Bush critic takes center stage


March 25, 2004

Richard A. Clarke, the former top counterterrorism official for the Clinton and Bush administrations, transfixed Washington yesterday with testimony at the national commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

He offered a rare look at the workings of the country's top national security officials - a portrait unflattering to the Bush administration because of what he described as its early inattention to the threat posed by al-Qaida.

What follows are excerpts from commissioners' questions and Clarke's responses.

Clarke: I welcome these hearings because of the opportunity that they provide to the American people to better understand why the tragedy of 9/11 happened and what we must do to prevent a reoccurrence. I also welcome the hearings because it is finally a forum where I can apologize 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. And for that failure, I would ask - once all the facts are out - for your understanding and for your forgiveness.

Timothy J. Roemer, commission member (Democrat): You coordinated counterterrorism policy in both the Clinton and the Bush administrations. I want to know, first of all: Was fighting al-Qaida a top priority for the Clinton administration from 1998 to the year 2001? How high a priority was it in that Clinton administration during that time period?

Clarke: My impression was that fighting terrorism, in general, and fighting al-Qaida, in particular, were an extraordinarily high priority in the Clinton administration - certainly no higher priority. There were priorities probably of equal importance such as the Middle East peace process, but I certainly don't know of one that was any higher in the priority of that administration.

Roemer: With respect to the Bush administration, from the time they took office until September 11th, 2001, you had much to deal with: Russia, China, G-8, Middle East. How high a priority was fighting al-Qaida in the Bush administration?

Clarke: I believe the Bush administration in the first eight months considered terrorism an important issue, but not an urgent issue. Well, President Bush himself says as much in his interview with Bob Woodward in the book Bush at War. He said, `I didn't feel a sense of urgency.' [CIA director] George Tenet and I tried very hard to create a sense of urgency by seeing to it that intelligence reports on the al-Qaida threat were frequently given to the president and other high-level officials. And there was a process under way to address al-Qaida. But although I continued to say it was an urgent problem, I don't think it was ever treated that way. ...

Thomas H. Kean, commission chairman (Republican): I'm trying to find not only what we could have done, but what should we be doing perhaps in the future? Because we were beaten. I mean, we were really beaten by these guys, and 3,000 people died. And is there anything you can think of in that long period, had we done differently as a country, as a policy, what have you, that could have made a difference?

Clarke: I think al-Qaida probably came into existence in 1988 or in 1989, and no one in the White House was ever informed by the intelligence community that there was an al-Qaida until probably 1995. The existence of an organization like that was something that members of the National Security Council staff suspected in 1993. ...

Had we a more robust intelligence capability in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we might have recognized the existence of al-Qaida relatively soon after it came into existence. And if we recognized its existence and if we knew its philosophy and if we had a proactive intelligence covert action program - so that's both more on the collection side and more on the covert action side - then we might have been able to nip it in the bud.

But as George Tenet I think explained this morning, our [human intelligence] program, our spy capability, had been eviscerated in the 1980s and early 1990s. And there was no such capability either to even know that al-Qaida existed, let alone to destroy it. ...

Richard Ben-Veniste, commission member (Democrat): With respect to the level of threat and the intelligence information that you were receiving, is it fair to say that in the summer of 2001, the threat level either approached or exceeded anything that you had previously been receiving?

Clarke: I think it exceeded anything that George Tenet or I had ever seen. ...

Ben-Veniste: Did you make a determination that the threat was going to come from abroad, as an exclusive proposition? Or did you understand that given the fact that we had been attacked before and that the plans had been interrupted to attack us before that the potential existed for al-Qaida to strike at us on our homeland?

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