Former Vice President Al Gore met privately Friday with the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a day after former President Bill Clinton told the panel that intelligence was not strong enough to justify retaliating against al-Qaida for the bombing of a Navy ship in 2000.
Gore talked with the 10-member National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States in a three-hour meeting it described as candid and forthcoming. “We thank him for his continued cooperation with the commission,” the panel said in a statement.
The commission interviewed Clinton behind closed doors Thursday for nearly four hours after the conclusion of public testimony by White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, which was broadcast live on national television.
Commission member Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, said Friday on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that he believed Clinton should have been more aggressive in going after al-Qaida after the bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen, which killed 17 U.S. sailors in October 2000.
“I think he did have enough proof to take action,” Kerrey said. “That’s a difference of opinion.”
Clinton explains response to Cole
A person familiar with the session said Clinton told the commission that he did not order retaliatory military strikes after the attack on the Cole because he could not get “a clear, firm judgment of responsibility” from U.S. intelligence before he left office three months later.
It was not until after the Bush administration took power that U.S. intelligence concluded that al-Qaida had sponsored the attack. Some commission members have criticized the decision not to launch a retaliatory strike.
The person, who would speak only on condition of anonymity because Clinton’s testimony delved into classified materials, also said Clinton explained the rationale for many of the terror-fighting policies his administration instituted and the message his administration left behind to the incoming Bush administration.
Clinton “did not indicate anything fundamentally that he would have done differently” given what U.S. intelligence knew about Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida threat, the person said.
Commission Chairman Thomas Kean, the Republican former governor of New Jersey, said Clinton told the commission that he had wrestled with the issue of whether his administration could have done more.
“He said he’s going back in his mind over and over again about whether there was something more he could’ve done,” Kean said Thursday on PBS’s “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”
The panel said it did not plan to release details of the meeting, saying much of it involved classified information.
Tackling big questions
Commission members said Clinton addressed big-picture policy issues.
“He was adamant about trying to work in a bipartisan way to fix the problems,” said Timothy Roemer, a Democratic former U.S. representative from Indiana. “He was quite honest and frank.”
John Lehman, who was secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan, agreed.
“He did very well,” Lehman said on CNN. “He gave us a lot of very helpful insights into things that happened, policy approaches.”
Jim Kennedy, a spokesman for Clinton, said Clinton was pleased to talk to the commission “and believed it was a very constructive meeting.”
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will also meet privately with the full panel in a joint session in the coming weeks. They initially restricted the interview to one hour with two panel members, but under mounting public pressure they agreed last week to a joint session without time constraints.