White House knew of al Qaeda threat, probe confirms

By David Usborne, Rupert Cornwell, Andrew Buncombe

11.45am - By DAVID USBORNE, ANDREW BUNCOMBE and RUPERT CORNWELL

WASHINGTON - The credibility of President George Bush and his platform of fighting terrorism was again undermined yesterday when a commission probing the September 11 attacks confirmed claims by a former White House anti-terrorism aide that warnings he gave in early 2001 regarding al Qaeda were ignored.

A preliminary report by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States backed up assertions made this week by Richard Clarke that, as head of the anti-terror effort in the White House at the start of Mr Bush's tenure, he urged taking out al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan with military strikes.

The latest embarrassment came as the panel opened two days of public hearings into the attacks at which both Colin Powell, the current US Secretary of State, and his predecessor from the Clinton administration, Madeleine Albright, were called to testify.

Others senior figures from both administrations will be called today, among them Mr Clarke, and a final report will be issued later this year.

The independent panel by no means reserved its criticism for the Bush administration alone.

Its report also offered a catalogue of failed diplomatic opportunities and doomed policies that were followed by US officials as far back as the mid-90s, when Bill Clinton was the incumbent at the White House.

Most of these abortive initiatives were aimed at persuading the Taleban leadership in Afghanistan to expel al Qaeda.

"From the spring of 1997 to September 2001, the US government tried to persuade the Taleban to expel bin Laden to a country where he could face justice," the report said.

"The efforts employed inducements, warnings and sanctions. All these efforts failed."

Mr Powell conceded at the hearing that on taking power in January 2001, the new administration received full briefings from the outgoing White House, spelling out that the threat from al Qaeda, headed by Osama bin Laden, had not been successfully tackled and that it required attention.

He noted, however, that they provided no blueprint themselves on what new approach to the problem might be taken.

"We were not given a counter-terrorism action plan by the previous administration," Mr Powell told the panel.

"The briefers...conveyed to us the gravity of the threat posed by al Qaeda. But we noted early on that the actions the previous administration had tried had not succeeded in eliminating the threat."

But Mr Clarke's book, 'Against All Enemies', published this week says that he approached Mr Bush's National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, in January 2001 and told her that the only remaining option was step up action to tackle al Qaeda, including launching strikes against its fighters in Afghanistan, where the network had training camps.

Mr Clarke, who has been denounced by Bush officials, wrote that he warned Bush officials in a memo about the growing al Qaeda threat after the attack on the warship USS Cole in Yemen.

He said, however, that he was put off by Ms Rice, who "gave me the impression she had never heard the term al Qaeda before".

In its report, the commission confirmed that Mr Clarke specifically advised giving secret aide to the main rebel group in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance, to help it unseat the Taleban.

It said the advice was spurned by Ms Rice and her deputy Stephen Hadley, who opted instead for a broader review of the threat from al Qaeda.

The results of that review were only presented to President Bush weeks before the 11 September attacks.

Ms Rice herself demurred when asked to testify at this week's hearings.

The criticisms of Mr Bush's handling of events leading up to the strikes on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre in New York, could be critically damaging to him as he enters the presidential race against Democrat John Kerry.

His campaign will have as its central plank the premise that his policies and war against terror have made the United States safer.

Yesterday Mr Bush sought to deflect Mr Clarke's charges.

"The facts are these. [CIA director] George Tenet briefed me on a daily basis about the terrorism threat to the United States of America," he told reporters.

"And had my administration had any information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on September 11 we would have acted."

He added: "We have been chasing down al Qaeda ever since they attacked us. We will continue to pursue them as long as I am President of the United States."

Yesterday's preliminary report offered some detail on the dead-end avenues that the Clinton White House pursued.

It said that hopes were raised after the intelligence chief of Saudi Arabia, Prince Turki bin Faisal, reported that he had negotiated an agreement with the Taleban that it would indeed eject al Qaeda.

That agreement apparently fell apart in September 1998 during talks in Afghanistan between Turki and the Taleban leader, Mullah Omar.

The Clinton administration, moreover, was apparently aware of suspicions even in 1995 surrounding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a deputy to bin Laden, who later became the mastermind of the 11 September attacks.

At the time, however, Washington refrained from trying to capture him until it had assembled proof of his terror links and secured indictments against him.

Similar legal concerns discouraged the US from attempting to snare bin Laden himself, even though his ties to terror had also been known since at least 1995.

Defending the previous administration, the former Secretary of State, Ms Albright, told the commission that President Clinton and his team "did everything we could, everything we could think of, based on the knowledge we had, to protect our people and disrupt and defeat al Qaeda."

But the Clinton administration was blamed too, for not moving more decisively against al Qaeda despite evidence dating back to 1995 and 1996 that the organisation was behind a series of terror attacks against US targets, culminating in the 1998 African embassy bombings, and the autumn 2002 attack on the USS Cole.

Instead Mr Clinton and his advisers dealt with the incidents primarily as criminal matters, leaving them to the CIA and the FBI.

They also relied unduly, and unsuccessfully, on diplomatic means to deal with al Qaeda, and force bin Laden from his lair in Afghanistan.

Most notable the enlistment of Saudi support in 1998 to force the Taleban to hand over bin Laden.

The effort failed when Mullah Omar, the Taleban leader, angrily reneged on an earlier promise to do so.

- INDEPENDENT

Today's statements to the 9-11 Panel:

Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defence [PDF]


Herald Feature: The Sept 11 attacks

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