Olbermann: The political debate still raging over Mr. Clinton's remarks in a Fox News interview Sunday has overshadowed the debate Mr. Clinton suggested the nation ought to have... a discussion of what steps the Bush administration took to get Osama bin Laden or destroy al Qaeda before September 11th.
Yesterday, Mr. Bush declined to address Mr. Clinton's remarks, saying we've already had the "look-back this" and "look-back that."
But if we are to look forward with any clarity, it is important to know the facts about where we have been, and how we got where we are.
Mr. Clinton is not in office.
Mr. Bush is.
His policies determine how the U.S. fights al Qaeda, so it is important that we understand how he has done so in the past.
Comparing the two presidents is valid, and necessary--to illuminate the capacities of the office.
Mr. Clinton said it plainly -- he failed to get bin Laden.
Mr. Bush has acknowledged no failures.
But while it has become conventional wisdom, although debunked by the 9/11 Report, that Mr. Clinton dropped an offer from Sudan to hand over bin Laden... it is rare to hear anyone discuss whether similar... but real feelers were extended to Mr. Bush.
And it is, we suspect, even more rare, to see this tape, of the Bush White House addressing reports of such feelers in February, 2001, after we knew al Qaeda had attacked the Cole:
Q: The Taliban in Afghanistan, they have offered that they are ready to hand over Osama bin Laden to Saudi Arabia if the United States would drop its sanctions, and they have a kind of deal that they want to make with the United States. Do you have any comments?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me take that and get back to you on that.
There is no record of any subsequent discussion on the matter.
In a recent interview, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice responded to Mr. Clinton by defending the Bush record, and saying, quote,
"We were not left a comprehensive strategy to fight al Qaeda."
Our goal in this report is to rise to Mr. Clinton's challenge, and assess the record of Mr. Bush's efforts against al Qaeda in his first eight months in office. We begin with Rice's denial of a comprehensive Clinton strategy to fight al Qaeda.
On January 25th, five days after Mr. Bush took office, counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke sent Rice a memo, attaching to it a document entitled "Strategy for Eliminating the Threat... of al Qaeda." It was, Clarke wrote, "developed by the last Administration to give to you...[incorporating] diplomatic, economic, military, public diplomacy and intelligence tools."
Clarke's memo requested a follow-up, cabinet-level meeting to address time-sensitive questions about al Qaeda. But Mr. Bush downgraded counterterrorism from a cabinet-level job, so Clarke now dealt with **deputy** secretaries, instead.
Clarke: "It slowed down enormously, by months. First of all, the deputies committee didn't meet urgently in January or February.
Why the delay? Rice later explained:
Rice : (4/8/04) "America's al Qaeda policy wasn't working because our Afghanistan policy wasn't working. And our Afghanistan policy wasn't working because our Pakistan policy wasn't working. We recognized that America's counterterrorism policy had to be connected to our regional strategies and to our overall foreign policy."
That, although Clarke's January 25th memo specifically warned, "...al Qaeda is not some narrow, little terrorist issue that needs to be included in broader regional policy. ... By proceeding with separate policy reviews on Central Asia... et cetera, we would deal inadequately with the need for a comprehensive multi-regional policy on al Qaeda."
Clarke's deputies meeting came in April when, he says, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz insisted the real terrorism threat was not al Qaeda... but Iraq. By July 16, the deputies had a proposal for dealing with al Qaeda... a proposal Clarke says was essentially the same plan he gave Rice five months before. And it still had to go to the principals, the cabinet secretaries.
Clarke: "But the principals' calendar was full and then they went on vacation, many of them, in August. So we couldn't meet in August, and therefore, the principals met in September.
Although the principals had already met on other issues, their first meeting on al Qaeda wasn't until after Labor Day -- September 4th.
But what were Mr. Bush and his top advisers doing during this time?
Mr. Bush was personally briefed about al Qaeda even before the election in November, 2000.
During the transition, President Clinton and his National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger, say they told Bush and his team of the urgency in getting al Qaeda.
Three days before Mr. Bush took office, Berger spoke at a "passing the baton" event that Rice attended.
Berger (1/17/01): "Sitting at the Norfolk Base with survivors from the USS Cole only reinforced the reality that America is in a deadly struggle with a new breed of anti-western jihadists. Nothing less than a war, I think, is a fair way to describe this."
Eight days later, Clarke sent Rice the strategy Clinton developed for retaliating, in the event al Qaeda was found to be behind October's attack on the USS Cole.
The next day, the FBI conclusively pinned the Cole attack on al Qaeda.
Mr. Bush ordered no military strike, no escalation of existing Clinton measures. Instead, he repeated Clinton's previous diplomatic efforts, writing a letter to Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf in February, and another on August 4th.
Until September 11th, even when Mr. Bush was asked about the Cole, an attack carried out on water, by men in a boat, he offered a consistent prescription for keeping America safe, one he reiterated upon taking office.
Bush (2/27/01): "To protect our own people, our allies and friends, we must develop and we must deploy effective missile defenses."
Democrats, who controlled the Senate, warned that his focus was misplaced.
Levin (6/22/01): "I'm also concerned that we may not be putting enough emphasis on countering the most likely threats to our national security and to the security of our forces deployed around the world, those asymmetric threats, like terrorist attacks on the USS Cole, on our barracks and our embassies around the world, on the World Trade Center."
He was not alone.
The executive director of the Hart-Rudman Commission's request to brief Bush and Cheney on the terror threats they had studied was denied.
On February 26, 2001, Paul Bremer said of the administration, quote, "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?"
According to the 9/11 report, even bin Laden expected Bush to respond militarily to the Cole bombing. Quote, "In February, 2001...according to [a] source, Bin Ladin wanted the United States to attack, and if it did not he would launch something bigger."
The most famous warning came in the August 6th Presidential Daily Briefing, reporting "patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York."
The 9/11 report:
"[Bush] did not recall discussing the August 6 report with the Attorney General or whether Rice had done so."
"We have found no indication of any further discussion before September 11 among the President and his top advisers of the possibility of a threat of an al Qaeda attack in the United States. ...Tenet does not recall any discussions with the President of the domestic threat during this period."
"Domestic agencies did not know what to do, and no one gave them direction."
"The borders were not hardened. Transportation systems were not fortified. Electronic surveillance was not targeted against a domestic threat. State and local law enforcement were not marshaled to augment the FBI's efforts. The public was not warned."
Explanations after the fact suggested a lack of familiarity with the recent history of terrorism.
Rice (5/17/02): "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, that they would try to use an airplane as a missile - a hijacked airplane as a missile."
Cheney (9/7/04): "[There] wasn't any way then we could have anticipated what was about to happen, of course, on 9/11."
Bush (1/26/02): "They struck in a way that was unimaginable."
1994 - France disrupts plot to fly a jet into Eiffel Tower.
1995 - Philippines uncovers plot to fly planes into Pentagon and WTC.
September, 1999 - Federal study warns al Qaeda might crash planes into Pentagon.
Spring, 2001 - Testimony at U.S. embassy bombing trial in New York that bin Laden sending agents for pilot training and to acquire planes
July, 2001 - FBI told of Zacarias Moussaoui's interest in flying jumbo jets.
September, 2001 - FBI memo warns Moussaoui is the type who could "fly something into the World Trade Center."
On September 10th, 2001, Senator Dianne Feinstein requests a meeting with Vice President Cheney to press the case for aggressive counterterrorism measures. She is told Mr. Cheney will need six months to prepare first.
That same day, the N-S-A intercepts a communique from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia stating "tomorrow is zero hour."
It is translated into English on September 12th.
(h/t Mike for the video)