Enough 9-11 blame for both Bush, Clinton
Published: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 30, 2006 at 11:15 p.m.
CLINTON, BUSH BOTH MADE MISTAKES IN PRE-9/11 FOCUS ON TERROR
WASHINGTON - The war on terror last week became a war between the Bush and Clinton administrations after former President Bill Clinton, during an interview on Fox News, aggressively defended his administration's anti-terrorism efforts. Charges and counter-charges flew much of the week. Who was right?
The public record from congressional testimony, published recollections and the exhaustive investigation by the 9-11 commission shows that both administrations made mistakes in responding to what the commission's report described as "an unprecedented new danger" that al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, posed to the United States before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In the Fox interview, Clinton acknowledged that he "tried and failed" to eliminate bin Laden, whose al-Qaeda organization was responsible not only for the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks but also the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the attack on the U.S. Navy destroyer the USS Cole in Yemen just weeks before the 2000 presidential election.
Clinton's efforts included a Navy cruise missile strike against bin Laden's Afghanistan compound in August 1998 that missed bin Laden himself. He is believed to have slipped away several hours earlier. The Clinton White House never pulled the trigger again.
After the failed missile strike, the Clinton administration undertook diplomatic and covert actions in an attempt to kill or capture bin Laden and to track his considerable financial assets in an attempt to flesh out the global operations of al-Qaeda that began to emerge with the first World Trade Center bombing five years earlier.
In the fall of 2000, in Afghanistan, an unmanned, unarmed spy plane called a Predator transmitted live photos to CIA headquarters showing al-Qaeda terrorists training at a desert camp. The photos showed a tall man believed to be bin Laden. After a second sighting of the "man in white," intelligence analysts determined that he was probably bin Laden.
Subsequently, the Taliban, bin Laden's hosts in Afghanistan, spotted another Predator at the site and scrambled fighter planes to down it. They failed. But Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger became "more cautious" about a "bonanza" for bin Laden and the Taliban if they succeeded in shooting down a Predator, according to the commission's report.
Counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke proposed arming Predators for future flights to use against bin Laden, but the idea drew criticism from within the intelligence community, including then Central Intelligence Director George Tenent. After Sept. 11, 2001, Predators were armed and "proved highly effective," Clarke wrote in his book, "Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was among the first in the administration to defend President Bush in response to Clinton's criticism that the Bush administration "did not try" to eliminate al-Qaeda. She called Clinton's allegation "flatly false" and asserted that Bush was "at least as aggressive" as Clinton against al-Qaeda.
To the claim by Clinton that he left Bush "a comprehensive strategy" to counter bin Laden, Rice said, "We were not left a comprehensive strategy to fight al-Qaeda."
On Jan. 25, 2001, five days after Bush was sworn in as Clinton's successor, Clarke sent Rice a memo with a document titled "Strategy for Eliminating the Threat of al-Qaeda." It encompassed "diplomatic, economic, military, public diplomacy and intelligence tools," Clarke noted in his memo.
The memo warned that al-Qaeda "is not some narrow little terrorist issue that needs to be included in broader regional policy," and it requested that a cabinet-level meeting be convened to address time-sensitive issues about the terrorist organization.
According to the 9-11 commission, which conducted the most extensive investigation of the attacks orchestrated by al-Qaeda, Rice, then the national security adviser to the president, "did not respond directly to Clarke's memorandum" and that no meeting of the administration's most-senior officials on terrorism occurred until Sept. 4, 2001, just five days before the attacks on New York and Washington.
Rice said last week that Clarke's plan was far from comprehensive. "For instance, big pieces were missing, like an approach to Pakistan that might work, because without Pakistan you weren't going to get Afghanistan," she said.
The Bush administration's chief defense focus was on developing a missile defense system, not terrorism. So in April, when the meeting requested by Clarke was finally held, it involved deputy secretaries, not cabinet members. And at that meeting, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz dismissed Clarke's call for action against al-Qaeda.
"The focus on al-Qaeda was wrong" in Wolfowitz's view, Clarke recalled in his book. Wolfowitz insisted that more attention should be paid to "Iraqi-sponsored" terrorism, Clarke wrote. "You give bin Laden too much credit,"' Clarke quoted Wolfowitz as saying.
Bush got his first warnings about al-Qaeda from Berger even before his election in November 2000. And three days before his inauguration, Bush got this warning from Berger: "America is in a deadly struggle with a new breed of anti-Western jihadists. Nothing less than a war, I think, is fair to describe this."
In a new book by the Washington Post's Bob Woodward titled "State of Denial," Woodward writes that on July 10, 2001, then-CIA Director George Tenet and his counterterrorism chief at the time, J.Cofer Black, drove over unannounced to the White House in an urgent attempt to meet with Rice to alert her to the fact that intelligence agencies were receiving communications indicating a terrorist attack was imminent. The two men left the meeting feeling that Rice had given them "the brush-off," Woodward writes, after Rice told them a plan for action against bin Laden was in the works.
The most famous warning came in the briefing Bush received at his Crawford, Texas, ranch on Aug. 6, 2001, a little more than a month before terrorists hijacked commercial airplanes and crashed them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.
The intelligence report to Bush that day said the FBI had detected "patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings." It was titled: "Bin Laden determined to attack inside the U.S."
Bush said he "did not recall discussing the August 6 report with the attorney general (then John Ashcroft) or whether Rice had done so." In fact, it said it found "no indication of any further discussion before September 11 among the president and his top advisers of the possibility of a threat of an al-Qaeda attack in the United States."
Tenent told the commission that "the system was blinking red" during the summer of 2001. But, there was "little evidence that the progress of the plot was disturbed by any government action."
On Sept. 10, 2001, the National Security Agency intercepted a communique from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia stating, "Tomorrow is zero hour." It was translated into English on Sept. 12.
Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.
Comments are currently unavailable on this article