Terrorism 'not a major White House
focus' By Andrew Tully
WASHINGTON - From his inauguration in January
2001 until the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington
and Pennsylvania seven-and-a-half months later, US
President George W Bush's public focus on national
security was to establish a missile-defense shield.
Russia and China objected to the program, as did
many of the United States's allies, on the grounds that
it could trigger an international arms race similar to
the one that ended with the Cold War. But Bush argued
that his concern was not Russia or China, but so-called
rogue states - such as Iraq and North Korea - that might
soon be capable of attacking the US and its allies in
Europe and Asia.
Richard Clarke - who served as
a counterterrorism expert under three presidents -
recently told an independent commission investigating
the September 11 attacks that if Bush had given
terrorism a higher priority during the first seven
months of his administration, it might have been able to
prevent the attacks, which have been blamed on the
al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Clarke quit his post
in the White House a year ago because he believed the
Bush administration was not taking the threat from
al-Qaeda seriously enough.
In addition to
Clarke's accusations, former Treasury Secretary Paul
O'Neill has said Bush was preoccupied by Iraq - not
al-Qaeda - from the very first days of the
administration. And Bob Woodward, the author of a book
on the Bush presidency, says Bush once told him that he
didn't feel "a sense of urgency" about al-Qaeda leader
Osama bin Laden.
White House spokesman Scott
McClellan was asked last week about Woodward's comment.
"The threat of terrorism was broader than any one
person," he said. "We needed to go after this Al-Qaeda
network and have a more aggressive approach to
eliminating al-Qaeda. The threat from al-Qaeda and
terrorism was a high priority for this administration
prior to coming into office. It was a threat we took
very seriously, and September 11 is a day that the
terrorists declared war on the United States of America,
and war is exactly what they got," McClellan added.
But that approach is not borne out in a speech
that White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza
Rice was to have delivered on the very day of the
attacks. The address - which was never delivered -
promoted missile defense as the focus of the
administration's national security strategy. It
mentioned terrorist groups only as weapons clients of
day before the attacks, Senator Joseph Biden (Democrat,
Delaware) - then the chairman of the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee - delivered a speech in which he
criticized the Bush administration for putting too much
emphasis on missile defense and too little on the threat
Leon Fuerth served as national
security adviser to Al Gore, the vice president under
former president Bill Clinton, Bush's predecessor.
Fuerth noted that, in his book, Clarke wrote that Bush
aides found it "quaint" that the Clinton administration
had taken terrorism so seriously. And he pointed to a
passage in Clark's book in which Bush asked him to see
whether then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was behind
the September 11 attacks, despite Clarke's assertion
that it was al-Qaeda.
Ultimately, Fuerth said,
the Bush White House would pin the blame for September
11 on Iraq, whether it deserved it or not. "9/11 was
converted immediately into further justification to
carry out an objective that came into office with the
[Bush] administration, which was - deal with Iraq,"
according to Fuerth.
Fuerth said the Bush
administration was focused on Iraq and the missile
defense shield but is now trying to convince the public
that terrorism was one of its top priorities. "The
record shows that the [Bush] administration's other
priorities were dominating its attention right up until
the day the thing happened to us [on September 11],"
Fuerth said. "And so, in effect, they have been trying
to mislead people into visualizing their agenda in a
manner other than it actually was at the time."
Marina Ottaway studies the Middle East and
terrorism at the Carnegie Endowment for International
Peace, a private policy center in Washington. She, too,
said the evidence does not support the White House's
insistence that it never took its eye off the terrorist
"There is plenty of evidence that the
Bush administration was more concerned with the rogue
states and the missile issue and so on than it was with
terrorism as such," Ottaway said. However, she added,
"even if they had given it a high priority, that does
not mean that they would have found evidence of what was
being prepared for September 11."
the effort put into establishing a missile defense
system - and the related attention to states such as
Iraq and North Korea - says less about whether the Bush
administration was prepared for September 11 and more
about its response to the attacks.
important in terms of the response to September 11
because the fact that they were more concerned with
rogue states and weapons of mass destruction than they
were with terrorists explains why they immediately
targeted Iraq," Ottaway said. "This mindset is important
not so much in terms of explaining September 11, but in
terms of explaining what happened next."
2001, the US toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan,
which had been sheltering al-Qaeda leader Osama bin
Laden. And one-and-a-half years after the September 11
attacks, the US led an invasion of Iraq, which it
accused of possessing weapons of mass destruction.
The independent commission investigating the
September 11 attacks is due to deliver its final report
on July 26. The original deadline was extended after
complaints about alleged lack of cooperation by the
The chairman of the commission,
former Republican New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, said
he believes the public will be surprised by some of the
Andrew F Tully has more than three decades'
experience in journalism. He has worked as a reporter
and an editor in both New York and Washington for
several news organizations, primarily the Associated
Press and United Press International.