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Bush team defends handling of al Qaeda plan

From Kelly Wallace
CNN Washington Bureau

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine (CNN) -- White House officials are defending the Bush administration's handling of a plan to dismantle al Qaeda, disputing a newsmagazine's report that a lengthy review process delayed its implementation before September 11.

According to the Time magazine report, the Clinton administration developed a plan in late 2000-early 2001 to attack al Qaeda and passed it on to the Bush team.

But the Bush administration did not act on the plan, choosing instead to conduct its review of the terrorism threat, the magazine reported. (Read Time's coverage)

The Time article suggests the Clinton plan became "the victim of the transition process, turf wars and time spent on the pet policies of new top officials."

The Bush administration strongly disputed the report.

"This idea that there was somehow a kind of -- some sort of full-blown plan for going after al Qaeda is just incorrect," said a senior Bush administration official, who did not want to be identified.

Bush official: A 'fundamentally different approach'

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The official said that the Clinton team presented ideas to the Bush administration in January 2001 suggesting a "contained rolling back of al Qaeda" over a period of three to five years.

"Now what you have and what we ended up with was a strategy to eliminate al Qaeda," the official said. "So the president recognizes very early on that you don't want to roll back al Qaeda over this long period of time, you want to eliminate al Qaeda on a much more accelerated timetable.

"That's the famous 'I don't want to start swatting at flies' comment," the official said, referring to a comment aides said the president made sometime in May or June 2001.

The Bush administration, the official said, chose to take a "fundamentally different approach" from the Clinton team, aiming to bring in Pakistan and pressure the Taliban to shut down al Qaeda.

The president's top advisers received the plan August 14, 2001, and approved it September 4, the official said. On September 11, the proposal was on the desk of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, waiting to go to President Bush for his final approval, which the Bush team disclosed months ago. (Full story)

Asked about the lengthy review process for the Bush plan to be drafted and approved, the official said, "Look at the time frame. You have a brand-new administration coming in, and in a period of ... eight months, you now have a comprehensive strategy and plan for not rolling back al Qaeda, but eliminating al Qaeda."

That plan became the foundation for the Bush administration's approach to the war on terror, the official said.




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