Two documents recently became public that shed new light on one of the most contentious issues of President Bush's first term: how seriously the new administration took the threat of al Qaeda.
Both documents were written by the National Security Council's veteran counterterrorism coordinator, Richard A. Clarke. One was a three-page memo for national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, dated Jan. 25, 2001, five days after Bush was sworn in. The other, a 13-page "strategy" paper for dealing with al Qaeda, was drafted at the end of 2000. Clarke attached a copy to his Jan. 25 memo.
Clarke, who no longer works for the NSC, caused a sensation last year when he faulted the administration for moving too slowly to fight Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network. Rice told the 9/11 Commission that the administration worked throughout the spring and summer of 2001 to develop a comprehensive al Qaeda strategy. She also wrote, in a March 2004 op-ed in The Washington Post, that "No al Qaeda plan was turned over to the administration" when it took office.
While the 9/11 Commission summarized Clarke's Jan. 25 memo in its report, a look at the full text provides new insights into the origins of the controversy. Both documents were released publicly at the request of the private National Security Archive. The following excerpts are reproduced verbatim, including Clarke's distinctive spelling of "al Qida."
FROM THE JAN. 25, 2001 MEMO
Pending Time Sensitive Decisions
At the close of the Clinton Administration, two decisions about al Qida were deferred to the Bush Administration.
-- First, should we provide the Afghan Northern Alliance enough assistance to maintain it as a viable opposition force to the Taliban/al Qida? If we do not, I believe that the Northern Alliance may be effectively taken out of action this Spring when fighting resumes after the winter thaw. The al Qida 55th Brigade, which has been a key fighting force for the Taliban, would then be freed to send its personnel elsewhere, where they would likely threaten US interests. For any assistance to get there in time to effect the Spring fighting, a decision is needed now.
-- Second, should we increase assistance to Uzbekistan to allow them to deal with the al Qida/IMU [Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a local jihadist group] threat?
Three other issues awaiting addressal now are:
-- First, what the new Administration says to the Taliban and Pakistan about the importance we attach to ending the al Qida sanctuary in Afghanistan . . .
-- Second, do we propose significant program growth in the FY02 budget for anti-al Qida operations by CIA and counter-terrorism training and assistance by State and CIA?
-- Third, when and how does the Administration choose to respond to the [Oct. 2000] attack on the USS Cole.
The memo urged the convening of a "Principals" meeting -- the cabinet-rank officials who deal with national security -- to decide the following question:
Do the Principals agree that the al Qida network poses a first order threat to US interests in a number of regions, or is this analysis a "chicken little" over reaching and can we proceed without major new initiatives and by handling this issue in a more routine manner?
According to the 9/11 Commission, Rice "did not respond directly to Clarke's memorandum. No Principals Committee meeting on al Qaeda was held until September 4, 2001 (although the Principals Committee met frequently on other subjects, such as the Mideast peace process, Russia and the Persian Gulf)."
Over Clarke's objections, Rice instead initiated a wider policy review designed to integrate the administration's al Qaeda policy with diplomacy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan -- a process led by her deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, who recently replaced her as national security adviser.
FROM THE DEC. 2000 "STRATEGY" PAPER
Clarke called the other document a "year-end 2000 strategy on al Qida developed by the last Administration to give to you." It described al Qaeda's goals and warned that the network "is actively seeking to develop and acquire weapons of mass destruction."
It also blamed al Qaeda for the 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 U.S. sailors. U.S. intelligence agencies were more tentative about al Qaeda's role in the Cole attack, and the United States never responded militarily to the bombing.
The paper also used stark language to describe the al Qaeda threat here at home:
Presence in the US: al Qida is present in the United States. Al Qida has been linked to terrorist operations in the U.S. while also conducting recruiting and fundraising activities. U.S. citizens have also been linked to al Qida.
Two al Qida members key to the planned multi-strike attacks on Americans in Jordan (December 1999) were naturalized American citizens who had lived in Los Angeles and Boston. The plot to smuggle bombs from Canada to the US in 1999 revealed connections to al Qida supporters in several states. The 1993 World Trade Center and NY-NJ Tunnels conspiracies revealed an extensive terrorist presence, which we now understand was an early manifestation of al Qida in the US. A suspect in the East Africa bombings (former US Army Sergeant Ali Muhammad) has informed [redacted] that an extensive network of al Qida "sleeper" agents currently exists in the US.
Clarke warned that the current level of operations against al Qaeda "will not seriously attrit their ability to plan and conduct attacks." He called for the United States to eliminate or damage al Qaeda's infrastructure -- especially its Afghan training camps -- by several methods: covert operations against bin Laden's high command, "massive support" to the Northern Alliance, diplomatic pressure on Pakistan, and "Overt US military action to destroy al Qida command/control and infrastructure and Taliban military and command assets."
The US Goal: Roll Back
The United States goal is to roll back the al Qida network to a point where it will no longer pose a serious threat to the US or its interests, as was done to previously robust terrorist groups such as the Abu Nidal Organization and the Japanese Red Army. . . .
Renditions and Disruptions: With two, nearly simultaneous, suicide truck-bomb attacks, al Qida destroyed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 . . . In addition to disrupting cells, the US found and brought to the US for trial al Qida operatives in Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Malaysia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Other al Qida operative[s] not indicted in the US were brought to [redacted] where they were wanted by authorities.
Military Operations: . . . Subsequent to [the 1998 embassy bombings], follow-on attacks were considered and military assets deployed on three occasions when the al Qida commanders were located in Afghanistan by Humint [human intelligence] sources. The Humint sources were not sufficiently reliable and a lack of second source corroboration prevented US military action. Thus in September, 2000 the CIA began covert flights into Afghanistan using the Predator UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] operating out of Uzbekistan. On three occasions, the UAV provided [redacted] video coverage of what appeared to be gatherings involving the senior al Qida leadership. . . .
When Rice convened the Principals Committee on Sept. 4, 2001, it backed a presidential directive (drafted by Clarke's office) aimed at eliminating the al Qaeda threat.
Clarke also attached another document to his opening memo to Rice: the Clinton administration's "1998 strategy" on al Qaeda, an NSC paper entitled "Political-Military Plan Delenda." Although declassified with the two documents described here, it has still not been released publicly. Nor has the draft presidential directive approved on Sept. 4, 2001.