'engage in acts' against the United States -- the government intends the legislation to sanction its seizure and indefinite detention of people far from the battlefield."

Habeas Corpus Watch

Smith also reports: "Under a separate provision, those held by the CIA or the U.S. military as an unlawful enemy combatant would be barred from challenging their detention or the conditions of their treatment in U.S. courts unless they were first tried, convicted and appealed their conviction.

"Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) yesterday assailed the provision as an unconstitutional suspension of habeas corpus, which he said was allowable only 'in time of rebellion or in time of invasion. And neither is present here.'"

And yet, Smith writes: "Congressional sources said Specter is unlikely to derail the compromise legislation over those objections."

A Washington Post editorial today states: "In general, court-stripping is a nuclear weapon in Congress's relations with the judiciary, one that presents profound constitutional questions and should be used only with the greatest of caution. If Congress passes responsible and lawful policies, judicial review poses no threat but serves to validate their lawfulness. In the context of the war on terrorism, judicial review has been the major lever that has forced the administration to moderate its policies and to seek congressional authorization for them.

"The pending litigation, while cumbersome for the administration, has in no sense compromised the war effort."

Warrantless Eavesdropping Watch

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post that three Republicans who expressed strong misgivings about the bill's implications for civil liberties "announced yesterday that those concerns had been met by three changes to the bill, although critics said the changes would not have the impact that the lawmakers claimed."

Or as Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "There was wide disagreement about the plan's impact."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET. Come visit.

Campaign Watch

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush headlined closed-door fundraisers for embattled Republican congressional candidates in Connecticut and Ohio yesterday, events that underscored both his continued ability to attract donations and his continued unpopularity with much of the public."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Republicans do not expect to be riding President Bush's record to re-election this fall. But they are trying to ride his gravy train -- as quietly as possible. . . .

"Such private events -- five are planned for this week alone -- give Mr. Bush a chance to mingle with donors out of the earshot of reporters, and far from photographers who might capture him with candidates leery of being viewed as too close to the White House."

Here's an exchange from yesterday's gaggle with press secretary Tony Snow:

"Q Tony, how do you justify five events where the public has no idea what the President is saying, what the pitch is, who he's meeting with -- in some cases, how much money is raised --

"MR. SNOW: I think people understand what the President stands for. It's not as if -- typically, you try to make sure that if you're having an event in somebody's private home, that it remains private. That's been a standard not only in this administration, but prior. It's not like the administration is pulling rabbits out of his hat. He's saying things that you've heard before and that you're aware of.

"Q Well, actually, in the previous administration they started this way and there were a lot of protests from the media -- and from Republicans, as a matter of fact -- and they allowed a feed to come out to reporters and they allowed a print reporter to be in.

"MR. SNOW: Understood.

"Q So are you all considering that at all?

"MR. SNOW: No."

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