Clarke Grabs Center Stage at 9/11 Hearing
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By KEN GUGGENHEIM, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON - For a dozen years, he worked quietly in the shadows of the White House. But Richard Clarke stole the spotlight at an extraordinary series of hearings into the Sept. 11 attacks, claiming President Bush (news - web sites) hadn't done enough to protect the country from terrorists.

 
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A counterterrorism adviser to the past three presidents, Clarke accused the Bush administration Wednesday of scaling back the campaign against Osama bin Laden (news - web sites) before the attacks and undermining the fight against terrorism by invading Iraq (news - web sites).

 

They were many of the same criticisms Clarke leveled in a book published this week and in recent interviews that strike at the heart of Bush's tough-on-terrorism re-election campaign.

 

But this time Clarke was appearing before the bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, swearing to tell the truth before a packed Capitol Hill hearing room and a nationwide television audience watching the broadcast live.

 

Many of those attending were relatives of Sept. 11 victims. Clarke began his testimony by apologizing to them.

 

"Your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you and I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn't matter because we failed," he said. "And for that failure, I would ask once all the facts are out for your understanding and for your forgiveness."

 

Under questioning, Clarke said the Clinton administration had "no higher priority" than combatting terrorists while the Bush administration made it "an important issue but not an urgent issue" in the months before Sept. 11, 2001.

 

Clarke's criticism contradicted testimony given to the panel Tuesday and Wednesday from Secretary of State Colin Powell (news - web sites), Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and CIA (news - web sites) Director George Tenet. All said the administration grasped the threat posed by al-Qaida and was working hard to fight it.

 

"All I can tell you is the policy-makers got it because I talked to all of them about it and they understood the nature of what we were dealing with," Tenet said.

 

Clarke's appearance Wednesday raised partisan tensions on a commission that prides itself on being bipartisan. While Democrats offered praise, Republicans questioned Clarke's integrity, morality and candor. They also suggested his criticism was intended to spur book sales or boost the candidacy of Bush's likely rival, Sen. John Kerry (news - web sites), D-Mass.

 

The White House took the unusual step of identifying Clarke as the senior official who had praised Bush's anti-terrorism efforts in an anonymous briefing for reporters in 2002.

 

"He needs to get his story straight," said Condoleezza Rice (news - web sites), Bush's national security adviser and Clarke's former boss.

 

At the hearing, Republican commissioner James R. Thompson, a former Illinois governor, held up Clarke's book and a text of the briefing and challenged the witness, "We have your book and we have your press briefing of August 2002. Which is true?"

 

Clarke said both were true. He was still working for Bush at the time of the briefing and was asked to highlight the positive aspects of the administration's counterterrorism efforts and minimize the negative, he said.

 

Seeking to counter White House suggestions that he is seeking a job in a future Kerry administration, Clarke said he wouldn't accept a position and noted he was under oath.

 

Commissioners later sought to minimize any concerns of partisanship that could undermine the credibility of the final report they expect to release this summer.

 

"Nobody has clean hands in this one," said former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican and the commission chairman, referring to the Bush and Clinton administrations. "It was a failure of individuals. The question now is whether or not we learned from our mistakes."

 
 

 

 

"One of the startling things that I think came out of the hearing ... is that virtually every witness, including Dick Clarke, specifically, when asked indicated that even when everything had been raised to the highest alert level when the new administration came in, it was really too late then" to avert an attack, said former Navy Secretary John Lehman, a commission member, said Thursday.

"So what we have is an open system that lets terrorists in and while we would never totally close that off, we still have a long way to go to see that our immigration and our border security are improved enough so that we can rest a little more securely," he told Fox News. "And we're not there yet."

The commission's latest hearings examined military and diplomatic efforts to fight bin Laden in the years before the Sept. 11 attacks. Also testifying were President Clinton (news - web sites)'s Defense Secretary William Cohen, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (news - web sites) and national security adviser Samuel Berger.

Many of the problems both administrations faced were revealed in a series of preliminary commission reports issued over two days. A report Wednesday said CIA officials, including Tenet, believed the agency lacked the authority to kill bin Laden unless his death resulted from a capture. But they never discussed this with Berger or other Clinton administration officials, who believed the CIA had the OK to kill bin Laden.

The report also said the CIA had depended too much on unreliable indigenous groups in Afghanistan (news - web sites), where the al-Qaida leader was running training camps under the protection of the Taliban rulers in Kabul.

Officials from both administrations largely agreed on the obstacles they faced in pursuing bin Laden. They lacked intelligence on bin Laden's whereabouts that was specific and reliable enough to launch a missile attack.

They said an American invasion of Afghanistan wasn't a serious option because it would have been strongly opposed by the American public and Congress.

U.S. officials debated how they could use the unmanned Predator aircraft to spy on bin Laden and whether it could be armed with missiles to carry out attacks. They also questioned how much support to give the Taliban's enemies, the northern alliance, which had leaders linked to drug trafficking and other abuses.

Kean said commissioners "have experienced considerable frustration these past two days. We keep wrestling with the question: What could have been done and what should have been done at some stage or other over the past eight years to prevent 9/11?"

Rumsfeld, Powell and Tenet all expressed doubts that the attacks could have been prevented if the Bush administration had captured or killed bin Laden.

Former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton asked Clarke if there was "the remotest chance" that the attacks could have been prevented if the Bush administration had adopted his aggressive counterterrorism recommendations upon taking office in January 2001.

"No," Clarke said.