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updated 3/18/2005 11:24:02 AM ET 2005-03-18T16:24:02

Shortly after taking office, President 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, 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," says Cressey.

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.

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

Is Cresseysaying 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," he says. "Absolutely. It was inconceivable to them that al-Qaida could be this talented, this capable without Iraq in this case providing them real support."

In the spring of 2001, President Bush learned bin Laden was responsible for the attack on the U.S.S. 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 demand for some type of action," says Cressey. "Yet we never saw that from the Pentagon."

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

In the summer of 2001, the threats of an al-Qaida attack grew, focused mostly overseas. Finally, on August 1, Bush's new policy — designed to eliminate al-Qaida in three to five years — was ready for a final decision. But the Bush team didn't get together until September 4, one week before 9/11.

But Rice says the administration shouldn't be faulted for spending nine months hashing out a policy.

"We were in office 230 plus days at the time," she says. "By the time that we got to the summer of 2001, at least 16 of the 19 hijackers were already in the United States 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 a-Qaida, asking what more could and should have been done to prevent the attacks.

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