Just as the administration was launching a frantic effort to fend off the allegations of former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke that it failed to take al-Qaida seriously before 9/11, the commission delivered a couple of priceless gifts.
The first was a new staff report revealing that the previous administration -- the one headed by some guy named Clinton -- had three opportunities in 1998 and 1999 to launch lethal strikes at Osama bin Laden but failed to pull the trigger. Each time, according to the report, senior officials overruled field operatives on the grounds that the intelligence was uncertain and the risk of "collateral damage" great.
The second came from two of those Clinton-era officials, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Defense Secretary William Cohen. Both responded to pointed questions from panel members about why they had not sought to attack al-Qaida more aggressively by pleading that the pre-9/11 political climate simply would not have supported such a policy.
It was not lost on those listening, either in the cavernous Senate hearing room or the broader rings of Washington's power structure, that this rationale cuts two ways. If it excuses the Clinton administration's conduct, it also offers a defense for the Bush crew against Clarke's volatile accusation that they didn't do enough before 9/11 to take out al-Qaida. The current defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, made precisely that point later in the day.
Tuesday, March 23, 2004
A Newsday columnist says that the 9/11 Commission hearings are actually helping the Bush administration.
Posted by Betsy Newmark at 10:51 PM