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National Politics
Terrorism not urgent issue for Bush administration before Sept. 11, former adviser testifies
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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Bush White House scaled back the struggle against al-Qaida after taking office in 2001 and spurned suggestions that it retaliate for the bombing of a U.S. warship because �it happened on the Clinton administration�s watch,� a former top terrorism adviser testified Wednesday.

The Clinton administration had �no higher priority� than combatting terrorists while the Bush administration made it �an important issue but not an urgent issue� in the months before Sept. 11, 2001, said Richard Clarke, who advised both presidents.  He testified before the commission investigating the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history.

Clarke�s turn in the witness chair transformed what has been a painstaking, bipartisan probe of pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failures and bureaucratic missteps into a nationally televised criticism of President Bush on the terrorism issue at the core of his campaign for re-election.

The White House redoubled efforts to undermine Clarke, the author of a recent book critical of the president.

Officials also took the unusual step of identifying him as the senior official who had praised the president�s anti-terrorism efforts in an anonymous briefing for reporters the year following the attacks.

�He needs to get his story straight,� said Condoleezza Rice, Bush�s national security adviser and Clarke�s boss while he served in the administration.

Former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson, a Republican, took up the president�s cause inside the commission hearing. �We have your book and we have your press briefing of August 2002. Which is true?� he challenged the witness.

Despite the flare-up, commission members worked later to distance themselves from the sort of partisanship that could undermine the credibility of the final report they are expected to release this summer.

�Nobody has clean hands in this one,� said former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican and the commission chairman, referring to the Bush and Clinton administrations. �It was a failure of individuals. The question now is whether or not we learned from our mistakes.�

Clarke began his appearance with an apology to �the loved ones of the victims of 9-11. ... Your government failed you. Those entrusted with protecting you failed you and I failed you,� he added, as some relatives of those killed in the attacks dabbed at their eyes with handkerchiefs.

The appearance of the white-haired former official overshadowed the release of a commission staff report that said bureaucratic disagreements about the extent of the CIA�s authority to kill Osama bin Laden hampered efforts to eliminate al-Qaida�s leader during the Clinton era. The result was a continued reliance on local forces in Afghanistan that all sides recognized reduced the chance of success, both before and after Bush took office, the report added.

�If officers at all levels questioned the effectiveness of the most active strategy the policy-makers were employing to defeat the terrorist enemy, the commission needs to ask why that strategy remained largely unchanged throughout the period leading up to 9-11,� it concluded.

Officials from Clinton�s National Security Council told investigators the CIA had sufficient authority to assassinate al-Qaida, the report said, but Director George Tenet and other spy agency officials �believed the only acceptable context for killing bin Laden was a credible capture operation.�

Sandy Berger, Clinton�s national security adviser, testified that the former president gave the CIA �every inch of authorization that it asked for� to kill bin Laden.

�There could have not been any doubt about what President Clinton�s intent was after he fired 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles at bin Laden in August 1998,� Berger said, referring to strikes at a camp in Afghanistan where the al-Qaida leader was believed present.  Bin Laden escaped.

Tenet, who preceded Berger in the witness chair, also was asked about the issue of authorization to kill bin Laden.

�I never went back and said, �I don�t have all the authorities I need,�� he replied.

Tenet said that even if bin Laden had been captured or killed in 2001, he did not think it would have prevented the 9-11 attacks, an assertion that mirrored testimony by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell on Tuesday.

Tenet�s tenure has spanned two administrations. And unlike Clarke, he praised aides to both presidents. �Clearly there was no lack of care or focus in the face of one of the greatest dangers our country has ever faced� after the Bush administration took office, he said.

In the course of his testimony, Clarke criticized the FBI, the CIA and Congress as well as the Bush administration.

Despite his catalogue of complaints, he said under questioning by former GOP Sen. Slade Gorton that nothing he proposed to Bush officials would have prevented the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. More than 3,000 people were killed that day when terrorists flew hijacked planes into the twin World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington. Another plane crashed in a field outside Pittsburgh as passengers struggled with the terrorists aboard.

Clarke said that early in the Bush administration, he had tried to persuade officials to make the elimination of al-Qaida official government policy.

�I was told ... that was overly ambitious and that we should take the word �eliminate� out and say �significantly erode,�� he recalled. Later, after the terrorists struck, he said, �we were able to go back to my language of eliminate, rather than significantly erode.�

A second question from Gorton prompted Clarke to raise the issue of the USS Cole, a warship bombed while refueling in a harbor at Aden, Yemen. Seventeen sailors were killed in the attack, later blamed on al-Qaida.

The former White House aide said he suggested the month Bush took office that �the Cole case was still out there� and suggested retaliation.

He added, �I was told on a couple of occasions, �Well, you know, that happened on the Clinton administration�s watch.��

Clarke shook off Thompson�s attack on his credibility regarding the 2002 White House briefing. �I was asked to highlight the positive aspects of what the administration had done and to minimize the negative aspects of what the administration had done,� he said. �I�ve done it for several presidents.�

Later he said his criticism had nothing to do with politics. �I will not accept any position in the Kerry administration should there be one,� he said, adding that he voted Republican in the 2000 election.


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