A senior national security official who served in both the Clinton and current Bush White Houses will tell a public hearing of the September 11 commission this week that the incoming Bush administration ignored warnings about the threat from al Qaeda.
Other Clinton-era officials also will testify under oath and are expected to face tough questions about why they did not do more to deal with the threat after al Qaeda had bombed two U.S. embassies in East Africa in August 1998, killing more than 250 people.
Richard A. Clarke, the most senior official to serve on the National Security Council during the Clinton and Bush administrations, says he and his colleagues from the outgoing national security staff were ignored when they raised the issue about the al Qaeda threat with the new administration.
“Frankly,” Mr. Clarke told CBS’ “60 Minutes” yesterday, “I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he’s done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11.”
Administration officials say the incoming national security team took the threat seriously, and have characterized Mr. Clarke’s comments as pre-election posturing.
Mr. Clarke says that Philip Zelikow, a Bush transition official who is now executive director of the commission, was present at the meetings where the new team was briefed.
Some relatives of those killed in the attacks have long been uncomfortable with Mr. Zelikow’s role, given his close ties to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
“I can’t put into words how outraged I am,” said Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband, Ron, was killed in the World Trade Center on September 11. “This calls into question the integrity of the whole inquiry and the leadership of the commission.”
Mr. Zelikow has acknowledged his role in the transition, but this is the first time it has become clear how close his involvement was in the transition’s counterterror strategy.
Critics of President Bush say the incoming administration “dropped the ball” in the struggle against Osama bin Laden, which they said had been getting stronger under President Clinton, especially after a suicide attack by his al Qaeda network nearly destroyed the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000.
One former Bush White House official said the incoming administration downgraded the interagency committee that handles the nation’s counterterrorism policy and operations on a day-to-day basis.
Under Mr. Clinton, the former official added, Mr. Clarke, as chairman of the counterterror group, had been a member of the Principles’ Committee, sitting with the secretaries of defense and state and the national security adviser.
Moreover, the deputies’ committee, to which Mr. Clarke was now reporting, didn’t meet properly until April, and — partly as a result of these changes — there was no Principles’ Committee meeting on how to deal with the al Qaeda threat until Sept. 4, 2001.
Clinton-era officials, including Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and Samuel R. Berger, Mr. Clinton’s national security adviser, will appear at a public hearing of the commission scheduled for tomorrow and Wednesday.
They are slated to testify along with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and George J. Tenet, director of central intelligence in both administrations.