Washington, 24 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- An array of past and present U.S. officials went before the panel investigating the 9/11 attacks yesterday.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, defending the Bush administration's stance on terrorism ahead of the 11 September attacks on the United States, said, "This administration came in fully recognizing the threat presented to the United States and its interests and allies around the world by terrorism. We went to work on it immediately. The president made it clear it was a high priority, the interagency group was working, we had continuity in our counterterrorism institutions and organizations."
Also testifying before the 11 September commission yesterday were Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Defense Secretary William Cohen, who both served under the administration of Bill Clinton.
Albright said terrorism was one of many policy concerns to suffer in the transition from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration.
"Many of the policy issues that [the Clinton administration] had developed were not followed up,” she said. “And I have to say, with great sadness, to watch an incoming administration kind of take apart a lot of the policies that we did have -- whether it had to do with North Korea or the Balkans -- was difficult."
But both administrations came under fire in two separate reports released yesterday by the bipartisan 10-member panel, whose staff has spent months interviewing officials and probing the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks that killed some 3,000 people.
The reports say both administrations failed to use military means to combat Al-Qaeda, choosing diplomatic strategies instead.
They point to several opportunities missed by the Clinton White House to capture or kill bin Laden.
They also accuse the Bush administration of failing to plan for potential attacks until the day before jets struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerry (not related to John Kerry), a Democratic panel member, voiced frustration that neither administration acted aggressively to preempt a major attack by Al-Qaeda, which by the late 1990s had already struck several U.S. targets abroad.
"They killed airmen in Khobar Towers [in Saudi Arabia]. They attacked our facilities in East Africa. They attacked our sailors on the [U.S.S.] Cole [in Yemen]. I don't understand, and still today don't understand, why the military wasn't given a dominant role," Kerry said.
The hearings and reports come just seven months before presidential elections, and are contributing to a politically charged atmosphere.
George W. Bush is running on his record as a "war president," but his rival, Democratic Senator John Kerry, argues that Bush's policies have actually weakened the country's ability to fight terrorism.
This week, the former top White House counterterrorism official for both President George W. Bush and Bill Clinton accused Bush of failing to take adequate measures to protect Americans against terrorism before 9/11.
Richard Clarke also accused the president of worrying more about Iraq than Al-Qaeda right after the 9/11 attacks. Republicans have accused Clarke, who is also a Republican, of being politically motivated.
The 9/11 hearings, which continue today with testimony by Clarke and others, come after repeated commission clashes with the Bush administration over what it called the White House's reluctance to give the panel full access to sensitive intelligence information.
A compromise was reached whereby Bush has agreed to testify in private before the bipartisan panel. The deadline to complete the commission's overall findings was also extended, from this spring until mid summer.
Yesterday, Bush told reporters he would have acted swiftly to prevent the 11 September attacks had he had advance intelligence about them.
"Had my administration had any information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on September 11, we would have acted," he said.
It was Bush's first direct response to Clarke's criticism that the president ignored bin Laden and the threat of the Al-Qaeda terror network prior to the attacks, instead focusing on Saddam Hussein.
In its initial report, the 9/11 panel said a day before the 11 September attacks, administration officials agreed that the United States would try to oust Afghanistan's Taliban rulers -- but only if they reneged on a previously agreed deal with Washington to expel bin Laden.
Powell later told the panel that Bush's diplomatic plan to get bin Laden had been the right course at the time.
"President Bush was very concerned about Al-Qaeda and about the safe haven given them by the Taliban [prior to 11 September]. But he knew that implementing the diplomatic road map we envisioned would be difficult. The deputies went to work, reviewing all of these complex regional issues. Early on, we realized that a serious effort to remove Al-Qaeda's safe haven in Afghanistan might well require introducing military force, especially ground forces," Powell said.
But the political support for such an undertaking was nonexistent in Washington prior to 9/11. Although Clarke and other Clinton officials say the incoming Bush administration did not take their warnings about Al-Qaeda seriously, Albright came partly to her successors' defense, telling the panel that invading Afghanistan was never a serious consideration before 11 September.
"I do think -- this is my personal opinion -- that it would be very hard, pre-9/11, to have persuaded anybody that an invasion of Afghanistan was appropriate. I think it did take the mega-shock, unfortunately, of 9/11 to make people understand the considerable threat [posed by Al-Qaeda]," Albright said.
Although officials from both administrations took minor shots at one another, they also did not back away from defending one another.
For example, the panel's reports list at least four separate occasions in the late 1990s when it said the Clinton administration had a very good chance of killing bin Laden, but failed to act.
Such evidence would seem to put the blame on the former administration for the 11 September attacks. But current Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued that even killing bin Laden would probably not have been enough to prevent 9/11.
"Even if bin Laden had been captured or killed in the weeks before 11 September, no one I know believes that it would necessarily have prevented 11 September. Killing bin Laden would not have removed bin Laden's sanctuary in Afghanistan. Moreover, the sleeper cells that flew the aircraft into the World Trade towers and into the Pentagon were already in the United States months before the attack. Indeed, if actionable intelligence had appeared -- which it did not -- 9/11 likely would still have happened," Rumsfeld said.
Intelligence, or the lack of it, was a common theme in much of the testimony.
Willam Cohen, Rumsfeld's predecessor as Pentagon chief, was barraged by a series of aggressive questions from Senator Bob Kerry about why Clinton never ordered a strike against bin Laden and always appeared to opt for diplomacy over the use of force.
"I didn't say we didn't know; I said I didn't know. I was confessing ignorance."
Cohen responded that the administration definitely wanted to kill bin Laden, but that it was wary that a missed shot would only make him look stronger and enhance his prestige among potential followers. In that light, Cohen said, Clinton could not afford to send a "warning shot" to bin Laden.
"We weren't trying to send simply a summons to bin Laden in Afghanistan. We were trying to kill him -- or anyone else who was there at the time. That was what they call a warning shot to the temple. We were trying to kill bin Laden," Cohen said.
For his part, Rumsfeld said he personally had no intelligence in the six months the Bush administration was in power before 9/11 of any terrorist plan to fly jets into U.S. buildings. His remarks drew objections from one panelist, who argued it has been well documented that U.S. intelligence services had at least eight such warnings during the 1990s.
Rusmfeld replied: "I didn't say we didn't know; I said I didn't know. I was confessing ignorance." The defense secretary added that the hijacking of civilian planes "was a law enforcement matter to be handled by law enforcement and aviation authorities."