Updated April 12, 2004








Revealing Testimony Heard at Sept

Revealing Testimony Heard at Sept. 11 Hearings

By Walker Anderson


High-ranking 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 Laden.

The meetings held by the panel marked the eighth time the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States has met publicly.

“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 23.

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.


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 Tenet.

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.