Bush Aides Deny He Ignored Qaeda

Gretchen Peters at poppy fields
John Moore
The White House is disputing assertions by President Bush's former counterterrorism coordinator that the administration failed to recognize the risk of an attack by al Qaeda in the months leading up to Sept. 11, 2001.

The point-by-point rebuttal confronts claims by Richard A. Clarke in a new book, "Against All Enemies," that is scathingly critical of administration actions. The book is published by Free Press, a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster. Both CBSNews.com and Simon & Schuster are units of Viacom.

The White House said in a statement Sunday that national security deputies worked diligently between March and September 2001 to develop a strategy to attack the terror network, one that was completed and ready for Mr. Bush's approval a week before the suicide airliner hijackings.

The administration is so concerned about the charges that they released this four-page document called "Set the record straight," countering these charges point by point, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante.

The White House said the Bush administration kept Clarke as a holdover from the Clinton era because of its concerns over al Qaeda.

"He makes the charge that we were not focused enough on efforts to root out terrorism," Bush communications director Dan Bartlett said Sunday. "That's just categorically false."

The White House statement said the president told national security adviser Condoleezza Rice early in his administration he was "'tired of swatting flies' and wanted to go on the offense against al Qaeda, rather than simply waiting to respond."

Clarke wrote that Rice appeared never to have heard of al Qaeda until she was warned early in 2001 about the terrorist organization and that she "looked skeptical" about his warnings.

"Her facial expression gave me the impression that she had never heard the term before," Clarke said in the book, going on sale Monday.

Clarke said Rice — an expert on nuclear security and Russia — appeared not to recognize post-Cold War security issues and effectively demoted him within the National Security Council staff. He retired last year after 30 years in government.

Clarke, who is expected to testify Tuesday before a federal panel investigating the attacks, recounted his early meeting with Rice as support for his contention the administration failed to recognize the risk of an attack by al Qaeda. Rice has refused to meet with that panel.

Clarke said that within one week of Mr. Bush's inauguration he "urgently" sought a meeting of senior Cabinet leaders to discuss "the imminent al Qaeda threat." Clarke says his request was never taken seriously.

Rice disputes that.

"We were all very aware of the al Qaeda threat. What I asked Richard Clarke to do was develop ideas that we could use to push forward the strategies against al Qaeda," Rice told the CBS News Early Show.

Rice said Clarke's response was a list of ideas that had been around for several years.

"The president needed more," Rice said. "He needed a strategy for al Qaeda that was going to eliminate al Qaeda."

Three months later, in April 2001, Clarke met with deputy secretaries. During that meeting, he wrote, the Defense Department's Paul Wolfowitz told Clarke, "You give bin Laden too much credit," and he said Wolfowitz sought to steer the discussion to Iraq.

Clarke told CBS News' 60 minutes that immediately after the attacks on 9/11, the administration

"Well, (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld was saying that we needed to bomb Iraq. And — and we all said, 'But no, no. Al Qaeda is in Afghanistan. We need to bomb Afghanistan.' And Rumsfeld said, "There aren't any good targets in Afghanistan and there are lots of good targets in Iraq."

Clarke says he told the president there was no connection between Iraq and al Qaeda, but that apparently wasn't what Mr. Bush wanted to hear.

"He came back at me and said 'Iraq. Saddam. Find out if there's a connection!' And in a very intimidating way — I mean, that we should come back with that answer."

Clarke's claims echoed those of another former administration official, one-time treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who in a book last year claimed overthrowing Saddam was discussed at Mr. Bush's first national security council meeting.

"It makes perfectly good sense that when you're thinking about against whom you are going to retaliate that you keep an open mind. And the president asked about Iraq," Rice told the Early Show. "It was a logical question, given our history with Iraq. But I can tell you #&151; that when we got to Camp David on Sept. 15th, it was a map of Afghanistan that was spread out on the table."

Clarke harshly criticizes Mr. Bush personally in his book, saying his decision to invade Iraq generated broad anti-American sentiment among Arabs. He recounts that the president asked him directly almost immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks to find whether Iraq was involved in the suicide hijackings.

"Nothing America could have done would have provided al Qaeda and its new generation of cloned groups a better recruitment device than our unprovoked invasion of an oil-rich Arab country," Clarke wrote.

He added: "One shudders to think what additional errors (Mr. Bush) will make in the next four years to strengthen the al Qaeda follow-ons: attacking Syria or Iran, undermining the Saudi regime without a plan for a successor state?"

Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman said Sunday he doesn't believe Clarke's charge that Mr. Bush — who defeated him and former Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 election — was focused more on Iraq than al Qaeda during the days after the terror attacks.

"I see no basis for it," Lieberman said on Fox News. "I think we've got to be careful to speak facts and not rhetoric."

Unlike Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Rice will not testify before the Sept. 11 commission.

She told the Early Show, "it is really not appropriate for me to testify in the open."