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White House dismisses former adviser's charges

Clarke's allegations of pre-9/11 failures called politically driven


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Richard Clarke speaks in Stanford, California, in this September 2002 photo.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House is dismissing as a "red herring" charges from the administration's former counter-terrorism coordinator that President Bush has been more focused on Iraq than al Qaeda.

Richard Clarke detailed his allegations that Bush has done "a terrible job" battling terrorism during an interview Sunday night on CBS's "60 Minutes" and in a book to be published Monday.

A White House spokesman said Clarke is motivated by politics.

"He has chosen at this critical time, in the middle of a presidential campaign, to inject himself into the political debate," spokesman Dan Bartlett said. "And he has every right to do so. But in so doing, his judgments -- his actions, or the lack thereof -- should also come under scrutiny."

Clarke said he asked for a Cabinet-level meeting in January 2001, shortly after the president took office, to discuss the threat al Qaeda posed to the United States.

"That urgent memo wasn't acted on," Clarke told CBS. Instead, he said, administration officials were focused on issues such as missile defense and Iraq.

Clarke said Bush "probably" shares some of the blame for the attacks. He is scheduled to testify this week before the independent commission investigating 9/11.

"Frankly, I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism," Clarke said in the CBS interview. "He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11. Maybe. We'll never know."

According to a White House statement issued Sunday night, "The president recognized the threat posed by al Qaeda, and immediately after taking office, the White House began work on a comprehensive new strategy to eliminate al Qaeda."

The statement said National Security Council deputies and second-ranking officials met frequently between March and September 2001 to work on that goal.

The national security team worked "aggressively and rapidly" to develop a course of action using all elements of national power: military, intelligence, diplomatic actions and financial pressure, according to the statement.

"The new strategy called for military options to attack al Qaeda and Taliban leadership, command-and-control, ground forces and other targets."

Clarke left the government in February 2003 after 30 years of public service.

In the CBS interview, Clarke said Bush should have gone to "battle stations" when the CIA warned him of a threat in the months before the attacks.

"He never thought it was important enough for him to hold a meeting on the subject, or for him to order his national security adviser to hold a Cabinet-level meeting on the subject," he told CBS.

But National Security Council deputy Stephen Hadley said on the CBS program that Bush did hear those warnings and was impatient for intelligence chiefs to develop a new strategy to eliminate al Qaeda.

"At one point the president became somewhat impatient with us and said, 'I'm tired of swatting flies. Where is my new strategy to eliminate al Qaeda?'"

Clarke said he eventually got to address a Cabinet meeting on terrorism months after his initial request, and only a week before the attacks.

Bartlett said Clarke used the opportunity "to talk about cyber-security."

Bartlett said Clarke offered five recommendations to battle al Qaeda when the Bush administration took office.

"All of those recommendations were focused on overseas efforts that would have been nothing to prevent the attack on 9/11," he said. "All of those recommendations were being acted upon. It did not have to wait for a meeting that would take place in September."

He dismissed Clarke as a disgruntled former employee who left the government after he was passed over for the No. 2 job in the Department of Homeland Security. He also noted that Clarke has taught a college course with Rand Beers, another former counter-terrorism official now advising Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

"Despite all of these grievances -- despite all of these fundamental concerns about the actions our country has taken -- it's only now, in the course of this campaign, that Dick Clarke decides to talk in the form of this book," Bartlett said.

Clarke said that, a day after the attacks, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pushed for a retaliatory strike on Iraq, though the evidence pointed to al Qaeda, because "there aren't any good targets in Afghanistan and there are lots of good targets in Iraq." (Full story)

He also said Bush asked him to look for links between al Qaeda and Iraq the day after the attacks.

"Now he never said, 'Make it up,' " Clarke said. "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."

When Clarke told Bush that U.S. intelligence had nothing to connect Iraq and al Qaeda, he said the president responded in a "very intimidating" manner: "Iraq! Saddam! Find out if there's a connection."

Bartlett said Bush "was going through a decision-making process," and needed to know "all the information available." He noted that Bush's decision ultimately was to attack Afghanistan, striking at the Taliban regime that allowed al Qaeda to operate from its territory.

"I think everybody in America would expect, within 24 hours after one of the worst attacks on our country, that the president of the United States was asking his counter-terrorism officials, 'Tell me everything. Tell me any possible link to this attack. I want to know everything,' " Bartlett said.

Bush allies defended the president on the Sunday talk shows. Republican Sen. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said there was "a lot of blame to go around in all quarters."

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.


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