Top officials from both the Bush
and Clinton administrations spent Tuesday defending their records on fighting
terrorism - and denying charges that both could have done more to prevent the
September 11, 2001 attacks. It was a day of high profile testimony before a bipartisan
commission looking into the worst terrorist attack on the United States ever.
Both the Bush administration and the Clinton White House before it were well
aware of the growing threat that al-Qaida posed to the United States. As far
back as 1993, the group was implicated in the first terrorist attack on the
World Trade Center. What this commission is now trying to determine is whether
either administration could have done more to head off the 9/11 attacks, including
taking more aggressive military action against Osama bin-Laden's group.
President Bush says he would have taken swift action if he had information
that an attack on the United States was imminent. His administration did not
complete a review of its counter terrorism policy until the same month as the
9/11 attacks that claimed some three thousand lives.
But in sworn testimony -- and with relatives of some of those who died on
that day present -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the panel, "I knew
of no intelligence during the six plus months leading up to September 11th
that indicated terrorists would hijack commercial airliners, use them as missiles
to fly into the Pentagon or the World Trade Center towers."
But Commissioner Bob Kerrey challenged that the incoming Bush administration
-aware that the United States had already been hit multiple times by al-Qaida
terrorists- should have declared war on the group prior to being hit again
"This was an army led by Osama bin-Laden who declared war on us on February
23, 1998 and we had all kinds of reasons, I've heard them all, and they're
all wonderful, as to why the only military attack we had was a single attack
on the August 20, 1998 and other than that, there wasn't anything," said Mr.
Kerrey. "And 19 men as a consequence, defeated us utterly with less than a
half a million dollars."
As to a declaration of war, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld responded, "I don't
think it would have stopped September 11."
Secretary of State Colin Powell told the commission much the same. "Invading
Afghanistan and cutting off the head, if you succeeded in getting Osama bin-Laden
and disrupting al-Qaida at that point, I have no reason to believe that would
have caused them to abort their plans," he says.
Earlier, his predecessor as Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright told the
commission the Clinton administration did go on the offensive against al-Qaida
after they bombed two American embassies in Africa in 1998. "In subsequent
weeks, the president specifically authorized the use of force and there should
have been no confusion that our personnel were authorized to kill bin-Laden," she
U.S. cruise missiles did strike at Al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan
and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan but the bin-Laden network continued to
carry out more terrorist attacks.
The 9/11 commission was created two years ago over the initial objections
of the White House. The Bush administration has upset some members including
Tim Roemer, because of the refusal of National Security Advisor Condoleezza
Rice to testify in open session.
"I hope Dr. Rice will reconsider and come before our commission for the sake
of the American people tomorrow," he said. She has given a private interview
to several members of the panel.
These hearings come amid a heated election year debate in Washington triggered
by a new book by former top government counterterrorism official Richard Clarke.
He alleges the Bush administration, despite spending millions of dollars on
intelligence, ignored warnings about the threat posed by al-Qaida and instead
shifted its focus to Iraq.
By the time it completes its work - expected by late July -- the panel will
have interviewed more than a thousand people in 10 different countries, and
reviewed millions of pages of documents.
Both President Bush and Vice President Cheney could still be called to testify.