Rumsfeld Says Administration Focused on Terrorism From Outset
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 23, 2004 Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld joined other high-ranking officials in the Bush administration March 22 in disputing claims made by a former White House counterterrorism official.
Former antiterrorism chief Richard Clarke alleges in a new book and has said in interviews that President Bush and his advisers were slow to recognize the threat posed by al Qaeda before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and were too preoccupied with attacking Iraq to respond appropriately after the attacks.
"The (National Security Council) began the process of working through a plan to deal with al Qaeda from the early days of the administration," Rumsfeld said outside the Pentagon March 22. The secretary spoke briefly to media representatives while welcoming Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to the building.
He specifically pushed back at comments from Clarke regarding Iraq. Rumsfeld explained that the United States had concrete reasons to focus on Iraq even in the early days of the administration.
"We were having our planes shot at on a regular basis in Operation(s) Northern Watch and Southern Watch," he said. "We were concerned about the fact that that was the one place on the face of the Earth where a country, in this case Iraq, was firing on aircrews of the United States and the United Kingdom that were enforcing U.N. resolutions.
"So there's no question that there was discussion about Iraq, and it was in that context," he added.
In his brief remarks, Rumsfeld described his own personal drive to combat terrorism, noting he was an envoy to the Middle East when 241 U.S. Marines were killed in a 1983 terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon.
"I've been interested in and concerned about and involved in one way or another in the problems of terrorism," he said.
He also reminded reporters of his focus immediately after returning to the Pentagon for his second stint as defense secretary. Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, Rumsfeld's main task was to transform the U.S. military forces "from being capable of dealing with just armies, navies and air forces" to focusing more on "asymmetrical threats, including terrorism," the secretary said.
"That has been a focus of ours from the outset."
Rumsfeld is expected to testify today before the federal commission investigating terrorist attacks on the United States.