Video: Special investigation: Leading up to 9/11

updated 9/28/2006 5:05:36 PM ET 2006-09-28T21:05:36

"Countdown" rises to Bill Clinton's challenge and assess President's Bush efforts to stop al Qaida in his first eight months in office.

You can find the transcript below.

OLBERMANN:  In a sense, we are all still detainees in the wake of 9/11, but there is some unrest among the inmates.  Being asked what steps he took to stop al Qaeda, President Clinton freeing many to ask what steps, if any, his successor took in the most critical time before the plot.

Yesterday, President Bush declined to address Mr. Clinton‘s remarks, saying, “We‘ve already had the look back this and look back that.”  But if we are to look forward with any clarity, it is important to know the facts about where we have been and how we got where we are.

Thus, tonight a special investigation.  Mr. Clinton is not in office, Mr. Bush is.  His policies determine how the U.S. fights al Qaeda, so it is important that we understand how he has done so in the past.  Comparing the two presidents is valid, necessary, to illuminate the capacities of the office.  Mr. Clinton said it plainly, he failed to get bin Laden.  Mr. Bush has acknowledged no such failure.

But while it has become conventional wisdom, although debunked by the 9/11 report, that Mr. Clinton dropped an offer from Sudan to hand over bin Laden, it is rare to hear anyone discuss whether similar but real feelers were ever extended to Mr. Bush.  And it is, we suspect, even more rare to see this tape of the Bush White House addressing reports of such feelers in February 2001, after the government knew al Qaeda had attacked the U.S.S. Cole.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, February 27, 2001)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The Taliban in Afghanistan, they have offered that they are ready to hand over Osama bin Laden to Saudi Arabia if the United States drops its sanctions, and the—they have a kind of deal that they want to make with the United States.  Do you have any comments (INAUDIBLE)?

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  Let me take that and get back to you on that.


OLBERMANN:  There is no record of any subsequent discussion on that matter.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, of course, responded to President Clinton by defending the Bush record.  “We were not left a comprehensive strategy to fight al Qaeda,” she said.

Our goal in this report is to rise to Mr. Clinton’s challenge and assess the record of Mr. Bush‘s efforts against al Qaeda in his first eight months in office.

We begin with Rice’s claim that Clinton left no strategy to fight al Qaeda.


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, January 20, 2001)


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Congratulations.


OLBERMANN (voice-over):  On January 25, 2001, five days after Mr. Bush took office, counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke sent Rice a memo, attaching to it a document entitled “Strategy for Eliminating the Threat of al Qaeda.”  It was, Clarke, wrote, “developed by the last administration to give to you, incorporating diplomatic, economic, military, public diplomacy, and intelligence tools.”

Clarke’s memo requested a follow-up cabinet-level meeting to address time-sensitive questions about al Qaeda.  But President Bush had downgraded counterterrorism from a cabinet-level job, so Clarke now dealt instead with deputy secretaries.

RICHARD CLARKE, FORMER COUNTERTERRORISM CZAR:  It slowed it down enormously, by months.  First of all, the deputies’ committee didn’t meet urgently in January or February.

OLBERMANN:  Why the delay?  Rice later tried to explain.

RICE:  America’s al Qaeda policy wasn’t working because our Afghanistan policy wasn’t working, and our Afghanistan policy wasn’t working because our Pakistan policy wasn’t working.  We recognized that America’s counterterrorism policy had to be connected to our regional strategies, and to our overall foreign policy.

OLBERMANN:  That, although Clarke’s January 25 memo specifically warned, “Al Qaeda is not some narrow little terrorist issue that needs to be included in broader regional policy.  By proceeding with separate policy reviews on Central Asia, etc., we would deal inadequately with the need for a comprehensive multiregional policy on al Qaeda.”

Clarke’s deputies’ meeting came in April, when, he says, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz insisted the real terrorism threat was not al Qaeda, but Iraq.

By July 16, the deputies had a proposal for dealing with al Qaeda, a proposal, Clarke says, was essentially the same plan he gave Rice five months earlier, and it still had to go to the principals, the cabinet secretaries.

CLARKE:  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.

OLBERMANN:  Although the principals had already met on other issues, their first meeting on al Qaeda was not until after Labor Day, on September 4, 2001.

But what were Mr. Bush and his top advisers doing during this time?  Mr. Bush was personally briefed about al Qaeda even before the election, in November 2000.  During the transition, President Clinton and his national security adviser, Sandy Berger, say they told Bush and his team of the urgency of getting al Qaeda.

Three days before President Bush took office Berger spoke at a passing-the-baton event, which Rice attended.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, January 17, 2001)

SANDY BERGER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER:  With survivors of the U.S.S. Cole reinforced the reality that America is in a deadly struggle with a new breed of anti-Western jihadists.  Nothing less than a war, I think, is fair to describe this.

OLBERMANN:  Eight days later, Clarke sent Rice the strategy Clinton had developed for retaliating in the event that al Qaeda was found to have been behind the previous October’s attack on the U.S.S. Cole.  The next day, the FBI conclusively pinned the Cole attack on al Qaeda.

Mr. Bush ordered no military strike, no escalation of existing Clinton measures.  Instead, he repeated Clinton’s previous diplomatic efforts, writing a letter to Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf in February and another on August 4.

Until September 11, even when Mr. Bush was asked about the Cole, an attack carried out on water by men in a boat, he offered a consistent prescription for keeping America safe, one he reiterated upon taking office.


BUSH:  To protect our own people, our allies and friends, we must develop and we must deploy effective missile defenses.


OLBERMANN:  Democrats, who controlled the Senate, warned that his focus was misplaced.


SEN. CARL LEVIN (D):  I’m also concerned that we may not be putting enough emphasis on countering the most likely threats to our national security and to the security of our forces deployed around the world, those asymmetric threats, like terrorist attacks on the U.S.S. Cole on our barracks and our embassies around the world, on the World Trade Center.


OLBERMANN:  He was not alone.  The executive director of the Hart-Rudmann Commission’s request to brief Bush and Cheney on the terror threats they had studied was denied.

On February 26, 2001, Paul Bremer said of the administration, quote, “What they will do is stagger along until there’s a major incident, and then suddenly say, Oh, my God, shouldn’t we be organized to deal with this?”

According to the 9/11 Commission report, even bin Laden expected Bush to respond militarily to the Cole bombing.  Quote, “In February 2001, according to a source, bin Laden wanted the United States to attack, and if it did not, he would launch something bigger.”

The most famous warning came in the August 6 presidential daily briefing, reporting “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.”

According to the 9/11 report, “Bush did not recall discussing the August 6 report with the attorney general, or whether Rice had done so.  We have found no indication of any further discussion before September 11 among the president and his top advisers of the possibility of a threat of an al Qaeda attack in the United States.  Tenet does not recall any discussions with the president of the domestic threat during this period.  Domestic agencies did not know what to do, and no one gave them direction.  The borders were not hardened, transportation systems were not fortified, electronic surveillance was not targeted against the domestic threat, state and local law enforcement were not marshaled to augment the FBI‘s efforts.  The public was not warned.”

Explanations after the fact suggested a lack of familiarity with the recent history of terrorism.


RICE:  I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center.

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  There wasn’t any way then we could have anticipated what was about to happen, of course, in—on 9/11.

(Subtitle:  1995, Philippines uncovers plot to fly planes into Pentagon and World Trade Center.)

(Subtitle:  September 1999, U.S. study: Al Qaeda might  crash planes into Pentagon.)

(Subtitle:  Spring 2001, New York City trial testimony: Bin Laden sending agents to acquire planes.)

BUSH:  These terrorists had burrowed in our country for over two years.  They were well organized.  They were well planned.  They struck in a way that was unimaginable.

(Subtitle:  July 2001, FBI told of Zacarias Moussaoui‘s interest in flying jumbo jets.)

(Subtitle: September 2001, FBI memo: Moussaoui could fly something into the World Trade Center.)


OLBERMANN:  On September 10, 2001, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California requested a meeting with Vice President Cheney to press the case for aggressive counterterrorism measures.  She is told Mr. Cheney will need some time to prepare first, six months.

That same day, the NSA intercepted a communique from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia, stating, “Tomorrow is zero hour.”  That communique was only translated into English on September 12.


OLBERMANN:  It appears now that the operative word in the phrase “We could not have anticipated” was the word “we.”

“Countdown’s” look at what the Bush White House did to take the threat of terrorism seriously on its watch, and what it did not do, from Rice’s claim this week they were handed no al Qaeda strategy from the Clinton administration, to President Bush’s reaction to the confirmation that al Qaeda indeed was behind the attack on the U.S.S. “Cole.”

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