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Did Bush Ignore Warnings on Al Qaeda?

Clinton warned Bush of bin Laden threat

At Wednesday's luncheon, Clinton said his inability to convince Bush of the danger from al Qaeda was "one of the two or three of the biggest disappointments that I had."

This is from a Reuters story recounting a Clinton speech at "a luncheon sponsored by the History Channel." Clinton said that in his "exit interview" with Bush, he sought to dissuade the new president of his focus on Iraq and missile defense, telling him that the top priority was Al Qaeda, followed by the Israel/Palestine peace process, and then followed by WMD proliferation, with India/Pakistan and North Korea higher priorities than Iraq.
This seems to be a significant move on Clinton's part. He never said anything quite like this when he was being generally supportive on Iraq last fall and in the spring. It's coupled with Madeline Albright's fairly aggressive attack on Bush in Paris:
"It's difficult to be in France and criticise my government. But I'm doing so because Bush and the people working for him have a foreign policy that is not good for America, not good for the world," she said.
Neither speech was designed to get much press attention. But that might just be intended as a message to Bush that the staff of the previous administration don't intend to hold back any longer.
The Reuters story on Clinton alludes to Michael Elliott's Time story from August 2002, which contended that the Clinton administration had not only tried to tell Bush's crew that Al Qaeda would inevitably be a top priority, but had handed over a specific plan to "roll back" Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, a plan which they had hesitated to implement in the last months of 2000 because it would mean handing the new president a war in progress that would have been quite similar to the Afghanistan war eventually fought. But the plan languished for the better part of the year, according to Time, because the administration had other priorities (missile defense and Iraq), and because the rejection of anything left over from Clinton was total, regardless of merit.
That whole Time story then disappeared without further notice. If true, it should have been damning. The White House barely tried to deny it. (Their best response was that Bush was not content merely to "roll back" Al Qaeda, but instead wanted to eliminate it, and didn't get a plan to actually eliminate the organization until the weekend before September 11, 2001.
The Valerie Plame story shows that even known facts can languish for months before something breathes life into them that makes them a real story. It's just possible that if Clinton, Sandy Berger and a few others -- perhaps even lower-level NSC or State Dept. staffers who stayed through the transition -- decide to speak out, it could just be the final blow to Bush's reputation as an active leader in the struggle against terrorism.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on October 17, 2003 | Permalink

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