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Inside Politics

Clarke told reporters different story in 2002 background briefing

Said Bush wanted to pursue policy to kill bin Laden

From John King and Dana Bash
CNN Washington Bureau

Richard Clarke testifies Wednesday before the commission investigating the September 11, 2001, attacks.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In August 2002, then-White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke told reporters that the Bush administration -- from day one -- told him to "vigorously pursue" the Clinton administration policy that allowed the United States to kill Osama bin Laden if the opportunity arose.

In addition, he said that in the spring of 2001 Bush committed to a "five-fold" increase in CIA resources dedicated to going after the al Qaeda leader.

"What we ended up with was a strategy to eliminate al Qaeda," Clarke told reporters in August 2002. "So the president recognizes very early on that you don't want to roll back al Qaeda over this long period of time, you want to eliminate al Qaeda on a much more accelerated timetable."

In a new book, Clarke accuses the Bush administration of neglecting the threat from bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network before the al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said the difference between the 2002 remarks and those in his recent book "goes directly to Mr. Clarke's credibility."

"Dick Clarke, in his own words, provides a point-by-point rebuttal of what he now asserts," McClellan said. "This shatters the cornerstone of Mr. Clarke's assertions."

At the time of the briefing, ground rules allowed reporters to identify Clarke only as "a senior administration official." The White House waived that restriction after Fox News pointed out Clarke's remarks, McClellan said Wednesday.

Two administration officials called CNN to say Clarke's remarks from the 2002 briefing could be used and attributed to him by name.

"Mr. Clarke made assertions that we have said are flat-out wrong, and it's important for the American people to have the facts," McClellan said. "Mr. Clarke certainly decided on his own to go ahead and reveal conversations that were considered private previously."

In testimony Tuesday before the independent commission investigating the September 11 attacks, Clarke said he was asked to present information to reporters at that briefing "in a way that minimized criticism of the administration," but was not told to make "an untrue case."

"I was asked to highlight the positive aspects of what the administration had done and to minimize the negative aspects of what the administration had done," he said. "As a special assistant to the president, one is frequently asked to that kind of thing. I've done it for several presidents."

In the 2002 briefing, Clarke said, "President Bush told us in March (2001) to stop swatting at flies and just solve this problem." That, he said, changed U.S. national security policy "from one of rollback to one of elimination."

At another point in the briefing, Clarke was directly asked if he believed the new Bush team had "animus" toward Clinton administration holdovers and Clinton administration policies.

Clarke responded: "If there was a general animus that clouded their vision, they might not have kept the same guy dealing with the terrorism issue. This is the one issue where the National Security Council leadership decided continuity was important and kept the same guy around, the same team in place. That doesn't sound like animus against the, uh, previous team to me."

Clarke also told reporters at the time that there were some recommendations passed along from the Clinton to Bush administrations as to how to pursue al Qaeda, "but there was no plan" as in a detailed plan of action.

Given that, Clarke said the Bush administration decided to leave the existing policy in place, "including all of the lethal covert action findings" allowing attempts to kill bin Laden, while initiating a new review designed to settle unresolved issues from the Clinton years and also to develop a new strategy for confronting al Qaeda.

Clarke in his book and in interviews promoting it has suggested there was little urgency in the early days of the Bush administration about al Qaeda. But in the August 2002 briefing he credits the Bush administration with trying to resolve the policy disputes that were not settled in the Clinton days, and credited the Bush team with moving in the spring of 2001 to open a dialogue with Pakistan designed to get Islamabad "to break away from the Taliban."

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