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Missile defense was focus of rice talk canceled 911 { April 1 2004 }

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Thursday, April 01, 2004, 12:00 A.M. Pacific

Missile defense was focus of Rice talk canceled by 9-11

By Robin Wright
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON On Sept. 11, 2001, national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice was 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 speech provides telling insight into the administration's thinking on the very day that the United States suffered the most devastating attack since the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The address was designed to promote missile defense as the cornerstone of a new national-security strategy, and contained no mention of al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden or Islamic extremist groups, according to former U.S. officials who have seen the text.

The speech canceled in the chaos that day mentioned terrorism, but did so in the context used in other Bush administration speeches in early 2001: as one of the dangers from rogue nations, such as Iraq, that might use weapons of terror, rather than from the cells of extremists now considered the main U.S. security threat. The text also implicitly challenged Clinton administration policy, saying it did not do enough about the real threat long-range missiles.

"We need to worry about the suitcase bomb, the car bomb and the vial of sarin released in the subway," according to excerpts of the speech provided to The Washington Post. "(But) why put deadbolt locks on your doors and stock up on cans of mace and then decide to leave your windows open?"

The text of Rice's Sept. 11 speech, which was never delivered, broadly reflects Bush administration foreign-policy pronouncements during the eight months leading to the attacks, according to a review of speeches, news conferences and media appearances. Although the administration addressed terrorism, it devoted far more attention to missile defense, the review shows.

Al-Qaida and Islamic terrorism rated lower on the list of priorities, as outlined by officials in public statements on policy.

The question of whether the administration was properly focused on the terrorist threat before Sept. 11 is central to a building political storm in Washington, as a commission investigating the attacks prepares to take public testimony from Rice.

Last week, President Bush's former counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke, accused the administration of failing to take al-Qaida seriously enough a charge the White House strenuously disputes.

The White House declined to release the complete text of Rice's speech, because it was not given. The White House did confirm the accuracy of excerpts given to The Post, and former U.S. officials provided a detailed summary of the speech.

"The president's commitment to fighting terrorism isn't measured by the number of speeches, but by the concrete actions taken to fight the threat," said James Wilkinson, deputy national-security adviser for communications, when asked about the speech. "The first major foreign-policy directive of this administration was the new strategy to eliminate al-Qaida that the White House ordered soon after taking office. It was eliminating al-Qaida, not missile defense, not Iraq, and not the ABM Treaty," he said.

The administration requested such a directive in May, but it did not take shape until a week before Sept. 11, according to a staff report of the commission investigating attacks. Bush signed the final directive in October.

A review of major public pronouncements in the first eight months of 2001 found relatively few extensive statements by Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney or Rice about Islamic extremist groups.

The president set the tone. In his first address to Congress, on Feb. 27, 2001, Bush acknowledged the danger of bomb-wielding terrorists, but also promoted missile defense as the priority in protecting the United States.

In most public comments about Afghanistan before Sept. 11, Bush talked mainly about limited freedoms afforded under Taliban rule. One of his few statements citing bin Laden and al-Qaida was on June 30, 2001, in a letter renewing Clinton-era sanctions on the Taliban.

During the summer of 2001, as al-Qaida operatives were in flight training and finalizing plans for the attacks, the administration's public focus was on other matters.

After his first meeting with NATO heads of state in June 2001, Bush outlined the five top defense issues discussed with the closest U.S. allies. Missile defense was at the top, 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.

Top officials continued that public focus right up to the eve of the al-Qaida attacks. On Aug. 2, 2001, Cheney emphasized the bold new U.S. plan to craft a 21st century approach to security. "We're fundamentally transforming the U.S. strategic relationship around the world as we look at missile defenses and modifications to our offensive strategic arms," he said.

And two days before Sept. 11, Rice said the administration was ready "to get serious about the business of dealing with this emergent threat. Ballistic missiles are ubiquitous now."

In the speech prepared for Sept. 11, Rice was to point out the United States had spent $11 billion on counterterrorism, about twice as much as it spent on missile defense, in the previous year, although the speech did not point out that that was when President Clinton was in office.

And the Rice text noted that Bush appointed Cheney to oversee a coordinated national effort to protect against a terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction. At the time, the U.S. concern about terror was heavily focused on Iraq and rogue states, and missile defense was viewed as a weapon against that terrorism.

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