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Harsh Light on 9/11 Errors

March 24, 2004

Top national security officials of two consecutive administrations agreed Tuesday before the 9/11 commission headed by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean that they weren't responsible for the failure to disrupt Al Qaeda's operations in Afghanistan before Sept. 11, 2001. Witnesses from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to her successor, Colin L. Powell, from former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to his successor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, offered spin control. Their words contrasted weakly with allegations about Bush administration inaction on terrorism in Richard Clarke's new book, "Against All Enemies."

Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who made complaints similar to Clarke's, was dismissed by critics as a crank. Clarke is undoubtedly doing his best to promote his book, and administration officials have questioned his motives and veracity, but as counterterrorism chief under presidents Clinton and Bush, he holds strong credentials. In the book, he denounces the Iraq war as a diversion from terrorism, a sideshow that he says is creating "the next generation of Al Qaedas." Clarke also traces a bipartisan decade of bungling in identifying and targeting Al Qaeda -- much as the 9/11 commission does in its preliminary finding, released Tuesday.

Clinton, Clarke says, was willing to authorize military action against Al Qaeda but the government bureaucracy, including the military, balked. The 9/11 commission reaches the same conclusion in its new report, stating that the CIA and FBI "tended to be careful in discussing the attribution for terrorist attacks. The time lag between terrorist act and any definitive attribution grew to months, then years."

Powell testified that the current administration had prepared a plan to go on the offensive against Osama bin Laden. "We wanted to destroy Al Qaeda," he said. But what Powell and other officials don't want to concede is that in its essentials, the plan for targeting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan that landed on Bush's desk Sept.10, 2001, was much like the diplomatic strategy the Clinton administration had pursued, and that reinventing it delayed action.

It's likely that, as Rumsfeld suggested Tuesday, killing Bin Laden would have done little to stop the airplane attacks, already planned for years. But that doesn't settle the question, bluntly raised by Clarke and backed with examples from his service in the administration, of whether Bush and his subordinates, in their determination to go after Saddam Hussein, actually increased the international terrorist threat. "There have been far more major terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda and its regional clones ... since Sept. 11," Clarke says.

As the 9/11 commission reconvenes today, with Clarke scheduled to testify, it will not provide the final word on the terror threat before and after Sept. 11. But it and Clarke's book have provided new information for an urgent debate, not fully engaged before the war in Iraq, over the effectiveness of the current administration's approach to terrorism.

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