WASHINGTON (AP) — The Bush White House scaled back the
struggle against al-Qaida after taking office in 2001 and spurned
suggestions that it retaliate for the bombing of a U.S. warship
because “it happened on the Clinton administration’s
watch,” a former top terrorism adviser testified
yesterday.

The Clinton administration had “no higher priority”
than combatting terrorists while the Bush administration made it
“an important issue but not an urgent issue” in the
months before Sept. 11, 2001, said Richard Clarke, who advised both
presidents. He testified before the commission investigating the
worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history.

Clarke’s turn in the witness chair transformed what has
been a painstaking, bipartisan probe of pre-Sept. 11 intelligence
failures and bureaucratic missteps into a nationally televised
criticism of President Bush on the terrorism issue at the core of
his campaign for re-election.

The White House redoubled efforts to undermine Clarke, the
author of a recent book critical of the president.

Officials also took the unusual step of identifying him as the
senior official who had praised the president’s
anti-terrorism efforts in an anonymous briefing for reporters the
year following the attacks.

“He needs to get his story straight,” said
Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser and
Clarke’s boss while he served in the administration.

Former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson, a Republican, took up the
president’s cause inside the commission hearing. “We
have your book and we have your press briefing of August 2002.
Which is true?” he challenged the witness.

Despite the flare-up, commission members worked later to
distance themselves from the sort of partisanship that could
undermine the credibility of the final report they are expected to
release this summer.

“Nobody has clean hands in this one,” said former
New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican and the commission
chairman, referring to the Bush and Clinton administrations.
“It was a failure of individuals. The question now is whether
or not we learned from our mistakes.”

Clarke began his appearance with an apology to “the loved
ones of the victims of 9-11. … Your government failed you. Those
entrusted with protecting you failed you and I failed you,”
he added, as some relatives of those killed in the attacks dabbed
at their eyes with handkerchieves.

The appearance of the white-haired former official overshadowed
the release of a commission staff report that said bureaucratic
disagreements about the extent of the CIA’s authority to kill
Osama bin Laden hampered efforts to eliminate al-Qaida’s
leader during the Clinton era. The result was a continued reliance
on local forces in Afghanistan that all sides recognized reduced
the chance of success, both before and after Bush took office, the
report added.

“If officers at all levels questioned the effectiveness of
the most active strategy the policy-makers were employing to defeat
the terrorist enemy, the commission needs to ask why that strategy
remained largely unchanged throughout the period leading up to
9-11,” it concluded.

Officials from Clinton’s National Security Council told
investigators the CIA had sufficient authority to assassinate
al-Qaida, the report said, but Director George Tenet and other spy
agency officials “believed the only acceptable context for
killing bin Laden was a credible capture operation.”

Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security adviser,
testified that the former president gave the CIA “every inch
of authorization that it asked for” to kill bin Laden.

“There could have not been any doubt about what President
Clinton’s intent was after he fired 60 Tomahawk cruise
missiles at bin Laden in August 1998,” Berger said, referring
to strikes at a camp in Afghanistan where the al-Qaida leader was
believed present. Bin Laden escaped.

Tenet, who preceded Berger in the witness chair, also was asked
about the issue of authorization to kill bin Laden.

“I never went back and said, ‘I don’t have all
the authorities I need,’ ” he replied.

Tenet said that even if bin Laden had been captured or killed in
2001, he did not think it would have prevented the 9-11 attacks, an
assertion that mirrored testimony by Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell on Tuesday.

Tenet’s tenure has spanned two administrations. And unlike
Clarke, he praised aides to both presidents.

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