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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 March, 2004, 18:05 GMT
US 9/11 hearings threaten Bush

By Adam Brookes
BBC correspondent in Washington

Madeleine Albright
Albright: "We used every pressure point we could"
Senior White House officials and some of their predecessors have started testifying in Washington before an independent commission investigating the 11 September 2001 terror attacks.

The 9/11 commission, as it is being called, is charged with finding out how the 11 September attacks happened - and whether or not they could have been prevented.

President Bill Clinton's Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, appeared on Tuesday morning. Mr Clinton himself will be there, too.

Mrs Albright was followed by Colin Powell, the current secretary of state, and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is also due to testify on Tuesday.

Early findings

The commission has already reached some preliminary conclusions - set out in an interim report issued by the commission on Tuesday.

The commission points out that between 1997 and September 2001, both the Clinton and Bush administrations tried to persuade the Taleban and the government of Pakistan to force Osama Bin Laden and his cohort of al-Qaeda fighters out of Afghanistan.

"We used every pressure point we could", Mrs Albright told the commission.

"All these efforts failed", notes the report.

The commission found that diplomacy - when the US administration had the chance to exercise it - failed to dislodge Bin Laden from his Afghan sanctuary.

The report also concludes that the US was working with Saudi Arabia in an attempt to isolate and undermine al-Qaeda.

But Washington and Riyadh "did not achieve full sharing of important intelligence information or develop an adequate joint effort to track and disrupt the finances of the al-Qaeda organisation."

Election year politics

The commission is made up of former senators and congressmen, lawyers and experts. Its chairman Thomas Kean is the former governor of the state of New Jersey.

Its members are going out of their way to portray their work as removed from the heated political climate of a presidential election campaign.

But its conclusions may have a significant impact on George Bush's credibility, just as his campaign for re-election is gearing up.

The real buzz of these hearings surrounds the testimony of Richard Clarke.

Mr Clarke - a 30-year veteran of security and intelligence, and a senior White House advisor until last year - has written a book that excoriates the Bush administration for its response to terrorism.

He has said publicly that Mr Bush "ignored" terrorism before 9/11, and that the war in Iraq was "irrelevant" to the war against terrorists.

Mr Clarke is due to testify in front of the commission on Wednesday.

The commission is not expected to make its final report until July.

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