Bush held up plan to hit Bin Laden

by Julian Borger
guardian unlimited

The Bush administration sat on a Clinton-era plan to attack al-Qaida in Afghanistan for eight months because of political hostility to the outgoing president and competing priorities, it was reported yesterday.

The plan, under which special forces troops would have been sent after Osama bin Laden, was drawn up in the last days of the Clinton administration but a decision was left to the incoming Bush team.

However, a top-level discussion of the proposals took place only on September 4, a week before the al-Qaida attacks on New York and Washington. In the months in between, the plan was shuffled through the bureaucracy by an administration distrustful of anything to do with Bill Clinton and which appeared fixated on national missile defence and the war on drugs, rather than the struggle against terrorism.

The news emerged as the political truce that followed the terrorist attacks evaporates in the heat of the looming congressional elections in November. It represents the strongest indictment so far of the Bush team's preparedness for an attack.

The plan to take the counter-terrorist battle to al-Qaida was drafted after the attack on the warship the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000. Mr Clinton's terrorism expert, Richard Clarke, presented it to senior officials in December, but it was decided that the decision should be taken by the new administration.

According to today's Time magazine, Mr Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger and Mr Clarke outlined the threat in briefings they provided for Condoleezza Rice, George Bush's national security adviser, in January 2001, a few weeks before she and her team took up their posts.

At the key briefing, Mr Clarke presented proposals to "roll back" al-Qaida which closely resemble the measures taken after September 11. Its financial network would be broken up and its assets frozen. Vulnerable countries like Uzbekistan, Yemen and the Philippines would be given aid to help them stamp out terrorist cells.

Crucially, the US would go after Bin Laden in his Afghan lair. Plans would be drawn up for combined air and special forces operations, while support would be channelled to the Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban and its al-Qaida allies.

Mr Clarke, who stayed on in his job as White House counter-terrorism tsar, repeated his briefing for vice president Dick Cheney in February. However, the proposals got lost in the clumsy transition process, turf wars between departments and the separate agendas of senior members of the Bush administration.

It was, the Time article argues, "a systematic collapse in the ability of Washington's national security apparatus to handle the terrorist threat".

Bush administration officials have played down the significance of the January briefings, describing them as simply advocating "a more active approach". Ms Rice issued a statement saying she did not even recall a briefing at which Mr Berger was present.

But the Time report quotes Bush officials as well as Clinton aides as confirming the seriousness of the Clarke plan. The sources said it was treated the same way as all policies inherited from the Clinton era, and subjected to a lengthy "policy review process".

The proposals were not re-examined by senior administration officials until April, and were not earmarked for consideration by the national security heads of department until September 4.

"If we hadn't had a transition," a senior Clinton administration official is quoted as saying, "probably in late October or early November 2000, we would have had [the plan to go on the offensive] as a presidential directive."

However, Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, was more interested in the national missile defence plan, and the new attorney general, John Ashcroft, was more interested in using the FBI to fight the "war on drugs" and clamping down on pornography. In August, he turned down FBI requests for $50m for the agency's counter-terrorist programme.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, appeals from the Northern Alliance's leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, for more US aid fell on deaf ears. He was assassinated on September 9.