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A Day of Tears, Scathing Words

March 25, 2004|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate's cavernous committee rooms have played host to many momentous hearings into government crises and scandals, but few like this week's sessions on the Sept. 11 attacks.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building was the capital's epicenter of exceptional drama and extreme conflict.

Outside the room where the Watergate hearings were held more than two decades earlier, protesters paraded before TV cameras with signs saying "Stop the Cover-up" and "Bush: Tell the Truth." Some heckled Cabinet secretaries who came to testify.

Inside, top officials from two administrations, stepping forward one after the other, recounted their thoughts and actions before and after the devastating events that caused the deaths of about 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field.

Families of the victims filled reserved seats in the front rows, sometimes applauding with appreciation, at other times crying with anger and sadness.

And at the hearing's emotional high point, a galvanizing figure seemed to push the entire scene so much into overdrive that it became more Shakespearean than congressional.

That moment came Wednesday afternoon, when Richard Clarke -- the top counterterrorism official in both the Clinton and Bush administrations -- began his testimony this way: "To the loved ones of the victims of 9/11, to them who are here in the room, to those who are watching on television, your government failed you. Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn't matter because we failed."

He then delivered a scathing critique of what he said was the Bush administration's lack of urgency in confronting a threat that was clearly evident.

The family members got even more emotional when several commission members questioned Clarke's integrity, suggesting he was changing his story and making a profit off the attacks by writing a book, which was published early this week.

When the hearing ended, Clarke received what was the first standing ovation in a congressional hearing room in recent memory -- albeit from several dozen family members.

Then they surrounded Clarke, grasping his hand and thanking him for the book and his testimony.

"Thank you for telling the truth, and standing up to them," said Mary Fetchet, whose son, Bradley, had worked on the 89th floor of the World Trade Center's south tower. She, like others, had tears in her eyes.

"Somebody had to," Clarke responded.

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