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In today’s 9/11 hearing, Condi kept saying that while Richard Clarke may have warned her about the al-Qaida threat — warnings dating back to the very first days of the Bush administration — he didn’t push any specific plan to deal with the potential terrorists on our soil that would have prevented 9/11, and, according to her, never asked to brief the president about counterterrorism before 9/11. Clarke says he asked to meet with Bush several times.
It’s amazing to listen to Rice discuss the critical role Clarke played before 9/11 — and suggest that he might have had an even greater impact on White House policy if he just tried harder to get them to listen to him. Clarke is the same guy, you might remember, who Dick Cheney dismissed on Rush Limbaugh’s show two weeks ago as “out of the loop.”
Rice said this morning, in response to a question about Clarke, that: “By no means did he ask me to act on a plan.”
Here’s what Clarke says in his book “Against All Enemies,” beginning on p. 236, on his specific attempts to get Rice and others to heed the al-Qaida threat in the weeks and months before 9/11:
“During the spring as initial policy debates in the Administration began, I emailed Condi Rice and NSC staff colleagues that al Qaeda was trying to kill Americans, to have hundreds of dead in the streets of America. During the first week in July, I convened the CSG and asked each agency to consider itself on full alert. I asked the CSG agencies to cancel summer vacations and official travel for the counterterrorism response staffs. Each agency should report anything unusual, even if a sparrow should fall from a tree. I asked FBI to send another warning to the 18,000 police departments, State to alert the embassies, and the Defense Department to go to Threat Condition Delta. The Navy moved ships out of Bahrain … “
“Somewhere in CIA there was information that two known al Qaeda terrorists had come into the United States. Somewhere in FBI there was information that strange things had been going on at flight schools in the United States. I had asked to know if a sparrow fell from a tree that summer. What was buried in CIA and FBI was not a matter of one sparrow falling from a tree, red lights and bells should have been going off. They had specific information about individual terrorists from which one could have deduced what was about to happen. None of that information got to me or the White House. It apparently did not even make it up the FBI chain to Dale Watson, the Executive Assistant Director in charge of counterterrorism. I certainly know what I would have done, for we had done it at the Millennium: a nationwide manhunt, rousting anyone suspected of maybe, possibly, having the slightest connection.”
(Note: Rice this morning repeatedly downplayed the significance of having stopped the Millennium attack on LAX by saying it was just one observant Customs officer who stopped Ahmed Ressam at the Canadian border, not the successful product of wider warnings and increased surveillance about a Y2K attack.)
Clarke continues in his book: “On September 4, 2001, the Principals Committee on al Qaeda that I had called for ‘urgently’ on January 25 finally met. In preparation for that meeting, I urged Condi Rice to see the issue cleanly, the Administration could decide that al Qaeda was just a nuisance, a cost of doing business for a superpower … and act accordingly, as it had been doing. Or it could decide that the al Qaeda terrorist group and its affiliates posed an existential threat to the American way of life, in which case we should do everything that might be required to eliminate the threat. There was no in-between. I concluded by noting that before choosing from those alternatives, it would be well for Rice to put herself in her own shoes when in the very near future al Qaeda had killed hundreds of Americans: ‘What will you wish then you had already done?’”
Clarke goes on to describe the Principals meeting as a “nonevent.” Rumsfeld looked “distracted,” he said, and talked about Iraq.
“The only heated disagreement came over whether to fly the armed Predator over Afghanistan to attack al Qaeda. Neither CIA nor the Defense Department would agree to run that program. Rice ended the discussion without a solution. She asked that I finalize the broad policy document, a National Security Presidential Directive, on al Qaeda and send it over to her for the Presidential signature.”
A week later was Sept. 11, 2001. In reaction to Rice’s testimony this morning, speaking on ABC News, Clarke said that he told Rice on Jan. 25, 2001, that he had a plan to deal with al-Qaida and wanted a Cabinet meeting called so the government could move forward with the plan. That meeting wasn’t held until September, and months were wasted.
In her testimony this morning, Rice corroborated much of what he told the commission two weeks ago, Clarke said. The president received 40 warnings in the months before 9/11 and did not convene the Cabinet, nor did Rice. That behavior is “in marked contrast to how government operated in 1999,” Clarke said.
Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.More Geraldine Sealey.
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