Mar 25, 2004

9/11 hearings Clarke

Let's bring in our CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen who's been watching all of these hearings all day long. There were some very dramatic moments in terms of missed opportunities and the criticism rather evenhanded going against Clinton administration officials and against Bush administration officials. What's your bottom line thought of what you learned over these past two days? PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, it seems that one of the best opportunities to get bin Laden was in early '99 when he was in a hunting party in Afghanistan, where they had him in their sights. He was there for some period of time, several days, there was debate about whether we might actually kill members of the United Arab Emirate royal family with whom he was also hunting and also some uncertainty if he was in the camp at any given moment, this particular hunting camp. But that seemed a moment when there was a pretty clean shot. Of the three opportunities that the hearings have talked about why there was an opportunity to get bin Laden, that seems the cleanest shot. Also I think in these hearings, one thing that's really struck me is the extent to which the lack of response to the USS Cole attack in October 2000, either by the Clinton administration or the Bush administration, is something that this Commission has been talking about, obviously, people responded, we really had no good options, we didn't want to just send another ineffective cruise missile strike. But the fact is we didn't respond to the USS Cole, and I think it's pretty fair to say that that empowered al Qaeda, made them feel they had impunity from American reaction. BLITZER: The questions were numerous, there were many answers as well. Once again, let's bring in Peter Bergen, our CNN terrorism analyst. Why the confusion that these CIA operatives apparently had on the ground, whether or not they had the authority to go ahead and kill Osama bin Laden? BERGEN: I think that's sort of a cultural question in a sense, you know, ever since the Ford administration made an executive order against assassination, even though bin Laden doesn't really fit into that exactly. The CIA was very -- they wanted to have an unambiguous authority to go ahead and assassinate bin Laden. They didn't feel like they had it. The NSC, as you indicated, Sandy Berger saying that they felt that they had given the authority to kill bin Laden. It seem the CIA operatives on the ground felt that they were really doing a capture operation in which it might have been possible bin Laden was going to be killed. But they shouldn't go and do an actual operation to kill him directly. If you're confused by that, you can see why people on the ground in Afghanistan might have been confused by that. BLITZER: Very damning indictment, as I said, from Richard Clarke of the Bush administration at least the first nine months of the Bush administration, when he said you know what? This was not an urgent top priority, the war on terrorism, in contrast to what he thought was the case during the Clinton administration. He did have -- the White House did have supporters among the commission members who sought to rebut that? BERGER: I think a couple of Republican members of the commission got some pretty good hits in on Clarke, on the basis of the fact he's made other public statements, in fact, on background to the press in 2002, that seemed very in conflict with what he's been saying in the book and what he's been saying publicly recently. So I think he tried to deal with that by saying, look, I was just giving you a background briefing, I was putting a certain kind of spin on it. That's not a particularly convincing message when there is a disconnect between the book and something you've been saying to the press on background in terms of how well the Bush administration is conducting the war on terrorism. And I think that they made a couple of effective points against Clarke. BLITZER: Clarke also said that there were mid-level or low-level FBI, law enforcement types who knew that these two 9/11 hijackers were in the United States before 9/11 but that information never filtered up to the top. He said had it filtered up to the top, they would have put these guys' pictures all over the place, on "America's Most Wanted," he said, they would have gotten the pictures out and perhaps things could have begun to unravel. Do you buy that? BERGEN: Well, I think that was one of the strongest things he said. He used the word incomprehensible that this information didn't filter up to the top levels of the government. The fact there were senior al Qaeda in the United States should have been something that was widely disseminated, instead it was sort of stovepiped within a certain part of the FBI, it didn't make it to Clarke. BLITZER: That was a very damning indictment. What did you learn after these two days, and you, like me, watched all of it, listened to all of it. What did you learn that you didn't know before? BERGEN: I don't think there was a huge amount. It's all been out there. It was interesting to hear the people directly involved, their discussions about how to respond to the USS Cole or what was al Qaeda responsible for the USS Cole. That was very interesting. The thing you touched on in the piece that we just saw, this question of this confusion about the legality whether or not to kill bin Laden. That is new material. I would say that confusion seems to be perhaps the central problem from a bureaucratic perspective in terms of the policy to go and get bin Laden. You think this White House, Peter Bergen, is going to have trouble rebutting over the course of these weeks and months assuming these allegations continue. The heart of the debate right now. Did the president of the United States, after taking office on January 20, 2001, did he devote enough attention to the terror threat from al Qaeda moving forward to 9/11? BERGEN: Well, you know, Clarke's book tries to make that case, unfortunately this background briefing he gave seems to make the opposite case, and no matter how -- even if you say he was putting a positive spin on the administration policy which is his defense of this background briefing. There's still, there must have been some truth to it. You can't make these things up out of thin air. That part of Clarke's criticism of the Bush administration, you know, is now rather muddled. But I would add one thing, he was asked, Clarke was asked about this whole question about did the Iraq war distract from the war on terrorism. That probably still remains a reasonably good point that a lot of people, counterterrorism intelligence professionals agree that the war on Iraq was a distraction from the wider war on terrorism.