Clinton Admin Considered Hitting Al Qaeda

The Clinton administration (search) was deeply concerned in 2000 that Al Qaeda (search) sleeper cells existed in North America and considered ways to move against them, according to newly released testimony.

"There were two simultaneous plots, one in Jordan and one in the United States, and they both involved American citizens," Bush administration critic Richard Clarke (search) testified in June 2002 before a congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The plots were of high enough interest that Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, requested a briefing.

"The conclusion was that we should ... beef up the counterterrorism task force around the country," said Clarke, whose testimony about the briefing of Shelby in February 2000 was partially blacked out because of national security concerns.

The release of Clarke's 2002 testimony stems from Republican attempts to undermine his criticism of the Bush administration.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Clarke's recently declassified testimony from 2002 is effusive in its praise of the Bush administration's efforts targeting Al Qaeda before the Sept. 11 attacks.

The declassified version neither criticizes nor strongly praises the Bush administration. It focuses instead primarily on the Clinton administration.

"I believed it was important to recognize that Mr. Clarke's character was unfairly attacked for political purposes," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who worked with the Senate Intelligence Committee to have the testimony released. "A detailed review shows that his testimony is not inconsistent with his testimony before the 9/11 Commission."

In his 2002 testimony, Clarke did defend the Bush administration's delay in acting on two CIA memoranda aimed at Al Qaeda and its Taliban supporters in Afghanistan.

He said the two documents drafted in late 2000 were to be finalized as part of a plan to finance a full-bore campaign to destroy Al Qaeda. The president signed the documents six days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"What had not been determined in early September of 2001 was how much money to give to the implementation ... and where that money would come from and in what fiscal year," Clarke said.

Clarke testified:

—The intelligence in 2000 about the two plots "was an eye-opening thing for those of us informed and we began to think that just because you are an American citizen doesn't mean you shouldn't be subject to some scrutiny if you show up having connections to these people."

—In the Clinton years, "there were people in the administration who were very seized with this issue, beginning with the president. ... It is very rare in my experience when the president of the United States picks an issue after his administration has begun, because the world has changed, and says, this is a priority, guys. ... If 9/11 hadn't happened, I think historians could go back and look at what the Clinton administration did ... and say, 'boy, were those guys overreacting."' Clarke's qualified praise for the Clinton administration mirrors his more recent testimony to the Sept. 11 panel and the account he gave in his book, "Against All Enemies."

—Other governments helped break up terrorist cells in 20 to 25 countries during the Clinton administration. "I would say that hundreds of people were arrested and detained either by a host country where cells were broken up."

—One of Clarke's nightmares was that the CIA would have been ordered, over internal protests, to use an unmanned, armed aircraft known as a Predator to kill bin Laden. Clarke backed such an operation, but feared his opponents would say: "Look what Clarke did. He assassinated bin Laden and in retaliation for that they blew up the World Trade Center."

—Government officials knew, beginning in 1997, that if they "decapitated Al Qaeda, that it would grow other heads." Officials had to be ready to accept the negative criticism for killing bin Laden and then having Al Qaeda terrorism continue.