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,
There's also the issue that was raised earlier by another member of the commission as to whether all of the pending decisions needed to be rolled up into a national security presidential directive or whether, based on the urgency of the intelligence, some of them couldn't—like arming the Predator to attack and kill bin Laden—why did that have to wait until the entire policy was developed? Weren't there pieces like that that could have been broken off and decided right away? Now, I certainly urged that. I urged that beginning in February when I realized that this policy process was going to take forever.
In fairness to Bush, it's unlikely that by 2001, Clarke's recommendations concerning Afghanistan could have prevented 9/11. The best shot at preventing 9/11 would have come not through a preconceived plan—Clarke's, Hadley's, or anyone else's—but through a process designed to pull together bits of useful information from various parts of the government. That process, as Clarke explained on 60 Minutes, was what President Clinton had ordered when faced with similar warnings of impending terrorism: a regular schedule of Cabinet-level meetings at which the attorney general, the CIA director, the secretary of defense, and other top officers of the government would have to explain what their agencies were doing to address the threat. To prepare for those meetings, the Cabinet members would have had to press their subordinates for regular updates, and so on, down the chain of command. Clarke and others call it "shaking the tree."
In this case, the tree from which the useful information would have fallen was the CIA *. The information was the known presence in the United States of two al-Qaida operatives who, it later turned out, were part of the 9/11 plot. But the trees were never shaken because the Cabinet officers didn't meet to talk about al-Qaida until they approved the new Afghan-narcotics-Pakistani-democracy mega-plan a week before the attacks. And until then, Clarke wasn't allowed to brief Bush on terrorism.
Life is complex and surprising. You can't anticipate everything in a big plan. You have to accept that, and you have to organize yourself to catch the things your plans will miss. For failing to understand this lesson before 9/11, perhaps Bush and his national security team can be forgiven. For refusing to accept the same lesson now, after all the deaths and all the hearings, they cannot.
Correction, March 26, 2004: The article originally and incorrectly said that the agency that knew two al-Qaida operatives were in the United States in the summer of 2001 was the FBI. That statement was based on Richard Clarke's interview on the March 21 edition of 60 Minutes, in which he said, according to a CBS transcript (quoted in the previous Ballot Box column):
In December '99, every day or every other day, the head of the FBI or the head of the CIA, the attorney general, had to go to the White House and sit in the meeting and report on all of the things that they personally had done to stop the al-Qaida attack. So they were going back every night to their departments and shaking the trees personally, finding out all of the information. If that had happened in July of 2001, we might have found out in the White House, the attorney general might have found out that there were al-Qaida operatives in the United States. FBI at lower levels knew. Never told me. Never told the highest levels in the FBI.
Clarke's book, however, says on p. 236 that the presence of al-Qaida operatives was known by the CIA, not the FBI. Clarke writes:
Somewhere in CIA there was information that two known al Qaeda terrorists had come into the United States. Somewhere in FBI there was information that strange things had been going on at flight schools in the United States. I had asked to know if a sparrow fell from a tree that summer. What was buried in CIA and FBI was not a matter of one sparrow falling from a tree, red lights and bells should have been going off. They had specific information about individual terrorists from which one could have deduced what was about to happen. None of that information got to me or the White House. It apparently did not even make it up the FBI chain to Dale Watson, the Executive Assistant Director in charge of counterterrorism. I certainly know what I would have done, for we had done it at the Millennium: a nationwide manhunt, rousting anyone suspected of maybe, possibly having the slightest connection.
The article has been corrected to reflect the version in the book. Return to the corrected sentence.