Following the Cole bombing, Clinton counterterrorism forces started working on an aggressive plan to retaliate against al Qaeda. Their plan to strike back reached then national security advisor Sandy Berger and other top officials on December 20, 2000. But with less than a month remaining in office and the Bush team about to take over, they decided it would be wrong to take an action that would tie the incoming administration's hands. Instead they took their case to the new administration in the hopes that some version of the plan might be enacted before it was too late. CIA director George Tenet termed al Qaeda a "tremendous threat" as well as an "immediate" one, while Berger warned Rice, "You're going to spend more time during your four years on terrorism generally and al Qaeda specifically than any other issue."
Clarke, who headed the counterterrorism office, then offered up a complete Power Point presentation to Rice, promising, "We would make a major error if we underestimated the challenge al Qaeda poses." Featuring a complete set of proposals to "roll back" al Qaeda, Clarke's plan envisaged the "breakup" of al Qaeda cells and their arrest and imprisonment. He also called for an attack on the financial network that supported the terrorists, freezing its assets, exposing its phony charities, and arresting its personnel. The United States would offer help to such disparate nations as Uzbekistan, the Philippines, and Yemen to combat the al Qaeda forces in their respective midsts.
And finally, Clarke's proposal suggested a significant increase in U.S. covert action in Afghanistan with the goal of "eliminat[ing] the sanctuary" where the Taliban and bin Laden were operating in tandem. The plan recommended a considerable increase in American support for the Northern Alliance in their fight to overthrow the Taliban's repressive regime, thereby keeping the terrorists preoccupied with protecting their gains, rather than seeking new victories elsewhere.
Simultaneously American military forces would begin planning for special operations inside Afghanistan and bombing strikes against terrorist-training camps.
It was an enormous undertaking, and Newsweek quoted one official as costing out the plan at "several hundreds of millions." Instead of acting on it, however, the Bush administration decided -- as it did with the Hart-Rudman recommendations -- to lay it aside and conduct its own review. Rice did not even bother to set up a high-level meeting to discuss the issue, but instead effectively demoted Clarke through a reorganization of the NSC structure.
As power in any strong hierarchy flows downward, the rest of the Bush team was hardly more concerned about meeting a potential terrorist threat.
All through the governmental system, the issue was moved, in the words of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hugh Shelton, "farther to the back burner."
As told by Eric Alterman:
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