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April 5, 2004

Rice Never Spoke About Al-Qaeda, bin Laden Before 9/11


by Jason Leopold

Richard Clarke was right. So was Paul O'Neill. During the six months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration paid little attention to the threat from al-Qaeda and instead set the stage for a war with Iraq.

Two weeks before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, national security wasn't even a top priority for the Bush administration. Security – job security, health security, and national security – was last on a list of major issues Bush planned to deal with in the fall of 2001, according to a transcript of a speech Bush gave on August 31, 2001, to celebrate the launch of the White House's new website.

National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, who is scheduled to testify Thursday before the commission investigating the 9/11 terrorist attacks, says Clarke, President Bush's counterterrorism specialist, is a liar after Clarke told the commission two weeks ago that the Bush administration failed to deal with al-Qaeda seriously before 9/11.

Clarke exposes the Bush administration's attitude toward Islamic terrorists in his book, Against All Enemies and says the Bush administration was obsessed with Iraq before the terrorist attacks. Paul O'Neill, the former Treasury Secretary, made similar statements a few months ago in the book The Price of Loyalty, and he too was branded a liar and a disgruntled former White House employee.

Rice is expected to be grilled by the commission. She'll try and prove that the Bush administration dealt with al-Qaeda seriously. But there's no denying that the allegations Clarke, O'Neill, and other whistleblowers have made, that the White House was obsessed with Iraq, are rock solid. Here's the proof.

As early as January 2000, Rice was trying to sell a war with Iraq. It was then that she wrote an article for Foreign Affairs magazine titled "Campaign 2000 – Promoting the National Interest," in which she promotes regime change in Iraq, but fails to mention threats from Islamic fundamentalist groups such as al-Qaeda:

"As history marches toward markets and democracy, some states have been left by the side of the road. Iraq is the prototype. Saddam Hussein's regime is isolated, his conventional military power has been severely weakened, his people live in poverty and terror, and he has no useful place in international politics. He is therefore determined to develop WMD. Nothing will change until Saddam is gone, so the United States must mobilize whatever resources it can, including support from his opposition, to remove him. These regimes are living on borrowed time, so there need be no sense of panic about them."

She echoed that line in August 2000, during an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, where Rice said Iraq posed the gravest threat to the U.S and the world.

"The containment of Iraq should be aimed ultimately at regime change because as long as Saddam is there no one in the region is safe – most especially his own people," she said during the August 9, 2000 interview. "If Saddam gives you a reason to use force against him, then use decisive force, not just a pinprick."

Rice was interviewed by dozens of print and broadcast journalists between January and September 2001. An extensive search of more than 400 news stories available on Lexis Nexus between January 1, 2001 and September 10, 2001 show that Rice never once spoke about the threat posed by al-Qaeda or its leader Osama bin Laden.

When Rice discussed terrorism in public speeches and interviews in 2001, she only utters the word to describe rogue nations such as Iraq and then follows it up by promoting President Bush's National Missile Defense strategy. The White House wanted to build a missile defense system to defend the United States against small-scale missile attack by so-called rogue states like North Korea, Iraq, and Iran.

On July 29, 2001, Rice was interviewed by CNN's John King. She was asked how the United States would respond to missiles Iraq fired at U.S. war planes patrolling the no-fly zones. She didn't mince words with her answer:

"Well, the president has made very clear that he considers Saddam Hussein to be a threat to his neighbors, a threat to security in the region, in fact a threat to international security more broadly," Rice said. "And he has reserved the right to respond when that threat becomes one that he wishes no longer to tolerate.

"But I can be certain of this, and the world can be certain of this: Saddam Hussein is on the radar screen for the administration. The administration is working hard with a number of our friends and allies to have a policy that is broad; that does look at the sanctions as something that should be restructured so that we have smart sanctions that go after the regime, not after the Iraqi people; that does look at the role of opposition in creating an environment and a regime in Baghdad that the people of Iraq deserve, rather than the one that they have; and one that looks at use of military force in a more resolute manner, and not just a manner of tit-for-tat with him every day."

The question of whether the Bush administration targeted Iraq prior to 9/11 has long been the center of heated debate between Democrats and Republicans. The Bush administration says Iraq was not in its crosshairs prior to 9/11. But former White House officials, such as Clarke and O'Neill, claim the administration was searching for reasons to attack Iraq as soon as Bush took office in January 2001.

A January 11, 2001 article in the New York Times, "Iraq Is Focal Point as Bush Meets With Joint Chiefs," should finally put an end to that debate. Its first paragraph reads:

"George W. Bush, the nation's commander in chief to be, went to the Pentagon today for a top-secret session with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to review hot spots around the world where he might have to send American forces into harm's way."

Bush was joined at the Pentagon meeting by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. The Times further reported that:

"…about half of the 75-minute meeting…focused on a discussion about Iraq and the Persian Gulf, two participants said. Iraq was the first topic briefed because 'it's the most visible and most risky area' Mr. Bush will confront after he takes office, one senior officer said."

"Iraqi policy is very much on his mind," one senior Pentagon official told the Times. "Saddam was clearly a discussion point."

On June 22, 2001, President Bush spoke briefly about terrorism during a speech in Alabama, but, like Rice, Bush used the word "terrorist" to describe rogue nations, not terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda, and to gain support for his National Missile Defense policy

"It's time to come together and to think about a new security arrangement that addresses the threats of the 21st century," is how Bush put it, according to a transcripts of his remarks:

 "And the threats of the 21st century will be terrorist in nature, terror when it comes to weaponry. What we must do – freedom-loving people must be willing to think differently and develop anti-ballistic missile systems that will say to rogue nations and leaders who cannot stand America, or what we stand for: you will not blackmail us, nor will you blackmail our allies."

Clarke was right. Our government failed us. Worse, they lied, too.


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  • Jason Leopold is the former Los Angeles bureau chief of Dow Jones Newswires. He spent two years covering the Enron bankruptcy and the California energy crisis. He just finished writing a book on the energy crisis, due out in December through Rowman & Littlefield.

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