Revealing Testimony Heard at Sept. 11
intelligence officials from the administrations of George W. Bush and Bill
Clinton faced probing questions about terrorism and the Sept. 11 attacks in two
days of public hearings before the independent, bipartisan panel tasked with
investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy.
On March 23 and March 24, high-ranking
intelligence and diplomatic officials detailed efforts to target the elusive
international Islamic terrorist group, al Qaeda, and its leader, Osama bin
The meetings held by the panel marked the eighth
time the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States has
“This is clearly one of the most important
hearings the commission will hold,” said Thomas H. Kean, the chairman of the
commission and a former New Jersey governor.
The current and former secretaries of state, Colin
Powell and Madeleine Albright, and the current and former secretaries of
defense, Donald Rumsfeld and William Cohen, testified on the first day, March
On March 24, CIA Director George Tenet, former
National Security Advisor under Clinton Samuel Berger, former Counterterrorism
Director Richard Clarke and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage appeared
before the panel.
During the hearings it was revealed that U.S.
intelligence officials tried on at least three occasions to assassinate bin
Laden in 1998 and 1999.
However, during each of those incidents, the
Clinton administration “called off” military actions when it was determined the
intelligence was not good enough to ensure success, former Defense Secretary
George Mitchell and CIA Director George Tenet testified.
In one reported incident which nearly resulted in
disaster, a target believed to be bin Laden “turned out to be a sheik from [the
United Arab Emirates], and another incident involved a plan to shoot down an
aircraft that was believed to be carrying bin Laden, but the intelligence was
uncertain,” Mitchell said.
A second commission staff report said the Clinton
administration relied on law enforcement and diplomacy to stop terrorism.
Diplomatic efforts to work with the Saudi Arabian and Pakistani governments to
pressure the ruling Taliban militia in Afghanistan to expel bin Laden were
unsuccessful. “All these efforts failed,” the report said.
A counterterrorism expert who served under Clinton
and Bush and just released a book (Against All Enemies) critical
of the president began his testimony with an apology for both administrations.
Former counterterrorism director Richard Clarke
said: “I believe the Bush administration in the first eight months considered
terrorism an important issue, but not an urgent issue. [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 Qaeda threat were frequently given to the
president and other high-level officials.”
Clarke also said after the August 1998 bombing of
U.S. embassies in East Africa, he urged the Clinton administration to conduct
“a series of rolling attacks against the infrastructure in Afghanistan.”
Clinton’s National Security Advisor Sandy Berger,
testifying on March 24, said the plan was rejected.
Clarke has asserted, in his new book and recent
interviews, that Bush underestimated the danger from al Qaeda, was too slow to
pursue it after 9-11 and was preoccupied with finding a link between the
attacks and Iraq.
Clarke also criticized the Clinton administration
as well, saying, “I wanted a covert action program to aid Afghan factions to
fight the Taliban, and that was not done.”
Clarke said he had warned National Security
Adviser Condoleezza Rice, days before the 9-11 horror show, that “hundreds” of
Americans might die because the Bush administration’s efforts against
international terrorists were failing. Clarke apologized to the survivors and
the American people for his own part in what he viewed as the failure of the
government to prevent the mass atrocities.
The administrations of Bush and Bill Clinton
should have been aware of the perils facing the United States in advance of the
terrorist attacks of 9-11 and acted to prevent them, members of the
investigating panel said.
One top-ranking intelligence figure was noticeably
absent from the hearing, namely Rice, which sparked speculation that she was
protecting President Bush.
In an interview with a major news network, Kristen
Breitweiser, whose husband died in the World Trade Towers, said she believed
that the White House felt it would be better for Ms. Rice “to take the heat in
the media” than to have to testify under oath about just how much the president
knew prior to Sept. 11, 2001, about the impending attack.
The White House vigorously defended her
non-appearance, arguing that it would have created a separation of powers
issue. Some constitutional lawyers described that assertion as nonsense. In
fact, there was no clear impediment to her giving public testimony under oath.
Several former national security advisors had done so in the past, at the
request of congressional investigators.
Deputy Secretary of State Armitage filled her
place at the commission hearings. A brash straight-talker, Armitage was made to
look foolish when it quickly transpired that he was unable to answer questions
the commissioners would have preferred to put to Ms. Rice. One commissioner
called him Ms. Rice’s “doppelganger.”
When Armitage arrived in place of Ms. Rice, the
families of the 9-11 victims walked out of the hearings. In front of television
cameras, some of the families expressed anger that Ms. Rice had hidden behind
executive privilege to avoid talking about the background to a devastating
event in history.
White House efforts to keep Ms. Rice from being
publicly grilled were clearly aimed at protecting Bush, who has built his
public approval on the assertion that terrorism has always been his number one
priority. Evidence given by Clarke, and investigations by the commission’s
staffers, have suggested otherwise. In fact, commission investigations have
shown that Clarke’s allegation that terrorism was not a priority for the Bush
team before 9-11 appears to be correct.
NERVOUS & TIRED
After the Clarke revelations surfaced, Ms. Rice
looked nervous and tired in many of her public appearances. It appeared Bush
may have worried that she would collapse under public questioning. Commission
members were determined to confront her with what she told them in private,
what she had recently said in public, and Clarke’s charges that she dropped the
ball at a time when 9-11 might have been avoided.
What may also have motivated the White House’s
roadblock was a desire to avoid her being asked about a presidential briefing
document of Aug. 6, 2001. The document, which Bush has refused to fully
declassify for the commission, was provided to the president and Ms. Rice by
the CIA. It was an assessment of the threat, possibly against the United States
at a time when the CIA had received the greatest spike ever in intelligence
about an imminent atrocity.
Commission evidence has demonstrated that in the
summer of 2001, the president was warned that terrorists were planning
something “spectacular.” The intelligence was of such a nature that “it set
some people’s hair alight,” according to testimony by Clarke and CIA Director
The plan is for the commission to meet two days
per month during March, April, May and June.
The full commission will hold private sessions in
the next several weeks with former President Clinton and former Vice President
Al Gore. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have each agreed to meet
privately with the chairman and vice chairman of the commission for one hour.
No dates have been set for their interviews. The commission is trying to
persuade them to meet with the full investigative body.
Some Democrats and relatives of victims have
complained Bush has failed to provide adequate cooperation.
The commission is required to wrap up the
investigation by July 26. The commission then will have another 30 days to shut
down its operations.