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The 9/11 Commission

March 23, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: The afternoon session, like this morning’s, began with a commission staff report: This one detailing the U.S. military response to terrorism beginning with the Clinton administration.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: After the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were attacked on Aug. 7, 1998, President Clinton directed his advisers to consider military options. He and his advisers agreed on a set of targets in Afghanistan. More difficult was the question of whether to strike other al-Qaida targets in Sudan. Two possible targets were identified in Sudan, including a pharmaceutical plant at which, the president was told by his aides, they believed VX nerve gas was manufactured with Osama bin Laden’s financial support.

KWAME HOLMAN: But following that attack on the pharmaceutical plant, for which President Clinton was criticized widely, the administration passed on three other strike opportunities.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: National Security Adviser Berger and others told us that more strikes, if they failed to kill bin Laden, could actually be counterproductive, increasing bin Laden’s stature. The paramount limitations cited by senior officials on every proposed use of military force was the lack of actionable intelligence — by this, they meant precise intelligence on where bin Laden would be and how long he would be there.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the report also focused on the Bush administration and its decision not to retaliate against al-Qaida for the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: The new team at the Pentagon did not push for response for the Cole. According to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, then Paul Wolfowitz, his deputy — Wolfowitz told us that by the time the new administration was in place the Cole incident was stale. The 1998 cruise missile strike showed UBL and al-Qaida that they had nothing to fear from a U.S. response Wolfowitz said. For his part, Rumsfeld also thought too much time had passed.

KWAME HOLMAN: Former Defense Secretary William Cohen was first to testify this afternoon. Like Secretary of State Albright this morning, Cohen was questioned sharply by former Senator Kerrey about why President Clinton didn’t take earlier military action against al-Qaida.

FORMER SEN. BOB KERREY: Every single time I heard the administration come up before the intelligence committee that I was on, maybe just trying to keep doing what you had done for years before, it was we’re going to send the FBI to investigate this stuff. And I would say, “My God, I don’t understand this.” They killed airmen in Khobar Towers. They attacked our facilities in East Africa. They attacked our sailors on the Cole. I don’t understand and still today don’t understand why the military wasn’t given a dominant role.

WILLIAM COHEN: We had lethal authority. We were not … Sandy Berger said we weren’t trying to send simply a summons to bin Laden in Afghanistan. We were trying to kill him, him or anyone else who was there at the time. That was, you know, what they call a warning shot to the temple. We were trying to kill bin Laden and anyone there that went to that camp. Did we have the kind of information that would have allowed us to get him later? We didn’t see it. It was never recommended. I can’t account for everything that you’ve heard but there was never a recommendation that came to the national security team that said we’ve got a good shot at getting him, let’s take military action and do it.

I leave it to you, Senator Kerrey and to others who have served in Congress. Do you think it’s reasonable that under the circumstances that any president, including President Clinton, could have gone to Congress in October of 2000 and said, these people are trying to kill us and now therefore we’re going to invade Afghanistan and take them out? I don’t think so.

KWAME HOLMAN: Commission member John Lehman, a former navy secretary, challenged Cohen on why the Clinton administration didn’t come up with a wider range of military options.

FORMER NAVY SECRETARY JOHN LEHMAN: The question I have is, in the testimony of a number of the witnesses we’ve had and, of course, in Mr. Clarke’s book, your Pentagon comes in for a lot of criticism for basically along two lines, the most important of which is that whenever there was an opportunity and a quest for options when the president requested options and so forth, the only thing the Joint Chiefs could come up with, the Pentagon could come up with was either lob a few cruise missiles or the Normandy invasion.

And clearly, as Senator Kerrey was suggesting, there are lots of potential discreet options in between — like putting specialized Special Operations Forces on the ground. Now this is before — yes, it takes 13,000 today and they can’t find him. But before, before the war in Afghanistan there was a lot of — he was much more accessible.

WILLIAM COHEN: Was Richard Clarke in a better position to say this has a greater chance of success or General Shelton? I indicated that I relied upon the senior military adviser to me, the president to the national security team. I have no reason to in any way ever doubt that he was very straight with me and was not trying to rig the system so you only had one of two options. But rather I think he always felt we are prepared to take action, to put special forces on the ground if there is a reasonable opportunity to achieve the mission — to do anything less than that, to put those young people at risk with the enormity of the task of that country, that size, with that many caves with by the way, the support of the Taliban and not the support of Pakistan, I’d have to question whether or not that was reasonable to do so.

KWAME HOLMAN: Current Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld testified next and immediately faced questions from former Senator Kerrey about why the new Bush administration did not take action against al-Qaida right away.

FORMER SEN. BOB KERREY: I don’t understand this. We’re waiting for a plan thing at all. I really don’t. I mean, we’re dealing, we’re dealing with an individual who has led a military effort against the United States for ten years and has serially killed a significant number of Americans over that period of time. Why in God’s name I got to wait eight months to get a plan?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Afghanistan was harboring the al-Qaida. Afghanistan was something like 8,000 miles from the United States. It was surrounded by countries that were not particularly friendly to the United States of America. Afghanistan, as I said publicly on one occasion, didn’t have a lot of targets. I mean, you can go from an overhead and attack Afghanistan and in a very short order you run out of targets that are lucrative. You can pound the rubble in al-Qaida training camp 15 times and not do much damage. They can put tents right up back. It’s not like the country has suffered for decades in drought, in civil war, in occupation by the Soviet Union. And trying to deal with them from the air, in my view, and that is essentially what the courses of action were that I saw.

KWAME HOLMAN: Former Washington state Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican, continued the line of questioning.

FORMER SEN. SLADE GORTON: My question is given World Trade Center One, given the embassy bombings, given the millennium plot, given the Cole, given the declaration of war by Osama bin Laden, what made you think that we had the luxury of that much time?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Reflecting on what happened on Sept. 11, the question is obviously, the good Lord willing, things would have happened prior to that that could have stopped it but something to have stopped that would have had to happen months and months and months beforehand — not five minutes or not one month or two months or three months. And the counter argument — it seems to me – is do you have the luxury of doing what was done before and simply just heaving some cruise missiles into the thing and not doing it right? I don’t know. We thought not. It’s a judgment.

RAY SUAREZ: Joining me once again are Daniel Benjamin, the former Clinton administration NSC counter terror official, and former CIA official Reuel Gerecht. And today the written response from the 9/11 commission — and the questions to those who came to testify — hit once again and again and again on the lack of military response to which the people who came to testify said, well, it wasn’t really clear what you attack.

REUEL GERECHT: Yeah. I would say that if you exclude from the very beginning that you’re not going to invade the country, which I would argue was the only serious way to deal with al-Qaida and the Taliban, as Secretary Rumsfeld quite correctly noted that there aren’t many targets that you can hit. I mean, surgical strikes against the Taliban or al-Qaida I don’t think really make enough sense because would have to have perfect intelligence and you’re never going to have perfect intelligence. You need to get in there to remove the camps permanently.

So the, once you move away from that, then you’re sort of stuck in a certain discussion that can’t bring up preemptive war, that makes you actually respond to events defensively. And I think that’s what happened with the Clinton administration and I think the same process happened with the Bush administration. They started thinking about different ways to deal with it without actually tackling the major issue. That is we have to go out and bring down the entire regime.

RAY SUAREZ: Daniel Benjamin again and again the commission members were saying you had this, you had this, you had this, ticking off the events, and the defense specialists testifying answered that you really shouldn’t make this sound like it’s easier than it was. Why was it so hard to do something militarily against the Taliban and al-Qaida?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, it certainly was challenging in the sense that to use what would be called a large package, to really get a large military force on the ground would be very difficult. It was unclear where we would stage from. Pakistan was not going to give us an opportunity to do that from there. We certainly weren’t going to do it from Iran, a hostile country. It would be difficult to come in from the north. It was, as a practical matter, highly problematic.

Now there was discussion certainly during the Clinton administration about trying to do something with a smaller force of Special Operations experts to go in and try to find bin Laden and the senior al-Qaida leadership but the military was very hesitant about doing this without absolutely superb intelligence as to where they were and with the certainty that we had the assets to go in and get these troops if they’re needed … if they needed to be rescued.

There was real resistance within the military — at the joint staff level, the people who served the chairman, there actually was an eagerness to do this because they understood the threat. The one stars really did want to carry out an operation but when the higher brass looked at these issues they said there are just too many dangers, the package needs to be too big. They backed away from it.

RAY SUAREZ: What about support in the Congress and in the country at large?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, it’s absolutely true as both administrations have said that this would have been inconceivable from a political perspective. It would have taken an enormous leap of leadership and really was in many ways inconceivable. Remember at the end of the Clinton administration Congress nearly cut off support for U.S. forces in Kosovo. There we had a case were genocidal acts were being committed in front of the entire world. I don’t think anyone was going to believe that we had vital interests in Afghanistan. And then the same thing was true after the transition as Paul Wolfowitz has said. I think it would have been a very, very difficult sell.

RAY SUAREZ: Reuel Gerecht, one point that came up again and again during both the diplomatic and military portions of today’s testimony was how hard it was to get information out of that part of the world — what they kept referring to as actionable intelligence. Well if it was hard, could you put more assets in there until you could get what you needed to get or was there something like a barrier built around the place?

REUEL GERECHT: Well, I think the primary problem is that the CIA actually didn’t treat Afghanistan as an area of operations until very late in the game. They were very reluctant to even send people in country to talk to Massoud. They considered those missions to be dangerous. They didn’t have any people. Up in the North, debriefing prisoners of war, according to Ahmed Shah Massoud the leader of the Northern Alliance who was assassinated just before 9/11, he had upwards of 700 members of al-Qaida on the front lines against him. We just simply didn’t want to take the risk.

Now I would backtrack just a little bit. I would disagree with Daniel on the issue of the politics at that time. I tend to perhaps have a 19th century view on this but I do believe that if you attack two American embassies and you sink or nearly sink an American destroyer that those are acts of war and I think that President Clinton could have used the bully pulpit on this one and he chose not to. I think he could have made a do-or-die argument to Musharraf who had been really integral in using and developing those camps that bin Laden was in for his operations in Kashmir that we could have gone to the Pakistanis and said, listen, either you are with us or you are against us on this one. The Clinton administration didn’t do that. I think they can be faulted for that.

RAY SUAREZ: Didn’t it take 9/11 to bring the Pakistanis around?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: It did take 9/11. What Reuel is overlooking here, I think, is that, first of all we were dealing with Nawaz Sharif until the Fall of 1999 and we were facing a potentially catastrophic situation in which Pakistan and India were going to go to nuclear war.

On July 4 of 1999 President Clinton hosted Sharif of Pakistan in Washington and had to essentially tell him to back down in the Cargill confrontation. I think that’s really instructive because we had woefully overloaded diplomatic circuits. We had too many issues to deal with with the Pakistanis. That was a huge problem. Musharraf came in in the fall and we really lost ground. We had a very difficult time dealing with him because he thought this was a problem that he didn’t need to worry about. Pakistan wanted to maintain Afghanistan as its strategic depth.

And once again we were also very concerned about nuclear issues. Now we did push the terrorism issue very forcefully and President Clinton met with Musharraf in Islamabad and pushed this issue. But again we had a real problem. We had no carrots to give the Pakistanis. We had a series of overlaying sanctions that had accrued over years. The executive branch had its hands largely tied by Congress. It was a really difficult diplomatic problem.

RAY SUAREZ: Time for a quick response. Reuel.

REUEL GERECHT: Well, I would agree with everything Daniel said but again I think it’s one of perception. If you believe that bin Laden and al-Qaida was a serious threat and certainly there were many individuals in the Clinton administration who say now they did, then I think that they should have come forward and said listen, we have to eliminate this man. We have to do it now. They did not do that.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thanks for joining us.