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Clarke: Rice should have done job before 9/11

Former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke criticized the Bush and Clinton administrations' responses to al Qaeda before September 11, 2001.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke said that key information about the September 11 hijackers may have come out before the attacks if national security adviser Condoleezza Rice "had done her job" -- suggesting the plot may have been uncovered in time to prevent it.

In an interview Wednesday on CNN's "Larry King Live," Clarke said that "we'll never know" if the 9/11 terrorist attacks were preventable.

But he said the Clinton administration's approach to a similar threat before the turn of the millennium -- in which top officials held daily interagency meetings and actively sought out information from within their agencies -- shows that a similar approach might have worked.

He said that people within the FBI knew that two of the 19 hijackers were in the country before September 11, but that information never made its way up the chain of command.

"If Condi Rice had been doing her job and holding those daily meetings the way Sandy Berger did, if she had a hands-on attitude to being national security adviser when she had information that there was a threat against the United States ... [the information] would have been shaken out in the summer of 2001," he told King.

Samuel Berger was former President Clinton's national security adviser.

But Clarke, whom President Bush held over from his predecessor, also criticized the previous administration, suggesting that Clinton's personal scandals may have interfered with his willingness to go after al Qaeda aggressively with military force.

"The Clinton administration failed to bomb the [al Qaeda] camps that were in Afghanistan, that we knew were there," Clarke said. "Clinton bombed them once. The public reaction was negative to that. ... Everyone said Clinton's just bombing Afghanistan to divert attention from the Monica [Lewinsky] business, and so he didn't bomb them again.

"That was during a time when they were turning out thousands of trained terrorists. It was an assembly line."

Clarke has been at the center of a maelstrom after this week's release of his book, "Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror," in which he accuses Bush, Rice and other administration officials of not paying enough attention to al Qaeda's threat before 9/11 and then diverting attention and resources from the war on terror by invading Iraq.

He reiterated those assertions in several media interviews this week and in testimony Wednesday at a public hearing before the commission investigating the September 11 attacks.

Clarke told King he wrote his book because he believed the public hadn't received a good accounting of why the United States was unable to prevent 9/11.

"I really felt I needed to get it off my chest," said Clarke, a 30-year government employee who served in the White House under four presidents. "It doesn't really matter that we tried hard. It matters that we failed."

Since Clarke's charges became public, White House officials, up to the level of Vice President Dick Cheney, have counterattacked, portraying the ex-counterterrorism chief as a disengaged and disgruntled figure who was miffed at his reduced role in the Bush White House and passed over for the No. 2 position at the Department of Homeland Security.

Asked whether he had sought that job, Clarke told King, "What I said was, because I had been doing all of these things in the homeland security area for the last 10 years, if they wanted to consider me for deputy secretary over there, I would be willing to be considered."

The administration also has released Clarke's 2003 resignation letter, a transcript of a 2002 background briefing with the press and an e-mail sent he sent to Rice shortly after the attacks, all of which expressed positive sentiments about the Bush administration's counterterrorism efforts.

An angry Rice told reporters Wednesday, "That book is 180 degrees from everything else he said, and you just can't have it both ways."

Clarke told King that when he decided to write the book, he knew the Bush administration would "let loose the dogs."

"For the Bush White House to be attempting to undermine my credibility is really sort of ironic. It's sort of the pot calling the kettle back. They're the ones who have the credibility problem," he said, accusing the administration of trying to deflect attention from larger questions about the way it has handled the terrorism threat.

"The issue is, 'Could the Bush administration have done more prior to 9/11?' The second issue is, 'What did it do after 9/11? Did it fight the war on terror well, or did it not? Did it divert attention and actually hurt the war on terror by fighting an unnecessary, costly, diversionary war in Iraq?' That's what we should be talking about."

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