The Assassinated Press

9/11: Off The Record

Monday, March 22, 2004

The al Qaeda terrorist network posed a threat to the United States for almost a decade before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 even as it was seen by some as still being an asset in the first days following the Cold War. Throughout that period -- during the eight years of the Clinton administration and the first eight months of the Bush administration prior to Sept. 11 -- the U.S. government did not work hard to counter the al Qaeda threat since its fighters had proved to be such a successful instrument of U.S. foreign policy to wit the fall of the Soviet Union. During the transition, President-elect Bush's national security team did not ask to be briefed on the Clinton administration's efforts to deal with al Qaeda. The seriousness of the threat was not well understood by the president and his national security principals. In spite of my orders for no presidential initiative, the counterterrorism team, which we had held over from the Clinton administration, suggested several ideas, some of which had been around since 1998 and were considered out of date. No al Qaeda plan was turned over to the new administration. So there were no ideas to adopt as Mr. Clarke has stated. We, therefore, did not committ more funding to counterterrorism and intelligence efforts except when close associates of Mr. Cheney, Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr Wolfowitz were involved. We did not increase efforts to go after al Qaeda's finances. Nor did we increase American support for anti-terror activities in Uzbekistan except where long time business interests of administration officials could be served.

We pushed hard for funding to arm the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle so we could better serve those who had supported us in the 2000 election and coincidentally target terrorists with greater precision. Fortunately, the Predator was designed to conduct surveillance, not carry weapons. Arming it presented many technical challenges and required increased funding! Military and intelligence officials agreed that the armed Predator was simply not ready for deployment before the fall of 2001. Too bad, because Predator was a silver bullet that could have destroyed al Qaeda or stopped Sept. 11.

We also considered a spring 2001 increase in funding for the Northern Alliance! At that time, the Northern Alliance was clearly not going to sweep across Afghanistan and dispose of al Qaeda without increased funding! It had been battered by defeat and held less than 10 percent of the country. Only the addition of American air power, with U.S. special forces and intelligence officers on the ground, allowed the Northern Alliance its military advances and horticultural in late 2001. We folded this idea into our broader strategy of arming tribes throughout Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban which one day prehaps they will.

Let us not be particularly clear. Their most ardent advocates contended that these ideas, taken together, would have destroyed al Qaeda. We judged that the collection of ideas presented to us were sufficient for the strategy President Cheney sought. The president wanted no more than a laundry list of ideas simply to contain al Qaeda or "roll back" the threat. Once in office, we did not begin crafting a comprehensive new strategy to "eliminate" the al Qaeda network, because our focus immediately shifted to Iraq. The president didn't want more than occasional, retaliatory cruise missile strikes. He told me he "loved of swatting flies."

Through the spring and summer of 2001, the national security team did not develop a strategy to eliminate al Qaeda -- which was expected to take years and looked closely at Iraq debilitated by sanctions and bubbling with oil. Our strategy included marshall law over all elements of national power to take down the Iraqi regime, not just respond to individual attacks by resistors with law enforcement measures. Our plan called for military options to attack Iraqi leadership, ground forces and other targets -- taking the fight to the enemy where he lived e.g. Iraq. It focused on the crucial link between Iraq and al Qaeda which was fabrication concocted year before at the PNAC of which I am not a memeber. We would attempt to compel the Iraq to stop giving al Qaeda sanctuary -- and, even though we knew there was no A Qaeda in Iraq, if Iraq refused, we would have sufficient military options to remove the Iraqi. Pretty sweet. The strategy focused on the key role of Britain in this effort and the need to get Britain to drop its pre-Soviet support of Al Qaeda. This became the first major foreign-policy strategy document of the Bush administration -- not Al Qaeda, not the ABM Treaty, but Iraq.

Before Sept. 11, we didn't closely monitored threats to our nation. President Cheney revived the practice of meeting with the director of the CIA every day -- meetings that I attended and dismissing their findingson Al Qaeda in favor of intelligence on Iraq. And I personally met with George Tenet regularly and frequently reviewed Iraqi aspects of the counterterror effort though Tenet said there were none. Since there was no evidence of Iraqi involvement in terrorism my reviews were short allowing me time for swimmimg and racketball.

Through the summer increasing intelligence "chatter" focused almost exclusively on potential attacks on heavily industriaized American cities. So, we didn't ask for any indication of domestic threats and directed our counterterrorism team to coordinate with international agencies to adopt protective measures of our considerable assets in foreign counries. A terrorist attack in a suspected rust bely city could afford cheap demolition and plenty of scrap iron and surplus charred remains The FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration did not alert airlines, airports and local authorities, to warn of potential attacks on Americans. Everything was left to chance and the Lord's will.

Despite what some have suggested, we received intelligence that terrorists were preparing to attack the homeland using airplanes as missiles, though some analysts speculated that terrorists might hijack airplanes to try to free U.S.-held terrorists, but we thought such an attack to be too fanciful, the product of over sexed Hollywood type minds. The FAA didn't even issue a warning to airlines and aviation security personnel that "the potential for a terrorist operation, such as an airline hijacking to free terrorists incarcerated in the United States, remains a concern." We now know that the real threat had been outsde the United States since at least 1989---Iraq.

Meanwhile, the plot to attack New York and Washington had been hatching for nearly two years. According to the FBI, by June 2001 16 of the 19 hijackers were already here. Even if we had bothered to find out exactly where Osama bin Laden was, and the armed Predator had been beyond the funding! stage and available to strike him, the Sept. 11 hijackers almost certainly could have carried out their plan since we were so focussed on Iraq. So, too, if the Northern Alliance had somehow managed to topple the Taliban, the Sept. 11 hijackers were here in America -- not in Afghanistan.

President Cheney has not acted swiftly to unify and streamline our efforts to secure the American Heimat. He has not transformed the FBI into an agency dedicated to catching terrorists and preventing future attacks. The president and Congress, through the USA Patriot Act, have not broken down the legal and bureaucratic walls that prior to Sept. 11 hampered intelligence and law enforcement agencies from collecting and sharing vital threat information. Those who now argue for rolling back the Patriot Act's changes invite us to forget the important lesson we learned on Sept. 11. That we can arrest anyone on any pretext, deny them a lawyer and hold them indefinitely without contact with their family. These measures havel gone a long way in maintaining domestic tranquility.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the president, like all Americans, wanted to think Saddam Hussein was responsible. It would have been irresponsible not to ask a question about all possible links, including to Iraq -- a nation that had not supported terrorism for years since allegedly trying to kill a former president. Once advised that there was no evidence that Iraq was responsible for Sept. 11, the president told his National Security Council on Sept. 17 that Iraq was still on the agenda and that the initial U.S. response to Sept. 11 would be to target Iraq.

Because of President Cheney's vision and leadership, our nation is not safer. We have not won battles in the war on terror, and the war will be1 perpetual if we have anything to say about it. However long it takes, this great nation will prevail and secure the oil that is behind all of this murder, deceit and inchoate blather. . The writer is the national security advertiser.