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Ex-Aide: Bush Sought Iraq-9/11 Link

March 22, 2004|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Almost immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes, President Bush ordered Richard Clarke, his top counterterrorism advisor, to search for evidence that Iraq was complicit in the attacks, Clarke said in a television interview broadcast Sunday.

"The president dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door and said, 'I want you to find whether Iraq did this,' " Clarke told the CBS program "60 Minutes." "He never said, 'Make it up.' But the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said Iraq did this."

Clarke said Bush demanded the analysis even after Clarke and other officials, including CIA Director George J. Tenet, repeatedly told Bush and others in the White House that there were no significant ties between Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Clarke's statement meshes with other accounts portraying senior Bush administration officials as eager to make Iraq a target of the war on terrorism, but it is the first to suggest that this was also among the president's first impulses.

Clarke served as the National Security Council's top counterterrorism official from 1998 until Oct. 9, 2001, when he became a special advisor on cyberspace security. He resigned from that post early last year after 30 years of government service.

The White House said it could find no record of that meeting between Clarke and Bush.

The administration also put out a lengthy statement rebutting charges Clarke has made in recent interviews and in a book he has written that is sharply critical of Bush's handling of the war on terrorism.

The book, "Against All Enemies," which is to be released today, is already fueling Democratic attacks on Bush, whose reelection campaign has sought to cast him as a resolute leader in the war on terrorism.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who is vacationing in Ketchum, Idaho, said Sunday: "Several chapters [of the book] are being FedExed out to me here. I would like to read them before I make any comments."

A commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks is to hold hearings this week. Clarke is among current and former officials, including Tenet and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, scheduled to testify.

In his book, Clarke says that the Bush White House ignored repeated warnings about the threat from Al Qaeda and that it was focused on attacking Saddam Hussein long before Sept. 11. It also accuses the administration of undermining the war on terrorism by diverting resources to the war with Iraq.

The Bush administration rejected the criticism, saying it began planning a strategy to confront Al Qaeda immediately upon taking office.

Describing the meeting with Bush, Clarke said he told the president that "there's no connection" between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Clarke said his team produced two reports that concluded there were no ties, but said he didin't believe they were delivered to Bush because "he wouldn't like the answer."

Times staff writer Eric Slater contributed to this report from Ketchum.

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