Bush Administration’s Pre-9/11 Focus Was Missile Defense, Not Terrorism

In her interview with the New York Post, Condoleezza Rice falsely claimed that President Bush’s pre-9/11 anti-terror efforts were “at least as aggressive” as President Clinton’s. In fact, the 9–11 Commission disputes that account. While the Bush administration should have been preparing for a potential terrorist attack, it was instead focused on developing a costly missile defense system. Here are the facts:

Clarke Handed Over Plan To “Roll Back” Al Qaeda. “The terrorism briefing [in the White House Situation Room in Jan. 2001] was delivered by Richard Clarke … [S]enior officials from both the Clinton and Bush administrations…say that Clarke had a set of proposals to ‘roll back’ al-Qaeda. In fact, the heading on Slide 14 of the Powerpoint presentation reads, ‘Response to al Qaeda: Roll back.’ Clarke’s proposals called for the ‘breakup’ of al-Qaeda cells and the arrest of their personnel.” [Time, 8/4/02]

Bush Said “Most Urgent Threat” Was Ballistic Missiles. In a speech on May 1, 2001, Bush said, “Unlike the Cold War, today’s most urgent threat stems not from thousands of ballistic missiles in the Soviet hands, but from a small number of missiles in the hands of these states, states for whom terror and blackmail are a way of life.” [Bush, 5/1/01]

Bush’s Priorities Did Not Include Al Qaeda. “After his first meeting with NATO heads of state in Brussels in June 2001, Bush outlined the five top defense issues discussed with the closest U.S. allies. Missile defense was at the top of the list, followed by developing a NATO relationship with Russia, working in common purpose with Europe, increased defense spending in NATO countries, and enlarging the alliance to include former East European countries. The only reference to extremists was in Macedonia, where Bush said regional forces were seeking to subvert a new democracy.” [Washington Post, 4/1/04]


Rice Was “Focused On Matters Other Than Terrorism.” “A review of the record, from testimony and interviews, suggests that Ms. Rice…was usually fixed on matters other than terrorism [before 9/11], for reasons that had to do with her own background, her management style and the unusually close, personal nature of her relationship with Mr. Bush. … [T]he reality is that Ms. Rice has virtually no public utterances about Al Qaeda to point to as evidence that she was as engaged in the issue as she was in Mr. Bush’s other foreign policy agendas.” [NYT, 4/5/04]

Rice Was Set To Deliver 9/11 Speech On Missile Defense. “On Sept. 11, 2001, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice was scheduled to outline a Bush administration policy that would address ‘the threats and problems of today and the day after, not the world of yesterday’ — but the focus was largely on missile defense, not terrorism from Islamic radicals. … The address was designed to promote missile defense as the cornerstone of a new national security strategy, and contained no mention of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or Islamic extremist groups, according to former U.S. officials who have seen the text.” [Washington Post, 4/1/04]

President Bill Clinton, meanwhile, was focused on the terrorist threat. He outlined a three-pronged strategy for combating terrorism in a 1998 speech at the Naval Academy. Read it here.