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Rumsfeld: Killing bin Laden would's have stopped 9/11
Updated: 2004-03-24 08:05

Bush and Clinton administration officials on Tuesday defended their responses to terror threats, insisting they did all they could to eliminate the possibility of deadly attacks against the United States.

Testifying before an independent commission investigating the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the Bush administration began focusing on the threat from Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network, even before it took office.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is sworn in before giving testimony to the federal panel reviewing the Sept. 11 attacks in Washington, March 23, 2004.  [AP]
And the Clinton administration debated whether to launch airstrikes to kill bin Laden at least three times in 1998 and 1999, but decided against them because of doubts about the intelligence and concerns about killing civilians.

"There were three occasions. Each time, the munitions and people were spun up," former Defense Secretary William Cohen told the panel. "They were called off because the word came back, 'We're not sure.' "

The question of whether both administrations did all they could to thwart terrorism took on new meaning after the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania and suburban Washington, which killed nearly 3,000 people.

Bush responds

While several members of his administration testified before the panel, President Bush weighed in at the White House. He rejected allegations in a new book by his former counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke, that he had ignored warning signs before September 11.

"George Tenet briefed me on a regular basis about the terrorist threat to the United States of America," Bush told reporters in response to a question. "And had my administration had any information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on September 11, we would have acted."

At the hearing, Powell told the commission that he was briefed on bin Laden by Clinton administration officials four days after Bush appointed him.

He said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice began working on a strategy to fight al Qaeda during her first week on the job.

"We wanted to move beyond the roll-back policy of containment, criminal prosecution and limited retaliation for specific terrorist attacks. We wanted to destroy al Qaeda," Powell said.

Earlier, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright testified that the Clinton administration did everything in its power against al Qaeda.

U.S. cruise missiles struck al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan after the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and she said bin Laden's Taliban hosts were warned they would be held accountable for future attacks traced back to the terrorist network.

"There should have been no confusion that our personnel were authorized to kill bin Laden," Albright said. "We did not, after all, launch cruise missiles for the purpose of serving legal papers."

She said that it was difficult to find useful intelligence about bin Laden's location.

Cohen said Congress at times had not supported antiterrorism efforts put forth by the Clinton administration. And he warned that the country was still complacent even after September 11.

"I think that we have failed to fully comprehend the gathering storm, even now after September 11," Cohen said.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld testified later in the day.

The two-day hearing by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States -- the formal name of the 10-member bipartisan panel -- opened with a call for Rice to testify publicly.

Commissioner Tim Roemer said Rice has made the rounds of news shows to rebut allegations that the Bush administration neglected the al Qaeda threat before the September 11, 2001, attacks. But he said that discussion "belongs in this hearing room."

"I hope Dr. Rice will reconsider and come before our commission for the sake of the American people tomorrow," said Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana.

Commission Chairman Tom Kean said the panel was "disappointed" that Rice won't appear publicly. But Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, noted commissioners have held extensive private meetings with her "and she's been a very cooperative witness in that circumstance."

Rice has met with the panel in private, but aides have said she believes it would set a bad precedent for her to testify publicly.

The White House has cited separation of powers concerns, but critics of that decision point out that Tuesday's hearing involves an independent panel -- not a congressional committee.

Bush administration on defensive

The public hearing comes at a time when the Bush administration is under fire for its antiterrorism efforts, criticized in the Clarke book which says Bush ignored warning signs before September 11 and later wrongly focused on Iraq at the expense of more vigorously targeting al Qaeda.

The White House has denounced the book "Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror" as a wildly inaccurate account of the administration's efforts. But Clarke has stood by his assertions, saying Bush "botched the response to 9/11."

"I think the message is that the United States' mechanisms -- the FBI, the CIA, the DOD [Department of Defense], the White House -- failed during both the Clinton administration and during the Bush administration," Clarke said Tuesday on CNN's "American Morning."

Rumsfeld likely will address Clarke's assertions head-on.

A Pentagon spokesman said the defense chief will tell the 9/11 commission that he makes no apologies for considering Iraq's potential involvement during the days immediately following the attacks because the Bush administration was looking at a global war on terror, not just a war against al Qaeda.

"Richard Clarke is missing the context," the Pentagon spokesman said. "It's not clear he understands what the global war on terrorism was about."

The commission is charged with providing an authoritative account of the September 11 attacks, including an examination of any security and intelligence lapses surrounding them.

With its new deadline, the commission has until July 26 to report on all aspects of the attacks, including government responses. The commission then will have an additional 30 days to close down its operations.

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