"We were never given a plan," Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said in testimony before the Joint Intelligence Committee. "There were some briefings the transition got, but it was not a plan."
Armitage's remarks were in response to criticism, arising in recent months, that the Bush White House ignored Clinton officials' plan for striking al-Qaida, and that the incoming administration failed to produce a strategy of its own until it was too late.
The testimony came on a day when officials from the Clinton White House, both Bush administrations and even the CIA took turns defending their handling of the terrorist threat in the years leading up to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Sandy Berger, national security adviser to former President Clinton, said that administration repeatedly ratcheted up the resources it aimed at al-Qaida until catching or killing Osama bin Laden was its overriding national security objective.
"In 1996 he was certainly on the radar screen," Berger said. "In 1998 he was the radar screen."
The House and Senate intelligence committees are investigating intelligence failures surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks.
The joint panel issued a preliminary report Wednesday that criticized the intelligence community for failing to heed repeated warnings, dating back to the mid-1990s, that al-Qaida was contemplating strikes on the United States and the use of airplanes as weapons.
Some of the most stinging criticism accused the CIA of devoting embarrassingly few resources to the problem. The report asserted, for instance, that the CIA counterterrorism center had just three analysts tracking bin Laden in 1999, even though CIA Director George J. Tenet had declared "war" on al-Qaida in a 1998 memo.
CIA spokesman Bill Harlow issued a statement Thursday disputing that finding, saying the center actually had nine analysts focused full-time on bin Laden. Dozens of analysts elsewhere in the agency were also working on al-Qaida, and the number of people assigned to the counterterrorism center doubled under Tenet's leadership before Sept. 11, Harlow said.
Thursday's hearing was the second in a series of public sessions planned over the next month. Others testifying Thursday were Paul D. Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, who said the Sept. 11 attacks made the case for pre-emptive action against Iraq; and Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser during the first Bush administration, who advocated reorganization of the intelligence community.
Much of the testimony centered on how the Bush and Clinton White Houses had mobilized against al-Qaida. Officials from both administrations sought to portray their efforts as aggressive, but acknowledged that they were mostly focused on potential attacks overseas.
Berger said the Clinton administration focused intensely on bin Laden after al-Qaida operatives detonated truck bombs at two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, killing 224 people and injuring thousands.
Days later, the United States lobbed missiles that hit an al-Qaida gathering in Afghanistan just hours after bin Laden left. The United States waited for other opportunities, but never got intelligence pinpointing bin Laden's location with enough advance notice to get a missile to the target.
Other former Clinton administration officials have said recently that Richard A. Clarke, Clinton's counterterrorism chief, had spearheaded an effort to plan covert attacks on al-Qaida. But as the 2000 presidential election approached, the plan was abandoned.
That plan was never presented to the Bush administration, Armitage said, adding that the White House was putting the "finishing touches" on covert plans of its own when the Sept. 11 attacks happened.
Armitage did not provide details of the plans, but said they mirrored aspects of the military campaign in Afghanistan last winter.
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