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Clinton Aides Plan to Tell Panel of Warning Bush Team on Qaeda
By PHILIP SHENON
Published: March 20, 2004
WASHINGTON, March 19-Senior Clinton administration officials called to testify next week before the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks say they are prepared to detail how they repeatedly warned their Bush administration counterparts in late 2000 that Al Qaeda posed the worst security threat facing the nation-and how the new administration was slow to act.
They said the warnings were delivered in urgent post-election intelligence briefings in December 2000 and January 2001 for Condoleezza Rice, who became Mr. Bush's national security adviser; Stephen Hadley, now Ms. Rice's deputy; and Philip D. Zelikow, a member of the Bush transition team, among others.
One official scheduled to testify, Richard A. Clarke, who was President Bill Clinton's counterterrorism coordinator, said in an interview that the warning about the Qaeda threat could not have been made more bluntly to the incoming Bush officials in intelligence briefings that he led.
At the time of the briefings, there was extensive evidence tying Al Qaeda to the bombing in Yemen two months earlier of an American warship, the Cole, in which 17 sailors were killed.
"It was very explicit," Mr. Clarke said of the warning given to the Bush administration officials. "Rice was briefed, and Hadley was briefed, and Zelikow sat in." Mr. Clarke served as Mr. Bush's counterterrorism chief in the early months of the administration, but after Sept. 11 was given a more limited portfolio as the president's cyberterrorism adviser.
The sworn testimony from the high-ranking Clinton administration officials-including Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and Samuel R. Berger, Mr. Clinton's national security adviser-is scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday.
They are expected to testify along with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who will answer for the Bush administration, as well as George J. Tenet, director of central intelligence in both administrations.
While Clinton officials have offered similar accounts in the past, a new public review of how they warned Mr. Bush's aides about the need to deal quickly with the Qaeda threat could prove awkward to the White House, especially in the midst of a presidential campaign. But given the witnesses' prominence in the Clinton administration, supporters of Mr. Bush may see political motives in the testimony of some of them.
The testimony could also prove uncomfortable for the commission, since Mr. Zelikow is now the executive director of the bipartisan panel. And the Clinton administration officials can expect to come under tough questioning about their own performance in office and why they did not do more to respond to the terrorist threat in the late 1990's.
The White House does not dispute that intelligence briefings about the Qaeda threat occurred during the transition, and the commission has received extensive notes and other documentation from the White House and Clinton administration officials about what was discussed.
What is at issue, Clinton administration officials say, is whether their Bush administration counterparts acted on the warnings, and how quickly. The Clinton administration witnesses say they will offer details of the policy recommendations they made to the incoming Bush aides, but they would not discuss those details before the hearing.
"Until 9/11, counterterrorism was a very secondary issue at the Bush White House," said a senior Clinton official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Remember those first months? The White House was focused on tax cuts, not terrorism. We saw the budgets for counterterrorism programs being cut."
The White House rejects any suggestion that it failed to act on the threats of Qaeda terrorism before the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The president and his team received briefings on the threat from Al Qaeda prior to taking office, and fighting terrorism became a top priority when this administration came into office," Sean McCormack, a White House spokesman, said. "We actively pursued the Clinton administration's policies on Al Qaeda until we could get into place a more comprehensive policy."
Mr. Zelikow, the director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia and a co-author of a 1995 book with Ms. Rice, has been the target of repeated criticism from some relatives of Sept. 11 victims. They have said his membership on the Bush transition team and his ties to Ms. Rice pose a serious conflict of interest for the commission, which is investigating intelligence and law-enforcement actions before the attacks.
Mr. Clarke said if Mr. Zelikow left any of the White House intelligence briefings in December 2000 and January 2001 without understanding the imminent threat posed by Al Qaeda, "he was deaf."
Mr. Zelikow said in an interview that he has recused himself from any part of the investigation that involves the transition, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. He said his participation in the Qaeda intelligence briefings was already well known. "The fact of what occurred in these briefings is not really disputed," he said.
Ms. Rice has refused a request to testify at the hearings next week, saying it would violate White House precedent for an incumbent national security adviser to appear in public at a hearing of what the White House considers a legislative body. She has given a private interview to several members of the commission.
The commission, known formally as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, was created by Congress in 2002 over the initial objections of the Bush administration.
Ms. Albright and Mr. Cohen declined to be interviewed about their testimony. Mr. Berger refused to discuss details of his testimony, saying only, "I intend to talk about what we did in the Clinton administration, as well as my recommendations for the future."
In the past, Mr. Berger has said that he and his staff organized the intelligence briefings in December 2000 at which Ms. Rice, Mr. Hadley and Mr. Zelikow were warned in detail about the Qaeda threat and that on his departure, he advised Ms. Rice that he believed the Bush administration would be forced to spend more time on dealing with Al Qaeda than on any other subject.
In his testimony, Mr. Clarke is also expected to discuss what he believed to be the Bush administration's determination to punish Saddam Hussein for the Sept. 11 attacks even though there was no evidence to tie the Iraqi president to Al Qaeda.
The issue is addressed in a new book by Mr. Clarke, and in an interview to promote the book on "60 Minutes" on CBS-TV scheduled for Sunday, Mr. Clarke said that the White House considered bombing Iraq in the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, even when it became clear that Al Qaeda was responsible.
"I think they wanted to believe there was a connection, but the C.I.A. was sitting there, the F.B.I. was sitting there, saying, `We've looked at this issue for years-for years, we've looked, and there's just no connection,' " Mr. Clarke said. He recalled telling Defense Secretary Rumsfeld that "there are a lot of good targets in a lot of places, but Iraq had nothing to do" with the Sept. 11 attacks.
The White House has insisted that it acted aggressively throughout 2001 on the warnings to deal with the threat from Qaeda terrorists, and that there was an exhaustive staff review throughout the spring and summer, with a proposal ready for President Bush in early September to step up the government's efforts to destroy the terrorist network.
The Clinton administration witnesses may face difficult questions at the hearings about why they did not do more to deal with Qaeda immediately after the Cole attack and the discovery the previous winter that Qaeda terrorists had come close to coordinated attacks timed to the Dec. 31, 1999, festivities for the new millennium.
"There was no contemplation of any military action after the millennium plots, and there should have been," said Bob Kerrey, a Democratic member of the commission and a former senator from Nebraska.
"The Cole is even worse, because that was an attack on a military target," he said. "It was military against military. It was an Islamic army against our Navy. Just because you don't have a nation-state as your adversary doesn't mean you should not consider a declaration of war."