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Context of 'October 2004: Presidential Candidates Debate Tora Bora Battle; Evidence Supports Kerry’s Position'

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The White House discloses to Fox News that former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke was the anonymous official who gave a background briefing to reporters in August 2002 praising the Bush administration’s record on terrorism (see August 22, 2002). This move, which violates a longstanding confidentiality policy, is made hours before Clarke is to testify to the 9/11 Commission (see March 24, 2004). Clarke recently went public with criticism of the administration (see March 21, 2004) and is being attacked by it (see March 22, 2004 and Shortly After). Author Philip Shenon will comment, “In agreeing to allow Fox News to reveal that Clarke had given the 2002 briefing, the White House was attempting to paint him as a liar—a one-time Bush defender who had become a Bush critic in order to sell a book.” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice says to the media: “There are two very different stories here. These stories can’t be reconciled.” [Fox News, 3/24/2004; Washington Post, 3/25/2004; Washington Post, 3/26/2004; Shenon, 2008, pp. 280-281]
Opposing Spin? - Shenon will add that in the briefing Clarke was “spin[ning] the facts” in order to try to knock down an article unfavorable to the administration published by Time magazine, although “the spin took him perilously close to dishonesty, albeit the sort of dishonesty practiced every day in official Washington.” Philip Zelikow, the 9/11 Commission’s executive director and a long-term opponent of Clarke (see January 3, 2001 and January 27, 2003), is delighted by the story and tells a Commission staffer that it might be enough to end the Clarke “circus,” adding, “Does it get any better than this?” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 280-281] Later trying a similar line of attack, Republican Senate leader Bill Frist will ask “[i]f [Clarke] lied under oath to the United States Congress” in closed testimony in 2002, and also ask if Clarke is attempting to promote his book. According to media critic Frank Rich, Frist’s credibility is undermined by his use of his Senate status to promote his own book, a virtually worthless primer entitled When Every Moment Counts: What You Need to Know About Bioterrorism from the Senate’s Only Doctor. Frist’s accusation that Clarke revealed classified information in his book falls flat when Clarke notes that the White House vetted his book for possible security transgressions before publication. [Washington Post, 3/27/2004; Rich, 2006, pp. 114-119]
No Evidence of Contradiction - A review of declassified citations from Clarke’s 2002 testimony provides no evidence of contradiction, and White House officials familiar with the testimony agree that any differences are matters of emphasis, not fact. [Washington Post, 4/4/2004]

Entity Tags: Philip Shenon, Richard A. Clarke, Condoleezza Rice, Philip Zelikow, Washington Times, Frank Rich, Bill Frist

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, 2004 Elections

Richard Clarke sworn in before the 9/11 Commission.Richard Clarke sworn in before the 9/11 Commission. [Source: CBC]Former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke testifies before the 9/11 Commission. Due to publicity generated by the publication of his book and a controversial appearance on 60 Minutes (see March 21, 2004), it is, in the words of author Philip Shenon, a “true Washington spectacle” and “one of those moments in the capital when anyone of importance in the city [is] in front of a television set.” Shenon will add, “It was being compared by reporters to the sort of drama that John Dean’s testimony provided in Watergate or Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North’s testimony offered in the Iran-Contra affair.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 281-282]
Clarke Offers Apology - Clarke’s opening statement consists of little more than an apology to the relatives of the 9/11 victims. He says: “Your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you. For that failure, I would ask… for your understanding and forgiveness.” This leads to a moment of silence, then gasps and sobs. Shenon will point out, “It was the first apology that the 9/11 families had heard from anybody of importance in the Bush administration,” adding that it “was the moment of catharsis that many of the wives and husbands and children of the victims had been waiting for.”
Praises Clinton, Criticizes Bush - Under questioning, Clarke praises the Clinton administration, saying, “My impression was that fighting terrorism, in general, and fighting al-Qaeda, in particular, were an extraordinarily high priority in the Clinton administration—certainly no higher priority.” But he is very critical of the Bush administration, stating, “By invading Iraq… the president of the United States has greatly undermined the war on terrorism.” He says that under Bush before 9/11, terrorism was “an important issue, but not an urgent issue.… [CIA Director] George Tenet and I tried very hard to create a sense of urgency by seeing to it that intelligence reports on the al-Qaeda threat were frequently given to the president and other high-level officials. But although I continue to say it was an urgent problem, I don’t think it was ever treated that way.” He points out that he made proposals to fight al-Qaeda in late January 2001. While the gist of them was implemented after 9/11, he complains, “I didn’t really understand why they couldn’t have been done in February [2001].” He says that with a more robust intelligence and covert action program, “we might have been able to nip [the plot] in the bud.”
Republican Commissioners Ask Tough Questions - However, Clarke faces tough questioning from some of the Republican commissioners. Jim Thompson, who had been in contact with the White House before the hearing (see Morning, March 24, 2004), challenges Clarke over a briefing he gave in 2002 (see August 22, 2002 and March 24, 2004), which, according to Thompson, contradicts what Clarke is saying now. In addition, fellow Republican John Lehman confronts Clarke over what he sees as discrepancies between Clarke’s book and his private interviews with the Commission. Clarke replies that the differences arose because the Commission did not ask him about all the issues he covered in his book, such as his opposition to the invasion of Iraq. He adds that he will not accept any position in any administration formed by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
Clarke Approved Saudi Flights - Clarke also clears up a mystery about the departure of Saudi Arabian nationals after the attacks, which has caused some controversy (see September 14-19, 2001), saying that he was the White House official that approved them. He did this after clearing it with the FBI, although he does not know “what degree of review the FBI did over those names.” [Washington Post, 3/24/2004; New York Times, 3/24/2004; 9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004; Shenon, 2008, pp. 282-289]
Testimony 'Arresting' - Author and media critic Frank Rich will later call Clarke’s testimony “arresting.” Rich will write that Clarke’s forceful, confident demeanor—“sonorous voice, secret-agent aura, and vaguely intimidating body language”—serves to brush back antagonistic Republicans such as Lehman and Thompson. Rich will write that the juxtaposition of Clarke’s damning testimony with President Bush’s bizarre comedy routine that same evening (pretending to hunt for Iraqi WMD under the Oval Office furniture—see March 24, 2004) is jarring. [Rich, 2006, pp. 114-119]

Entity Tags: John Lehman, Clinton administration, Richard A. Clarke, Bush administration (43), Frank Rich, 9/11 Commission, James Thompson

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, 2004 Elections

In the 2004 presidential campaign, Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry accuses the Bush administration of allowing bin Laden to escape Afghanistan in late 2001 by not sending enough US troops to contain him when he was trapped in the Tora Bora region. The New York Times publishes an op-ed by Gen. Tommy Franks, the former head of US Central Command. Franks writes, “On more than one occasion, Senator Kerry has referred to the fight at Tora Bora in Afghanistan during late 2001 as a missed opportunity for America. He claims that our forces had Osama bin Laden cornered and allowed him to escape. How did it happen? According to Mr. Kerry, we ‘outsourced’ the job to Afghan warlords. As commander of the allied forces in the Middle East, I was responsible for the operation at Tora Bora, and I can tell you that the senator’s understanding of events doesn’t square with reality.… We don’t know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora in December 2001. Some intelligence sources said he was; others indicated he was in Pakistan at the time; still others suggested he was in Kashmir. Tora Bora was teeming with Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives, many of whom were killed or captured, but Mr. bin Laden was never within our grasp.” Franks is a vocal supporter of Bush’s reelection. [New York Times, 10/19/2004] Shortly after Franks’ comments, four Knight Ridder reporters who had been at Tora Bora during the battle revisit the issue. They discover that “Franks and other top officials ignored warnings from their own and allied military and intelligence officers that the combination of precision bombing, special operations forces, and Afghan forces that had driven the Taliban from northern Afghanistan might not work in the heartland of the country’s dominant Pashtun tribe.” [Knight Ridder, 10/30/2004] Author Peter Bergen asserts, “There is plenty of evidence that bin Laden was at Tora Bora, and no evidence indicating that he was anywhere else at the time.” Bergen cites after-action US intelligence reports and interviews with US counterterrorism officials that express confidence bin Laden was at Tora Bora. He notes that bin Laden discussed his presence at the Tora Bora battle in a audio message released in 2003. [PeterBergen (.com), 10/28/2004] In 2005, Gary Berntsen, who was in charge of an on-the-ground CIA team trying to find bin Laden (see September 26, 2001), will claim that he gave Franks definitive evidence that bin Laden was trapped in Tora Bora (see Late October-Early December 2001). [Financial Times, 1/3/2006] In 2006, former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will comment, “Yes, we know [bin Laden] absolutely was there.… And yes, he did escape. And Gen. Franks and the president can deny it until the cows come home, but they made a mistake. They did let him go away.” [PBS Frontline, 6/20/2006] In late 2006, it will be reported that the CIA possesses a video showing bin Laden walking out of Afghanistan at the end of the Tora Bora battle. It has not been reported if the CIA was aware of this video in 2004 or not (see Mid-December 2001).

Entity Tags: Richard A. Clarke, Thomas Franks, Peter Bergen, George W. Bush, John Kerry, Al-Qaeda, Bush administration (43), Gary Berntsen, Osama bin Laden, Taliban

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan, 2004 Elections

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