Threat `not urgent' to Bush staff

Ex-adviser Clarke says White House ignored signs before Sept. 11

`Your government failed you'

Panel members debate motives behind charges

9/11 Hearings

March 25, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush's former counterterrorism chief testified yesterday that the Bush administration regarded the threat posed by al-Qaida as "an important issue, but not an urgent issue" in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks.

By comparison, the Clinton administration had made the al-Qaida threat "an extraordinarily high priority," said Richard A. Clarke, who served in the same post under President Bill Clinton.

Of his time in the Bush administration, he said: "Although I continued to say it was an urgent problem, I don't think it was ever treated that way."

Clarke's much-anticipated testimony came at a hearing of the bipartisan commission looking into the events that led to the Sept. 11 attacks. His assertions, in the midst of a presidential election year, struck a blow at the Bush administration, which has intensified efforts to discredit Clarke and his new book.

The former White House official reiterated a central theme of his book yesterday, alleging that Bush administration officials ignored signs of an imminent attack by al-Qaida that might have prevented the Sept. 11 disaster.

Soon after the Bush administration took office in 2001, Clarke testified, he tried to establish a policy that would commit the government to try to "eliminate" the al-Qaida network.

He said he was told that such a policy was "overly ambitious and that we should take the word `eliminate' out and say `significantly erode.'"

After Sept. 11, Clarke recalled, "we were able to go back to my language of `eliminate,' rather than `significantly erode.'"

Earlier in the day, as part of its effort to document government failings before Sept. 11, the panel issued a report which found that efforts to kill Osama bin Laden during both administrations had been foiled by widespread confusion over whether the CIA had been authorized to kill him.

Top Clinton administration officials had told investigators that Clinton "wanted bin Laden dead." But every CIA officer who was interviewed told investigators that they had been instructed to capture the al-Qaida leader.

For Bush, who has made his leadership after Sept. 11 the overarching theme of his re-election bid, Clarke's assertions pose a political challenge. The president's handling of the war on terrorism is the single issue on which a decisive majority of voters favors him over Sen. John Kerry, his likely opponent. Any erosion of that support could weaken Bush's bid.

At times, yesterday's hearing seemed to reflect the political stakes, with questions from panel members often breaking along party lines. In a heated series of exchanges, Republicans pressed Clarke on whether he was telling the truth or exaggerating to sell his book. Democrats fired back that Clarke's integrity did not deserve to be questioned merely because he chose to come forward with explosive accusations.

Clarke vigorously defended himself, saying that he served under three Republican administrations, last voted as a Republican and would not accept any position in a Kerry administration if one were offered.

In its efforts to discredit Clarke, the White House took the rare step yesterday of identifying him as the anonymous senior official who, in a 2002 briefing for reporters, had praised Bush's anti-terror efforts.

Clarke disputed any notion that his words of praise then raise doubts about his credibility now, as one panel member suggested. He explained that in his role as a White House official, he was expected to "highlight the positive."

At the start of his televised testimony, Clarke sounded an emotional note, offering an apology to "the loved ones of the victims of 9/11."

"Your government failed you," he told the relatives, some of whom attended the hearing and wiped tears as he spoke. "Those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you."

Clarke said he had pressed urgently for a top-level meeting with Bush advisers in the first months of the presidency. He said he wanted to impart what he felt was a growing threat from al-Qaida and possibly imminent plans to attack.

Instead, he said, he was granted a meeting with deputy officials, where al-Qaida was discussed as one of a "cluster of issues." He was unable to discuss the issue with Cabinet-level officials until Sept. 4, a week before the attacks.

"I spent less time talking about the [al-Qaida] problem with the national security adviser [Condoleezza Rice] in this administration than I did" under Clinton, he told the panel.

He said he was "sufficiently frustrated" that he asked to be transferred out of his post and reassigned to study cybersecurity.

"President Bush was regularly told by the [director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet] that there was an urgent threat," Clarke said. "This administration either didn't believe me or wasn't prepared to act."

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