Terrorism Was Major White House Concern, Powell Tells Panel
By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 23, 2004 The White House in the early days of the Bush administration was fully aware a terrorist attack in America was possible, and terrorism was a major concern for the president, Secretary of State Colin Powell told members of a special commission here today.
Powell told the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States that the president knew terrorism would be a major concern, just as it had been for the Clinton administration.
"Early on, we made clear to the Congress and to the American people that we understood the scope and compelling nature of threat from terrorism," Powell told the commission.
Saying that he's "no newcomer" to the horrors of terrorism, Powell noted several terrorist incidents during his tenure in both military and government service, pointing to terrorist bombings in Beirut, Lebanon; the World Trade Center in New York City; Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia; and the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen. The president made it clear, he said, that as secretary of state, Powell would be responsible for the safety of military personnel overseas and of citizens traveling and living abroad.
Powell said that then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright gave staff briefings on counter-terrorism measures taken during President Clinton's eight years in office during the transition between the Clinton and Bush administrations. However, to better understand the terrorism situation, Powell said, four days after his appointment as the next secretary of state was announced, he requested briefings from Clinton's counter-terrorism group, headed by Richard Clarke.
Powell said al Qaeda's growing threat to the United States and Afghanistan's role as a safe haven for the terrorist group was a major topic during Clarke's briefings, which also were attended by counter-terrorism directors from the CIA and FBI, as well as representatives of the Defense Department and the Joint Chief of Staff.
He told the commission he later asked Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to get "directly involved in all these (terrorist) issues."
A transition document handed over to him by Albright's counter-terrorism coordinator, Powell said, urged "close coordination" with the intelligence community to ensure that all precautions would be taken to strengthen the nation's security posture. The papers warned U.S. citizens abroad of the possibility of terrorist attacks, and called for the United States to "maintain a high-level of readiness to respond to additional incidents that might come along," the secretary added.
The transition document also said an investigation by both U.S. and Yemeni officials into the U.S.S. Cole bombing was continuing to develop new information and leads, Powell said, but that it was too early to link definitively the Cole attack to a sponsor, such as Osama bin Laden.
Powell said the transition paper further stated the United States must continue to rally international support for new round of United Nations sanctions against the Taliban, including an arms embargo, and maintain a momentum to get other states to isolate the group. "If the Cole investigation leads back to Afghanistan," Powell said the transition document urged, "we should use it to mobilize international support needed for further pressures on the Taliban."
The briefings and transition papers from the Clinton administration made clear the need for continuity in U.S. efforts against terrorism, Powell said, making reference to several members of the former administration who were "kept on" in the new administration.
"All of us on the Bush national security team, beginning with President Bush, knew we needed continuity in counter-terrorism policy," Powell said. "We did not want terrorists to see the early months of a new administration as a time of opportunity."
The secretary said the president's commitment to fighting terrorism was clear from the beginning of his administration. "From the start, the president -- by word and deed -- made clear his interest and his intense desire to protect the nation from terrorism," Powell said. "He frequently asked and prodded us to do more. He decided early on that we needed to be more aggressive in going after terrorists, and especially al Qaeda."
Powell quoted President Bush as saying, "I'm tired of swatting flies" in the early spring of 2001, as the administration was developing its new comprehensive strategy for national security.
"He wanted a thorough, comprehensive, diplomatic, military, intelligence, law enforcement, and financial strategy to go after al Qaeda," he said. "It was a demanding order, but it was a necessary one."
He said the president was confident that it had an experienced counter- terrorism team in place. "President Bush and his entire national security team understood that terrorism had to be among our highest priorities, and it was."