Current and former U.S. government
officials defended their record on terrorism Tuesday before the independent commission
probing the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The hearings come
in the wake of charges by former counter-terrorism official Richard Clarke that
President Bush focused too much on Iraq and not enough on al-Qaida in his approach
to the terrorist threat. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the commission
that contrary to the recent charges made by Richard Clarke, President Bush made
terrorism a major priority in his administration from the start.
He decided early on that we needed to be more aggressive in going after terrorists
and especially al-Qaida," he said. "As he said in early Spring [of 2001] as we
were developing our new comprehensive strategy 'I am tired of swatting flies.'
Richard Clarke alleges in a new book that the president paid too little attention
to the threat posed by al-Qaida before the September 11th attacks, and focused
too much on a possible link with Iraq afterward.
The White House has responded with a furious counterattack, denying the allegations
and accusing Mr. Clarke of trying to sell his book and injecting himself into
the presidential campaign.
Richard Clarke defended himself Tuesday in an interview on ABC television. "I
am not doing this because I am disgruntled," he said. "I am doing this because
the American people need to know the truth, and if someone else had told the
truth, if the story had already been out there, I wouldn't be doing this."
The independent commission probing the 2001 terrorist attacks also examined
the Clinton administration's anti-terrorism activities in the years leading
up to the attacks and found them lacking.
The commission issued a preliminary report suggesting the Clinton administration
focused too much on a diplomatic approach to fighting terrorism that ultimately
failed, especially efforts to convince Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to put pressure
on the Taleban regime in Afghanistan to evict Osama bin Laden.
Commission member Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic Senator from Nebraska,
pressed former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to explain why the Clinton
administration was reluctant to use military force to go after al-Qaida.
"Honestly, I don't understand," he said. "If we are attacked and attacked
and attacked and attacked, why we continue to send the FBI over like Khobar
Towers was a crime scene or the East African embassy bombings were a crime
scene. You said we had balance between military effort and diplomacy. Frankly,
I've got to say, it seems to me that it was very unbalanced in favor of diplomacy,
against military efforts."
Ms. Albright responded that the Clinton administration chose to respond to
the terrorist threat with a variety of tools, including military action, diplomacy
and law enforcement. But she said military action carried a number of risks.
"To bomb at random or use military force, I think, would have created a situation
that would have made our lives, American lives, even more difficult within
the Muslim world," he said.
The commission will hear from former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke
and from CIA Director George Tenet on Wednesday. It is scheduled to release
its report on the September 11th attacks in July just as Democrats gather in
Boston to formally nominate Senator John Kerry to run against President Bush
in the November election.