Washington, 5 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- From his inauguration in January 2001 until the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania 7 1/2 months later, U.S. President George W. Bush's public focus on national security was to establish a missile-defense shield.
Russia and China objected to the program, as did many of the United States' allies, on the grounds that it could spark an international arms race similar to the one that ended with the Cold War. But Bush argued that his concern was not Russia or China, but so-called rogue states -- such as Iraq and North Korea -- that might soon be capable of attacking the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia.
Richard Clarke -- who served as a counterterrorism expert under three presidents -- recently told an independent commission investigating the 9/11 attacks that if Bush had given terrorism a higher priority during the first seven months of his administration, it might have been able to prevent the attacks, which have been blamed on the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Clarke quit his post in the White House a year ago because he believed the Bush administration was not taking the threat from Al-Qaeda seriously enough.
National-security adviser Condoleezza Rice was to have delivered an address on 11 September 2001 that promoted missile defense as the focus of the administration's national-security strategy.
In addition to Clarke's accusations, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill has said Bush was preoccupied by Iraq -- not Al-Qaeda -- from the very first days of the administration. And Bob Woodward, the author of a book on the Bush presidency, says Bush once told him that he didn't feel "a sense of urgency" about Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan was asked last week about Woodward's comment. "The threat of terrorism was broader than any one person," he said. "We needed to go after this Al-Qaeda network and have a more aggressive approach to eliminating Al-Qaeda. The threat from Al-Qaeda and terrorism was a high priority for this administration prior to coming into office. It was a threat we took very seriously, and September 11 is a day that the terrorists declared war on the United States of America, and war is exactly what they got," McClellan added.
But that approach is not borne out in a speech that White House national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice was to have delivered on the very day of the attacks. The address -- which was never delivered -- promoted missile defense as the focus of the administration's national-security strategy. It mentioned terrorist groups only as weapons clients of irresponsible governments.
Coincidentally, the day before the attacks, Senator Joseph Biden (Democrat, Delaware) -- then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- delivered a speech in which he criticized the Bush administration for putting too much emphasis on missile defense and too little on the threat from terrorism.
Leon Fuerth served as national-security adviser to Al Gore, the vice president under Former President Bill Clinton, Bush's predecessor. Fuerth noted that, in his book, Clarke wrote that Bush aides found it "quaint" that the Clinton administration had taken terrorism so seriously. And he pointed to a passage in Clark's book in which Bush asked him to see whether then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, despite Clarke's assertion that it was Al-Qaeda.
Ultimately, Fuerth said, the Bush White House would pin the blame for 9/11 on Iraq, whether it deserved it or not. "9/11 was converted immediately into further justification to carry out an objective that came into office with the [Bush] administration, which was -- deal with Iraq," according to Fuerth.
Fuerth said the Bush administration was focused on Iraq and the missile-defense shield but is now trying to convince the public that terrorism was one of its top priorities.
"The record shows that the [Bush] administration's other priorities were dominating its attention right up until the day the thing happened to us [on 11 September]," Fuerth said. "And so, in effect, they have been trying to mislead people into visualizing their agenda in a manner other than it actually was at the time."
Marina Ottaway studies the Middle East and terrorism at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a private policy center in Washington. She, too, said the evidence does not support the White House's insistence that it never took its eye off the terrorist threat.
"There is plenty of evidence that the Bush administration was more concerned with the rogue states and the missile issue and so on than it was with terrorism as such," Ottaway said. However, she added, "even if they had given it a high priority, that does not mean that they would have found evidence of what was being prepared for September 11."
Ottaway said the effort put into establishing a missile-defense system -- and the related attention to states such as Iraq and North Korea -- says less about whether the Bush administration was prepared for 11 September and more about its response to the attacks.
"It is important in terms of the response to September 11 because the fact that they were more concerned with rogue states and weapons of mass destruction than they were with terrorists explains why they immediately targeted Iraq," Ottaway said. "This mindset is important not so much in terms of explaining September 11, but in terms of explaining what happened next."
In late 2001, the U.S. toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had been sheltering Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. And 1 1/2 years after the 11 September attacks, the U.S. led an invasion of Iraq, which it accused of possessing weapons of mass destruction.
The independent commission investigating the 11 September attacks is due to deliver its final report on 26 July. The original deadline was extended after complaints about alleged lack of cooperation by the White House.
The chairman of the commission, former Republican New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean said he believes the public will be surprised by some of the panel's findings.