White House seen as slow to react to terror warnings

Clinton's senior aides to detail for commission information they provided

March 20, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Senior Clinton administration officials called to testify next week before the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks say they are prepared to detail how they repeatedly warned their Bush administration counterparts in late 2000 that al-Qaida posed the worst security threat facing the nation - and how the new administration was slow to act.

They said the warnings were delivered in urgent post-election intelligence briefings in December 2000 and January 2001 for Condoleezza Rice, who became President Bush's national security adviser; Stephen Hadley, now Rice's deputy; and Philip D. Zelikow, a member of the Bush transition team, among others.

One of the officials scheduled to testify, Richard A. Clarke, who was President Bill Clinton's counterterrorism coordinator, said in an interview that the warning about the al-Qaida threat could not have been made more bluntly to the incoming Bush officials in intelligence briefings that he led.

At the time of the briefings, extensive evidence tied al-Qaida to the bombing in Yemen two months earlier of an American warship, the USS Cole, in which 17 sailors were killed.

"It was very explicit," Clarke said of the warning given to the Bush officials. "Rice was briefed, and Hadley was briefed, and Zelikow sat in." Clarke was Bush's counterterrorism chief in the early months of the administration, but after Sept. 11 was given a more limited portfolio as the president's cyberterrorism adviser.

The sworn testimony from the high-ranking Clinton administration officials - including former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, former Defense Secretary William Cohen and Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser - is scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday.

They will testify along with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who will answer for the Bush administration, as well as George J. Tenet, director of central intelligence in both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

While Clinton officials have offered similar accounts in the past, a new public review of how they warned Bush's aides about the need to deal quickly with the al-Qaida threat could prove awkward to the White House, especially in the midst of a presidential campaign. But given the witnesses' prominence in the Clinton administration, supporters of Bush might see political motives in the testimony of some of them.

The testimony could also prove uncomfortable for the commission, since Zelikow is now the executive director of the bipartisan panel. And the Clinton officials can expect to come under tough questioning about their performance in office and why they did not do more to respond to the terrorist threat in the late 1990s.

The White House does not dispute that intelligence briefings about the al-Qaida threat took place during the transition, and the commission has received extensive notes and documentation from the White House and Clinton administration officials about what was discussed.

What is at issue, Clinton administration officials say, is whether their Bush administration counterparts acted on the warnings, and how quickly. The Clinton administration witnesses say they will offer details of the policy recommendations they made to the incoming Bush aides, but they would not discuss those details before the hearing.

"Until 9/11, counterterrorism was a very secondary issue at the Bush White House," said a senior Clinton official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Remember those first months? The White House was focused on tax cuts, not terrorism. We saw the budgets for counterterrorism programs being cut."

The White House rejects any suggestion it failed to act on threats of terrorism by al-Qaida before the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The president and his team received briefings on the threat from al-Qaida prior to taking office, and fighting terrorism became a top priority when this administration came into office," said Sean McCormick, a White House spokesman. "We actively pursued the Clinton administration's policies on al-Qaida until we could get into place a more comprehensive policy."

Zelikow, director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia and co-author of a 1995 book with Rice, has been the target of repeated criticism from some relatives of Sept. 11 victims. Those relatives say his membership on the Bush transition team and his ties to Rice pose a serious conflict of interest for the commission, which is investigating intelligence and law-enforcement actions before the attacks.

Clarke said that if Zelikow left any of the White House intelligence briefings in December 2000 and January 2001 without understanding the imminent threat posed by al-Qaida, "he was deaf."

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