Published on Thursday, April 8, 2004 by Reuters
U.S. Terrorism Policy Spawns Steady Staff Exodus
by Caroline Drees
WASHINGTON - Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration has faced a steady exodus of counterterrorism officials, many disappointed by a preoccupation with Iraq they said undermined the U.S. fight against terrorism.
Former counterterrorism officials said at least half a dozen have left the White House Office for Combating Terrorism or related agencies in frustration in the 2 1/2 years since the attacks.
Some also left because they felt President Bush had sidelined his counterterrorism experts and paid almost exclusive heed to the vice president, the defense secretary and other Cabinet members in planning the "war on terror," former counterterrorism officials said.
"I'm kind of hoping for regime change," one official who quit told Reuters.
The administration's handling of the battle against terrorism is a key issue for the presidency, and could be key to Bush's re-election effort.
Similar charges were made by Bush's former counterterrorism czar, Richard Clarke, who told the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that the administration ignored the al Qaeda threat beforehand and was fixated on Iraq afterward. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice testifies before the 9/11 panel Thursday.
"Iraq has been a distraction from the whole counterterrorism effort," said the former official, adding the policy had frustrated many in the White House anti-terrorism office, about two-thirds of whom have left and been replaced since Sept. 11.
The administration vehemently denies the accusations, and says it is making strong progress in the global war on terror.
Roger Cressey, who served under Clarke in the White House counterterrorism office, said: "Dick accurately reflects the frustration of many in the counterterrorism community in getting the new administration to take the al Qaeda issue seriously."
Cressey left the office in November 2001, when he became chief of staff of the White House's cybersecurity office until September 2002.
The attrition among all levels of the Office for Combating Terrorism began shortly after the attacks and continued into this year. At least eight officials in the office -- which numbers a dozen people -- have left and been replaced since 9/11. Several of the officials were contacted by Reuters.
The office has been run by four different people since the attacks, and at least three have held the No. 2 slot.
"There has been excessively high turnover in the Office for Combating Terrorism," said Flynt Leverett, who served on the White House National Security Council for about a year until March 2003 and is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank.
"If you take the (White House) counterterrorism and Middle East offices, you've got about a dozen people ... who came to this administration wanting to work on these important issues and left after a year or often less because they just don't think that this administration is dealing seriously with the issues that matter," he said.
Rand Beers, a former No. 2 in the office who quit last year over the administration's handling of the war on terrorism, told Reuters the turnover had been "unusually high" since the hijacked airliner attacks in New York and Washington.
"And one of the reasons is frustration with the way counterterrorism policy has been conducted, including the focus on Iraq," said Beers, who now serves as a foreign policy adviser for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who hopes to unseat Bush in November.
The White House denied there had been unusually high turnover, saying staff tended to be on limited assignments from other federal agencies. A senior administration official said it was "absolutely untrue" Iraq was diverting attention from overall counterterrorism efforts.
Another official said it was wrong to link all the numerous departures to policy concerns over Iraq.
Several current and former officials said burn out from job stress also contributed to high turnover in the office, as did frustration among some staff about the limits of their influence over policymaking in general. Many National Security Council staffers only stay 18 months to two years.
One current counterterrorism official said while the Iraq campaign had been a "huge resource drain," this held true for all major events that compete for scarce resources.
"There's a problem of too few counterterrorism staffers to begin with ... and with the focus on any big issue like Iraq, it is a distraction from the overall counterterrorism effort," the official said.
Copyright 2004, Reuters Ltd