WASHINGTON - A former top White House security chief accused President George W. Bush of undermining the war on terrorism by invading Iraq and not giving the al-Qaeda threat enough importance before the September 11 attacks.
In stunning testimony to the official inquiry into the 2001 terror strikes, Richard Clarke, whose new book has angered the Bush administration, apologized to relatives of the September 11 victims saying that the US government had failed them.
Clarke said Iraq was "the reason I am strident in criticism of the president of the United States."
Richard Clarke shakes hands with family members of Sept. 11 victims after he finished the federal panel reviewing the Sept. 11 attacks, Wednesday, March 24, 2004, in Washington From left are Clarke, Ann MacRae of New York City, Mary Fetchet of New Canaan, Conn, and Elaine Hughes of Nesconset, N.Y. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)
"By invading Iraq, the president of the United States has greatly undermined the war on terrorism," he said, silencing the room.
Clarke, who quit his White House post last year, reaffirmed accusations that Bush had under-estimated the threat from Osama bin Laden's group.
"I believe the Bush administration in its first eight months considered terrorism an important issue, but not an urgent issue," Clarke told the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.
The former counter-terrorism czar sought the forgiveness of relatives of the 3,000 September 11 dead. He said public meetings of the commission were "finally a forum where I can apologize to the loved ones of the victims of 9/11.
"To them who are here in the room, to those who are watching on television, your government failed you. Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you.
"We tried hard, but that doesn't matter because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask ... for your understanding and for your forgiveness."
In his book "Against All Enemies" which was published on Monday, Clarke accuses the Bush administration of ignoring the mounting threat from al-Qaeda in the months before September 11.
The administration has strongly denied the allegations and countered that Clarke was launching a political attack to influence this year's presidential election.
The White House on Wednesday took the rare step of releasing an off-the-record briefing by Clarke in which he indicated Bush was taking a tough line on al-Qaeda.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other top officials have insisted at the commission hearings that even killing bin Laden before September 11 would not have stopped the attacks on New York and Washington with hijacked airliners.
Testifying on Wednesday, Central Intelligence Agency director George Tenet said that warnings "lit up" in the weeks before September 11.
"They indicated that multiple spectacular attacks were planned and that some of the plots were in their final stages. The reporting was maddeningly short on actionable details. The most ominous reporting hinting at 'something big' was also the most vague."
When asked what went wrong, Tenet responded: "We didn't steal the secret that told us what the plot was."
He added: "We didn't recruit the right people or technically collect the data notwithstanding enormous efforts to do so."
A preliminary report by the commission highlighted failed efforts to kill or capture the al-Qaeda leader.
It said some top CIA officials had "criticized policymakers for not giving the CIA authorities effective operations against bin Laden."
A report released by the commission on Tuesday told of at least three occasions when bin Laden could have been killed while in Afghanistan.
Each time doubts about the intelligence, fears over killing civilians, and worries over alienating allies in the region were cited as reasons for not acting, according to the commission which gave new details in its preliminary assessment on the intelligence services.
Agents in Afghanistan "reported on about half a dozen occasions before 9/11 that they had considered attacking bin Laden, usually as he traveled in his convoy along the rough Afghan roads.
"Each time the operation was reportedly aborted. Several times the Afghans said that bin Laden had taken a different route than expected. On one occasion security was said to be too tight to capture him.
"Another time they heard women and children's voices from inside the convoy and abandoned the assault for fear of killing innocents."
There was also confusion about what the CIA could do.
While president Bill Clinton had authorized killing bin Laden, the report said: "CIA senior managers, operators, and lawyers uniformly said that they read the relevant authorities signed by president Clinton as instructing them to try to capture bin Laden."
The commission is to finish its work in July and a public version of its report will be released in August, just ahead of the November 2 presidential election.
© Copyright 2004 Agence France Presse