KWAME HOLMAN: The bipartisan 9/11 commission spent months interviewing top officials from the Clinton and Bush administrations about U.S. efforts to combat terrorism prior to the 9/11 attacks. This week, the commission invited many of those same officials to testify in public. At the beginning of today's session, former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, the commission chairman, recognized that only current national security advisor Condoleezza Rice had declined the invitation.
FORMER GOV. TOM KEAN: We're disappointed that she's not going to appear to answer our questions about national policy coordination. We have had extended private meetings with Dr. Rice. We have received a lot of information from her and she's been a very cooperative witness in that circumstance.
KWAME HOLMAN: But former Democratic Congressman Tim Roemer urged Rice to testify in public. He cited the criticisms of the Bush administration and its attention to the terrorism threat made this week by former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke.
FORMER REP. TIM ROEMER: We have Dr. Rice on the airwaves saying that she strongly condemns and disagrees with Mr. Clarke's assessments and analysis. I would hope that this discussion would not be for the airwaves and would not be a partisan type of discussion that we have, but belongs in this hearing room tomorrow in a substantive way so that the ten commissioners can ask factually based questions, and so the American people have the access to those answers to try to make this country safer.
KWAME HOLMAN: This morning, the commission's staff first issued its preliminary report on the failure of diplomatic steps taken to neutralize al-Qaida and chase Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan prior to the 9/11 attacks.
PHILIP ZELIKOW: From the spring of 1997 to September 2001, the U.S. government tried to persuade the Taliban to expel bin Laden to a country where he could face justice and stop being a sanctuary for his organization. The efforts employed included inducements, warnings and sanctions. All these efforts failed.
KWAME HOLMAN: As secretary of state during the Clinton administration, Madeleine Albright oversaw the diplomatic initiatives.
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: In our discussions with Pakistani leaders we were blunt. We told them that bin Laden is a murderer who plans to kill again; we need your help in bringing him to justice. In return, we received promises but no decisive action. We couldn't offer enough to persuade Pakistani leaders such as General Musharraf to run the risks that would have been necessary. It was not until Sept. 11 that Musharraf had the motivation in his own mind to provide real cooperation, and even that has not yet resulted in bin Laden's capture, though it apparently has led to several attempts on Musharraf's life.
The other two countries we went to were Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and both agreed to deliver the right message. The Saudis sent one of their princes to confront the Taliban directly, and he came back and told us the Taliban were idiots and liars. The Saudis then downgraded diplomatic ties with the Taliban, cut off official assistance, and denied visas to Afghans traveling for non- religious reasons.
KWAME HOLMAN: But under questioning, Albright admitted the success of Saudi Arabia's diplomatic efforts was difficult to assess.
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: They always did say that they would press and push on the bin Laden/al-Qaida front, but frankly, it's hard to say how effective it was at what time.
SPOKESMAN: Were you convinced they were pushing?
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I was convinced when they told me they were pushing. But the bottom line is that in effect, as you look at the record, there were questions about some of the financial aspects. And I do think that there is a mixed record. One of the things about the Saudis is that they often do more things in private than is evident publicly. But I would say the record was a mixed one. I would say we pushed as hard as we could.
KWAME HOLMAN: Albright said President Clinton finally authorized the use of military force against al-Qaida following the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa.
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: We also studied the possibility of sending a U.S. Special Forces team into Afghanistan to try and snatch bin Laden -- but success in either case depended on whether we knew where bin Laden would be at a particular time. Although we consumed all the intelligence we had, we did not get this information; and instead, we occasionally learned where bin Laden had been or where he might be going or where someone who appeared to resemble him might be. It was truly maddening. I compared it to one of those arcade games where you manipulate a lever hooked to a claw-like hand that you think, once you put your quarter in, will actually scoop up a prize. But every time you try to pull the basket out, the prize falls away.
KWAME HOLMAN: But former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Democrat, was critical of the Clinton administration for not having a military option in the works much sooner.
FORMER SEN. ROBERT KERREY: I keep hearing the excuse, "We didn't have actionable intelligence." Well, what the hell does that say to al-Qaida? Basically, they knew, at the beginning of 1993, it seems to me, that there was going to be limited, if any, use of military, and that they would also be free to do whatever they wanted.
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: The executive orders that President Clinton put out about using lethal force against Osama bin Laden, everything that we did in terms of the structure that we put together to freeze various assets and to go after them with every conceivable tool that we had-- you, senator, I know, were the only person that I know of who suggested declaring war. You were -- you know, in retrospect -- you were probably right, but we used every single tool we had in terms of trying to figure out what the right targets would be and how to go about dealing with what we knew to be a major threat, and I reviewed it, and I am satisfied that we did what we could, given the intelligence that we had and pre-9/11, if I might say. I think that we have to keep being reminded of that, because there were whole questions, as Secretary Lehman said, that we'd overreacted, not the other way around.
KWAME HOLMAN: Albright also said President Clinton considered a ground invasion into Afghanistan to flush out the ruling Taliban and al-Qaida, but decided against it.
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I do think -- this is my personal opinion -- that it would be very hard, pre-9/11, to have persuaded anybody that an invasion of Afghanistan was appropriate. I think it, it did take the mega-shock, unfortunately, of 9/11 to make people understand the considerable threat. Plus, there was not a staging area in Pakistan, and the variety of problems that we faced, I do think that this administration faced also.
KWAME HOLMAN: Current Secretary of State Colin Powell followed Albright. His testimony covered those eight months between the time President Bush took office, and the Sept. 11 attacks.
COLIN POWELL: The outgoing administration provided me and others in the incoming administration with transition papers, as well as briefings, based on their eight years of experience, that reinforced our awareness of the worldwide threat from terrorism. All of us on the Bush national security team, beginning with President Bush, knew we needed continuity in counterterrorism policy. We did not want terrorists to see the early months of a new administration as a time of opportunity.
KWAME HOLMAN: Powell said President Bush wanted to build on the previous administration's strategies.
COLIN POWELL: The basic elements of our new strategy, which came together during these early months of the administration: first and foremost, eliminate al-Qaida. It was no longer to roll it back or reduce its effectiveness. Our goal was to destroy it. The strategy would call for ending all sanctuaries given to al-Qaida. We would try to do this first through diplomacy, but if diplomacy failed and there was a call for additional measures, including military operations, we would be prepared to do it, and military action would be more than just launching cruise missiles at already warned targets. In fact, the strategy called for attacking al-Qaida and the Taliban's leadership, their command and control, their ground forces and other targets.
KWAME HOLMAN: Jamie Gorelick, a former Clinton administration official, asked if the Bush administration wanted to build on the Clinton strategies, why national security adviser Rice has been criticizing those Clinton policies in recent days.
JAMIE GORELICK: She has given speeches, she has been on the airwaves essentially saying that the policies she inherited, and that you inherited, were bankrupt, that they were feckless, that there was no response. And yet you have made, I think, a singular point here this morning of saying that up until Sept. 11, most of them were continued.
COLIN POWELL: We took advantage of the expertise that existed with the individuals I listed, to include Dick Clarke. But in fact, the policy of the previous administration had not eliminated al-Qaida. It's a tough, tough target, as Dr. Albright said earlier.
RAY SUAREZ: We get reaction from two former counterterrorism and intelligence officials. Daniel Benjamin was director for transnational threats on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration. He recently co-authored "The Age of Sacred Terror," which traces the rise of al-Qaida. Reuel Gerecht was in the CIA's clandestine service focusing on the Middle East and terrorism from 1985 to 1994. He is now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Daniel Benjamin, from the preliminary reports from the commission, from a full day of testimony detailing the Clinton administration, the transition in the early days of the Bush administration, did either government understand what they were dealing with with al-Qaida?
DANIEL BENJAMIN: I think both administrations understood in part what it was dealing with in terms of al-Qaida. I think that by the latter years of the Clinton administration, certainly the White House understood, I think, parts of the CIA understood quite well, parts of DOD, the Defense Department, understood quite well. There were some of the farther reaches of the bureaucracy did not understand quite well and the FBI in this period was really sort of an independent actor, so you had a lot of concentrated effort to keep -- keep the effort up and to try to find bin Laden and to try to destroy the command-and-control structure of al-Qaida but of course it was a very difficult time.
There wasn't the basis for an invasion and we had a hard time finding the necessary intelligence so it's a very frustrating period. As for the new team, I think that Secretary Powell, for example, who I know listened to several briefings and was very concerned about this problem did take it seriously but I think overall we had a real problem. That is that the period of the transition was so acrimonious and so contentious and there was so much...
RAY SUAREZ: Not to mention short.
DANIEL BENJAMIN: Not to mention short -- so much disdain for the outgoing administration on the part of the new team that there was a reluctance to believe that the threat was as big as it was made up to be -- as big as the Clinton administration personnel and also the permanent civil servants claimed. There was I think a period in which there just was a lot of disbelief.
RAY SUAREZ: Reuel Gerecht, same question. Did either administration understand the nature of what they were dealing with, with al-Qaida?
REUEL GERECHT: Well I would agree with Daniel. I think there was a growing awareness about al-Qaida's capacity, about its lethality. Certainly after the attack on the embassies in Africa in '98 and the attack on the Cole in 2000, I think everyone understood that al-Qaida was a serious threat. I would disagree with Daniel a little bit. I think it probably is fair to say that with the transition you may have had a loss of energy.
That is certainly true but I think what's striking about the Clinton administration, the Bush administration is actually its continuity, that its attitude and approaches toward bin Laden, I would also add Iraq, before 9/11 are essentially the same. There's not much difference between them. Neither party really wanted to contemplate the ultimate sanction, what was required. That was an invasion of Afghanistan to destroy both the Taliban and the base of operations for al-Qaida.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Madeleine Albright testified at length and was questioned closely by members of the commission. Her basic statement was we did the best we could. Is that true?
REUEL GERECHT: Well, I think within the conventional framework, yes. I don't think at any time the Clinton administration, particularly President Clinton -- because this is really, if there's going to be a significant movement in American foreign policy, if we're going to do something radical and certainly attacking Afghanistan would have been radical, it would require the president of the United States to push the bureaucracies, which naturally in Washington to be cautious and conservative. President Clinton didn't do that even though I think it is absolutely true that he became more aware, more concerned about the dangers of al-Qaida but in the end he refused to act.
RAY SUAREZ: Is it a mistake? Madeleine Albright suggested toward the end of her testimony that you have to remember before 9/11 how different the world looked and how different various options looked that we can't look at the period of the late '90s through the lenses of 2004.
DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well it's absolutely correct. And the questioning at some points made me a little concerned that the commissioners are going to commit the fallacy of reading history backwards. That's a very dangerous thing to do. You have to remember what kind of threat terrorism was. What the entire government as a corporate body really thought of terrorism and what the country thought of terrorism and it thought that it was a lot of theater but really not a strategic threat. Now there were, of course, people who were starting to dissent from this perspective but it's very hard to move the entire bureaucracy.
Remember, the number of people who had been killed by terrorism in the decade of the '90s was fewer than the number of people killed by bee stings or lightning and so there was a very different perspective on the nature of the threat. It was believed to be good theater -- very important for nationalist groups that were trying to get recognition but not a central threat to the United States. Catastrophic terror as a phenomenon had not yet occurred.
RAY SUAREZ: Reuel Gerecht, Secretary Powell came on after his predecessor and said President Bush and his entire national security team understood that terrorism had to be among our highest priorities and it was. This goes right to the controversy also brought up by Richard Clarke in the last couple of days. Was it?
REUEL GERECHT: Well, again, I think I would take Secretary Powell at his word. I think that before 9/11 in theory it probably was but I would agree with Daniel I don't think people before 9/11 in the Bush administration really were thinking that al-Qaida was a threat that we had to kill -- that we had to ... it was worth the risk to go and invade Afghanistan and destroy the Taliban. I think that dynamic only occurred -- that conversation only occurred after 9/11.
RAY SUAREZ: But they said, not only Secretary Powell but other members of the administration who testified today, that they had moved the ball -- that the goal was no longer to limit the effectiveness of or roll back the activities of al-Qaida but in fact to eliminate it. Was there any sign of that before Sept. 11?
REUEL GERECHT: Well I think in a Washington context, yes. I mean, they started having new meetings, new contingency planning and all the rest. But I think when it comes to the actual efforts out in the field, that is getting much rougher with the Pakistanis, understanding that you need to do something with the Northern Alliance which was opposing the Taliban and opposing bin Laden, I don't think you really saw that much action.
There's a certain thought out there now and certain stories that there was this buildup, more or less this undeclared war that started in the Clinton administration and continued in the Bush administration by the CIA to fight bin Laden. I don't really think it's true. I think that for the most part the operational activity in the field wasn't all that serious and it was only 9/11 that made it something we had to deal with immediately.
RAY SUAREZ: Right up until Sept. 10 Daniel Benjamin was the Bush administration still using the diplomatic front to address this?
DANIEL BENJAMIN: Actually at the time the diplomatic front was fairly inactive. The administration undertook some very large policy reviews that really took most of the period, up until Sept. 11, and on the basis of the reporting that I did for our book, I was surprised to hear but Gen. Hugh Shelton, for example, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs said that he thought that terrorism had really moved back to the back burner. This same viewpoint was echoed by then three star Gen. Don Kerrick who was serving uniformed military and had been the deputy national security adviser in the previous administration. I heard this from quite a number of people both in the State Department and at DOD, so I think there's a real issue that needs to be resolved there.
RAY SUAREZ: Daniel Benjamin, Reuel Gerecht, stay with us.