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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush's former counterterrorism chief testified Wednesday that the administration did not consider terrorism an urgent priority before the September 11, 2001, attacks, despite his repeated warnings about Osama bin Laden's terror network.
"I believe the Bush administration in the first eight months considered terrorism an important issue, but not an urgent issue," Richard Clarke told a commission investigating the September 11 attacks.
Clarke has ignited a firestorm with his assertions that the Bush administration failed to recognize pending terror attacks against the United States and that the president focused too much on Iraq after September 11 -- charges the White House has vigorously disputed. (Full story)
Clarke's testimony, while foreshadowed by his new book assailing Bush's stewardship on national security, was gripping, and marked the climax of an extraordinary two days of nationally televised hearings by the commission. (Bush, Clinton figures defend terrorism policies)
The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, as the 10-member bipartisan panel is formally known, is charged with coming up with an authoritative account of events leading to 9/11, including any security and intelligence lapses. (CNN Access: Clarke: 'White House is papering over facts')
The hearings played out against the backdrop of the race for the White House, in which the question of national security has become critical for both Democrats and Republicans.
Clarke said he and CIA Director George Tenet "tried very hard to create a sense of urgency," but their warnings were not heeded.
"Though I continued to say it was an urgent problem, I don't think it was ever treated that way," Clarke said. But Secretary of State Colin Powell told the panel Tuesday that terrorism was recognized as a priority by Bush even before the new administration took office. (Bush administration rejects Clarke charges)
Frustrated by what he saw as an inadequate response to terrorism, Clarke sent a memo to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice one week before the deadly attacks, blasting the Defense Department for not doing enough against al Qaeda and criticizing the CIA for holding up a plan to arm Predator drones.
In that memo -- detailed in a commission staff statement -- Clarke told policy-makers to "imagine a day after hundreds of Americans lay dead at home or abroad after a terrorist attack" and to ask themselves, "What else they could have done?"
Clarke began his testimony with an apology to loved ones of those roughly 3,000 people killed in the attacks on airliners, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"Your government failed you, and I failed you," he said. "We tried hard, but that doesn't matter because we failed you. And for that failure, I would ask, once all the facts are out, for your understanding and for your forgiveness."
Later, on CNN's "Larry King Live," Clarke said the Clinton administration's approach to a similar threat before the turn of the millennium -- on which top officials held daily interagency meetings and actively sought information from within their own agencies -- shows that a similar approach might have worked to prevent the September 11 terrorist attacks.
He said that prior to 9/11, people within the FBI knew that two of the 19 hijackers were in the country, but that information never made its way up to the highest levels of power.
"If Condi Rice had been doing her job and holding those daily meetings the way Sandy Berger did, if she had a hands-on attitude to being national security adviser when she had information that there was a threat against the United States ... [the information] would have been shaken out in the summer of 2001," Clarke told King.
Samuel Berger, who was national security adviser to former President Clinton, also testified Wednesday.
Absence of Rice noted
Several members of the commission voiced their displeasure that Rice, who's appeared on numerous TV talk shows, didn't appear before the panel.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage came under sometimes prickly questioning from those members who saw him as Rice's replacement.
After panel member Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democrat, referred to Armitage as Rice's "doppelganger," Armitage shot back, "I'm not here as Dr. Rice's replacement. I'm here as someone who's been involved in counterterrorism for several administrations over a long period of time."
Ben-Veniste asked Armitage to comment on statements Rice has made recently in the media. When Armitage said he couldn't because he didn't know what Rice had said, Ben-Veniste asked, "Do you own a television?"
"Yes, and it's generally on. And I won't tell you what it's on," Armitage answered, although in an exchange with Commissioner Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, he conceded it's tuned to basketball.
The White House refused to let Rice testify at Wednesday's hearing on the grounds that having a sitting national security adviser give public testimony would infringe on executive privilege.
Unlike Cabinet secretaries who routinely testify before Congress, Rice is considered a member of the president's own staff, which the White House maintains makes it inappropriate for her to testify.
Armitage told members of the commission that Rice, who provided more than four hours of private testimony to the panel, would have preferred to appear Wednesday to answer their questions.
"I think Dr. Rice, if she was left to her own personal judgment, she'd be very pleased to be here," he said.
I don't think any of us, or anyone who's worked on these issues, can feel any sense of satisfaction with 3,000 of our fellow citizens horribly murdered.
-- Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage
Armitage said that after Bush came to office he said he was "tired of swatting flies" when it came to al Qaeda.
"He gave us a little more strategic direction. It was clear to us ... that we had to go to the elimination of al Qaeda."
The result was a new strategic counterterrorism plan completed just a week before September 11, after more than seven months of work. Armitage said that in hindsight, developing the plan took too long.
"The words of Samuel Clemens come to mind, and this is that even though you're on the right track, you can get run over if you're not going fast enough. And I think it is the case. It's certainly in hindsight that we weren't going fast enough," he said.
"You can make your own judgments about whether we were moving faster or slower than other administrations."
Armitage also said that he thinks people in both the Clinton and Bush administrations were working "terrifically hard" trying to counter the threat of terrorism.
"A lot of people in successive administrations, working just as hard as they can on the issue, is not a source of satisfaction for anyone," he said. "I don't think any of us, or anyone who's worked on these issues, can feel any sense of satisfaction with 3,000 of our fellow citizens horribly murdered."
Armitage also said Tenet, on at least one occasion, talked about the possibility that aircraft could be hijacked. But he added, "I just don't think we had the imagination required to consider a tragedy of this magnitude."
Earlier, the commission revealed more detail about what it characterized as poor coordination and communication among various agencies dealing with terrorism, dating back to prior administrations.
For example, the CIA did not believe it had the authority to kill terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden -- even though the National Security Council and senior legal advisers in the Clinton administration believed otherwise -- the commission said in a statement.
Berger said he was unaware of any confusion the CIA may have had about what it could do.
The testimony and staff statement highlight a long-standing criticism about national policy coordination before September 11 -- that interagency rivalries and poor communication impeded the effort to fight terrorism.
"Senior legal advisers in the Clinton administration agreed that, under the law of armed conflict, killing a person who posed an imminent threat to the United States was an act of self-defense, not an assassination," the staff statement on intelligence policy said. "... But if the policy-makers believe their intent was clear, every CIA official interviewed on this topic ... told us they heard a different message."
Specifically, the CIA believed they could only kill bin Laden -- who would be alleged to have orchestrated the 9/11 attacks -- in the context of a capture, according to the staff statement.
Other agency differences were on display Wednesday.
Commission member James R. Thompson reads a copy of Richard Clarke's book, "Against All Enemies," Wednesday in the hearing room.
Berger told the panel that the FBI believed there was "not a significant al Qaeda presence in the United States" before 9/11 and that the agency believed, "we have it covered."
Berger urged the panel to examine the FBI's role. "I hope you will look at this, I know you will because I think that there was a sclerosis here," he said.
Clarke also questioned the FBI's capabilities, telling the panel that he didn't think before 9/11 the FBI "would know whether or not there was anything going on in the United States by al Qaeda."
In his testimony, Berger also made a point of stressing his advice to his successor, Condoleezza Rice.
He said he told her that "she'd be spending more time on terrorism and al Qaeda than any other issue."
Earlier, Tenet told the commission that both the Clinton and Bush administrations took the threat of terrorism seriously and worked actively to disrupt al Qaeda.
"There was no lack of care or focus in the face of one of the greatest dangers our country has ever faced," Tenet said.
In a a staff statement on intelligence released Wednesday, the commission said "no agency did more to attack al Qaeda" than the CIA, but said there was an absence of a "robust, offensive, engagement across the entire U.S. government."
Tenet said the CIA, working with other agencies around the world, disrupted a number of terror plots during the alert leading up to January 1, 2000, celebrations.
But he said that the United States was "not systemically protected" against terrorism before the September 11 attacks.
Tenet said antiterror efforts were complicated because of the failure of various intelligence agencies to integrate data.
If intelligence had been shared, "We might have had a chance" to prevent the attacks, he said.
However, Tenet said he didn't think U.S. capture or killing of bin Laden would have prevented the attacks because the plot was already in place.
The failure to prevent the attacks was not purely a matter of intelligence sharing, he said.
"We didn't steal the secret that told us what the plot was, we didn't recruit the right people or technically collect the data, notwithstanding enormous effort to do so," Tenet said.
Tenet told the panel that the CIA began focusing on bin Laden in the early 1990s, even before bin Laden emerged as a leader of Islamic terrorist planning. Tenet said the CIA set up a special unit in 1996 to track bin Laden.
The CIA director testified that the terrorism threat changed fundamentally after bin Laden moved his operation in 1996 to Afghanistan, where he was sheltered by the country's Taliban rulers.
He said that in 1999 -- after bin Laden issued a 1998 fatwa calling on Muslims to kill Americans -- the CIA began developing a new plan to develop human and technical resources to use against bin Laden.