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President ‘Took His Eye Off the Ball’ in Fight Against Terrorism, Boxer Says

Times Staff Writer

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer said Monday that President Bush cannot be faulted for failing to predict the events of Sept. 11, 2001, but he is to blame for diverting key resources in the war against terrorism to invade Iraq.

In Orange County to accept a re-election endorsement from the local firefighters union, Boxer said Bush was passive when alerted by a key intelligence memo about a month before the attacks that Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network was engaged in “suspicious activity” in the United States consistent with preparations for hijacking an airplane.

Then, after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon came and it was clear Bin Laden was the mastermind, “Why did Bush fixate on Iraq?” Boxer asked a small group of firefighters at union headquarters in Santa Ana. She said the president should have “focused like a laser beam” on Bin Laden and his network.

Instead, Bush “took his eye off the ball and he’s made us less safe,” she said.

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“There were more Al Qaeda activities in our midst than in Iraq,” said Boxer, who opposed the Senate resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq and who was among a dozen senators who voted against Bush’s $87-billion request to pay for U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Her critique echoed those of former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, who has suggested to the commission studying the Sept. 11 attacks that, by invading Iraq, Bush undermined the war on terrorism by shifting resources and giving potential terrorists new reasons to hate the U.S.

Supporters of the president say Bush was never given information specific enough to warrant an immediate response, and that Iraq posed a legitimate threat to U.S. security.

Boxer’s Republican challenger, former California Secretary of State Bill Jones, has said that her opposition to the war is evidence that she is out of sync with most Californians.

In a campaign swing with President Bush just days after the March primary, Jones compared Boxer with presumed Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, calling them extremist twins.

“The president, in the short time he was in office, far and away did more to make this country safe than the prior administration did in eight years,” Jones said.

Jones said that as chair of the Senate select intelligence committee in the six months before the Sept. 11 attacks, Boxer was privy to similar intelligence information.

Jones’ campaign has struggled to draw support away from Boxer, a liberal Marin County congresswoman when first elected in 1992. She has dominated him in fundraising by millions of dollars.

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Her campaign announced Monday that she raised $1.5 million since the last campaign filing Feb. 11, bringing her cash on hand to nearly $6 million. Overall, she has raised $11 million for her re-election; in 1998, she spent nearly $14 million to defeat Republican challenger Matt Fong.

Jones’ campaign said he will report having $200,000 on hand as of March 31. Since he declared his candidacy in December, he has raised $1.4 million -- about $1 million of that before the March 2 primary.

Boxer’s campaign has focused since the primary on domestic issues, primarily jobs, education, healthcare, the environment and civil rights.

She has faulted Jones for opposing abortion rights and gun control measures when he served in the Legislature and for supporting an expansion of offshore oil drilling.

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Firefighters have been her frequent campaign companions. During her fall campaign kickoff last month, among her first stops was the Fire House Museum near Olvera Street in Los Angeles.

On Monday, Boxer reminded the union members that she is co-sponsoring the SAFER Firefighters Act, which would provide grants of up to $100,000 for three years to encourage the hiring of 75,000 firefighters nationwide by 2010. The legislation is pending.


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