The final policy paper on national security that President Clinton submitted to Congress — 45,000 words long — makes no mention of al Qaeda and refers to Osama bin Laden by name just four times.
The scarce references to bin Laden and his terror network undercut claims by former White House terrorism analyst Richard A. Clarke that the Clinton administration considered al Qaeda an “urgent” threat, while President Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, “ignored” it.
The Clinton document, titled “A National Security Strategy for a Global Age,” is dated December 2000 and is the final official assessment of national security policy and strategy by the Clinton team. The document is publicly available, though no U.S. media outlets have examined it in the context of Mr. Clarke’s testimony and new book.
Miss Rice, who will testify publicly Thursday before the commission investigating the Bush and Clinton administrations’ actions before the September 11 attacks, was criticized last week for planning a speech for September 11, 2001, that called a national missile-defense system a leading security priority.
President Bush yesterday denied the accusation that his administration had made dealing with al Qaeda a low priority.
“Let me just be very clear about this: Had we had the information that was necessary to stop an attack, I’d have stopped the attack,” Mr. Bush said, adding that after September 11, “the stakes had changed.”
“This country immediately went on war footing, and we went to war against al Qaeda. It took me very little time to make up my mind,” he said. “Once I determined al Qaeda [did] it, [I said], ‘We’re going to go get them.’ And we have, and we’re going to keep after them until they’re brought to justice and America is secure.”
Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will meet with the commission in the coming weeks behind closed doors, but a date has not been set. Meanwhile, the president said he looks forward to hearing Miss Rice defend the administration in a public forum.
“She’ll be great,” Mr. Bush said. “She’s a very smart, capable person who knows exactly what took place and will lay out the facts.”
The Clinton administration’s final national-security report stated that its reaction to terrorist strikes was to “neither forget the crime, nor ever give up on bringing the perpetrators to justice.”
The document boasted of “a dozen terrorist fugitives” who had been captured abroad and handed over to the United States “to answer for their crimes.”
Those perpetrators included the men responsible for the first attack on the World Trade Center, which the intelligence community largely thought by late 2000 to be the work of operatives with links to al Qaeda. Listed among those brought to justice was a man who killed two persons outside CIA headquarters in 1993, and “an attack on a Pan Am flight more than 18 years ago.”
Several high-ranking Bush administration officials, and the president himself, have faulted the Clinton administration for treating global terrorism as a law enforcement issue and not recognizing that bin Laden declared war on the United States in 1998.
Mr. Bush often notes that about two-thirds of al Qaeda’s thousands of members — including many key leaders — have been either captured or killed since the attacks, and that 44 of the 55 top Iraqi officials under Saddam Hussein in a deck of cards have been “taken care of.”
The liberal Center for American Progress yesterday echoed Mr. Clarke’s criticism of the Bush administration by publishing a timeline of statements that it says proves the current White House national security team did not make fighting al Qaeda a priority before the attacks.
“If they were developing some big strategy of fighting terrorism, it’s not reflected in their words,” said John Halpin, director of research for the center.
“We wanted to go back and document all the public statements, given some of the discrepancies of what happened before 9/11 and some of the recent news from Richard Clarke,” Mr. Halpin said.
In Mr. Clarke’s best-selling book “Against All Enemies,” he writes that during a transitional briefing in January 2001, Miss Rice’s “facial expression gave me the impression that she’d never heard the term [al Qaeda] before.”
But the Clinton administration’s final national security document, written while Mr. Clarke was a high-level national security adviser, never mentions al Qaeda.
“Clarke was on the job as terrorism czar at that point,” said a senior Bush administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “He played a significant role. His concerns should have been well-known.”
High-ranking Bush administration officials, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, have testified that Mr. Bush wanted to stop “swatting at flies” and take a more aggressive approach to terror.
The Bush administration official noted that the planning of the September 11 attacks happened while Mr. Clinton was in power, and said the commission’s probe has turned into a search for blame.
“It’s a shame we are not focused more on moving forward, instead of about who was concerned more,” he said.
The official said he found the lack of bin Laden and al Qaeda references in the final Clinton terror assessment interesting, but downplayed such “word-counting games.”
“We don’t measure progress or response [to terrorism] by how many speeches, words, utterances or meetings were held on a particular issue, but by action taken,” he said.