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U.S. failure to retaliate for USS Cole attack rankled then — and now

Top White House counterterrorism officials were frustrated over the U.S. failure to respond to al-Qaida’s October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, NBC News reports.
Image: Bombing of the USS Cole
This image provided by the U.S. Navy shows damage sustained by the USS Cole after the suicide bombing on Oct. 12, 2000.U.s. Navy / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

Newly declassified documents show the frustrations of top White House counterterrorism officials over the U.S. failure to respond to al-Qaida’s October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole despite evidence that Osama bin Laden was reading poetry about the murderous attack and publicly taking credit for it.

The lack of U.S. response to the Cole attack — under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — has re-emerged as a painful issue this week, as crew and family members gather at the U.S. naval base in Norfolk, Va., to mark the 10th anniversary of the bombing, which killed 17 U.S. sailors and injured 38.

“I just felt, for sure, you know, they’re not going to go ahead and just kiss off the lives of 17 U.S. sailors,” John Clodfelter, who lost his son, Kenneth, in the attack, told NBC News.  “In fact, they didn’t do anything … to go after those that attacked the Cole.”

At 11:15 a.m. on Oct. 12, 2000, the Cole — a billion dollar destroyer armed with the most advanced weapons in the U.S. naval arsenal — was docked off the coast of Yemen for refueling when it was approached by a small skiff packed with explosives and manned by two suicide bombers. The resulting explosion was a chilling precursor to the attacks on Sept. 11. It ripped a 60-by-40-foot hole in the ship’s hull, trapping the bodies of many of the dead crew members in the wreckage.

In the days after the attack, President Clinton vowed retribution against the terrorists. “You will not find a safe harbor,” he proclaimed. “We will find you and justice will prevail.”

But in his final months in office, Clinton never retaliated against al-Qaida, frustrating some of his own counterterrorism advisors. Clinton later told the 9/11 commission he was never shown hard proof that Osama bin Laden’s operatives were behind the attack.   

But two senior investigators — one with the FBI and another with the Naval Criminal Investigative Task Force — recently told NBC News there was actually compelling evidence that al-Qaida was responsible for the bombing almost immediately. Two of the Cole bombers arrested by Yemeni security forces confessed their role and told investigators they were working for two top al-Qaida operatives known to U.S. intelligence — information that was quickly made available to FBI and naval investigative agents.

'Significant information'
“Within two weeks we had significant information (that) we felt … was solid evidence that the attack was linked not only to al-Qaida but to Osama bin Laden,” said Mark Fallon, chief of the U.S. Navy investigative task force, in an exclusive interview with NBC News. By January, after those confessions were verified in questioning by FBI Agent Ali Soufan, the case against bin Laden and al-Qaida was “rock solid,” Fallon added.

If there were any lingering doubts before Clinton left office in late January 2001, they were erased in the early days of Bush’s presidency. In their first months in office, Bush administration officials ignored repeated assertions from White House counterterrorism officials that bin Laden was taking credit for the bombing and using it as a propaganda and recruitment tool, the newly obtained documents show.

Those communications were first mentioned in a little noticed footnote in the 9/11 commission report. But NBC News recently obtained from the National Archives newly declassified notes of commission staffers who were given access to verbatim copies of the internal emails sent by two top White House counterterrorism officials, Roger Cressey, former director of transnational threats, and his boss Richard Clarke, the chief counter-terrorism advisor under Clinton who stayed in the same job during the early years of the Bush presidency.

Those notes, which include extensive quotes directly from the emails, reveal how Cressey, who is now an NBC News terrorism analyst, and Clarke repeatedly tried to call the attention of top Bush White House officials to bin Laden’s role in the attack to prod them to approve a new, more aggressive strategy aimed at striking back at al-Qaida. But those warnings were all but ignored until the attacks of Sept. 11.  

On March 2, 2001, for example, Cressey sent an email to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Steve Hadley, titled “re Bin Laden on the USS Cole.” The email reported that at a wedding reception for his son at a camp known as Tarnak Farm in Afghanistan (and broadcast on Al Jazeera), bin Laden had “read (a) new poem … about the Cole attack.” In another email to Hadley on March 22, pushing him about the need for a new aggressive strategy against al-Qaida, Cressey wrote: “The investigation continues on the law enforcement side, but we know all we need to about who did the (Cole) attack to make a policy decision.”

Two days later, Clark emailed national security officials reporting that Yemen’s prime minister  had briefed the State Department’s top counterterrorism adviser about his country’s investigation into the attack. Titled “Yemen’s View on the USS Cole,” the email quoted the Yemeni prime minister as saying “We are not saying publicly, we are being very careful, but we believe 99 percent that it’s (bin Laden).”

That same day, Cressey emailed Rice and Hadley and identified Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, known to investigators as al-Qaida’s  “maritime commander,” as a “Cole  plotter” who had gone “underground.”

90-minute video
And on June 21, Clarke wrote yet another email entitled “Al Qida (sic) Video claims responsibility for Cole attack.” The email reported that a 90-minute video showing footage of the Cole attack had “surfaced” in the Gulf. One of the quotes on the video, according to Clarke’s email: “Thanks to Allah for the victory on the day we destroyed the Cole.”

Clarke and Cressey were pushing for a full-fledged military and diplomatic response aimed at forcing the Taliban government in Afghanistan to cease giving al-Qaida a safe haven. “DOD should be ready to hit Taliban command/control, terrorist infr (tunnels, bunkers),” Clarke wrote in a June 30, 2001 email to top national security officials.  

"The argument we in our office were trying to make is that, this should not be forgotten," Cressey said in a recent interview when asked about the newly declassified emails. "Bin Laden issues a videotape, he reads a poem ... he's rubbing it in our faces. He's directly challenging the United States and he's gloating about it. ... And so what we were trying to do was to tee up this issue for a decision and to say, 'let's make a choice. Do we respond? Do we hold these people accountable? ... We owe that to the families of those who lost their loved ones in the Cole."

But just as the Cole slipped off the agenda during the late days of the Clinton administration, it fell by the wayside during the early days of the Bush presidency. "We would have meetings at the (White House) counterterrorism security group where we would talk about the Cole. But that really was preaching to the choir. ... We would then bump it up — and inevitably it would run into other issues.

"There was the policy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan. There was the issue of how to negotiate possibly with the Taliban — to try and persuade them to remove bin Laden, extradite him to the United States. There were the other issues of China, Russia, arms control, the Middle East peace process. And as you saw how the new administration, like any administration, comes in to pursue their policy agenda, something like the USS Cole gets pushed further and further down … the list."

Rice, now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, declined through a spokeswoman to comment on the declassified emails this week.

But Rice told the 9/11 commission that “there was never a formal, recorded decision not to retaliate specifically for the Cole attack,” according to the commission’s report. “Exchanges with the president” and among his top national security advisers “had produced a consensus that ‘tit for tat’ responses were likely to be counterproductive,” the panel’s report quoted Rice as saying.

Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the panel that “too much time had passed” for the Bush administration to respond to the attack and Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary, thought the Cole attack was “stale,” the 9/11 commission said. Hadley had said the administration’s “real response” would be a new more aggressive strategy against al-Qaida — one that had yet to be approved prior to the attack on 9/11.

The failure by both the Clinton and Bush administrations to respond had consequences in the fateful months before 9/11 — and some of them resonate today amid new evidence that al-Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate is resurgent and threatening new attacks on the U.S. homeland. 

“The attacks on the USS Cole galvanized al-Qaida’s recruitment efforts,” concluded the 9/11 commission. The propaganda video that bin Laden instructed be made about the bombing was widely distributed in the Arab world and struck a nerve, causing “many extremists to travel to Afghanistan for training and jihad.”

Cressey agrees that the Cole bombing emboldened bin Laden and places the blame on both the Clinton and the Bush administrations.

"Think about the optics," he said, "You had a billion dollar warship nearly sank, with 17 Americans killed. You had the United States not doing anything publicly about it. Bin Laden and al-Qaida were able to issue a series of videotapes crowing about their achievement. So, if I'm an impressionable young man who aspires to conduct jihad, and I see what al-Qaida did and they weren't held responsible, hell yeah, I'm going to go toward them. And that, in effect, is what happened."  

Exclusive: Declassified emails fron the Bush administration