Clarke Labels It a ‘Nonevent’

Times Staff Writer

Former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke said Thursday that national security advisor Condoleezza Rice did nothing to disprove his criticisms of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.

If anything, Clarke contended, his former boss’ lengthy testimony before the Sept. 11 commission raised additional questions about whether Rice and President Bush could have done more to counter the threat posed by the global terrorist network.

Like millions of other Americans, Clarke watched the proceedings on television, glued to a set in Massachusetts, where he was teaching a class at Harvard University.

“It was pretty much a nonevent,” Clarke said of Rice’s testimony. “I don’t think there is much in the way of a factual difference [between his testimony and hers]. It’s in how you interpret it.”


Overall, he said, it supported his statement that the White House didn’t consider the avalanche of threats in the summer of 2001 to be an urgent concern.

His sharp and specific criticisms of the Bush administration two weeks ago were largely responsible for the commission’s decision to demand that Rice testify, which the White House reluctantly permitted.

Some of the commission members told Rice on Thursday that they thought Clarke’s allegations were so credible that she needed to address them in the same forum where he had made them -- under oath and facing sometimes hostile questioning in a public setting.

Clarke expanded on those criticisms in a book that shot to the top of the best-seller lists, becoming part of the political debate during a presidential election year.

Rice rejected claims by Clarke that the administration did not mobilize against Al Qaeda immediately upon taking office in January 2001, testifying that the president received more than 40 briefing items on Al Qaeda before Sept. 11, “and 13 of those were in response to questions he or his top advisors posed.”

Clarke’s response: “I say if the president was briefed about Al Qaeda that many times, why didn’t he ever get involved in it personally, except to say once, ‘Let’s not swat flies’?”

Clarke said he listened particularly carefully to Rice’s testimony about whether she had been told -- by Clarke -- about the potential for Al Qaeda strikes within the United States during the summer of 2001.

Rice acknowledged under questioning that Clarke told her in January 2001 that Al Qaeda “sleeper cells” were in the United States and that the CIA and other intelligence agencies had reported picking up alarming signs of an imminent attack.

Yet when asked by Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste whether she passed those concerns up the chain of command to the president, Rice said: “I really don’t remember, commissioner, whether I discussed this with the president.”

Clarke said Rice’s inability to remember such a key detail was significant.

“There seems to be some logical disconnect there,” Clarke said. “If the president is getting briefed all the time, by [CIA Director] George Tenet or somebody else, and Dr. Rice knows that I believe there are sleeper cells in the U.S., one might think that would trigger the national security advisor to tell the president that, by the way, your national coordinator for counterterrorism thinks there are sleeper cells here in the United States.”

Clarke also called on the White House to release the contents of a classified briefing paper the president received Aug. 6, 2001, saying that it would prove the administration was well aware of the possibility of a hijacking or other type of terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

Later in the day, administration officials said that the briefing paper would be declassified at an unspecified time.

Bush administration officials have heatedly denied that there was anything in that so-called president’s daily brief, or PDB, to indicate an imminent attack in the U.S. by terrorists using planes as weapons.

And Rice and other senior Bush aides have said Clarke expressed few if any concerns about attacks within the United States.

So Clarke felt vindicated, he said Thursday, when Rice told the commissioners the title of the briefing paper was “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.”

Commissioners said the paper indicated the FBI had detected a pattern of suspicious activity in the country consistent with preparation for hijackings.

FBI spokesman Ed Cogswell said the bureau was investigating the commissioners’ allegations but had no immediate comment.

“I can assure you that many of the PDBs that mentioned Al Qaeda, particularly in June and July, said there was a major attack coming in the next few weeks,” Clarke said. “And then you get this one saying they want to do something in the United States, and you might jump to the conclusion that an attack might be coming.”