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Quiet On Al Qaeda?

Scrutiny of the Bush administration's counterterrorism policy prior to Sept. 11 has turned to public statements the president and top aides made in the months before the terrorist attacks.

A speech that was due to be delivered on the day planes crashed into the Pentagon, a field in Pennsylvania and the World Trade Center is getting particular attention: The Washington Post reports national security advisory Condoleezza Rice was due to make remarks that day that discussed national security threats, but never mentioned al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. Instead, the remarks focused on the need for missile defense.

During his confirmation hearings days before President Bush was inaugurated, Colin Powell did not mention al Qaeda as he discussed foreign policy priorities.

And a CBS News review of speeches and public remarks by Mr. Bush suggests he did not mention al Qaeda once before Sept. 11. In one letter to Congress in July 2001, the president referred to al Qaeda and bin Laden in explaining his decision to extend sanctions against the Taliban.

Public statements offer a narrow picture of what the Bush administration was thinking about before Sept. 11. Administration officials contend the policy against al Qaeda was devised in secret.

"The president's commitment to fighting terrorism isn't measured by the number of speeches, but by the concrete actions taken to fight the threat," James R. Wilkinson, deputy national security adviser for communications, told The Post.

But since many of those secret meetings are the subject of the dispute between the White House and former top counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, the public record might get renewed scrutiny.

Thomas Kean, the chairman of the commission investigating the 2001 attacks, has said that as the panel prepares to question Rice, commissioners might examine statements Rice made to reporters.

The context of statements made prior to Sept. 11 will be key to understanding the Bush administration's posture.

After the August 1998 embassy attacks in Africa, the Clinton administration blamed bin Laden for a slew of terrorist attacks dating back to 1992. There was some skepticism that bin Laden was really to blame for incidents ranging from Yemen to Manhattan to Somalia to the Philippines.

The change in perception of bin Laden is reflected in the State Department's annual terrorism report.

In the edition released in early 1997, bin Laden was referred to as a "terrorist financier" and mentioned six times. Al Qaeda was not yet listed as a foreign terrorist organization.

By the time of the Clinton administration's final report, in early 2000, bin Laden garnered 55 mentions. The Bush administration's first report, issued in early 2001, contained 33 mentions, many of them prominent.

Mr. Clinton's last budget mentioned "terrorism" 33 times; Mr. Bush's first budget mentioned it nine times.

But not all administration officials were as quiet — in public — about bin Laden as others. Addressing Congress in February 2001, CIA director George Tenet said "bin Laden and his global network of lieutenants and associates remain the most immediate and serious threat."

In his July 2001 letter to Congress, Mr. Bush blamed the Taliban for sheltering bin Laden and al Qaeda, "who have committed and threaten to continue to commit acts of violence against the United States and its nationals."

Clarke alleges that the Bush administration did not take his warnings about al Qaeda seriously. His allegations, which cut to the heart of the president's national security performance, prompted a furious White House response.

Rice and other aides to the president have denied Clarke's charges and assailed his credibility. She has said the White House was focused on the al Qaeda threat.

In the undelivered Sept. 11 speech, Rice talked about "the threats and problems of today and the day after, not the world of yesterday," the Post reports, quoting officials who have seen the text.

But she never mentioned Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda or Islamic terrorism. Instead, she focused on the threat of rogue nations launching ballistic missiles at the United States.

On Thursday's CBS News Early Show, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., denied that the Bush administration neglected terrorism in favor of plotting against Iraq.

"I believe the facts speak for themselves. The facts are after 9/11, we knew where al Qaeda was and we knew it was in Afghanistan," McCain said. "We went to Afghanistan and we have now got a chance for a democracy there. That was the proper thing to do. We didn't go to Iraq first."

In a reversal, the White House agreed this week to allow Rice to testify publicly and under oath before the 10-member panel as early as next week. The administration previously had insisted she meet privately with the commission, citing constitutional concerns, but eventually bowed to public pressure.

Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who had previously agreed only to meet the commission chairman and vice-chairman, this week agreed to meet with the full commission. But they will do so in private and together.

And the White House does not intend to release the text of the speech Rice was due to give on Sept. 11, CBS News White House Correspondent Peter Maer reports.