The White House, fuming over a former aide's charge that President Bush gave short-shrift attention to al Qaeda while obsessing over Saddam Hussein, branded the fighting-terrorism flap as "Dick Clarke's American Grandstand."
"When you compare Dick Clarke's current rhetoric with his past comments and actions, the bedrock of his assertions comes crumbling down," said chief presidential spokesman Scott McClellan. He called Clarke's new book, criticizing the administration's handling of the post-Sept. 11 terrorism environment, "more about politics and book promotions than it is about policies."
It was the latest in what became a three-day cycle of broadsides, driven by Clarke's interview on CBS News' 60 Minutes in which he said Mr. Bushterrorist network while plotting to attack Iraq.
Clarke's claims are contained in a new book 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 Bush administration is so concerned about the charges that they released a four-page document countering the charges point by point, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante.
The White House said 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 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."
Clarke wrote that national security adviser Condoleezza 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.
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 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."
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 60 minutes that immediately after the attacks on Sept. 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 said.
Clarke's claims echoed those of another former administration official, one-time treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who claimed 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 is expected to testify Tuesday before a federal panel investigating the attacks. 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."
Clarke harshly criticizes Mr. Bush personally in his book, saying his decision to invade Iraq generated broad anti-American sentiment among Arabs.
Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman said Sunday he doesn't believe Clarke's charge that Mr. Bush 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."
And Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., said Sunday on ABC that while he has been critical of Bush policies on Iraq, "I think it's unfair to blame the president for the spread of terror and the diffuseness of it. Even if he had followed the advice of me and many other people, I still think the same thing would have happened."
Presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry said Sunday he wanted to read Clarke's book before commenting.
Kerry's adviser on national security, Rand Beers, is a close associate of Clarke's and held the job as terrorism adviser under President Bush during part of 2002.
Bartlett, the White House communications director, noted Clarke's friendship with Beers and the upcoming presidential election.
"We believe the timing is questionable," Bartlett said. "When (Clarke) left office, he had every opportunity" to make any grievances known.