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US Officials Defend Record on Terrorism - 2004-03-23

Current and former U.S. government officials defended their record on terrorism Tuesday before the independent commission probing the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The hearings come in the wake of charges by former counter-terrorism official Richard Clarke that President Bush focused too much on Iraq and not enough on al-Qaida in his approach to the terrorist threat. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the commission that contrary to the recent charges made by Richard Clarke, President Bush made terrorism a major priority in his administration from the start.

"He decided early on that we needed to be more aggressive in going after terrorists and especially al-Qaida," he said. "As he said in early Spring [of 2001] as we were developing our new comprehensive strategy 'I am tired of swatting flies.'

Richard Clarke alleges in a new book that the president paid too little attention to the threat posed by al-Qaida before the September 11th attacks, and focused too much on a possible link with Iraq afterward.

The White House has responded with a furious counterattack, denying the allegations and accusing Mr. Clarke of trying to sell his book and injecting himself into the presidential campaign.

Richard Clarke defended himself Tuesday in an interview on ABC television. "I am not doing this because I am disgruntled," he said. "I am doing this because the American people need to know the truth, and if someone else had told the truth, if the story had already been out there, I wouldn't be doing this."

The independent commission probing the 2001 terrorist attacks also examined the Clinton administration's anti-terrorism activities in the years leading up to the attacks and found them lacking.

The commission issued a preliminary report suggesting the Clinton administration focused too much on a diplomatic approach to fighting terrorism that ultimately failed, especially efforts to convince Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to put pressure on the Taleban regime in Afghanistan to evict Osama bin Laden.

Commission member Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic Senator from Nebraska, pressed former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to explain why the Clinton administration was reluctant to use military force to go after al-Qaida.

"Honestly, I don't understand," he said. "If we are attacked and attacked and attacked and attacked, why we continue to send the FBI over like Khobar Towers was a crime scene or the East African embassy bombings were a crime scene. You said we had balance between military effort and diplomacy. Frankly, I've got to say, it seems to me that it was very unbalanced in favor of diplomacy, against military efforts."

Ms. Albright responded that the Clinton administration chose to respond to the terrorist threat with a variety of tools, including military action, diplomacy and law enforcement. But she said military action carried a number of risks.

"To bomb at random or use military force, I think, would have created a situation that would have made our lives, American lives, even more difficult within the Muslim world," he said.

The commission will hear from former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke and from CIA Director George Tenet on Wednesday. It is scheduled to release its report on the September 11th attacks in July just as Democrats gather in Boston to formally nominate Senator John Kerry to run against President Bush in the November election.