Did the Bush administration's preoccupation with developing a "comprehensive strategy" against al-Qaida in 2001 get in the way of addressing the immediate prospect of an attack on the United States? That's the question Ballot Box raised Tuesday, based on comments issued Monday by Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and White House press secretary Scott McClellan. In their comments—delivered in response to a new book by Richard Clarke, President Bush's former counterterrorism coordinator—Cheney, Rice, and McClellan argued that Clarke's ideas were piecemeal relics of the Clinton administration, whereas Bush wanted a bigger, more coherent vision.
Testifying before the 9/11 commission Wednesday, Clarke and the commission's general counsel, Dan Marcus, provided further evidence that Bush's "bigthink" plan did get in the way. In his summary of the commission staff's findings, Marcus explained how the Bush team absorbed the fight against al-Qaida into a larger, slower, more cumbersome geopolitical plan.
Rice and [Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen] Hadley decided that Clarke's CSG [Counterterrorism Security Group] should report to the deputies committee chaired by Hadley, rather than bringing its issues directly to [Cabinet-level] principals. … Hadley told us that subordinating the CSG to the deputies would help resolve counterterrorism issues in a broader context. Clarke protested the change, arguing that it would slow decision-making. …
Clarke asked on several occasions for early principals meetings on [al-Qaida] issues and was frustrated that no early meeting was scheduled. No principals committee meetings on al-Qaida were held until Sept. 4th, 2001. Rice and Hadley said this was because the deputies committee needed to work through many issues relating to the new policy on al-Qaida. …
Rice and Hadley told us [the 9/11 commission] that although the Clinton administration had worked very hard on the al-Qaida program, its policies on al-Qaida, quote, "had run out of gas," and they therefore set about developing a new presidential directive and a new, comprehensive policy on terrorism. As spring turned to summer, Clarke was impatient for decisions on aid to the Northern Alliance and on the Predator program, issues managed by Hadley and the deputies committee. Clarke and others perceived the process as slow, and Clarke argued that the policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan did not need to be settled before moving ahead against al-Qaida. …
Clarke was asked to put together a broad policy to eliminate al-Qaida to be codified in the presidential directive. Clarke and his staff regarded the new approach as essentially similar to the proposal they had developed in December 2000 and put forward to the new administration in January 2001.
In an exchange with commission member Tim Roemer, Clarke elaborated on this chronology.
Roemer: On Jan. 25th, we've seen a memo that you've written to Dr. Rice urgently asking for a principals' review of al-Qaida. You include helping the Northern Alliance, covert aid, significant new '02 budget authority to help fight al-Qaida, and a response to the USS Cole. You attach to this document both the Delenda Plan of 1998 [to fight al-Qaida] and a strategy paper from December 2000. Do you get a response to this urgent request for a principals meeting on these? And how does this affect your time frame for dealing with these important issues?
Clarke: I did get a response, and the response was that in the Bush administration I should, and my committee, counterterrorism security group, should report to the deputies committee, which is a sub-Cabinet level committee, and not to the principals, and that therefore it was inappropriate for me to be asking for a principals' meeting. Instead, there would be a deputies meeting.
Roemer: So does this slow the process down to go to the deputies rather than to the principals or a small group as you had previously done?
Clarke: It slowed it down enormously, by months. … When the deputies committee did meet, it took the issue of al-Qaida as part of a cluster of policy issues, including nuclear proliferation in South Asia, democratization in Pakistan, how to treat the various problems, including narcotics and other problems in Afghanistan, and launched on a series of deputies meetings extending over several months to address al-Qaida in the context of all of those interrelated issues. … So we were ready for a principals meeting in July. But the principals' calendar was full, and then they went on vacation, many of them, in August. So we couldn't meet in August, and therefore the principals met in September.
Roemer: So as the Bush administration is carefully considering from bottom up a full review of fighting terrorism, what happens to these individual items like a response to the USS Cole, flying the Predator? Why aren't these decided in a shorter time frame as they're also going through a larger policy review of how this policy affects Pakistan and other countries—important considerations, but why can't you do both?
Clarke: The deputies committee—its chairman, Mr. Hadley, and others—thought that all these issues were sufficiently interrelated, that they should be taken up as a set of issues, and pieces of them should not be broken off.
Even Clarke's proposed briefing of Bush on terrorism was delayed by this bigthink process until it was too late.
Roemer: Let's say that you asked to brief the president of the United States on counterterrorism. … Did you ask that?
Clarke: I asked for a series of briefings on the issues in my portfolio, including counterterrorism and cybersecurity.
Roemer: Did you get that request?
Clarke: I did. I was given an opportunity to brief on cybersecurity in June. I was told I could brief the president on terrorism after this policy development process was complete and we had the principals meeting and the draft national security policy decision that had been approved by the deputies committee.
Under interrogation by commission member Jim Thompson, Clarke contrasted this drawn-out process with the administration's post-9/11 professions of vigilance.
Clarke: Over the course of many, many months [the new policies against al-Qaida], went through several committee meetings at the sub-Cabinet level. And then there was a hiatus. And then … on Sept. 4th, a week before the attacks, they went to the principals for their approval. Of course, the final approval by the president didn't take place until after the attacks.
Thompson: Well, is that eight-month period unusual?
Clarke: It is unusual when you are being told every day that there is an urgent threat.
Finally, responding to a question from commission member Fred Fielding, Clarke lamented,