- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

President Bush said yesterday he would have acted swiftly on intelligence that al Qaeda was planning a major terrorist attack on the United States, but that daily briefings by the head of the CIA offered no clue.

“The facts are these: George Tenet briefed me on a regular basis about the terrorist threats to the United States of America. And had my administration had any information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on September 11, we would have acted,” the president said.

Mr. Bush took issue with a characterization in a book by a former administration counterterrorism coordinator that he, the president, sought to pin the blame for the attack on Iraq and Saddam Hussein, while ignoring the culpability of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization.

“We have been chasing down al Qaeda ever since the attacks. We’ve captured or killed two-thirds of their known leaders. And we’re still pursuing them, and we will continue to pursue them so long as I am the president,” he said.

The comments came as the head of a congressional bipartisan inquiry said the United States could have prevented the September 11 attacks with tighter immigration and intelligence checks.

Mr. Bush’s defense of his administration also came after Richard A. Clarke said in his book “Against All Enemies” that he warned Bush officials in a January 2001 memo about a growing al Qaeda threat after an attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, but was deterred by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

The White House said the administration had taken all appropriate steps to thwart terrorism and was fully aware of the threat posed by al Qaeda.

“It’s important to keep in context and for the American people to know that we did everything we could, based on what we knew at the time, prior to September 11, and based on the tools and resources that were available to us at that time, to prevent attacks on the American people,” Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said.

As for Mr. Clarke’s statements that senior Bush officials ignored his repeated warnings about al Qaeda and had a fixation on attacking Iraq — regardless of whether it was responsible for the September 11 attacks — Mr. McClellan said that “is another example of his revisionist history.”

“As we have said, the president made it very clear that his decision at Camp David … in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks was to go after the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan,” he said.

Mr. Bush, taking reporters’ questions after an afternoon meeting with his Cabinet, also said he was planning to send a high-level team to the Middle East next week to try to review the stalled peace process “if circumstances on the ground allow.”

Pushing the U.S. “road map” to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he said he had not lost faith in the process and vowed that his administration “is committed to finding a two-state solution for the good of Israel, a two-state solution for the good of the Palestinian people.”

The president spoke as the terrorist organization Hamas elected its new leader, one day after Israel killed founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin in a missile attack Mr. Bush said he found “troubling.”

The president also urged restraint by both sides.

“Any country has a right to defend itself from terror. Israel has the right to defend herself from terror. And as she does so, I hope she keeps consequences in mind as to how to make sure we stay on the path to peace,” Mr. Bush said.

He said he takes seriously a Hamas threat to retaliate against the United States for the assassination. Israel did not alert the administration before the missile attack.

“We take every threat seriously in this administration,” he said. “Whether it be a Hamas threat or an al Qaeda threat, we take them very seriously.”

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