9/11 Allegations Draw Bush’s Fire
An anxious White House scrambled Monday to rebut allegations in a new book that President Bush had failed to take the threat of terrorism seriously before the 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
In an unusually strong response, the White House sent top-ranking officials to television news and talk radio programs to counter accusations from Richard Clarke, the Bush administration’s former counterterrorism chief. The daylong attack on Clarke and his book demonstrated that his criticism could threaten the president’s credibility on his signature issue -- his efforts against terrorism -- at the start of what is already an incendiary reelection campaign.
Clarke’s charges set the stage for what is likely to be a week of recrimination, as an independent commission created by Congress begins today to question top Clinton and Bush administration officials over what they did and did not do to prevent terrorist attacks on the U.S.
Throughout the day Monday, Bush remained largely out of sight inside the West Wing, emerging only for a photo-op that excluded reporters. Meanwhile, from morning to night, publicly and privately, White House officials tried to turn the credibility question around by criticizing Clarke, suggesting he was unhappy about bureaucratic changes that had diminished his access to the president.
“He wasn’t in the loop, frankly, on a lot of this stuff,” Vice President Dick Cheney told radio host Rush Limbaugh.
White House officials, including national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, even suggested that Clarke -- who served as counterterrorism chief for the eight years of the Clinton administration before Rice asked him to stay on -- bore some responsibility for not doing enough to recognize the terrorism danger.
“He had been the counterterrorism czar when the embassies were bombed in 1998,” Rice told NBC’s “Today” show, referring to the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. “He was the counterterrorism czar when the [U.S. destroyer] Cole was bombed in 2000. He was the counterterrorism czar for the entire period in which the Al Qaeda plot was being hatched that ended up in Sept. 11, 2001.”
White House spokesman Scott McClellan was even more blunt during his daily noon briefing: “Dick Clarke was here for some eight years. This administration was here for some 230 days before the attacks on Sept. 11.”
Clarke’s criticism creates political problems for the White House because it is an authoritative, insider account that could be perceived as a credible attack on the administration’s handling of the war on terrorism.
The thrust of Clarke’s criticism is that the Bush administration ignored repeated warnings about Al Qaeda before Sept. 11 -- and has pursued misguided policies ever since -- because it was obsessed with Iraq.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times on Monday, Clarke repeated an account relayed in his book of a Sept. 12, 2001, encounter with the president. In that conversation, Clarke said, Bush told him -- in front of four National Security Council colleagues -- to look for an Iraq connection to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Clarke already had told the president that years of investigation had found no links between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
“I told him that. [CIA Director] George Tenet told him that,” Clarke said in the interview. “So if they are saying [the Sept. 12 conversation] didn’t happen and they are calling into question my credibility, then they have to explain the mass hallucination that must have occurred when four other people saw and heard it happen.”
The White House has responded by casting Clarke as a man nursing grudges because he did not get the attention, status or rank he thought he deserved.
“I suppose he may have a grudge to bear there, since he probably wanted a more prominent position than [Rice] was prepared to give him,” Cheney said.
One of Clarke’s main criticisms of the Bush administration is that senior officials, including Rice, did not respond to his calls for a meeting of Bush’s top advisors to discuss Al Qaeda. For instance, Clarke said, he wrote Bush on Jan. 25, 2001, immediately after Bush took office, and asked for an urgent meeting to discuss what he perceived to be the imminent threat of an Al Qaeda attack.
“I even underlined the word ‘urgent,’ because it was urgent,” Clarke said. “And they didn’t have it until Sept. 4,” just one week before the attacks. “I think they didn’t have terrorism as a high priority on their agenda when they came in. They had [the space-based military system] ‘Star Wars,’ China and Iraq on the agenda. I think they accepted that it was important, but they didn’t accept it as being urgent. And it was urgent.”
Clarke also complained that he did not get to brief the president himself on the issue until after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Administration officials responded Monday by saying that Bush had decided to operate his National Security Council staff differently than did former President Clinton, and that Clarke seemed to see the changes as a demotion. Although Clarke had been able to brief Clinton directly, Bush chose to have his daily intelligence briefing delivered by Tenet.
They also argued that Clarke’s anti-terrorism proposals were inadequate, and that no meeting of top officials was held because Rice had asked Clarke to come up with a strategy not just to “roll back” Al Qaeda, but to eliminate it.
Administration officials also noted that Clarke had resigned shortly after he was turned down for the job of deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. And they pointed out that he is a close friend of another former Bush administration official, Rand Beers, who now is the chief foreign policy advisor to the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.
“We’re in the heat of a presidential campaign right now, and all of a sudden he comes out with a book that he is seeking to promote,” McClellan said of Clarke. “He is actively going out there and putting himself on, you know, prime-time news shows and morning shows to promote this book, and he is making charges that simply did not happen.”
Clarke’s claim that the administration was preoccupied with Iraq meshes with accounts from other officials inside and outside the White House, most notably former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill.
In a book released in January, O’Neill alleged that Iraq was a target of the administration from its first National Security Council meeting. In his book on the aftermath of Sept. 11, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward reported that top Bush advisors raised the issue of attacking Iraq as early as the weekend after the towers fell.
The Bush administration could face more questions this week about its anti-terrorism preparations, and its response to Sept. 11, as numerous high-ranking officials testify before the commission investigating failures leading up to the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell are scheduled to testify today before the panel on Capitol Hill, alongside their Clinton administration counterparts. On Wednesday, the hearings are to resume with testimony from Tenet and Clarke.
Political analysts and historians say the affair is potentially very damaging for the president.
“Usually, such charges drop down the memory hole,” said Fred Greenstein, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “But, one, the campaign is underway. Two, Bush is running on his strength as a war leader, so this hits him where it hurts.
“Three, if Kerry remains to be defined, Bush is capable of being redefined.”
Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Clarke’s charges are “potentially quite dangerous” for Bush.
“The 9/11 commission hearings this week will keep them in play longer than might otherwise be the case. And then his arguments might get new life when the commission report is released,” Mann said.
Although the commission has sought to maintain a bipartisan tone, Clarke’s book provides fodder and fresh details for Democrats to use as they question administration witnesses.
Clarke devotes dozens of pages to documenting Bush officials’ alleged fixation on Saddam Hussein. Long before the Sept. 11 attacks, Clarke writes, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz complained whenever counterterrorism sessions dwelt on Osama Bin Laden, arguing the priority instead should be Baghdad. And Rumsfeld is portrayed as proposing bombing Iraq as part of the response to the Sept. 11 attacks because it “had better targets” than Afghanistan.
Clarke is sharply critical of how the Bush administration conducted the war in Afghanistan, noting that it was months before significant numbers of troops were deployed to the country, and that even then the presence never amounted to the equivalent of a single division. By the time of the springtime assault of Anaconda, the last major attack on Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, Bin Laden and other top enemy figures had escaped.
Within a year, Arabic linguists, intelligence equipment and military personnel were being diverted to the Persian Gulf to begin preparations for the invasion of Iraq, Clarke said, robbing crucial resources from the effort to hunt down Al Qaeda’s upper echelon.
Clarke contends that the result has been a lost opportunity on a magnitude greater than most people realize. While U.S. forces have been confronting insurgents in Iraq, Al Qaeda has morphed into a more decentralized organization, less dependent on Bin Laden and his deputies for direction. Clarke also asserts that the war in Iraq has multiplied America’s enemies in the Muslim world.
The Bush administration vigorously rejects this criticism, saying that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism and that the installation of a democratic government will eventually stabilize the region and rob Al Qaeda of the sense of disenfranchisement that sustains its support in the Arab world.
Bush has undermined the war on terrorism, Clarke says, by attacking Iraq and infuriating potential allies around the world that might have stayed by the United States’ side if a more collaborative approach had been used. And the president, he asserts, has made Americans far less safe than before Sept. 11 by alienating Muslims around the world and pushing many of them into siding with Al Qaeda and other militant Islamic groups.
“The war in Iraq has made the world a better place for terrorists and a less safe place for everybody else,” Clarke said in his interview with The Times.
Clarke also disputed Bush administration contentions that his book and his observations were politically motivated.
“The only way they’re getting at this is to say I’m auditioning for a high-level job in the Kerry administration,” Clarke said. “So let me just say that not only am I not auditioning for a job in the Kerry administration, but that I would not accept one if offered.”
Asked why, Clarke said: “I’ve done 30 years in government.”
Although polls show that the public generally gives Bush high marks for handling the response to Sept. 11, the White House has been sensitive to criticism.
The administration initially opposed creation of the commission investigating the government’s response to Sept. 11, and the panel has repeatedly complained about access to documents and witnesses. Bush has agreed to be interviewed by the panel, but the administration had sought to impose a one-hour time limit. Rice also has spoken to the commission, but declined invitations to testify in public.
Eight Senate Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, sent a letter to the White House on Monday urging Bush to reverse that position and allow Rice to provide public testimony.
Times staff writers Josh Meyer, Edwin Chen and Sonni Efron contributed to this report.