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What Went Wrong?

March 24, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: A 9/11 Commission report on intelligence, read today following months of closed-door interviews with top government officials, showed U.S. Intelligence operatives were well aware of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist activities as early as 1997. Tracking bin Laden’s movements in Afghanistan in hopes of capturing him became a top CIA priority, but after the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in august 1998, President Clinton signed a directive giving the CIA the authority to take offensive action against bin Laden.

CHRISTOPHER KOJM: The CIA’s Afghan assets reported on about half a dozen occasions before 9/11 that they had considered attacking bin Laden, usually as he traveled in his convoy along the rough Afghan roads. Each time, the operation was reportedly aborted. Several times the Afghans said that bin Laden had taken a different route than expected. On one occasion, security was said to be too tight to capture him. Another time they heard women and children’s voices from inside the convoy and abandoned the assault for fear of killing innocents in accordance with CIA guidelines.

KWAME HOLMAN: The CIA recruited proxies in Afghanistan to do its work, but their reliability was questionable. The CIA flew unmanned reconnaissance planes over suspected al-Qaida camps, but there was disagreement over whether to arm the vehicles with missiles. What the Commission found, according to this morning’s report, was that the CIA And the president’s National Security Council held conflicting views on just how far they should go to “kill” Osama bin Laden.

CHRISTOPHER KOJM: Senior NSC staff members told us they believed the president’s intent was clear: He wanted bin Laden dead. But if the policymakers believed their intent was clear, every CIA Official interviewed on this topic by the commission, from DCI Tenet to the official who actually briefed the agents in the field, told us they heard a different message.

What the United States would let the military do is quite different, Tenet said, from the rules that govern covert action by the CIA. CIA senior managers, operators, and lawyers uniformly said that they read the relevant authorities signed by President Clinton as instructing them to try to capture bin Laden, except in the defined contingency. They believed that the only acceptable context for killing bin Laden was a credible capture operation.

Where NSC staff and CIA officials agree is that no one at CIA, including Tenet and Pavitt, ever complained to the White House that the authorities were restrictive or unclear. Berger told us: “If there was ever any confusion, it was never conveyed to me or the president by the DCI or anybody else.”

KWAME HOLMAN: CIA Director George Tenet, who’s tenure has spanned both the Clinton and Bush administrations, was first to testify today. Former Navy Secretary John Lehman asked tenet if the CIA tried to avoid assassinating bin Laden.

JOHN LEHMAN: Mr. Clarke and others, as we’ve heard in the staff statement this morning, have stated that there is a very deeply entrenched culture in the directorate of operations against covert operations, and especially and strongly against assassination. Do you share Mr. Clarke’s assessment?

GEORGE TENET: No, I don’t. Nobody ever talks about assassinations frivolously, ever. So one and the other… but the idea that, you know, that they’re risk-averse, couldn’t get the job done, weren’t forward-leaning… I’m sorry. I’ve heard those comments, and I just categorically reject them.

JOHN LEHMAN: Do you also reject Mr. Clarke’s statement that at least two of the most senior officials in DO said they’d resign rather than carry out…

GEORGE TENET: Well, I don’t know that, because I think that was something you learned in your staff interviews.

SPOKESMAN: You learned that.

GEORGE TENET: And I don’t… and look, this is an issue… there’s some deeply felt… held views here. But I mean, I don’t know who said it and why they said it and… here you go, sir.

KWAME HOLMAN: Commissioner Fred Fielding asked if capturing or killing bin Laden would have stopped al-Qaida’s Sept. 11 attacks.

FRED FIELDING: Do you think if you had gotten, in any way, shape or form, bin Laden in the year 2001 you would have prevented the two 9/11 attacks?

GEORGE TENET: Commissioner Fielding, I don’t believe so. I believe that this plot line was off and running. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was in the middle of it; operators were moving into this country. Any understanding of this, we certainly understand that they had the operational flexibility to decide what to do, but this plot was well on its way. Decapitating one person, even bin Laden in this context, I do not believe we would have stopped this plot.

KWAME HOLMAN: Still, former Senator Bob Kerrey expressed frustration, asking if the CIA knew a terrorist attack was a real possibility during the summer of 2001, why more wasn’t done to prevent it.

FORMER SEN. BOB KERREY: I don’t understand why we didn’t put an order out to get everything the FBI had, to get everything that everybody had in, and to try to determine whether or not it was possible an attack was going to occur in the United States of America. I just don’t understand it, given the level of urgency that was demonstrated by Dr. Rice in talking to Mr. Clarke and demonstrated as well by the president in talking to you. Now, tell me if I got it wrong.

GEORGE TENET: I believe that… I think people were doing everything they knew how to do to try and figure out what this was and what this wasn’t. I did not… I didn’t get a sense of a lack of urgency on the part of people in this time period.

FORMER SEN. BOB KERREY: I appreciate that, director tenet, but I don’t understand– and I’ll ask Dick Clarke later because he was chairing the CSG’s all summer– I mean, brings the FAA and why in god’s name doesn’t he say, “you know, there’s a possibility there’s going to be a hijacking, and it could be a domestic hijacking,” and it doesn’t become a part of their planning.


FORMER SEN. BOB KERREY: It doesn’t become a part of their planning. They don’t change the rules dealing with hijacking. And I’ll have a chance to ask director… Dick Clarke that later, but I mean we had all– and I appreciate you’ve got this wall that was separating intel and law enforcement and after patriot and after 9/11 that changed– but even before that, it seems to me, given the level of concern about a possible domestic attack, that we should have swept that information up to try to find out if there was anything out there that indicated an attack was going to occur in the United States. You’re… I guess there’s no question here, it’s just a declaratory. ( Laughter )

KWAME HOLMAN: Commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton.

LEE HAMILTON: We had… in both administrations they presented very long lists of things that they had done prior to 9/11 to keep the people secure. And I know those steps were taken with conviction and utter sincerity, and I don’t believe there’s any high-level public official that I’ve ever met that would not act to protect the American people. But the over-arching fact, of course, is that we did not do it, and we lost a lot of people. So the question that we have to address, and here I need some help from you, is why were we unable to do it.

GEORGE TENET: Three layers of answers. We didn’t steal the secret that told us what the plot was. We didn’t recruit the right people or technically collect the data, notwithstanding enormous effort to do so. Macro-issue.

Second issue: We didn’t integrate all the data we had properly, and probably we had a lot of data that we didn’t know about that if everybody had known about, maybe we would have had a chance. I can’t predict to you one way or another. But you also had systemically a wall that was in place between the criminal side and the intelligence side. What’s in a criminal case doesn’t cross over that line. Ironclad regulations — so that even people in the criminal division and the intelligence divisions of the FBI couldn’t talk to each other, let alone talk to us or us talk to them.

The truth is, is here’s the unassailable fact: The terrorist is a smart operational animal. He’s going to figure all this out. He’s going to figure out your watch list systems better and your visa systems better. He’s going to infiltrate your country with phony documents and passports.

And then the question’s going to be, how good are you inside your country in understanding what these groups are doing; how good is your domestic intelligence capability. So those are different layers of the same problem, sir. But, you know, there’s obviously that tactical thing that didn’t go right. The cost… you know, we… you know, I can’t… never going to get out of my head.

KWAME HOLMAN: Samuel Berger followed tenet. He served as national security advisor to President Clinton. Following on the staff report, commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste asked if Mr. Clinton’s orders to kill Osama bin Laden were clear.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: With respect to the authorization for the use of force given to Director Tenet, he was reluctant to go into specifics, but he did say that there was no request for authority that was denied by President Clinton. Could you shed light on that as well?

SAMUEL BERGER: I will try, Mr. Commissioner. I’ve read some of these reports in the press and otherwise. Let me say first of all, there could not have been any doubt about what President Clinton’s intent was after he fired 60 Tomahawk Cruise missiles at bin Laden in August ’98. I assure you, they were not delivering an arrest warrant. The intent was to kill bin Laden. Number one, his overall intent was manifest in august ’98.

Number two, I believe the director understood, and I think he reiterated today, that we wanted him to use the full measure of the CIA’s capabilities. Only the CIA can judge what its capabilities are, and that then defines the scope of the authorization. We gave the CIA every inch of authorization that it asked for. If there was any confusion down the ranks, it was never communicated to me nor to the president. And if any additional authority had been requested, I am convinced it would have been given immediately.

JIM LEHRER: This afternoon, Richard Clarke testified before the commission. His criticisms of the Bush administration contained in his new book have attracted wide attention. Again, Kwame Holman reports. .

KWAME HOLMAN: Richard Clarke was considered the top Washington when he served in the Clinton administration. When the Bush administration came in, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice asked Clarke to stay on as counterterrorism advisor. That’s the job he was in on Sept. 11.

RICHARD CLARKE: I welcome these hearings because of the opportunity they provide to the American people to better understand why the tragedy of 9/11 happened and what we must do to prevent a reoccurrence. I also welcome the hearings because it is finally a forum where I can apologize to the loved ones of the victims of 9/11, to them who are here in the room, to those who are watching on television, 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. And for that failure, I would ask once all the facts are out for your understanding and for your forgiveness.

KWAME HOLMAN: Clarke quit the Bush administration in 2003 and in his new book and during interviews he’s given this week to promote it, Clarke has charged President Bush didn’t grasp the urgency of the al-Qaida terrorism threat prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. Former Democratic Congressman Tim Roemer asked the first questions in this afternoon’s session.

FORMER REP. TIM ROEMER: With respect to the Bush administration from the time they took office until Sept. 11, 2001, you had much to deal with: Russia, China, G-8, the Middle East. How high a priority was fighting al-Qaida in the Bush administration?

RICHARD CLARKE: I believe the Bush administration in the first eight months considered terrorism an important issue but not an urgent issue. They… well, President Bush himself says as much in his interview with Bob Woodward in the book “Bush at War.” He said I didn’t feel a sense of urgency. George Tenet and I tried very hard to create a sense of urgency by seeing to it that intelligence reports on the al-Qaida threat were frequently given to the president and other high-level officials. There was a process underway to address al-Qaida. But although I continued to say it was an urgent problem, I don’t think it was ever treated that way.

KWAME HOLMAN: Roemer referred to Clarke’s January 2001 request to national security advisor Rice for an urgent meeting on al-Qaida with top- level government officials.

FORMER REP. TIM ROEMER: Do you get a response to this urgent request for a principals’ meeting on these and how does this affect your time frame for dealing with these important issues?

RICHARD CLARKE: I did get a response. The response was that in the Bush administration I should in my committee counterterrorism security group should report to the deputies’ committee which is a sub cabinet level committee and not to the principals, and that therefore it was inappropriate for me to be asking for a principals meeting. Instead there would be a deputies meeting.

FORMER REP. TIM ROEMER: So does this slow the process down to go to the deputies rather than to the principals or a small group as you previously had done?

RICHARD CLARKE: It slowed it down enormously, by months.

KWAME HOLMAN: Former Washington State Senator Slade Gorton.

FORMER SEN. SLADE GORTON: Assuming that the recommendations that you made in… on January 25 of 2001 based on blue sky, including aid to the northern alliance which had been an agenda item at this point for two-and-a-half years without any action, assuming that there had been more predator reconnaissance missions, assuming that that had all been adopted, say, on January 26, the year 2001, is there the remotest chance that it would have prevented 9/11?


FORMER SEN. SLADE GORTON: It just would have allowed our response after 9/11 to be perhaps a little bit faster?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, the response would have begun before 9/11.

FORMER SEN. SLADE GORTON: But… yes, but we weren’t going to… there was no recommendation on your part or anyone else’s part that we declare war and attempt to invade Afghanistan prior to 9/11.

RICHARD CLARKE: That’s right.

KWAME HOLMAN: Former Illinois Governor Jim Thompson questioned Clarke’s criticisms of President Bush given that the president had called for a plan to establish a new strategy to combat al-Qaida.

FORMER GOV. JAMES THOMPSON: You said that the strategy changed from one of rollback with al-Qaida over the course of five years which it had been, which I presume is the Clinton policy, to a new strategy that called for the rapid elimination of al-Qaida, that is in fact the time line. Is that correct?

RICHARD CLARKE: It is, but it requires a bit of elaboration. I tried to insert the phrase early in the Bush administration in the draft NSPD that our goal should be to eliminate al-Qaida, and I was told by various members of the deputies committee that that was overly ambitious, that we should take the word “eliminate” out and say “significantly erode.” And then, following 9/11 we were able to go back to my language of “eliminate” rather than “significantly erode.” And so the version of the national security presidential decision directive that President Bush finally got to see after 9/11 had my original language of “eliminate,” not the interim language of “erode.”

KWAME HOLMAN: It was former Navy Secretary John Lehman who turned attention back to Richard Clarke’s new book.

JOHN LEHMAN: I’ve watched you labor without fear or favor in a succession of jobs where you really made a difference. And so when you agreed to spend as much time as you did with us in, as you say, 15 hours, I was very hopeful. And I attended one of those all-day sessions and read the other two transcripts, and I thought they were terrific. I thought, here we have a guy who can be the Rosetta stone for helping this commission do its job, to help to have the American people grasp what the dysfunctional problems in this government are. And I thought you let the chips fall where they may.

But now we have the book. And I hope you’re going to tell me, as you apologize to the families for all of us who were involved in national security, that this tremendous difference- – and not just in nuance, but in what it is you choose to… the stories you choose to tell… is really the result of your editors and your promoters, rather than your studied judgment, because it is so different from the whole thrust of your testimony to us.

RICHARD CLARKE: Thank you, John. (Laughter ) Let me talk about partisanship here, since you raise it. I’ve been accused of being a member of John Kerrey’s campaign team several times this week, including by the White House. So let’s just lay that one to bed.

I’m not working for the Kerrey campaign. Last time I had to declare my party loyalty it was to vote in the Virginia primary for president of the United States in the year 2000 and I asked for a Republican ballot. I worked for Ronald Reagan, with you. I worked for the first President Bush, and he nominated me to the senate as an assistant secretary of state. I worked in his White House and I’ve worked for this President Bush. I’m not working for Senator Kerrey.

Now, the fact of the matter is I do co-teach a class with someone who works for Senator Kerrey. That person is named Randy Beers. That, I don’t think makes me a member of the Kerrey campaign. The White House has said that my book is an audition for a high-level position in the Kerrey campaign. So let me say here as I am under oath that I will not accept any position in the Kerrey administration, should there be one — on the record, under oath.

Now as to your accusation that there is a difference between what I said to this commission in 15 hours of testimony and what I am saying in my book and what media outlets are asking me to comment on, I think there’s a very good reason for that. In the 15 hours of testimony, no one asked me what I thought about the president’s invasion of Iraq. And the reason I am strident in my criticism of the president of the United States is because by invading Iraq– something I was not asked about by the commission, but something I chose to write about a lot in the book– by invading Iraq, the president of the United States has greatly undermined the war on terrorism.

KWAME HOLMAN: The last witness of the day was Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage. He was asked if he agreed with Richard Clarke that the Bush administration didn’t move fast enough on the terrorism threat prior to 9/11.

RICHARD ARMITAGE: No, I don’t. But I’d like to say the words of Samuel Clements come to mind, and that is even though you’re on the right track, you can get run over if you’re not going fast enough. And I think it is the case, it’s certainly in hindsight that we weren’t going fast enough. Now, you can make your own judgments about whether we were moving faster or slower than other administrations. But there were a lot of complex issues, and we thought we were getting or trying to get our arms around all of them and not just pieces of them.

KWAME HOLMAN: The 9/11 Commission has scheduled three more rounds of pubic hearings focusing on law enforcement efforts to combat terrorism, and on the Sept. 11 attacks themselves. The Commission expects to release its final report in July.