Commission: Bush lacked plan to deal with al Qaeda
Senior Bush administration officials could not agree on a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the threat posed by al Qaeda until one week before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, staff members with the federal commission investigating the attacks said Tuesday.
Administration officials submitted a national security directive on al Qaeda to President Bush on Sept. 4, 2001, staff members on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States reported during a hearing. Without a signed presidential directive, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld could not order the preparation of military plans against either al Qaeda or the ruling Taliban government of Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks, staff members said.
"The new administration began to develop new policies toward al Qaeda in 2001, but there is no evidence of new work on military capabilities or plans against this enemy before Sept. 11," staff members testified.
Former Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., a member of the commission, said he believes al Qaeda may have been emboldened because the terrorist group did not perceive the U.S. government was taking a hard-line stand against it.
The Bush administration came into office "fully prepared" to deal with al Qaeda and continued to take aggressive action toward the terrorist network while establishing a comprehensive strategy, Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before the commission.
Powell added that the Clinton administration did not leave the Bush administration with a comprehensive counterterrorism action plan. The Bush administration, however, kept on board several Clinton administration advisers, including former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, who served in every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, to provide continuity, Powell said.
Clarke, who served under George W. Bush until last summer, published a book Monday that is highly critical of how the Bush administration has dealt with terrorism. Clarke is scheduled to testify before the commission on Wednesday.
Clarke led the National Security Council's counterterrorism staff during the transition from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration and was a central architect in developing al Qaeda strategy. Former Rep. Timothy Roemer, D-Ind., a member of the commission, said Clarke has given about 20 hours of testimony in private session.
Roemer read an excerpt from Clarke's new book Against All Enemies at the hearing Tuesday. In the excerpt, Clarke said he gave a slide presentation to Bush officials, including Powell, in December 2000. According to the excerpt, one of the slides stated that al Qaeda operatives were already inside the U.S. Powell said he could not recall that specific slide.
Roemer plans to ask Clarke on Wednesday about the content of the briefing and how Bush officials responded. Roemer said Clarke is probably the most important official to testify before the committee, given his extensive experience.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who also testified at Tuesday's hearing, defended the steps the Clinton administration took to deal with al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Both Powell and Albright said they did not believe Congress or the U.S. public would have supported an invasion of Afghanistan prior to Sept. 11. Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., argued that both administrations should have approached Congress with a request to invade the country.
The comprehensive strategy the Bush administration eventually settled on in September 2001 consisted of three phases. The first phase called for dispatching an envoy to give the Taliban an opportunity to expel al Qaeda from Afghanistan. If this was unsuccessful, the U.S. would pressure the Taliban through diplomacy and by encouraging anti-Taliban Afghans to attack al Qaeda bases. If the Taliban's policy still failed to change, the U.S. would seek to overthrow the Taliban regime.
Commission members reiterated their demand Tuesday that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testify publicly before the commission. Rice previously appeared privately before the commission, but the White House has refused to let her testify publicly. Commission members said they hope the administration will reconsider its position.
"I think she should disregard the lawyers' advice and rhetoric on this particular issue," Roemer said.