WASHINGTON - President Bush's former counterterrorism chief apologized yesterday to the families of 9/11 victims for failing to protect them, but said Bush had scaled back anti-terror efforts.
Richard Clarke's testimony set off a wave of emotion from the victims' families and infuriated the White House.
Clarke started his appearance before the independent 9/11 commission with an act of contrition, telling the families, "Your government failed you. Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you." He asked for their "understanding and forgiveness."
Family members at the hearing were moved.
"Clarke is the first person who's ever apologized," said Mindy Kleinberg, whose husband was killed at the World Trade Center. "I felt like crying."
Former U.S. counter-terrorism coordinator Richard Clarke hugs and greets family members of victims of the September 11 attacks following testimony before a national commission investigating the attacks on Capitol Hill March 24, 2004. Clarke, a senior adviser to Bush and the three previous administrations, has accused Bush of paying insufficient attention to the al-Qaeda threat before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and afterward focusing on Iraq at the expense of efforts to crush the network. REUTERS/Win McNamee
Mary Fetchet, who lost her son Bradley, said she appreciated Clarke accepting blame and praised him for being "brave enough to talk openly about the truth."
For 2 1/2 hours, Clarke coolly recounted his version of events in Clinton and Bush administrations in the years before the worst terror attack in the nation's history.
He said that under President Bill Clinton, there was "no higher priority" than combating terrorists. The Bush White House, he said, made it "an important issue, but not an urgent issue."
Several times, beginning right after Bush's January 2001 inauguration, Clarke said, he pleaded with higher-ups to meet and discuss the growing al-Qaida threat.
"I spent less time talking about the problems of terrorism with the national security adviser in this administration," he said, referring to Bush's adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Alarms sounded during the summer of 2001, when terrorist chatter about a spectacular strike spiked to levels not seen since the plot to blow up U.S. targets during the millennium celebrations, he said.
Clarke said he demanded that the CIA and FBI tell the National Security Council about "anything that looked the slightest bit unusual."
But they never told him about two al-Qaida operatives who had entered the U.S. just before 9/11 or about Zacarias Moussaoui, an al-Qaida "sleeper" arrested at a flight school in August 2001.
He said intelligence officials had known for about five years that al-Qaida wanted to fly planes into buildings, and he was furious at not being told about the al-Qaida suspects in the United State.
"For them to have ... not told me, I still find absolutely incomprehensible," Clarke testified. "I could have connected those dots."
Clarke grew so frustrated at the Bush team's alleged inattention to terrorism that he wrote a letter a week before the 9/11 attacks to Rice. In the letter, he urged Rice to imagine a day "after hundreds of Americans lay dead at home and abroad following a terrorist attack" where officials would ask what could have been done to prevent it.
Rice - who has refused to testify before the 9/11 commission - hit back yesterday, calling Clarke's charges "scurrilous" and "arrogant in the extreme."
Rice also cited an e-mail Clarke sent to her days after the 9/11 attacks, praising the administration for making sure that law enforcement agencies knew a "major al-Qaida attack was coming and it could be in the U.S."
Panel member Jim Thompson, a Republican and former Illinois governor whom 9/11 families had criticized for missing past meetings, took up the President's cause and cited a press briefing Clarke gave in August 2002 praising the administration's anti-terror efforts.
"We have your book, and we have your press briefing of August 2002. Which is true?" Thompson asked.
The White House has spent four days trying to discredit Clarke, accusing him of making his charges now to sell his new book, "Against All Enemies," and "auditioning" for a job in a John Kerry administration.
Clarke replied yesterday that he's a Republican and swore he won't work for Kerry if Kerry is elected President.
© 2004, New York Daily News