WASHINGTON — The former counterterrorism chief in the Bush and Clinton White Houses apologized Wednesday to the families of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, saying, “Your government failed you.” But he placed the bulk of the blame on President Bush, accusing his administration of not making terrorism “an urgent issue.”
In contrast, the Clinton administration had “no higher priority,” said Richard Clarke, the star witness at two days of hearings by the independent panel examining diplomatic, military and intelligence efforts to fight Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network.
Clarke has accused Bush in a new book of ignoring al-Qaida before the Sept. 11 attacks, in which about 3,000 people were killed at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania. He has said the president then rushed to blame Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
In his opening statement before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Clarke told relatives of victims in the audience: “Your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you.”
‘We tried hard, but that doesn't matter’
“We tried hard, but that doesn’t matter, because we failed,” he added.
Clarke drew sharp questioning from Republican commissioners, who said his pointed criticism of Bush officials contradicted his praise for the administration’s policies as late as fall 2002 and was designed to sway the presidential election.
But Clarke, acknowledging that he had been accused of being “a member of John Kerry’s campaign team,” denied that he had any partisan goals.
“Let me say here, as I am under oath, that I will not accept any position in the Kerry administration, should there be one — on the record, under oath,” said Clarke, who said he voted Republican in 2000.
Instead, he said, he had gone public because of his opposition to the war in Iraq.
“The reason I am strident in my criticism of the president of the United States is because ... by invading Iraq, the president of the United States has greatly undermined the war on terrorism,” he said.
Bush team ‘unprepared to act’
Clarke testified that the Clinton and Bush administrations approached the terrorist threat in starkly different ways. “Although I continued to say it [terrorism] was an urgent problem, I don’t think it was ever treated that way” by the Bush administration before Sept. 11.
Video: Commissioners discuss hearing “I dealt directly with the national security advisers in the Clinton administration,” he said, while in the Bush administration, “I was told [that] would be best done with the deputy national security adviser. So I spent less time talking about the problems of terrorism with the national security adviser in this administration.”
Clarke said that in 2001 he sought a “principals’ review” — involving Cabinet secretaries with responsibility for national security — of his request for new budget authority to help fight al-Qaida and proposals to aid for the Northern Alliance, the rebel group fighting to oust the Taliban government of Afghanistan. But “the response was that in the Bush administration I ... should report to the deputies’ committee, which is a sub-Cabinet-level committee, and not to the principals.”
Clarke said the new chain of command slowed the process “enormously, by months. First of all, the deputies’ committee didn’t meet urgently in January or February.”
When it did, he said, al-Qaida was considered only as one of several issues, not a priority by itself. In frustration, Clarke asked to be reassigned in May or June 2001; he eventually retired last year after 30 years working for the Reagan and Clinton administrations and both Bush administrations.
“It was possible to make a very persuasive case that this was a major threat and this was an urgent problem,” Clarke said. But the Bush team “didn’t either believe me that there was an urgent problem or was unprepared to act as though there were an urgent problem.”
‘Probably I should get another job’
“I thought, if the administration doesn’t believe its national coordinator for counterterrorism when he says there’s an urgent problem and if it’s unprepared to act as though there’s an urgent problem, then probably I should get another job.”
About that time, Rice relayed a request from Bush for an anti-terrorism strategy, Clarke said.
“And I said: ‘Well, you know, we’ve had this strategy ready since before you were inaugurated. I showed it you. You have the paperwork. We can have a meeting on the strategy any time you want,’” Clarke said.
“She said she would look into it. Her looking into it and the president asking for it did not change the pace at which it was considered. And as far as I know, the president never asked again.”
Clarke said it was essential that policymakers take risk assessments seriously and “act on threats in the future before they happen.”
“The problem is that when you make that recommendation before they happen, when you recommend an air defense system for Washington before there has been a 9/11, people tend to think you’re nuts,” he said. “And I got a lot of that.”
But when asked whether there was “the remotest chance that it would have prevented 9/11” even if everything he had called for had been implemented, Clarke, like previous witnesses, said no.
Clarke’s appearance capped two days of hearings during which officials from the Bush and Clinton administrations took issue with characterizations that they were lax in responding to the growing al-Qaida threat before Sept. 11, insisting that they made every effort to track and kill bin Laden and disrupt his network.
The officials rejected several of Clarke’s most serious allegations, saying Clinton and Bush and their teams were focused on the problem from the start.
Testifying before the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, CIA Director George Tenet said there was “no lack of care or focus” in efforts by the Clinton and Bush administrations to disrupt or destroy al-Qaida prior to the attacks.
Clarke has alleged that Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, appeared not to even have heard of al-Qaida, but Samuel Berger, her predecessor under Clinton, testified that he told her during the change in administrations that “she’d be spending more time on terrorism and al-Qaida than any other issue.”
Tenet rejected Clarke’s assertion that the CIA opposed arming Predator drone aircraft for use in efforts to target bin Laden, and he “categorically denied” that his agents were reluctant to assassinate bin Laden.
White House fights back
Clarke’s new book, “Against All Enemies,” has infuriated the White House, which has launched a sustained public attack on his credibility. A variety of administration officials, from Vice President Dick Cheney on down, have denounced him as a disgruntled political opportunist intent on salvaging his reputation and selling his book. The administration took the extraordinary step of issuing a long, point-by-point written rebuttal of the claims made in the book.
Bush himself responded Tuesday, telling reporters that he would have acted more quickly against al-Qaida if he had had information before Sept. 11 that an attack on New York was imminent. But while he defended his war on terrorism after the attacks, he did not address a question about his administration’s preparations beforehand or the accusation that he was obsessed with Saddam.Video: Rice rebuts Clarke
The White House kept up its intense attack on Clarke for the third day Wednesday.
“I don’t think the record bears out Dick Clarke’s assertion,” Rice said in an interview on “NBC Nightly News.” Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, said on MSNBC TV, “I think there may be more fiction there than there should be.”
The White House also distributed an audiotape of an anonymous White House official who briefed reporters on the administration’s approach to al-Qaida in 2002. The official, whom the White House identified as Clarke, said the administration had adopted a multipronged strategy before Sept. 11.
Rice told NBC News that Clarke’s comments in the briefing refuted the allegations he later made in his book, saying, “He can’t have it both ways.” But Clarke testified that he had simply been acting on orders.
“I was asked by several people in senior levels of the Bush White House to do a press backgrounder to try to explain that set of facts in a way that minimized criticism of the administration,” he said. “And so I did.”
Clarke assertions seen as political assault
A senior White House aide told NBC News on condition of anonymity this week that Bush personally ordered his aides to launch the counteroffensive against the book, which the aide said Bush saw as a political assault.
Clarke portrays a president obsessed with Iraq and Saddam, and he recounts that Bush asked him directly almost immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks to find out whether Iraq was involved in the suicide hijackings.
Clarke added details in an appearance Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” recounting:
“The president dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door and said, ‘I want you to find whether Iraq did this.’ Now, he never said, ‘Make it up,’ but the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said Iraq did this.”
Roger Cressey, Clarke’s deputy at the time, said Monday that he remembered being in the room when Bush pulled Clarke aside to put the pressure on.
“The impression was pretty straightforward: that the president — his first thought was to take a look at Iraqi culpability,” said Cressey, who is now a consultant for NBC News.
By MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson with NBC’s David Gregory and Norah O’Donnell.