As the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States wrapped up two days of high-profile hearings, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, standing in for National Security advisor Dr. Condoleezza Rice, made an eyebrow-raising assertion. The Clinton White House, Armitage said, deftly handed over the government's terrorism strategies and plans to Bush administration. There had been, he said, "A stunning continuity."
Armitage's assertion really goes to the heart of the key issues the 9/11 Commission was created to explore: whether the Bush people dropped the ball on going after the Al Qaeda terrorists led by Osama bin Laden. Fortunately, the hearings shed considerable light on that core question.
There are two central issues in this matter: what, exactly, incoming Bush administration officials were told about the Al Qaeda problem during the presidential transition; and second, what was the proposed action plan and how did it differ from the Clinton approach. On both scores, the testimony of former senior officials and Commission staff reports provide startling insights.
It is no longer possible to feign ignorance. Samuel R. Berger, Clinton's national security advisor, testified that though the transition was truncated due to the political controversies over the outcome of the 2000 election, he arranged a full set of briefings for his successors. Berger met with Dr. Rice three times and at the very first session told her of the Bin Laden threat and warned that she would find herself spending more time on terrorism than on any other issue. He dropped by a full-scale Power Point briefing for Rice and her associates that Clarke presented as the incumbent counterterrorism czar, specifically to emphasize the importance of this subject.
By his account in a recent memoir, Clarke, who headed the National Security Council's Counterterrorism Security Group (CSG), warned that Al Qaeda was highly capable, at war with the United States, had sleeper cells in the U.S. and was planning a series of attacks. He advocated going on the offensive with quick and decisive action, based on the recent attack upon the American naval destroyer Cole. Clarke gave the same briefing to Vice President Richard Cheney, incoming Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Rice deputy Stephen Hadley. Cheney made one of his early visits to CIA headquarters to learn more.
At the State Department, Secretary Madeleine Albright made it clear on December 16 or 17, 2000—the day or day after George Bush appointed Powell—that terrorism was one of her major concerns. She arranged for detailed briefings from all of State's senior officials. Ambassador Michael Sheehan, a retired military officer and Albright's director for counterterrorism, gave the detailed briefing. Powell acknowledges a Sheehan paper in his transition report and notes he especially asked to get Dick Clarke's presentation, which Clarke terms an "unusual step."
All the CSG members were there, including State's own Sheehan, CIA's Cofer Black and the FBI's Dale Watson. The Pentagon's assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict, Brian Sheridan, advised Powell to make Al Qaeda his top priority. "A major component of the briefing," Powell records, "was Al Qaeda's growing threat to U.S. interests and Afghanistan's role as a safe haven." He took the point. "That part . . . got my attention," Powell testified.
At the Department of Defense, Secretary William Cohen conveyed less urgency to his successor, Donald H. Rumsfeld. Cohen testified he raised a sensitive terrorism-related issue—though not specifically Al Qaeda—as the very first item in their talk. With limited time and 40 or 50 subjects to cover, plus the knowledge that Rumsfeld would be getting detailed briefings from his subordinates, Cohen left it at that. This proved to be a mistake, for 9/11 Commission staff found that Donald Rumsfeld never listened to a terrorism briefing from Brian Sheridan and gave Sheridan's subordinates the impression he was not especially interested in their terrorism agenda. Rumsfeld also did not meet with Clarke or the CSG during the transition. Rumsfeld's pet project was instead "transformation," of which the principal components were to be space power and missile defense.
CIA director George Tenet testified that he did not have a clear recollection of his briefings during the transition, directing questions to his deputy John McLaughlin. Tenet, of course, was preoccupied with whether he would keep his job, but he was up to speed on terrorism and already considered himself at war with bin Laden. McLaughlin recalls that he "walked though the elements of the Al Qaeda problem," according to the 9/11 Commission staff report, with Dr. Rice during a recapitulation of the six directives President Clinton had signed giving CIA orders to act against the terrorists. The 9/11 staff records that CIA briefed President-elect Bush and his national security officials on covert action programs in Afghanistan. Operations directorate chief James L. Pavitt told the commission that he and Tenet indeed covered Al Qaeda during their presentation, and that George Bush asked whether killing bin Laden would solve the problem. Tenet, according to Pavitt, answered that the terrorist leader's death would have an impact but would not end the threat. The clear implication was that a plan was necessary.
Fortunately Richard Clarke had a proposal in hand. Five days after Bush's inauguration, Clarke sent Condoleezza Rice a memorandum with plans developed by the CSG staff and the CIA in December 2000, and a copy of a plan he had advocated within the Clinton administration in 1998. The plan envisioned a several-year-long effort to combat Al Qaeda—Bush surrogates have been quick to dispute whether this meant "elimination" or "rollback"—consisting of three phases.
Thus in the first days of the Bush administration, President Bush had been put on notice that there was a threat, his senior advisors had been told the same, and there was a proposal on the table.
The response? The National Security Council (NSC) downgraded the Counterterrorism Security Group to an appendage of its Deputies Committee, rather than reporting to the principals, and Richard Clarke was downgraded from the protocol cabinet rank he had held during the last years of the Clinton administration. Dr. Rice ordered a policy review on terrorism, but there is no indication that she endowed that project with any more urgency than that of the dozens of other such initiatives that every president begins upon entering office. Stephen Hadley on the NSC Deputies Committee then freighted up the counterterrorism project with additional elements, admittedly necessary ones like a look at policy on Pakistan, but things sure to slow down the evolution of a strategic plan.
In March 2001, after some hair-raising items from George Tenet in their morning meeting, President Bush told Condi Rice he was tired of "swatting flies" on terrorism, and the national security adviser asked for suggestions. On March 7, Stephen Hadley convened a group to brainstorm the issue. Clarke pressed for several decisions and the meeting also discussed formulation of a National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD). Clarke separately reminded Rice she already had his earlier proposals, and she promised to look into the matter.
Weeks later, Hadley's Deputies Committee completed a draft order that essentially embodied the Clarke proposals, which he termed "an admittedly ambitious program." From the end of April through September 4, when the draft NSPD went to the highest level of the president's advisors, Hadley held seven more meetings on aspects of the program. That was a week before the 9/11 attacks.
The counterterror program arrived on President Bush's desk on September 10, the day before the attacks, after one more session of Hadley's Deputies Committee. Bush signed the document, which became NSPD-9, on Sept. 17, a week afterward. What Rice deputy Hadley thought an ambitious program, 9/11 commissioner Bob Kerrey derided altogether.
"Fortunately for the administration it's classified," Kerrey told George Tenet at the hearings, "because there's almost nothing in it." Between Sept. 4 and 17, language was added to NSPD-9 requiring the Pentagon to prepare new contingency plans on Iraq.
How urgent was terrorism for the Bush people? At any point along the way, by a word, George Bush could have brought this matter directly before him. Compare that to the time it took to add Iraq to NSPD-9. No wonder the Bush White House takes such pains to distract attention by trying to turn the issue to Richard Clarke's credibility. The stunning continuity is President Bush's lack of interest in what he now claims to be his main achievement.
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