Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 24, 2004; Page A10
President Bill Clinton preferred reading detailed intelligence memos, which he marked up with notes and comments in order to receive written responses. President Bush sought early-morning, face-to-face briefings from CIA Director George J. Tenet.
Clinton tried to draw attention to the threat of terrorism by frequently mentioning it in speeches, but top aides would spend weeks or months arguing over the fine points in action memorandums -- which Clinton would tinker with before signing them. Bush was tired of "swatting flies" and wanted dramatic results, bristling at the tedium of interagency coordination. He saw little need for formal meetings, instead communicating with top officials via national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
The two presidents -- and their contrasting management styles and personalities -- loom large in the report released Thursday by the Sept. 11 commission. Although the bipartisan report assigns equal blame to both administrations for failing to prevent the terrorist attacks -- and draws no conclusions on either president's abilities in dealing with the threat -- the 567-page narrative for the first time places their actions and decisions in context, drawing often upon their own recollections and words.
Both Clinton and Bush (who was joined by Vice President Cheney) gave the commission private interviews, which until the report's release had been kept under wraps.
On one crucial detail, the presidents' memories differ substantially. Before Bush took office, the two men met for two hours, and Clinton recalled telling Bush that "by far your biggest threat is [Osama] Bin Laden and the al Qaeda." Bush told the commission that he did not remember much being said about al Qaeda, and that Clinton had emphasized North Korea and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The portrait of both men that emerges from the report is of dedicated, disciplined executives, struggling to understand and deal with a new and shadowy organization. A frustrated Clinton, in 2000, complained about the lack of military options and declared, "it would scare . . . al-Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp."
In his first CIA briefing, Bush wanted to know if the CIA could kill bin Laden, and he was told that eliminating bin Laden would have an effect but not solve the problem.
The report describes Clinton as obsessed with bin Laden and international terrorism -- and Bush as less interested in Iraq in the period before and after the attacks than some former aides have described in best-selling books.
The report broadly faults officials in both administrations for failing to understand how the creaky machinery of the federal government was not equipped to deal with the emerging threat of international terrorism. It also shows how conflicts between agencies or officials many levels below the presidency prevented effective action from being taken -- or how sometimes presidential actions muddied the waters.
Clinton wanted bin Laden dead, the report said, but "this intent was never well communicated or understood within the CIA."
In December 1998, Clinton signed a memo that would have allowed tribal officials in Afghanistan to kill bin Laden if they determined capture was not feasible. But in February 1999, Clinton received another memo that would have given the same guidance to the Northern Alliance -- opposition forces fighting the Taliban. This time, Clinton crossed out the language he had approved two months earlier and inserted more ambiguous language.
Clinton told the commission "he had no recollection of why he rewrote the language."
Both administrations dithered on whether to blame al Qaeda publicly for the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen, killing 17 members of the ship's crew. The report said bin Laden expected the United States to retaliate and appeared disappointed that it did not.
Clinton described himself as very frustrated that he could not get a definitive answer on whether bin Laden or al Qaeda was behind the attack, because otherwise he felt he could not launch strikes or deliver an ultimatum to the Taliban leadership harboring bin Laden in Afghanistan. By late December, the most definitive answer Clinton received was that the CIA's "preliminary judgment" was that al Qaeda "supported the attack" -- which he and other top officials thought wasn't good enough.
Two months later, shortly after Bush took office, he received a CIA briefing and received the same "preliminary judgment." Lower-level aides who had worked for Clinton pressed for action against bin Laden, but Bush and his senior advisers worried that an ineffective airstrike would merely give bin Laden a propaganda advantage.
The report, which noted that the "procedures of the Bush administration were at once more formal and less formal" than the Clinton operation, said that ultimately senior Bush officials never had a "formal, recorded decision not to retaliate" for the Cole attack. Instead, through conversations involving Rice and Bush, Bush and Tenet, and Rice, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a consensus was reached that "tit-for-tat" responses would be counterproductive, the report said.
Only after the Sept. 11 attacks did Bush formally declare that al Qaeda had been responsible for the Cole incident.
On the morning of the attacks, Bush was attending an elementary school event in Florida when he was told that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. He sat there, appearing emotionless, for another five to seven minutes. Bush told the commission he did this because "he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening."
In the weeks immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, some key advisers, such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, pressed for an attack against Iraq. The report said Bush shrugged off the advice.
When Bush met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair nine days after the attacks, Blair asked about Iraq. According to a memo of the conversation obtained by the commission, Bush replied that Iraq was not an immediate problem.
Bush told the commission that former White House counterterrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke had mischaracterized an incident in his book, "Against All Enemies." In the book, Clarke said Bush, wandering into the situation room, pressed him in an intimidating fashion to find out whether Saddam Hussein was behind the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush dismissed the idea that he would have wandered into the situation room alone.
Bush acknowledged he might have asked Clarke about Iraq shortly after the attacks, and another aide recalled an exchange between Clarke and Bush on Iraq but did not find the president's manner intimidating, the report said.
Bush told the commission that before the attacks there had been an appetite in government for trying to kill bin Laden, but not for going to war. Bush also said he believed a policy approved the day before the attacks might have led to an invasion of Afghanistan.
He told the commission that "would have seemed like an ultimate act of unilateralism," the report said. "But he said he was prepared to take that on."