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Bush, Clinton figures defend terrorism policies

Albright: It took 'megashock' of 9/11 to understand threat

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld testifies before the 9/11 commission.

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Stay with CNN for ongoing coverage of the independent commission on the September 11, 2001, attacks.
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Madeleine Albright
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The top military and diplomatic leaders of the Clinton and Bush administrations were grilled Tuesday by members of the commission investigating the government's antiterror policies before the attacks of September 11, 2001 brought unprecedented destruction and death to the American homeland.

The dignitaries who testified said time and again how tough it was to deal with a ruthless enemy a world away, based on shifting intelligence information.

Testimony begins again Wednesday morning.

The commission heard from Secretary of State Colin Powell and his predecessor, Madeleine Albright, along with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his predecessor, William Cohen.

Each agreed that until September 11, there was not enough support -- either domestically or internationally -- to send U.S. troops into Afghanistan to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and his terrorist cohort.

"It would have been very hard, pre 9/11, to have persuaded anybody that an invasion of Afghanistan was appropriate," said Albright, who headed the State Department under President Clinton. "I think it did take the megashock, unfortunately, of 9/11, to make people understand the considerable threat."

Rumsfeld, who took the helm of the Pentagon less than nine months before the attacks, told commissioners there was no indication before September 11 of what was about to happen.

"I knew of no intelligence during the six-plus months leading up to September 11 to indicate terrorists would hijack commercial airlines, use them as missiles to fly into the Pentagon or the World Trade Center towers," he said.

But members of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, in the first of two days of public hearings, expressed frustration with officials from both administrations that stronger action wasn't taken against al Qaeda, given the fact that Islamic extremists had carried out a series of attacks on U.S. targets during the preceding eight years.

Those attacks included the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993; the bombing of Khobar Towers, a U.S. military housing complex in Saudi Arabia, in 1996; the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.

Commission member Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, said he thought it was a "big mistake" that despite repeated provocations, only one military strike was launched against al Qaeda before September 11: a cruise missile attack on targets in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998.

"I don't understand, if we're attacked and attacked and attacked, why we continue to send the FBI over, like the Khobar Towers was a crime scene or the East African embassy bombings was a crime scene," said Kerrey, who had called for a declaration of war against al Qaeda before September 11.

"I keep hearing the excuse that we didn't have actionable intelligence. Well, what the hell does that say to al Qaeda?"

Albright's response was that Kerrey was "the only person that I know of who suggested declaring war."

"In retrospect, you were right," Albright said. "But we used every single tool we had in terms of trying to figure out what the right targets would be and how to go about dealing with what we knew."

Cohen, a former Republican senator who headed the Pentagon under Clinton, said the U.S. military was prepared to kill or capture bin Laden and other key al Qaeda leaders whenever there was "actionable intelligence." But he said the process was like chasing "mercury on a mirror."

Cohen said that three times in 1998 and 1999, airstrikes in Afghanistan to kill bin Laden had to be scrubbed because of doubts about the intelligence and concerns about civilian casualties.

"Each time, the munitions and people were spun up," he said. "They were called off because the word came back, 'We're not sure.' "

But even Albright expressed frustration about the reluctance to push ahead with military force against al Qaeda and bin Laden.

"From my perspective, the Pentagon did not come forward with viable options in response to what the president was asking for," she said.

Details on plans to kill bin Laden revealed

The 9/11 commission's executive director, Philip Zelikow, provided more details Tuesday on the three aborted attempts to kill bin Laden, based on information gathered during the commission's inquiry.

One of those planned strikes, in Afghanistan in February 1999, was called off because then-White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke warned that it would have risked the lives of visiting officials from the United Arab Emirates, a U.S. counterterrorism ally, Zelikow said.

To this day, the lead CIA official in the field that day believes that "this was a lost opportunity to kill bin Laden before 9/11," Zelikow said.

Another planned attack, in May 1999, was scrubbed because CIA Director George Tenet said the intelligence was based on a single, uncorroborated source and the attack carried the risk of civilian deaths, Zelikow said.

Tenet and Clarke are scheduled to testify before the commission Wednesday.

In interviews and a book released this week, Clarke accuses the Bush administration of not paying enough attention to the al Qaeda threat before September 11 and of focusing efforts afterward on Iraq, not al Qaeda.

The White House has denounced "Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror" as a wildly inaccurate account of the administration's efforts. But Clarke has stood by his assertions, saying Bush "botched the response to 9/11."

Also scheduled to testify is former Clinton national security adviser Samuel Berger, who previously told the panel that a failed attack on bin Laden would have made the United States look weak and only strengthened the hand of the terrorist mastermind.

Rumsfeld, in his testimony Tuesday, expressed skepticism that killing bin Laden would have done anything to prevent the attacks of September 11 because the sleeper cells who carried out the attacks were already in the country.

"Ironically, much of the world, in all likelihood, would have blamed September 11th on the U.S. as an al Qaeda retaliation for the U.S. provocation of capturing or killing Osama bin Laden," he said.

Powell, Rumsfeld: Threat taken seriously

Powell and Rumsfeld insisted that contrary to assertions in Clarke's book, President Bush and his administration, from its earliest days, took the threat from al Qaeda seriously and began developing a new strategy designed to eliminate al Qaeda, instead of just containing it.

Powell said that a strategic review was completed a week before September 11, too late to prevent the attacks.

But Zelikow told commissioners that though the Bush administration was developing new policies to deal with al Qaeda in 2001, "There is no evidence of new work on military capabilities or plans against this enemy before September 11."

Commissioners asked why, after the Clinton administration warned the Bush national security team that al Qaeda was such a threat, the Bush national security team took so long to put together its plan.

"What made you think, even when you took over and got these first briefings, given the history of al Qaeda and its successful attacks on Americans, that we had the luxury even of seven months before we could make any kind of response?" said Slade Gorton, a former Republican senator and commission member.

Powell, a retired general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that in his experience, the time frame for such an undertaking was not unduly long.

"It was a complex issue, and it's not as if we were not doing anything but sitting around working [on the al Qaeda strategy]," he said.

Gorton later told CNN that "basically, with both administrations, I think each of them felt that it had a luxury of time, and it turned out that that luxury was not available to us."

"I don't think that anyone could say that both administrations were asleep," though they didn't take al Qaeda's declaration of war on America "seriously enough," Gorton said.

"But again, it's easy to say that in hindsight. Almost no one in either party ... said it ahead of time."

Another disagreement in Tuesday's hearing between the commission and the Bush administration was the refusal of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to give public testimony.

The White House maintains that Rice, as a staff adviser to the president rather than a Cabinet official, should not be called to testify under the principle of executive privilege. She has given four hours of private testimony to the commission.

But several members of the bipartisan, independent commission, which voted unanimously to ask Rice to testify, expressed frustration about her refusal to do so. (Gallery: 9/11 commission members)

"I hope Dr. Rice will reconsider and come before our commission for the sake of the American people," said Tim Roemer, a member and former Democratic congressman.

CNN's Phil Hirschkorn, Sean Loughlin, Barbara Starr and Steve Turnham contributed to this report.

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