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9/11 Allegations Draw Bush's Fire

White House officials take to the airwaves to counter a former colleague's accusations.

March 23, 2004|Maura Reynolds, Josh Meyer and Greg Miller | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — An anxious White House scrambled Monday to rebut allegations in a new book that President Bush had failed to take the threat of terrorism seriously before the 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

In an unusually strong response, the White House sent top-ranking officials to television news and talk radio programs to counter accusations from Richard Clarke, the Bush administration's former counterterrorism chief. The daylong attack on Clarke and his book demonstrated that his criticism could threaten the president's credibility on his signature issue -- his efforts against terrorism -- at the start of what is already an incendiary reelection campaign.

Clarke's charges set the stage for what is likely to be a week of recrimination, as an independent commission created by Congress begins today to question top Clinton and Bush administration officials over what they did and did not do to prevent terrorist attacks on the U.S.

Throughout the day Monday, Bush remained largely out of sight inside the West Wing, emerging only for a photo-op that excluded reporters. Meanwhile, from morning to night, publicly and privately, White House officials tried to turn the credibility question around by criticizing Clarke, suggesting he was unhappy about bureaucratic changes that had diminished his access to the president.

"He wasn't in the loop, frankly, on a lot of this stuff," Vice President Dick Cheney told radio host Rush Limbaugh.

White House officials, including national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, even suggested that Clarke -- who served as counterterrorism chief for the eight years of the Clinton administration before Rice asked him to stay on -- bore some responsibility for not doing enough to recognize the terrorism danger.

"He had been the counterterrorism czar when the embassies were bombed in 1998," Rice told NBC's "Today" show, referring to the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. "He was the counterterrorism czar when the [U.S. destroyer] Cole was bombed in 2000. He was the counterterrorism czar for the entire period in which the Al Qaeda plot was being hatched that ended up in Sept. 11, 2001."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan was even more blunt during his daily noon briefing: "Dick Clarke was here for some eight years. This administration was here for some 230 days before the attacks on Sept. 11."

Clarke's criticism creates political problems for the White House because it is an authoritative, insider account that could be perceived as a credible attack on the administration's handling of the war on terrorism.

The thrust of Clarke's criticism is that the Bush administration ignored repeated warnings about Al Qaeda before Sept. 11 -- and has pursued misguided policies ever since -- because it was obsessed with Iraq.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times on Monday, Clarke repeated an account relayed in his book of a Sept. 12, 2001, encounter with the president. In that conversation, Clarke said, Bush told him -- in front of four National Security Council colleagues -- to look for an Iraq connection to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Clarke already had told the president that years of investigation had found no links between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

"I told him that. [CIA Director] George Tenet told him that," Clarke said in the interview. "So if they are saying [the Sept. 12 conversation] didn't happen and they are calling into question my credibility, then they have to explain the mass hallucination that must have occurred when four other people saw and heard it happen."

The White House has responded by casting Clarke as a man nursing grudges because he did not get the attention, status or rank he thought he deserved.

"I suppose he may have a grudge to bear there, since he probably wanted a more prominent position than [Rice] was prepared to give him," Cheney said.

One of Clarke's main criticisms of the Bush administration is that senior officials, including Rice, did not respond to his calls for a meeting of Bush's top advisors to discuss Al Qaeda. For instance, Clarke said, he wrote Bush on Jan. 25, 2001, immediately after Bush took office, and asked for an urgent meeting to discuss what he perceived to be the imminent threat of an Al Qaeda attack.

"I even underlined the word 'urgent,' because it was urgent," Clarke said. "And they didn't have it until Sept. 4," just one week before the attacks. "I think they didn't have terrorism as a high priority on their agenda when they came in. They had [the space-based military system] 'Star Wars,' China and Iraq on the agenda. I think they accepted that it was important, but they didn't accept it as being urgent. And it was urgent."

Clarke also complained that he did not get to brief the president himself on the issue until after the Sept. 11 attacks.

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