Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Via Dan Froomkin (*):
BLITZER: All right. You, in your questioning in your investigation, when you were a member of this commission, specifically asked President Bush about efforts after he was inaugurated on January 20, 2001, until 9/11, eight months later, what he and his administration were doing to kill bin Laden, because by then it was certified, it was authorized. It was, in fact, confirmed that al Qaeda was responsible for the attack on the USS Cole in December of 2000.
BEN-VENISTE: It's true, Wolf, we had the opportunity to interview President Bush, along with the vice president, and we spent a few hours doing that in the Oval Office. And one of the questions we had and I specifically had was why President Bush did not respond to the Cole attack. And what he told me was that he did not want to launch a cruise missile attack against bin Laden for fear of missing him and bombing the rubble.
And then I asked him, 'Well, what about the Taliban?' The United States had warned the Taliban, indeed threatened the Taliban on at least three occasions, all of which is set out in our 9/11 Commission final report, that if bin Laden, who had refuge in Afghanistan, were to strike against U.S. interests then we would respond against the Taliban.
BLITZER: Now, that was warnings during the Clinton administration. . . .
BEN-VENISTE: That's correct.[snip]
BLITZER: So you the asked the president in the Oval Office -- and the vice president -- why didn't you go after the Taliban in those eight months before 9/11 after he was president. What did he say?
BEN-VENISTE: Well, now that it was established that al Qaeda was responsible for the Cole bombing and the president was briefed in January of 2001, soon after he took office, by George Tenet, head of the CIA, telling him of the finding that al Qaeda was responsible, and I said, 'Well, why wouldn't you go after the Taliban in order to get them to kick bin Laden out of Afghanistan?'
Maybe, just maybe, who knows -- we don't know the answer to that question -- but maybe that could have affected the 9/11 plot.
BLITZER: What did he say?
BEN-VENISTE: He said that no one had told him that we had made that threat. And I found that very discouraging and surprising.[snip]
BLITZER: Now, you haven't spoken publicly about this, your interview in the Oval Office, together with the other commissioners, the president and the vice president. Why are you doing that right now?
BEN-VENISTE: Well, I think it's an important subject. The issue of the Cole is an important subject, and there has been a lot of politicization over this issue, why didn't President Clinton respond?
Well, we set forth in the report the reasons, and that is because the CIA had not given the president the conclusion that al Qaeda was responsible. That did not occur until some point in December. It was reiterated in a briefing to the -- to the new president in January...
BLITZER: Well, let me stop you for a second. If former President Clinton knew in December. . .
BLITZER: . . . that the CIA and the FBI had, in his words, certified that al Qaeda was responsible, he was still president until January 20, 2001. He had a month, let's say, or at least a few weeks to respond.
Why didn't he?
BEN-VENISTE: Well, I think that was a question of whether a president who would be soon leaving office would initiate an attack against a foreign country, Afghanistan. And I think that was left up to the new administration. But strangely, in the transition there did not seem to be any great interest by the Bush administration, at least none that we found, in pursuing the question of plans which were being drawn up to attack in Afghanistan as a response to the Cole. [Emphasis added.]
(*) Who would incalculably improve the Washington Post were he to move over from washingtonpost.com.