9/11 Testimony Hits White House

The government's former top counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke testifies to the federal panel reviewing the Sept. 11 attacks, Wednesday, March 24, 2004, in Washington.
AP
A former counterterrorism adviser to the past three presidents claimed that President Bush hadn't done enough to protect the country from terrorists.

At an extraordinary hearing into the Sept. 11 attacks, Richard Clarke

of scaling back the campaign against Osama bin Laden before the attacks and undermining the fight against terrorism by invading Iraq.

Clarke began his testimony by apologizing to relatives of Sept. 11 victims attending the hearings.

"Your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you and I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn't matter because we failed," he said. "And for that failure, I would ask — once all the facts are out — for your understanding and for your forgiveness."

Under questioning, Clarke said the Clinton administration had "no higher priority" than combating terrorists while the Bush administration made it "an important issue but not an urgent issue" in the months before Sept. 11, 2001.

Clarke's criticism contradicted testimony given to the panel Tuesday and Wednesday from Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and CIA Director George Tenet. All said the administration grasped the threat posed by al Qaeda and was working hard to fight it.

"All I can tell you is the policy-makers got it because I talked to all of them about it and they understood the nature of what we were dealing with," Tenet said.

Clarke's appearance Wednesday raised partisan tensions on a commission that prides itself on being bipartisan. While Democrats offered praise, Republicans questioned Clarke's integrity, morality and candor. They also suggested his criticism was intended to spur sales of a new book (which is published by a company owned by Viacom, which also owns CBSNews.com) on the subject by Clarke or boost the candidacy of Mr. Bush's likely challenger in the November vote, Sen. John Kerry.

The White House

over Clarke's charges, and again sent top officials to deny that the administration ignored the terrorist threat, reports CBS News Correspondent Bill Plante.

"What he is reporting … does not reflect the reality that I know to be true and I've spent a lot of time with the president. I've been in almost every one of his intel briefings," White House aide Andrew Card told CBS News. "What he alleges is not the fact."

The administration took the unusual step of identifying Clarke as the senior official who had praised Mr. Bush's anti-terrorism efforts in an anonymous briefing for reporters in 2002.

"He needs to get his story straight," said Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser and Clarke's former boss.

At the hearing, Republican commissioner James R. Thompson, a former Illinois governor, held up Clarke's book and a text of the briefing and challenged the witness, "We have your book and we have your press briefing of August 2002. Which is true?"

Clarke

. He was still working for Bush at the time of the briefing and was asked to highlight the positive aspects of the administration's counterterrorism efforts and minimize the negative, he said.

Seeking to counter White House suggestions that he is seeking a job in a future Kerry administration, Clarke said he wouldn't accept a position — and noted he was under oath.

Commissioners later sought to minimize any concerns of partisanship that could undermine the credibility of the final report they expect 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."

The commission's latest hearings examined military and diplomatic efforts to fight bin Laden in the years before the Sept. 11 attacks. Also testifying were Mr. Clinton's Defense Secretary William Cohen, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and national security adviser Samuel Berger.

Many of the problems both administrations faced were revealed in a series of preliminary commission reports issued over two days. A report Wednesday said CIA officials, including Tenet, believed the agency lacked the authority to kill bin Laden unless his death resulted from a capture. But they never discussed this with Berger or other Clinton administration officials, who believed the CIA had the OK to kill bin Laden.

The report also said the CIA had depended too much on unreliable indigenous groups in Afghanistan, where the al Qaeda leader was running training camps under the protection of the Taliban rulers in Kabul.

Officials from both administrations largely agreed on the obstacles they faced in pursuing bin Laden. They lacked intelligence on bin Laden's whereabouts that was specific and reliable enough to launch a missile attack.

They said an American invasion of Afghanistan wasn't a serious option because it would have been strongly opposed by the American public and Congress.

U.S. officials debated how they could use the unmanned Predator aircraft to spy on bin Laden and whether it could be armed with missiles to carry out attacks. They also questioned how much support to give the Taliban's enemies, the northern alliance, which had leaders linked to drug trafficking and other abuses.

Kean said commissioners "have experienced considerable frustration these past two days. We keep wrestling with the question: What could have been done and what should have been done at some stage or other over the past eight years to prevent 9/11?"

Rumsfeld, Powell and Tenet all expressed doubts that the attacks could have been prevented if the Bush administration had captured or killed bin Laden.

Former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton asked Clarke if there was "the remotest chance" that the attacks could have been prevented if the Bush administration had adopted his aggressive counterterrorism recommendations upon taking office in January 2001.

"No," Clarke said.