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'01 Memo to Rice Warned of Qaeda and Offered Plan
A strategy document outlining
proposals for eliminating the threat from Al Qaeda, given to Condoleezza
Rice as she assumed the post of national security adviser in January 2001,
warned that the terror network had cells in the United States and 40 other
countries and sought unconventional weapons, according to a declassified
version of the document.
The 13-page proposal presented to Dr. Rice by her top counterterrorism adviser, Richard A. Clarke, laid out ways to step up the fight against Al Qaeda, focusing on Osama bin Laden's headquarters in Afghanistan. The ideas included giving "massive support" to anti-Taliban groups "to keep Islamic extremist fighters tied down"; destroying terrorist training camps "while classes are in session" and then sending in teams to gather intelligence on terrorist cells; deploying armed drone aircraft against known terrorists; more aggressively tracking Qaeda money; and accelerating the F.B.I.'s translation and analysis of material from surveillance of terrorism suspects in American cities.
Mr. Clarke was seeking a high-level meeting to decide on a plan of action. Dr. Rice and other administration officials have said that Mr. Clarke's ideas did not constitute an adequate plan, but they took them into consideration as they worked toward a more effective strategy against the terrorist threat.
The proposal and an accompanying three-page memorandum given to Dr. Rice by Mr. Clarke on Jan. 25, 2001, were discussed and quoted in brief by the independent commission studying the Sept. 11 attacks and in news reports and books last year. They were obtained by the private National Security Archive, which published the full versions, with minor deletions at the request of the Central Intelligence Agency, on its Web site late Thursday.
Under the heading "the next three to five years," Mr. Clarke spelled out a series of steps building on groundwork that he said had already been laid, adding that "success can only be achieved if the pace and resource levels of the programs continue to grow as planned."
He said the C.I.A. had "prepared a program" focused on eliminating Afghanistan as a haven for Al Qaeda.
It would feature "massive support" to anti-Taliban groups like the Northern Alliance and the destruction of training camps occupied by terrorists. "We would need to have special teams ready for covert entry into destroyed camps to acquire intelligence for locating terrorist cells outside Afghanistan," he wrote, saying that this would either require Special Operations troops or some other "liaison force capable of conducting activity on-the-ground inside Afghanistan." Predator drones, some of which could be armed, would support those forces, he wrote.
Some of what he proposed in the way of support for the Northern Alliance or for Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan to the north, was deleted from the document before it was declassified. But some of the actions he proposed were not intended to be kept secret, like "overt U.S. military action" aimed at the command and control of Al Qaeda and the Taliban's military.
The previously secret documents were at the heart of a fiercely partisan debate over Mr. Clarke's contention, in a book and in public statements, that the Bush administration had ignored his warnings of the imminent danger posed by Mr. bin Laden and his terrorist organization.
The shorter memorandum was written in response to a request for "major presidential policy reviews" worthy of a meeting of "principals," the president's top foreign policy advisers. It began: "We urgently need such a Principals level review on the al Qida network." The word "urgently" was italicized and underscored; the "al Qida" spelling was used in both documents.
"We would make a major error if we underestimated the challenge al Qida poses," the memorandum said.
The principals' meeting on Al Qaeda took place, but not until Sept. 4, 2001, a week before the attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
The longer document was titled
"Strategy for Eliminating the Threat From the Jihadist Networks of
al Qida: Status and Prospects." It included a detailed description
of the network, saying it was "well financed, has trained tens of thousands
of jihadists, and has a cell structure in over 40 nations. It also is actively
seeking to develop and acquire weapons of mass destruction."
The strategy paper recounted past Qaeda plots against Americans abroad and at home and said an informant had reported "that an extensive network of al Qida 'sleeper' agents currently exists in the U.S." After reviewing steps taken since 1996 to combat Al Qaeda, the document listed further actions required to make the network "not a serious threat" within three to five years.
Dr. Rice, now the secretary of state, and other administration officials have asserted that the documents did not amount to a full plan for taking on the terrorist network.
"No Al Qaeda plan was turned over to the new administration," Dr. Rice wrote in an op-ed article for The Washington Post last March. She wrote that Mr. Clarke and his team "suggested several ideas, some of which had been around since 1998 but had not been adopted."
Mr. Clarke had served in high-level government posts since the Reagan administration and stayed on from the Clinton administration. He resigned in February 2003 and last year published a memoir, "Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror." (Mr. Clarke began writing a column on security matters for The New York Times Magazine this month.)
Nearly nine months before the Sept. 11 attacks, the papers described the danger posed by the bin Laden network and sought to focus the attention of the new administration on what to do about it. But the texts are unlikely to resolve the debate over whether they should have led to more urgent action by the administration.
"I think Condi Rice has at least an arguable case that it's short of a plan," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a security analyst at the Brookings Institution.
Mr. O'Hanlon called Mr. Clarke's memorandums a set of "very dry data points. There's not a heightened sense of, 'Now our homeland is at risk.' "
But Matthew Levitt, who was an F.B.I. counterterrorism analyst in 2001, disagreed. He called the 13-page strategy memorandum "a pretty disturbing document."
Mr. Levitt, now director of terrorism studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that whether the document constitutes a "plan," as Mr. Clarke averred and Dr. Rice denied, is "a semantic debate." But he said the experience of reading the original documents for the first time Friday left him with a strong impression of the danger Al Qaeda posed.
"I think it makes the threat look pretty urgent," Mr. Levitt said. "I look at this and I see something that to my mind requires immediate attention."
Asked about the documents at a press briefing on Friday, Richard A. Boucher, the spokesman for the State Department, declined to expand on Dr. Rice's previous comments on the administration's response to Mr. Clarke's warnings.
"The fact that now the memo or letter has been released has - just provides you more information, but I think she's really already discussed all these matters pretty thoroughly," Mr. Boucher said.
Mr. Clarke did not respond to a request for comment.
The two papers were declassified by the National
Security Council on April 7, one day before Dr. Rice testified before the
9/11 commission, but were not released publicly until the National Security
Archive filed a Freedom of Information Act request.