WASHINGTON -- The nation's former counterterrorism chief testified yesterday that in its first months in office the Bush administration failed to treat the global threat of the Al Qaeda terrorist network with a sense of urgency, despite repeated and dire warning of a coming attack -- claims that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice later strongly denied.
Richard A. Clarke, taking the stand before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also became the first government figure to publicly apologize for not preventing the deadly hijacked-plane attacks that killed 3,000 people.
"Those entrusted with protecting you failed you," Clarke said in an emotional opening statement before the 10-member panel. "And I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn't matter because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask, once all the facts are out, for your understanding and for your forgiveness."
Clarke's apology prompted commission member Richard Ben-Veniste to respond: "I want to express my appreciation for the fact that you have come before this commission and stated in front of the world your apology for what went wrong. To my knowledge, you're the first to do that."
Clarke received several rounds of applause from victims' family members during his 2 1/2 hours of questioning, which focused heavily on his largely unsuccessful effort to push his superiors in both the Clinton and Bush administrations to take more aggressive action against Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants.
But while panel members, in an interim report, faulted both administrations for failing to stop Al Qaeda in time to prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Clarke reserved his harshest comments for the Bush administration, which he attacked in a book released this week, accusing it of being preoccupied with Iraq and thereby undermining the war on terrorism.
Just a week before the Sept. 11 attacks, Clarke said, he wrote to Rice urging her to consider what would happen if hundreds of Americans were killed in a terrorist attack.
"My impression was that fighting terrorism in general, and fighting Al Qaeda in particular, [was] an extraordinarily high priority in the Clinton administration; certainly [there was] no higher a priority," Clarke testified.
But the environment was markedly different once Bush was in office, he said.
"I believe the Bush administration in the first eight months considered terrorism an important issue but not an urgent issue," Clarke said. "[CIA Director] George Tenet and I tried very hard to create a sense of urgency by seeing to it that intelligence reports on the Al Qaeda threat were frequently given to the president and other high-level officials. And there was a process underway to address Al Qaeda. But although I continued to say it was an urgent problem, I don't think it was ever treated that way."
Clarke spoke on the second and final day of public testimony by a series of Clinton and Bush administration officials. Also appearing before the panel were Tenet and Samuel L. Berger, national security adviser to Clinton, who said, "I did my best to emphasize the urgency I felt" in briefings to incoming administration officials, including Rice.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage testified in place of Rice, who has declined to appear publicly before the panel.
But in a hastily called meeting with reporters later in the day, Rice portrayed Clarke's comments as a bitter attack on the administration that did not jibe with his previous statements to her and other officials, during and after his White House tenure.
"There's two very different pictures here, and the fact of the matter is these stories can't be reconciled," Rice said.
However, new findings released by the commission yesterday supported some of the assertions made by Clarke.
"By late July , there were indications of multiple, possibly catastrophic, terrorist attacks being planned against American interests overseas," the panel reported. "Some CIA officials expressed frustration about the pace of policymaking during the stressful summer of 2001. Two veteran [counterterrorism] officers who were deeply involved . . . were so worried about an impending disaster that one of them told us that they considered resigning and going public with their concerns."
But Clarke also faced tough questioning by some on the panel for his own conflicting statements about the Bush approach. They cited a briefing he gave to reporters as an anonymous official in August 2002, released by the White House yesterday.
At the time, Clarke said that before Sept. 11 the Bush administration was taking the time necessary to craft a new, more aggressive policy that called for "the rapid elimination of Al Qaeda."
Clarke responded that he had been asked to detail the positive aspects of Bush's pre-Sept. 11 policy, a common request for special assistants to the president.
He denied his later criticism of the Bush administration was politically motivated, saying he is a registered Republican. He also said "under oath" that he would not take a position in the administration of Senator John F. Kerry if the presumptive Democratic nominee is elected president.
The panel yesterday faulted the CIA and FBI for failing to gather sufficient intelligence about the growing Al Qaeda threat or share the information it had with other agencies.
Tenet, in his testimony, acknowledged that intelligence failures were clearly made.
"We didn't steal the secret that told us what the plot was," he said, referring to Sept. 11. "We didn't integrate all the data we had properly, and probably we had a lot of data that we didn't know about that, if everybody had known about, maybe we would have had a chance" to prevent the attacks.
Both Berger and Clarke faulted the FBI, which played a key role in foiling terrorist attacks on millennium celebrations nearly two years before Sept. 11. Clarke, for example, said two of the hijackers were known to have been in the United States: "We knew their names." Yet those names were not put on wanted posters, broadcast on the evening news, or publicized in other ways that might have led to their capture, he said.
The panel also found that CIA operatives who were seeking to capture or kill bin Laden and his top advisers prior to the Sept. 11 attacks did not feel they had clear instructions from Washington about what kind of actions were permissible.
"If the policymakers believed their intent was clear, every CIA official interviewed on this topic by the commission, from . . . Tenet to the official who actually briefed the agents in the field, told us they heard a different message," the panel's report said.
The commission's Republican chairman, former governor Thomas Kean of New Jersey, said of this week's hearings: "We learned that the departments of State and Defense in two administrations took many actions to address terrorism. The list of actions is long and detailed. We are also left with the impression that the national security priorities of both administrations were to a large extent focused elsewhere."
Material from Reuters was used in this report.