WASHINGTON - The Bush administration defended its handling of terrorism issues Monday and attacked a former White House counterterrorism expert who says President Bush ignored the threat posed by al-Qaida before Sept. 11, 2001, and was obsessed with Iraq after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
Bush has made his handling of the war on terrorism the centerpiece of his re-election bid, and White House officials unleashed a campaign-style damage control effort Monday to portray former aide Richard Clarke as an ineffective, self-serving partisan who has ties to Democratic Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign.
WHITE HOUSE ATTACKS BUSH'S OWN ANTI-TERROR CZAR
White House Spokesman Scott McClellan fields questions from the press in Washington, March 22, 2004. The White House on Monday sought to brand its former anti-terrorism czar Richard Clarke as a disgruntled employee bent on damaging U.S. President Bush's war image with politically motivated assertions about the Sept. 11 attacks. REUTERS/Jason Reed
They also said the administration moved aggressively against terrorism from the time Bush took office, and denied that it was obsessed with Iraq.
Clarke, who has served under every administration since Ronald Reagan's, criticized Bush's leadership on terrorism in his new book, "Against All Enemies," and in an interview Sunday on CBS's "60 Minutes."
"I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it," Clarke said in the CBS interview Sunday. "He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9-11."
White House officials lined up Monday to fire back at Clarke. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice appeared on almost all the television networks, where she disparaged Clarke's work and questioned his effectiveness.
"He had been counterterrorism czar when the embassies (in Tanzania and Kenya) were bombed in 1998," Rice said on NBC's "Today." "He was the counterterrorism czar when the (USS) Cole was bombed in 2000. He was the counterterrorism czar for the entire period in which the al-Qaida plot was being hatched that ended up in Sept. 11, 2001."
A former White House official said Clarke had pressed Rice and others to take the steps against al-Qaida that they did. The former official refused to speak for attribution for fear of retribution against his employer and him.
Vice President Dick Cheney, appearing on conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh's nationally syndicated radio program, described Clarke as an uninformed underling.
"Well, he wasn't in the loop, frankly, on a lot of this stuff," Cheney said. "As I say, he was head of counterterrorism for several years there in the '90s, and I didn't notice that they had any great success dealing with the terrorist threat."
Clarke, however, was the top White House counterterrorism official until the end of September 2001.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan questioned Clarke's motives. He suggested that Clarke was bitter about not getting the Number Two position at the Homeland Security Department. McClellan indicated that Clarke's comments and the timing of his book had more to do with election politics than with his concern about terrorism.
"This is one and a half years after he left the administration. And now all of a sudden he's raising these grave concerns that he claims he had," McClellan said. "I think you have to look at some facts. One, he's bringing this up in the heat of a presidential campaign. He's written a book, and he certainly wants to go out there and promote that book. ... His best buddy is Rand Beers, who is the principal foreign-policy adviser to the Kerry campaign."
Beers, who served as White House counterterrorism coordinator before he resigned last March to join Kerry's campaign, acknowledged his friendship with Clarke but said it had nothing to do with Clarke's charges against the Bush White House.
Beers said he'd just finished reading the book. "I have tremendous respect for his veracity and judgment," he said. "There is nothing in the book that strikes me as out of place or incorrect."
Until his resignation 13 months ago, Clarke held senior positions under Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and the younger Bush. A former National Security Council colleague described Clarke as a policy hawk who pressed Clinton for retaliatory strikes against al-Qaida for the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa.
In his book, Clarke says Bush and others in the administration were fixated on Iraq after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Clarke wrote that Bush pressed him in a "very intimidating way" in the White House Situation Room on Sept. 12, 2001, about whether Saddam Hussein had any role in the attacks.
"But Mr. President, al-Qaida did this," Clarke said he told Bush. "I know, I know, but ... see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred," Clarke recalls Bush replying. McClellan said Bush didn't recall the conversation and that there was no record of the president being in the Situation Room that day.
Clarke accuses Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld of plotting to bomb Iraq in the days after Sept. 11, though there was no evidence Iraq was involved in the attacks.
Clarke said Rice "looked skeptical" when he briefed her in early 2001 about al-Qaida threats. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz wondered aloud during an April 2001 meeting what all the fuss was about Osama bin Laden.
"I just don't understand why we are beginning by talking about this one man bin Laden," Clarke quotes Wolfowitz as saying. Later, Clarke writes, Wolfowitz told him: "You give bin Laden too much credit."
Ron Hutcheson, Jonathan S. Landay and James Kuhnhenn contributed to this story.
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