- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

The White House yesterday denied accusations by a former antiterrorism adviser that President Bush could have stopped the September 11 attacks and has set back the war on terrorism with his obsession to pin the blame on Saddam Hussein.

Richard A. Clarke, in a book released yesterday, says he tried in vain to convince the president of the threat posed by terror network al Qaeda, then realized “with almost a sharp physical pain” that the administration would use the September 11 attacks as an excuse to invade Iraq.

The Iraq-obsession accusation also has been leveled by other former administration officials such as Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and Joseph C. Wilson, who was with the National Security Council, and by United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix.

The White House was unusually sharp and quick with its rebuttal.

“His assertion that there was something we could have done to prevent the September 11th attacks from happening is deeply irresponsible, it’s offensive, and it’s flat-out false,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “This is ‘Dick Clarke’s American Grandstand,’ and he keeps changing the tune.”

In his book, “Against All Enemies,” Mr. Clarke — who served as a terrorism analyst for the past four presidents — writes that several administrations missed chances to thwart the terrorist groups that engineered the September 11 and other attacks. His harshest criticism is leveled at the Bush administration, from which he resigned 13 months ago.

Mr. Clarke wrote that Mr. Bush ignored the threat of al Qaeda before the attacks despite the adviser’s repeated warnings, “and then [Mr. Bush] harvested a political windfall for taking obvious yet insufficient steps after the attacks.”

In a “60 Minutes” interview broadcast on CBS Sunday night, Mr. Clarke said he found it “outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he’s done such great things about terrorism.”

“He ignored it,” Mr. Clarke told CBS’ Lesley Stahl. “He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11. Maybe. We’ll never know.”

Mr. Clarke wrote that Mr. Bush “dragged” him into the White House Situation Room the day after the attacks and told him to “see if Saddam did this.”

Mr. Clarke said al Qaeda, and not Iraq, was behind the strikes. But Mr. Bush is said to have insisted: “I know, I know but … see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred.”

Mr. McClellan said White House records show no evidence of such a meeting between Mr. Clarke and Mr. Bush on Sept. 12, 2001, and that Mr. Bush “doesn’t have any recollection” of any such meeting or conversation.

Regardless, Mr. McClellan said, the administration was correct in the early hours after the attacks to consider every U.S. enemy a suspect.

“It would be irresponsible not to consider all” possibilities, Mr. McClellan said.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters that the administration had discussed military action against Iraq long before September 11, 2001, but in the context of Iraqi air defenses that were targeting U.S. and British aircraft enforcing no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq.

“That was the one place on the face of the earth where a country — in this case Iraq — was firing at aircrews of the United States and the United Kingdom that were enforcing U.N. resolutions,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “There is no question but that there was discussion about Iraq, and it was in that context.”

Mr. McClellan also pointed to an interview Mr. Clarke gave to PBS’ “Frontline” in 2002 praising the wisdom of the Bush administration for having a “very open mind” about who had been behind the attacks.

“On the day of September 11th, then the day or two following, we had a very open mind,” Mr. Clarke told “Frontline.” “The CIA and FBI were asked: ‘See if it’s Hezbollah. See if it’s Hamas. Don’t assume it’s al Qaeda. Don’t just assume it’s al Qaeda.’”

However, on PBS’ “The News Hour With Jim Lehrer” last night, Mr. Clarke said the Bush administration is trying to create a false September 11 narrative.

“It wasn’t a calm, rational discussion in which [Mr. Bush] said, ‘Look under every rock and do due diligence,’” Mr. Clarke said. “It was a very intimidating message which said, ‘Iraq. Give me a memo about Iraq and 9/11.’”

Dan Bartlett, White House communications director, disputed such characterizations, saying, “I’ve been working with the president for 10 years, and I’ve never been intimidated in one conversation.”

Mr. Clarke said he and other terrorism analysts in the administration told Mr. Bush that “there was no connection” between the September 11 attacks and Saddam, but “that memo was bounced.”

National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice said on “Fox News” yesterday that Mr. Clarke’s book is an attempt to “read people’s minds” and took umbrage at his contention that she didn’t have much familiarity with al Qaeda as the Bush administration was taking shape in early 2001.

“We had a clear picture of what was going on,” Miss Rice said.

Mr. Clarke, picking up on Clinton-era antiterrorism policies, presented ideas to the new administration of a plan to “roll back the terrorist threat.” But from the first days of his presidency, Mr. Bush wanted to go further, Miss Rice said.

“What the president wanted was a broad plan to get rid of al Qaeda, a real plan for dealing with issues here in the U.S.,” Miss Rice told Fox. “The president wanted a comprehensive plan, and that is not what Dick Clarke gave us.”

As for Mr. Clarke’s contention that his plans for dealing with al Qaeda were ignored, Miss Rice said there was “no reason to have a meeting about five or six ideas” that didn’t meet the president’s antiterrorism goals.

Miss Rice also said on CNN, “I’ll tell you this: Richard Clarke had plenty of opportunities to tell us in the administration that he thought the war on terrorism was moving in the wrong direction, and he chose not to.”

Vice President Dick Cheney said Mr. Clarke’s accusations are not based on inside knowledge. Mr. Cheney told radio host Rush Limbaugh that Mr. Clarke “wasn’t in the loop, frankly, on a lot of this stuff.”

Miss Rice, who spoke on several TV shows yesterday, said Mr. Bush quickly decided to “put Iraq aside” after it was determined that it had no direct link to the terrorist attacks.

“Yes, he was concerned about who might have done this,” Miss Rice said on NBC’s “Today,” adding that it was logical “to keep an open mind.”

“Was it al Qaeda, or was it possible that there was some link, for instance, to Iraq, with whom we had a history, including Iraq’s attempt to assassinate former President Bush?” she said.

“I can tell you that when we got to Camp David, it was a map of Afghanistan that was unrolled on the table,” Miss Rice said. “It was a question of what real military options we had in Afghanistan. The discussion of Iraq was simply whether or not it made sense, in the global war on terrorism, to also deal in this period with the threat from Iraq.”

Sen. John Kerry, who is set to oppose Mr. Bush in the presidential election in November, said from his vacation stop in Idaho that “several chapters” of Mr. Clarke’s book are “being FedExed out to me,” and he would “like to read them before I make any comment at all.”

Mr. Clarke is the second former top official to accuse the administration of an unwarranted focus on Iraq. Mr. O’Neill wrote a book that said Mr. Bush planned early in his administration to invade Iraq.

Mr. Clarke also is the second former administration official critical of the president’s policies in Iraq to have close ties to the Kerry presidential campaign.

Mr. Wilson, a former senior director for Africa policy at the National Security Council who accused Mr. Bush of exaggerating Iraq’s nuclear capabilities to win support for the war, has campaigned for Mr. Kerry in at least six states.

Joseph Curl contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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