Americans this week heard former and current government officials testify about the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. They learned that during the 1990s, there was a focus on al Qaeda. Intelligence resources were specifically targeted against bin Laden as early as 1996. Military action was taken in August 1998 and plots were disrupted and prevented, particularly related to the Millennium in 1999. Upon entering office, the Bush administration was specifically told that al Qaeda was responsible for the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. The Bush administration chose not to respond to the attack, and then failed to accelerate a comprehensive strategy against al Qaeda – even as intelligence reported that a major attack was forthcoming. Yesterday, former Bush counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke made clear the Bush administration did not consider counterterrorism efforts “urgent” and, in many ways, was “unprepared to act.” This week’s commission testimony clearly demonstrates that:
- Prior to Sept. 11, the Bush administration did not devote sufficient high level attention and intensity to the threat of terrorism. Top level Bush officials did not review a plan to address the threats posed by al Qaeda and the Taliban until just days before Sept. 11, even though it was available in January. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld testified that he “did not recall any particular counterterrorism issue that engaged his attention before 9/11.” Even President Bush admitted he was not as focused on the issue as he should have been, telling Bob Woodward last December, “I was not on point” in fighting terrorism before 9/11.
- The administration focused more on Iraq rather than al Qaeda – even though Iraqi sponsored terrorism against the United States ceased in 1993. In Richard Clarke’s book, Against All Enemies, prior to Sept. 11 Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz is quoted as asking why “why are we… talking about this one man bin Laden?” rather than state-sponsors of terrorism like Iraq. Secretary of State Colin Powell testified that after the attacks, “Secretary Wolfowitz raised the issue of whether or not Iraq should be considered for action during this time.” This fits with President Bush’s words after Sept. 11: “I believe that Iraq was involved” he said in one meeting, adding, Iraq “probably was behind this in the end.”
- By continually attempting to discredit former officials who are critical of the administration’s approach to terrorism, Bush officials are creating a credibility problem. It’s clear that Richard Clarke, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, and Rand Beers are telling the truth. Bush administration priorities set before Sept. 11 and decisions made after the attacks have “squandered the opportunity to eliminate al Qaeda.” Despite heavy criticism from the administration (according to Bush officials, Richard Clarke was “out of the loop” and “missed a lot of what was going on”), it is now apparent that the former officials who have been criticizing the administration are right on the mark. As the Washington Post notes, yesterday’s reports, “confirm some of the key criticisms made by Richard Clarke.”
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