Video: Investigating 9/11

By Producer
NBC News
updated 3/23/2004 8:18:46 AM ET 2004-03-23T13:18:46

The eighth set of hearings by The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, or the 9/11 commission, are likely to be the most significant so far.

The 10 bipartisan commissioners will attempt to elicit answers from the panel of former senior Clinton and current Bush administration officials who plan to testify regarding what the United States did to counter al-Qaida before the 9/11 attacks and what the United States has done in the aftermath of the assaults in order to prevent any future attacks.

The hearings will conclude Wednesday with testimony from Richard Clarke, former national coordinator for counterterrorism to both Clinton and Bush.

On Sunday evening Clarke began a thunderous sendoff for his new book, “Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror,” with an explosive interview on CBS’s "60 Minutes."

Clarke, the former top U.S. terrorism adviser, said that the Bush administration did not take the terrorist threat seriously before 9/11 and was fixated with blaming the Sept. 11, 2001, assaults after the terrorist attacks on Iraq. The fallout from Clarke’s public comments and the questions they have raised regarding U.S. counterterrorism policy during both administrations is likely to play a dominant role in the hearings this week.

The 9/11 commission was created by congressional legislation signed by President Bush in late 2002 and is chartered to examine the circumstances surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Video: Looking for answers Over two days starting on Tuesday, four panels will examine U.S. diplomacy, military, intelligence and national policy coordination regarding terrorism.

Panelists will include former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, current Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, current Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, former national security adviser Samuel Berger and current Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

Eating up time?
Armitage was scheduled at the last minute to accommodate a request that he testify by the White House.

Some Democrats on the commission wonder if the White House was attempting to eat up the scheduled time for testimony by Clarke.

Current national security adviser Condoleezza Rice responded to Clarke’s assertions about the Bush administration’s apparent lack of focus on terrorism in an editorial in the Washington Post on Monday saying that the threat from al-Qaida did not emerge with the Bush administration.

“The al-Qaida terrorist network posed a threat to the United States for almost a decade before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,” she wrote. In an interview with NBC News last week Rice said the Bush administration was in the midst of developing a new comprehensive plan to “eliminate,” not simply roll back al-Qaida, when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred.

One of the central missions of the 9/11 commission is to determine what efforts were taken or not taken and by whom to defeat al-Qaida both before and after the terrorist attacks. That will be a key framework for the questioning of panelists by commissioners this week.

Rice has already spent four hours testifying in private with the commission but has refused to testify publicly, exerting executive privilege. Some Democratic commissioners find Rice’s lack of public testimony disturbing and plan to raise it publicly this week.

"The commission is very disappointed that the administration has not allowed Dr. Rice to testify in public,” said Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democrat and former Watergate prosecutor. “She’s appeared everyplace else except the corner grocery,” he said. “Why she would not appear before the commission charged with investigating the facts of 9/11 is beyond us.”

Families want answers
Many of the 9/11 family members hope that the panelists who are testifying will be asked tough questions about U.S. counterterrorism policy, including why the United States has maintained such close ties with Saudi Arabia, which was home to 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers.

They also want to know what the CIA was doing to counter al-Qaida before the terrorist attacks and why no military forces were on alert ready to capture or kill Osama bin Laden when unmanned spy planes operated by the CIA identified him at an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan in the fall of 2000.

Meanwhile, the White House has responded to Clarke’s allegations that it ignored warnings about al-Qaida “deeply irresponsible” and “flat-out false,” implying that his allegations may be politically motivated. But it was the Bush administration that asked Clarke to stay on at the White House when they took office in January 2001.

Video: Gen. Downing reacts to Clarke Now, some 9/11 observers believe the White House is trying to poke holes in Clarke’s credibility because he has stirred up a whirlwind of questions regarding what the administration did to counter al-Qaida both before and after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Some 9/11 victims’ family members fear that Clarke’s recent remarks and the Bush administration’s response may drag the commission into the political fray and that the fallout may overshadow the substance of the commission’s work and its upcoming hearings.

“I would hate to see this turn into a political smear session,” said Kristen Breitweiser, who lost her husband, Ron, in the World Trade Center and has become a vocal advocate for 9/11 families and lobbied tirelessly for the establishment of the commission. “This is not honoring the dead,” she said, adding, “We deserve more.”

NBC's Douglas Pasternak is based in Washington.

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