Powell said that just days after President Bush appointed him, terrorism experts from the outgoing Clinton administration briefed him in great detail, and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice began working on a strategy to fight al-Qaida during her first week on the job.
“We wanted to move beyond the roll-back policy of containment, criminal prosecution and limited retaliation for specific terrorist attacks. We wanted to destroy al-Qaida,” the secretary said, according to CNN.
Former Secretary of State Albright said the Clinton administration did everything it could to fight Osama bin Laden’s network, including targeting al-Qaida bases in Afghanistan with cruise missiles after the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
“There should have been no confusion that our personnel were authorized to kill bin Laden,” Albright said. “We did not, after all, launch cruise missiles for the purpose of serving legal papers.”
The testimony came during the first of a two-day public hearing by the ten-member bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.
President Bush, speaking to reporters after a meeting with his Cabinet, said he would have acted more quickly against al-Qaida if he knew the attacks in New York were imminent.
“The facts are these, (CIA Director) George Tenet briefed me on a regular basis about the terrorist threat to the United States of America, and had my administration had any information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on Sept. 11th, we would have acted,” the president said, according to the Associated Press.
His comments marked the first direct response to former national counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke’s new book, “Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror,” that criticizes the Bush administration for mishandling the war on terrorism.
The 9/11 commission released a preliminary report at the start of the hearing, concluding that neither the Bush nor Clinton administrations did enough to counter the threat from al-Qaida.
The use of diplomatic rather than military options against al-Qaida allowed the Sept. 11 terrorists to elude capture years before the attacks, the panel said.
The commission also noted that just a day before the attacks, Cabinet officials settled on a three-year strategy for trying to force bin Laden out of Afghanistan. If diplomatic efforts and funding of anti-Taliban fighters didn’t work, the United States would directly seek to overthrow hard-liners, according to the report.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the commission Tuesday that there was little information available to prevent the events of Sept. 11, and that the capture of bin Laden probably wouldn’t have made a difference.
“First, I know of no actionable intelligence since Jan. 20, 2001 that would have allowed the U.S. to attack and capture or kill Osama bin Laden,” he said. “Second, even if bin Laden had been captured or killed in the weeks before 9/11, no one I know believes it would have prevented 9/11.”
Rumsfeld also expressed confidence that bin Laden would eventually be found.
Former Defense Secretary William Cohen said the Clinton administration recognized the dangers posed by al-Qaida and considered the United States to be “at war” against the terrorist organization. Three times after August 1998 U.S. officials considered using missile strikes to kill bin Laden, but each time it was decided the intelligence wasn’t good enough to ensure success, he said.
The hearing continues Wednesday with testimony from Tenet, Clarke, former national security advisor Samuel Berger and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.
Commissioner Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Colorado, said Tuesday that he hoped Rice would reconsider her decision not to publicly testify before the panel. She has met with the commission extensively in private, but aides have said she believes it would set a bad precedent for her to testify in public.
The commission’s final report is due by July 26.