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Officials Try to Explain Lapses to 9/11 Panel

With the commission investigating the attacks releasing a report blaming years of failures, the Clinton and Bush administrations point fingers.

March 24, 2004|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Finding fault with both the Clinton and Bush administrations, the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks released findings Tuesday that cited years of diplomatic failures, bureaucratic inertia and meager military responses as factors that contributed to the emergence of Al Qaeda as the nation's most serious security threat.

The commission released its preliminary findings during a day of politically charged hearings in which top national security officials from the Bush and Clinton White Houses took turns defending their own performance and decrying the counterterrorism record of the other.

Against the backdrop of a presidential election that could turn on voters' views of how the war on terrorism should be prosecuted, Bush officials in particular sought to deflect fresh criticism that the administration ignored Al Qaeda after taking office in 2001 and was too eager to turn its attention to Iraq, even after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said terrorism was a top priority of President Bush's from the day he took office, and that the administration took eight months to put together a counterterrorism plan because it had to overhaul a Clinton administration approach Powell described as inadequate.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 25, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Richard L. Armitage -- A photo caption in Wednesday's Section A incorrectly identified Richard L. Armitage as the undersecretary of State in the Bush administration. Armitage is the deputy secretary of State.

"We wanted the new policy to go well beyond tit-for-tat retaliation," Powell said. "We felt that lethal strikes that largely missed the terrorists if you don't have adequate targeting information, such as the cruise missile strikes in 1998, led Al Qaeda to believe we lacked resolve. We wanted to move beyond the rollback policy of containment, criminal prosecution and limited retaliation for specific terrorist attacks. We wanted to destroy Al Qaeda."

Despite Powell's barbed remarks, the findings of the commission reinforced criticism that the Bush administration spent much of its first year in office holding meetings on counterterrorism, but taking no significant action.

The commission's report lists a series of meetings of deputies in the Bush administration as they sought to work out a new counterterrorism strategy.

The result was a three-phase plan that called for overthrowing the Taliban, a step the Clinton White House never embraced. But the Bush plan envisioned an ouster of the Taliban only if a new series of diplomatic efforts failed -- efforts comparable to those pursued by the Clinton administration.

The Bush plan was to unfold over three years, and was agreed upon by deputy national security officials exactly one day before the Sept. 11 attacks. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Powell both said the plan laid the groundwork for the successful invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.

Tuesday's session marked the first time that top Cabinet secretaries from the two administrations testified in one setting about their counterterrorism efforts. In addition to Powell and Rumsfeld, the panel also heard from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.

The 10-member commission has conducted hundreds of interviews and reviewed thousands of documents, and is expected to produce its final report in July. Tuesday's hearing was more partisan in tone than previous sessions, with members posing pointed questions about Iraq and other politically sensitive topics. The interim reports were prepared by commission staff, leaving policy recommendations and judgments to the five Democrats and five Republicans on the panel.

The hearing comes as the Bush administration struggles to fend off fierce criticism from a former top counterterrorism official, Richard Clarke, who has written a book accusing Bush of ignoring the Al Qaeda threat until it was too late.

In its report, the commission notes that Clarke "pushed urgently" for immediate steps against Al Qaeda, including an infusion of U.S. military assistance to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, which was fighting a civil war with the Taliban. But Clarke's recommendations were not carried out before the attacks, the report said.

Bush offered his first public response to Clarke's criticism in remarks to reporters after a Cabinet meeting Tuesday. "Had my administration had any information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on Sept. 11, we would have acted," he said. "We have been chasing down Al Qaeda ever since the attacks. We've captured or killed two-thirds of their known leaders. And we're still pursuing them."

Clarke also has said the invasion of Iraq undermined the war on terrorism by diverting intelligence and other resources from Al Qaeda, and by inflaming anti-American sentiment in the Arab world.

Albright echoed those criticisms in her testimony, saying "major components of America's foreign policy are either opposed or misunderstood by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims, and by unprecedented numbers of Europeans, Asians, Latin Americans and Africans." The resulting "unpopularity has handed [Osama] bin Laden a gift that he has eagerly exploited," Albright said.

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