YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Terror Not a Bush Priority Before 9/11, Witness Says

Days before the attack, Clarke urged the White House to imagine a strike killing hundreds. Rice says administration was doing all it could.

March 25, 2004|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Seven days before Sept. 11, 2001, then-White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke was so alarmed at the threats posed by Al Qaeda that he urged administration colleagues to visualize a terrorist attack that left hundreds of Americans dead, it was disclosed Wednesday.

Clarke urged policymakers "to imagine a day after hundreds of Americans lay dead at home and abroad after a terrorist attack, and ask themselves what else they could have done," according to a portion of the confidential memo to national security advisor Condoleezza Rice that was paraphrased during a hearing of the commission investigating the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

The disclosure capped two days of often-contentious charges and countercharges about whether federal officials stumbled in the U.S. war against Al Qaeda.

And it provoked furious rebuttals from Bush administration officials.

"I really don't know what to make of this, what is a kind of a shifting story," Rice said of Clarke's contentions in a new book, television appearances and in his testimony before the commission Wednesday.

Clarke testified that while the Clinton administration treated Al Qaeda as an urgent and growing threat, the Bush administration did not, preferring to focus on going to war in Iraq and on other issues.

"The Bush administration saw terrorism policy as important, but not urgent, prior to 9/11," Clarke told members of the panel formally named the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

Clarke, speaking before a hushed and packed hearing room, testified in a deliberate, measured manner about how he and CIA Director George J. Tenet had tried to create a sense of urgency about the terrorist threat. Both men were rare holdovers, Clinton officials kept on by the Bush administration for their expertise.

Clarke said he continued to tell the new administration that Al Qaeda was an urgent problem, but "I don't think it was ever treated that way."

Tenet also testified Wednesday. In contrast, he insisted under oath that the Bush administration took very seriously the growing threat posed by Al Qaeda and did all it could to counter that, despite long-standing problems finding "actionable intelligence" to pursue Osama bin Laden and his top aides in Afghanistan.

But Tenet also conveyed dire warnings, saying that despite the best efforts of the last two administrations -- including a prolonged war in Afghanistan -- Al Qaeda remained strong, deadly and intent on launching more Sept. 11-style attacks.

"It's coming," Tenet said of such plots, which he believes are in the works.

"They are still going to try and do it, and ... men and women here who have lost their families have to know that we've got to do a hell of a lot better," he said.

In his defense, Tenet said, the CIA that he took over in 1997 had for years ignored putting spies on the ground to gather the kind of intelligence needed to locate and destroy mobile targets like Al Qaeda.

Under his direction, Tenet said, the CIA rapidly rebuilt that spy network and backed an aggressive plan to use unmanned aerial drones and other high-tech devices to monitor terrorists.

Such efforts helped locate Bin Laden on at least one occasion, but Tenet said he called off a missile strike because the intelligence was inconclusive.

Even if Bin Laden had been killed in the first months of the Bush administration, Tenet said, he believed the Sept. 11 plot was too far along to be stopped.

"I believe that this plot line was off and running; [alleged mastermind] Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was in the middle of it, operators were moving into this country. This plot was well on its way," Tenet said.

Rice and other White House officials continued to denounce Clarke, saying that his testimony and just-published book on his years in the White House contradicted one another.

Rice strongly defended the Bush administration.

"We were doing everything that we could," Rice told reporters. "Now was it the only priority? Of course not. There were other things that had to be done as well. I will say that what we did suggests that we thought it both important and urgent.... We did everything during that period of time that we could."

Also testifying Wednesday were Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage and Clinton's national security advisor, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger.

Armitage sought to dispel perceptions that momentum on counterterrorism efforts was interrupted between the Clinton and Bush administrations, describing the transition instead as a "stunning continuity."

Berger tangled with commission member John F. Lehman, the former Navy secretary, about why the Clinton administration took no retaliatory action against Al Qaeda for its role in the bombing of the destroyer Cole in Yemen in October 2000.

Berger said the evidence that Al Qaeda was behind the attack, which killed 17 sailors and nearly sank the $1-billion ship, was too inconclusive for military action while Clinton was in office.

Los Angeles Times Articles