Aug 4 2002 7:18PM
KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine (Reuters) - The Bush White House denied a report on Sunday that the Clinton administration gave it an aggressive plan to take on al Qaeda that languished for eight months because of the change in presidents.
Time Magazine reported on Sunday that a plan to strike at al Qaeda was developed in the final days of the Clinton administration and presented to President Bush's new national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, in January 2001.
Irritated by the report, which appeared to suggest the Bush administration may not have done all it could to prevent the attacks on New York and Washington that killed about 3,000 people and that the government blames on the al Qaeda network, the White House issued a carefully-worded denial.
"The Clinton administration did not present an aggressive new plan to topple al Qaeda during the transition," White House spokesman Sean McCormack told Reuters in Kennebunkport, Maine, where Bush spent the weekend at his parents' summer home.
According to Time, the proposals were developed by Richard Clarke, a career bureaucrat who had served in the first Bush administration and became the point man on terrorism in the Clinton White House.
The draft initiative became the victim of the transition between the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Bush, the magazine said, as the Bush White House instituted its own "policy review process" on the terrorist threat and the proposals outlined by Clarke were not reviewed by top officials until late April.
Time said Clarke's proposals called for the breakup of al Qaeda cells and arrest of their personnel, a systematic attack on the financial support for its terrorist activities and for aid to nations where al Qaeda was operating to fight terrorism. Clarke also wanted an increase in covert action in Afghanistan to eliminate the al Qaeda sanctuary provided by the Taliban.
ELIMINATE AL QAEDA, NOT ROLL IT BACK
The White House acknowledged that it reviewed the matter but insisted it did not receive any actual plan and said the strategy its top officials ultimately approved on Sept. 4 -- one week before Sept. 11 -- took a more aggressive stance in seeking to eliminate, rather than contain, al Qaeda.
"We were briefed (during the transition) on the al Qaeda threat and what the Clinton administration was doing about it," McCormack said, saying Clarke later gave Rice more ideas on taking on al Qaeda, prompting her to ask for a policy review.
"The review resulted in a comprehensive strategy approved by the principals committee on Sept. 4 to eliminate al Qaeda and deprive it of its sanctuaries," McCormack said, referring to a committee that includes the U.S. secretaries of state and defense as well as the director of the CIA.
"There was no plan that was handed over," said a White House official who asked not to be named. "The nature of the ideas that were sketched out were for a roll back of al Qaeda over a three- to five-year period.
"We're talking about apples and oranges here," the official added. "Our strategy became focused on eliminating al Qaeda, not trying to 'roll it back,"' the official added.
Time magazine also reported that while concern was mounting by last summer that a major terrorist attack against U.S. interests was imminent, no decision was made to send a Predator drone -- the best possible source of intelligence on the terror camps run by Osama bin Laden -- to fly over Afghanistan.
"The Predator sat idle from October 2000 until after September 11," Time reported.
"The Predator was not flown because we were in the final stages of developing new capabilities for it," a U.S. official told Reuters. The official declined to describe the new capabilities, which could have included arming the drone.
08/04/02 19:17 ET