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Could September 11 Attacks Have Been Prevented? - 2004-03-30

The bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, looking into the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York City and Washington, D-C, spent two days in public hearings last week. The Commission is trying to identify what happened before, during, and after that day in an effort to better protect the United States. But to many observers, the politics of this year's U-S Presidential election created a scene of charges and counter charges. In this report written by Jeff Young, V-O-A's Victor Morales tells us that much of the hearings centered on the testimony of a former counter-terrorism official who says not enough was done to prevent the attacks.

Here in Washington last week, an independent commission made up of equal numbers of Democratic and Republican party members held public hearings in an effort to find out why the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 happened . . . if there were failures in intelligence or judgment that gave the perpetrators of the attacks the opportunity to strike.

The Commission's objectives were explained to N-B-C news by its Chairman, former New Jersey Republican governor Tom Kean: "We're hoping to find out by interviewing the top officials in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. What did we do? What did we do militarily to try and prevent terrorism? What we did we do diplomatically? How did we use our intelligence apparatus? How was everything coordinated? We want to find out what we did in the runup to 9-11 that might have prevented 9-11 perhaps had we done things differently."

The Commission's Co-chairman, former Indiana Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, told N-B-C the people of the United States want to know why the attacks took place: "Our mandate is to look at the facts leading up to September 11th to try to explain what happened to the American people."

The National Commission on Terror Attacks Upon the United States began the week with the best of intentions. But before the Commission's two days of public hearings began, the Bush White House's anti-terror efforts were criticized in a C-B-S television interview with former anti-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke, who served President Bush and three previous administrations.

Mr. Clarke contends that long before September 11th, he alerted top Bush administration officials that al-Qaida was preparing its forces for action. The White House, he says, wasn't listening with the same sense of alarm he had regarding the terrorists: "We had a terrorist organization that was going after us -- al-Qaida. That should have been the first item on the agenda. And it was pushed back and back and back for months."

The Clarke interview, which came a day before the release of his book, Against All Enemies, turned the media's focus on him. It also energized the Bush administration. Before the interview was broadcast, White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett was already countering Mr. Clark's allegations: "He wants to suggest that actions could have been taken to maybe prevent 9-11, when in fact every action that he recommended would have done nothing to prevent 9-11"

Mr. Bartlett also framed Richard Clark's contentions in a partisan context: "Why is it only now that he's raising these issues in the middle of a political campaign?"

While Richard Clarke strongly denied that his assertions were politically motivated, the 9-11 hearings had become a contest between Mr. Clarke's allegations and the Bush administration's efforts to challenge him point-by-point. When Mr. Clarke testified before the Commission mid-week, he added another dimension to the issue of why the September 11th attacks took place: "Your government failed you. Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you. For that failure, I would ask, once all the facts are out, for your understanding and forgiveness."

For Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband was killed in the attacks on New York City's World Trade Center, Richard Clarke's words were very important. "He is the first person who has apologized to the families," she said, "and that means an awful lot to us because clearly 9-11 was a colossal failure."

But one after another, top Bush administration officials contended that they had not failed the American people in protecting the country against terrorism, including the 9-11 attacks.

Secretary of State Colin Powell used the forum to stake out that ground: "Terrorism was an important issue for President Bush and for all of us coming in. We were not unmindful of the fact that the (American naval vessel, the U.S.S.) Cole had just been attacked. We were not unmindful of the fact that our embassies had been blown up and that terrorism was a danger."

The incidents Secretary Powell referred to took place under former President Bill Clinton. Mr. Powell's predecessor in the Clinton administration was Madeline Albright. She told the Commission that President Clinton did respond to the U-S-S Cole attack in 2000 and the 1998 bombings of two U-S embassies in Africa: "In subsequent weeks, the president specifically authorized the use of force and there should have been no confusion that our personnel were authorized to kill bin-Laden."

President Clinton did order a cruise missile strike against al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan and a factory in Sudan that was suspected of producing weapons of mass destruction. But Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants got away.

One member of the 9-11 Commission, former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey, voiced the opinion that actions -- or the lack of them -- during both the Clinton administration and early in the Bush administration led to the September 11th attacks: "This was an army led by Osama bin-Laden who declared war on us on the 23rd of February, 1998, and we had all kinds of reasons."

"I've heard them all as to why the only military attack we had was a single attack on the 20th of August, 1998 and other than that, there wasn't anything, says Mr. Kerry. "And 19 men as a consequence defeated us utterly with less than a half million dollars."

Another issue being examined by the Commission is intelligence gathering and analysis. Did the United States use its intelligence assets to the best of its ability in the months leading up to September 11th?

C-I-A Director George Tenet, who has served in both the Bush and Clinton administrations, testified that he and other U-S intelligence officials were well aware of the dangers the terrorists posed: "I, as the Director of Central Intelligence, must tell you clearly that there was no lack of care or focus in the face of one of the greatest dangers our country has ever faced."

Above the fray, U-S Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called on the Commission to look beyond fixing blame for the attacks to finding ways of preventing future terrorism. "The commission has an opportunity to craft recommendations that I believe could greatly aid in the war on terror, as well as help Americans better understand the long-term nature of the threats we face."

But the confrontation between Richard Clarke, and the Bush administration and its supporters took a new turn last Friday. Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced that he and other Congressional Republicans want to release secret testimony Mr. Clarke gave to Congress in 2002.

Senator Frist says he wants to compare that testimony with what Mr. Clarke told the 9-11 Commission last week. According to Senator Frist, Mr. Clarke "has told two entirely different stories under oath." But Florida Democratic Senator Bob Graham, who says he was present at both hearings maintains there is nothing inconsistent in Richard Clarke's testimony.

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks is expected to release its findings later this year in the midst of a contentious presidential campaign. That, according to most observers, will only add to the national debate over who can best lead the country.