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Rice Insists Bush Is Focusing on Al Qaeda

November 17, 2002|Greg Miller and Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Struggling to account for a torrent of fresh threat warnings and the reappearance of Osama bin Laden, the Bush administration scrambled Friday to defend its handling of the war on terrorism and to counter criticism that it is preoccupied with Iraq.

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice bristled at questions about the administration's priorities, saying President Bush's first order of business each day is assessing the nation's progress against Al Qaeda and other terrorists.

"He does not begin his day on Iraq," Rice said. "He begins his day on the war on terrorism and the threat levels, and the threat information that we have about the United States."

The administration sought to bolster its case by presenting new evidence of success against Al Qaeda, declaring that one of the terrorist network's top operatives recently was captured and is in U.S. custody. Officials declined to identify the figure.

Rice's remarks and disclosure of the capture were part of a concerted White House effort to blunt renewed criticism from lawmakers and foreign leaders that the hunt for Al Qaeda is failing from neglect.

In Germany on Friday, Foreign Minister Joschka Fisher warned that the administration's focus on Iraq is dangerously misguided.

"International terrorism is the No. 1 danger," Fischer told the German Parliament. "I need it explained to me how we ended up making Iraq the priority."

The White House is sensitive to second-guessing largely because of Bin Laden's reappearance, as well as a flurry of ominous new intelligence signals.

Citing an increase in intelligence traffic not seen since before the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI issued an alert late Thursday that Al Qaeda might be planning spectacular new strikes at the U.S.

Friday's developments underscore how the White House increasingly finds itself in the seemingly contradictory position of claiming significant success in disabling Al Qaeda even as it warns that the nation might be no safer now than it was before Sept. 11.

Rice straddled both those positions, recounting the success of the war in Afghanistan and citing "numerous senior leaders of Al Qaeda that have either been eliminated, incarcerated, or detained someplace."

She stressed that Al Qaeda is "an adaptable organization."

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