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Analyzing the Testimony

The facts that are emerging in testimony in front of the 9/11 Commission largely confirm that the Bush Administration subordinated the threat of terrorism prior to 9/11 and focused obsessively on Iraq.
 
 
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In testimony before the 9/11 commission yesterday, top officials from the Clinton and Bush Administrations testified about their counterterrorism policies. The facts that emerged -- both through testimony and two preliminary reports released by the commission -- largely confirm the charges made by the Bush Administration's former chief counterterrorism advisor, Richard Clarke. Though buried beneath an avalanche of doublespeak and word parsing, yesterday's hearing revealed that the Bush Administration subordinated the threat of terrorism prior to 9/11 and, even immediately after the attacks, continued to focus obsessively on Iraq.

The Administration's talking point on its pre-9/11 policy, repeated by Secretary of State Colin Powell before the committee yesterday, was "we wanted to move beyond the rollback policy of containment, criminal prosecution and limited retaliation for specific terrorist attacks. We wanted to destroy al Qaeda." National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan have made nearly identical statements. The language is undoubtedly designed to give the impression that top officials in the Bush Administration wanted to be more aggressive than Richard Clarke, who presented the Administration plans to aggressively target al Qaeda. But the Administration's actual plan, according to a report released by the 9/11 commission yesterday, was quite meek.

After eight months of intermittent deliberations, subordinate officials in the Bush Administration's National Security Council ("the Deputies") determined that the appropriate first step was " dispatching an envoy to give the Taliban an opportunity to expel bin Laden and his organization." Only if that failed would "pressure...be applied on the Taliban" diplomatically and the Administration would begin to encourage "anti-Taliban attack[s] on al Qaeda bases." Only if both of those strategies failed would the Administration consider "more direct action." According to Stephen Hadley, the Deputy National Security Adviser, "the timeframe for this strategy was about three years." In other words, had 9/11 not focused the Administration's attention on the problem, the Bush team wouldn't have taken aggressive action.

The White House yesterday claimed it was preparing to apply serious pressure to the Taliban in 2001. But that contrasts with its plan in May of 2001 to give "$43 million in drought aid to Afghanistan after the Taliban began a campaign against poppy growers." As the May 29, 2001 edition of Newsday noted, the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan "are a decidedly odd choice for an outright gift of $43 million from the Bush Administration. This is the same government against which the United Nation imposes sanctions, at the behest of the United States, for refusing to turn over the terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden."

Despite all evidence pointing to al Qaeda and bin Laden as behind the 9/11 attacks, just as Dick Clarke asserted, the Administration immediately discussed invading Iraq after 9/11. Powell testified that on September 15, 2001, "Iraq was discussed, and Secretary Wolfowitz raised the issue of whether or not Iraq should be considered for action during this time." According to Powell, the President said, "first things first...we'll start with Afghanistan." Powell could not rule out the possibility that Wolfowitz suggested attacking Iraq "instead of Afghanistan."

Condoleezza Rice, despite discussing the issue repeatedly on all five morning talk shows, refuses to testify publicly before the committee about the Administration's terrorism policy. She claims that presidential advisers can't appear before Congress because of separation-of-powers concerns. But her argument does not withstand scrutiny. First, the 9/11 commission is not a congressional committee, but an independent committee, signed into law by the stroke of the President's pen. But even setting that aside, according to commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, a April 5, 2002 Congressional Research Service report shows there are "many precedents involving presidential advisers" testifying before congressional committees. The report reveals that Lloyd Cutler, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Samuel Berger and even American Progress CEO John Podesta appeared before congressional committees while serving as advisors to Presidents.

With counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke set to testify before the 9/11 commission today, President Bush defended himself against well-documented charges of negligence before 9/11, saying, "Had my administration had any information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on September the 11th, we would have acted." While there may have been no information pinpointing the terror attacks to an exact day or location, Bush's statement glosses over the fact that he received repeated warnings before 9/11 that an Al Qaeda attack was imminent. For instance, the President received a CIA warning on August 6, 2001, headlined, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." noting the "plot could include the hijacking of an American airplane." Additionally, the White House was warned in July of 2001 that Al Qaeda had considered using hijacked airliners as missiles. The Vice President himself even admitted this, saying five days after 9/11 that "there had been information coming in that a big operation was planned."

Yet despite these warnings, the Administration deemphasized counterterrorism; never once convened its own counterterrorism task force; threatened to veto bills diverting national missile defense funds into counterterrorism; delayed arming the unmanned Predator drone flying over Afghanistan; terminated "a highly classified program to monitor Al Qaeda suspects in the United States"; and downgraded Clarke's counterterrorism office within the White House.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan on Tuesday was asked about Clarke's charges that "the President was directing the Pentagon to prepare plans for the invasion of Iraq." He responded, "that's part of his revisionist history." The reporter then asked, "Are you saying it's not true?" McClellan again responded, "Yes, that's right. I am. That's just his revisionist history to make suggestions like that." This denial was echoed by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice as well. But according to the January 12, 2003 Washington Post (which quotes senior Administration officials) "six days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush signed a 2-and-a-half-page document marked 'TOP SECRET'" that "directed the Pentagon to begin planning military options for an invasion of Iraq." This is corroborated by a CBS News, which reported on September 4, 2002 that five hours after the 9/11 attacks, "Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was telling his aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq." And it is consistent with the President's thinking. As he said immediately after the attacks, "I believe Iraq was involved" and Iraq "probably was behind this in the end" -- despite having no proof and being told that was not the case.

The White House has brushed aside Clarke's charges -- and hard evidence -- that it was downgrading and defunding counterterrorism in the lead-up to 9/11, claiming that it really was focused on fighting terrorism. But President Bush himself essentially conceded Clarke's point when he told Bob Woodward, "I was not on point" in fighting terrorism before 9/11, and "I didn't feel the sense of urgency" about terrorism before 9/11, despite receiving repeated warnings.

The White House has also claimed that Clarke withheld publishing his book until now in order to maximize its effect on the Presidential election. But as Clarke noted on the Today Show yesterday, "This book could've been published three months ago if the White House had let it. The White House sat on this book for three months as part of their security review of the text, and now blame me that it's coming out in March. The book could have been out in December, which is what I wanted to do. I'm not trying to put it in the middle of the election. They put it in the middle of the election." The White House has also claimed Clarke has partisan motivations for releasing his book, despite the fact he is a registered Republican, was originally appointed by President Ronald Reagan, and served under three Republican Presidents.