Terror Watch: 'Your Government Failed You'

In deft and sometimes dramatic testimony, former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke today did new political damage to the Bush White House by laying out a bold scenario by which the September 11 plot might have been unraveled.

Clarke never explicitly claimed that the terror attacks could have been stopped and actually began his high-stakes appearance before the September 11 commission with a surprise rhetorical flourish: he apologized to the families of the attack victims for failing to do enough. "Your government failed you ... and I failed you," Clarke said.

The prospect of a U.S. government apology is hardly compatible with the basic White House line on September 11--that there was no way that the plot to hijack four civilian airliners and use them as weapons could have been foreseen. But the real significance of Clarke's testimony is that he "connected the dots" in a way that for the first time demonstrated how the plot might well have been disrupted--if only the Bush administration had recognized the urgency of the Al Qaeda threat.

The Clarke scenario builds on prior disclosures that the U.S. agencies had known that two of the hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, had attended a suspected Al Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000 and then flown to the United States. The CIA has acknowledged that this information was in its files shortly after the meeting, but there was no alert to the FBI to track them down until the agency sent out a secret all-points bulletin in the third week of August 2001.

But this information was never passed along to Clarke and his counterterrorism team at the National Security Council before September 11--in large part, Clarke suggested, because the Bush White House had never emphasized the urgency of the Al Qaeda threat throughout the government nor demanded that agencies comb their files for information about Al Qaeda operatives in the United States.

Asked what steps he would have taken had he been informed about the two Al Qaeda suspects in the country, Clarke outlined a dramatic step that until now had never been hinted at: a nationwide and highly public manhunt.

"I would like to think that had I been informed by the FBI that two senior Al Qaeda operatives who had been in a planning meeting earlier in Kuala Lumpur were now in the United States, and we knew that, and we knew their names--and I think we even had their pictures--I would like to think I would have released or had the FBI release a press release, with their names, with their descriptions, held a press conference, tried to get their names and pictures on the front page of every paper--"America's Most Wanted," the evening news--and caused a successful nationwide manhunt for those two, two of the 19 hijackers," he said.

In fact the FBI had launched a futile search for the two suspects. But it never made the slightest progress: the only addresses the FBI had for one of the suspects, Almihdhar, who had just re-entered the United States in early July 2001, was a "Marriott Hotel" in New York. After canvassing all of the Marriott hotels in New York, and finding no trace of the Al Qaeda man, the FBI then switched its search to Los Angeles, where he had previously flown to after the Malyasia summit. That alert didn't reach the FBI's Los Angeles office until Sept. 10, 2001.

But the idea of a public manhunt for the operatives has never before surfaced in all the controversy surrounding September 11. The proposal illustrates what his admirers have long said was Clarke's strong suit: an ability to cut through bureaucratic red tape and think "out of the box."

His provocative response cuts through the arcane and sometimes complex debate about diplomatic and military "policy options" that have swirled around Clarke's allegations--spelled out in his new book, "Against All Enemies." Even if such a public manhunt did not lead to the hijackers' arrests, the prospect of a nationwide publicity campaign--complete with WANTED posters and notices to airline check-in desks--might well have deterred the hijackers and caused them to abandon all or part of their plans for September 11.

The White House and some Republican-appointed members of the commission today ferociously sought to impeach Clarke's credibility by pointing to inconsistencies between his new book and previous accounts he has given about the Bush administration's response to September 11. One commission member, former Illinois governor Jim Thompson, challenged Clarke to explain generally positive statements about President Bush's pre-9/11 commitment to the war on terror he gave in a White House background briefing in August 2002.

"Mr. Clarke, as we sit here this afternoon, we have your book and we have your press briefing of August 2002," Thompson asked. "Which is true?"

Clarke testily noted that he was still employed at the White House at the time and was asked to help deflect a "somewhat sensational" Time magazine story that implied the Bush administration hadn't acted on a "plan" to thwart Al Qaeda. "I was asked to highlight the positive aspects of what the administration had done, and to minimize the negative aspects of what the administration had done," Clarke said. "And, as a special assistant to the president, one is frequently asked to do that kind of thing. I've done it for several presidents ... When you're on the staff of the president of the United States, you try to make his policies look as good as possible."

In fact, the commission staff released a wealth of new details over the past two days that tend to corroborate Clarke's basic story: that the Bush White House did not treat Al Qaeda as an "urgent" priority in the months before September 11. In one staff report, the commission stated that deputy CIA director John McLaughlin had told the panel there was "great tension" in the summer of 2001 between the Bush administration policymakers and intelligence officials who believed, like him, "that this was a matter of great urgency." The report added that two CIA analysts who specialized in monitoring Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden "were so worried about an impending disaster that one of them told us that they considered resigning and going public with their concerns."

Yet the commission's staff reports suggest the new Bush administration was moving slowly on many fronts: Clarke himself was upbraided in January 2001 when he asked for an immediate "principals" meeting of cabinet chiefs to develop an urgent new anti-Al Qaeda policy and was told to instead work with a committee of "deputy" chiefs. By the summer of 2001, when this committee had finally drawn up recommendations, many of the "principals" had already departed Washington for their annual vacations and the meeting was not held until Sept. 4, a week before the attacks.

At the time, Clarke said, intelligence warnings of a "spectacular" attack were pouring in at a level higher than anything top intelligence officials had ever seen. Yet at the Pentagon, according to another commission report, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had devoted little time to the issue and some of his aides "told us that they thought the new team was focused on other issues"--such as dissolving an Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that was impeding the administration's plans to develop a new Star Wars antimissile defense system. The commission noted that the Defense Department post that traditionally deals most with counterterrorism, an assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict, hadn't even been filled at the time that one of the hijacked airlines slammed into the Pentagon.

Clarke himself was so deeply dismayed with the results of the Bush White House policy review on Al Qaeda--and thought it was so ineffective--that he fired off a memo to national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice just before the Sept. 4 meeting of cabinet chiefs. The memo, according to the commission staff, laid out Clarke's frustrations with the Pentagon and the CIA for resisting his proposals for immediate, aggressive actions against bin Laden. In the memo, the commission staff stated, Clarke "urged policymakers to imagine a day after a terrorist attack, with hundreds of American dead at home and abroad, and ask themselves what they could have done."

Thanks to Clarke's testimony, the second guessing is certain to get louder.