A former White House counterterrorism official apologized yesterday for government failures in the September 11 terrorist attacks, but his credibility was challenged during a public hearing.
“Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you,” said Richard A. Clarke, the former national coordinator for counterterrorism in the Clinton and Bush administrations.
“We tried hard, but that doesn’t matter, because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask, once all the facts are out, for your understanding and for your forgiveness.”
The testimony came in the second day of hearings before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, which is examining how the Clinton and Bush administrations dealt with al Qaeda before September 11, 2001. The attacks killed about 3,000 people when terrorists crashed hijacked airliners into the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and a western Pennsylvania field.
Mr. Clarke testified that senior Bush administration officials, including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, ignored his warnings about the threat of al Qaeda in the first seven months of the administration.
In his testimony, Mr. Clarke also revealed that he never was informed that two of the September 11 hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, had entered the United States secretly.
The former official, who has expressed his criticism in a book published this week, said he viewed the threat from al Qaeda as an urgent problem, but that “I don’t think it was ever treated that way” by the Bush White House.
In an interview with reporters last night, Miss Rice said she “has no idea what he’s talking about.”
“We did everything in that period of time that we could,” Miss Rice said, outlining how Mr. Bush in the 7 months between his inauguration and September 11 asked Pakistan to crack down on terrorists, authorized more CIA counterterrorism activity and went after domestic terrorists as part of a “more robust strategy to eliminate al Qaeda.”
“I don’t know what else you do to demonstrate that you think it is urgent and important,” she said.
At yesterday’s hearing, CIA Director George J. Tenet also said he regularly briefed President Bush directly, a process that differed from President Clinton, who was briefed by officials such as Mr. Clarke.
“Well, it gets your adrenaline flowing early in the morning, sir,” Mr. Tenet said of the presidential briefings. “And obviously it’s important … because there’s an active dialogue with the president on not only what we’re writing, but what we’re thinking.”
Mr. Clarke also said that after the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, he urged the Clinton administration to conduct “a series of rolling attacks against the infrastructure in Afghanistan.”
The attack plan was rejected by the Clinton administration, according to earlier testimony yesterday by Samuel R. Berger, Mr. Clinton’s national security adviser.
“To use military power in that way — and not to get [terror mastermind Osama] bin Laden, not to get any of his top lieutenants — but to use our military power to bomb the camps, kill a bunch of people, sure, knock down a bunch of jungle gyms, as [Joint Chiefs chairman Gen.] Hugh Shelton described them, would actually have strengthened bin Laden and al Qaeda, glorified him and made us look weak,” Mr. Berger said.
Mr. Berger said Mr. Clinton had authorized the CIA to conduct “lethal” covert action to capture or kill bin Laden.
But commission members and a commission staff report made public yesterday stated that CIA officers were “risk-averse” and afraid of carrying out operations that might cause them to be accused of violating a U.S. ban on assassination.
Mr. Berger said he did not think the American public or Congress would support a military invasion of Afghanistan.
Regarding intelligence in summer 2001 on a pending al Qaeda attack, Mr. Clarke said the CIA thought it would be in Saudi Arabia or Israel.
“I thought, however, that it might well take place in the United States, based on what we had learned in December ‘99, when we rolled up operations in Washington state, in Brooklyn, in Boston,” he said.
Mr. Clarke said in his prepared remarks that the FBI informed the White House that between 1996 and 1999, “there were no known al Qaeda operatives or activities in the U.S.”
After an al Qaeda plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in December 1999, the FBI changed its assessment and said al Qaeda has a support network in the United States.
“I didn’t think the FBI would know whether or not there was anything going on in the United States by al Qaeda,” Mr. Clarke said.
But, Miss Rice said, Mr. Clarke did not share his “action report” on that plot with her until Sept. 17, 2001.
“When we got the threat spike [in spring and summer 2001], it might have been useful to say, ‘We had this millennium experience. Here’s how we did it.’ Never came up,” she said.
Mr. Tenet conceded that U.S. intelligence failed to uncover the September 11 plot, despite a large number of reports in the weeks before the attack.
“We didn’t steal the secret that told us what the plot was,” Mr. Tenet said. “We didn’t recruit the right people or technically collect the data, notwithstanding enormous effort to do so.”
Commission member Fred Fielding asked Mr. Clarke why he never expressed criticisms of the Bush administration on terrorism during an earlier joint congressional inquiry that took place while Mr. Clarke still worked at the White House.
“I testified for six hours, and I testified as a member of the Bush administration,” Mr. Clarke said. “And I think, sir, with all of your experience in this city, you understand as well as I do the freedom one has to speak critical of an administration when one is a member of that administration.”
“I do understand that,” Mr. Fielding replied. “But I also understand, you know, the integrity with which you have to take your job.”
The hearing took place in a packed Senate room, which included many family members of the September 11 attack victims who applauded occasionally. At one point, a protester shouted to the panel that he had provided information on terrorist attacks to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
He was escorted out by security guards.
The commission issued two interim reports yesterday on the findings of the staff probe on intelligence policy and counterterrorism coordination.
One report said Mr. Clarke was “a controversial figure” who was a “skilled operator,” but was viewed as “abrasive” by his colleagues.
“Some officials told us that Clarke had sometimes misled them about presidential decisions or interfered in their chain of command,” the report said, noting that several colleagues told Mr. Berger that they “wanted Clarke fired.”
Mr. Clarke was asked by commission member and former Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson about an August 2002 background briefing that Mr. Clarke gave to reporters, in which he praised the Bush administration’s new approach to countering terrorism.
“I was asked to make that case to the press. I was a special assistant to the president. And I made the case I was asked to make,” Mr. Clarke said.
He said he was asked to modify the Bush administration’s approach to al Qaeda from “eliminate” the group to “seriously erode” it.
However, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage testified later that the word “eliminate” was always part of the new policy.
“The president said that he was tired of swatting flies, gave us a little more strategic direction,” Mr. Armitage said. “It was clear to us that rollback was no longer a sufficient strategy and that we had to go to the elimination of al Qaeda.”
James G. Lakely contributed to this report.