By Lisa Myers Senior investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/18/2004 7:43:09 PM ET 2004-03-19T00:43:09

When the 9/11 commission holds public hearings next week, its central focus will be the choices that U.S. presidents made in fighting terrorism before 9/11.  Just how committed to taking on al-Qaida was the Bush administration before Sept. 11?  Some critics, including one former counter-terrorism insider, now say there was a surprising lack of urgency.

Shortly after taking office, President George W. Bush ordered a new, more muscular policy to eliminate al-Qaida. Helping draft that policy: Roger Cressey, a terrorism expert in both Democratic and Republican administrations and now an NBC News analyst.

Now Cressey is speaking out for the first time. He says in the early days of the Bush administration, al-Qaida simply was not a top priority, “There was not this sense of urgency.  The ticking clock, if you will, to get it done sooner rather than later.”

Cressey and other witnesses have told the 9/11 commission of long gaps between terrorism meetings and greater time and energy devoted to Russia, China, missile defense and Iraq than al-Qaida.

For example: One document shows a key high-level National Security Council meeting on Iraq on Feb. 1, 2001. Yet, there was no comparable meeting on al-Qaida until September.

Is Cressey saying that some senior members of the Bush administration viewed Saddam Hussein as a greater threat to the United States than Osama bin Laden?  “Oh, absolutely.  Absolutely.  It was inconceivable to them that al-Qaida could be this talented, this capable without Iraq, in this case, providing them real support."

That spring, President Bush learned bin Laden was responsible for the attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 sailors.  Why was there no retaliation?

“You would think after an attack that almost sank a U.S. destroyer there would have been [a mandate] for some type of action.  Yet we never saw that from the Pentagon,” Cressey answered.

Bush administration national security adviser Condoleezza Rice insists that President Bush wanted to avenge the Cole, but not with a pinprick retaliatory strike, “We were concerned that we didn’t have good military options. That really all we had were options like using cruise missiles to go after training camps that had long since been abandoned.”

NBC’s sources say that the camps in Afghanistan were thriving, that the United States could have hit the camps and killed lots of terrorists.

“Even if you’d been fortunate enough to — to get a few people, it clearly wasn’t going to impress al-Qaida — al-Qaida had to be eliminated,” Rice added.

Over the summer, the threats of an al-Qaida attack grew, focused mostly overseas. Finally, on Aug. 1, Bush’s new policy, designed to eliminate al-Qaida in three to five years, was ready for a final decision.

Global dragnetBut the Bush team didn’t get together until Sept. 4, one week before 9/11.

Can the Bush administration be faulted for spending nine months hashing out a policy?  In retrospect, shouldn’t it have done something?

According to Rice: “We were in office 230-plus days.… By the time that we got to the summer of 2001, at least 16 of 19 hijackers were already in the United States for the — for the final time.”

The 9/11 commission now is looking into whether the Clinton and Bush administrations missed opportunities to get bin Laden and al-Qaida,  asking what more could and should have been done to prevent Sept. 11.

More on the missed opportunities:

  • Tuesday:   How close did the United States come to getting bin Laden?
  • Wednesday:   What more could the Bush administration have done to get bin Laden?

Lisa Myers is NBC’s senior investigative correspondent.

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