L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, said Sunday that he regretted a statement he made more than six months before the Sept. 11 attacks that the Bush administration was "paying no attention" to terrorism.
Bremer said any implied criticism that President Bush was not acting against terrorism was "unfair."
Ahead of the November election, Bush is facing criticism he didn't make terrorism his No. 1 priority before the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, and then weakened the war on terrorism by invading Iraq and shifting the focus from Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. The resurfacing of Bremer's comments added to the administration's frustrations.
At a McCormick Tribune Foundation conference on terrorism on Feb. 26, 2001, Bremer said, "The new administration seems to be paying no attention to the problem of terrorism. What they will do is stagger along until there's a major incident and then suddenly say, 'Oh, my God, shouldn't we be organized to deal with this?'
"That's too bad. They've been given a window of opportunity with very little terrorism now, and they're not taking advantage of it."
Bremer made the speech after he had chaired the National Commission on Terrorism, a bipartisan body formed by the Clinton administration to examine counterterrorism policies.
In a statement Sunday, Bremer said his remarks three years ago "reflected my frustration" that none of his commission's recommendations had been carried out by Clinton or the Bush administration.
"Criticism of the new administration, however, was unfair. President Bush had just been sworn into office and could not reasonably be held responsible for the federal government's inaction over the preceding seven months," Bremer's Sunday statement said.
"I regret any suggestion to the contrary. In fact, I have since learned that President Bush had shared some of these frustrations, and had initiated a more direct and comprehensive approach to confronting terrorism consistent with the threats outlined in the National Commission report.
"I am strongly supportive and grateful for the president's leadership and strategy in combating terrorism,," he said.