WASHINGTON (REUTERS) — President Bush ignored the threat of al Qaeda for months and did too little to stop the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, a former administration counterterrorism official said Sunday.
Richard Clarke’s accusations, aired in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview, drew a detailed point-by-point rebuttal from the White House as it attempted to defend Bush’s standing as a presidential candidate who is tough on terrorism.
In the program on his book to be published Monday, Clarke charged that Bush had done “a terrible job” in combating the threat from terrorism.
“I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he’s done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11,” Clarke told CBS.
“I think the way he has responded to al Qaeda, both before 9/11 by doing nothing, and by what he’s done after 9/11, has made us less safe,” said Clarke, who was Bush’s top counterterrorism expert until he resigned in February 2003 after serving in every U.S. government since the Reagan administration.
In an unusually detailed statement seeking to debunk what it labeled “myths” from Clarke’s book, the White House denied the assertion that Bush did not treat al Qaeda as a serious threat before it attacked the United States.
“The president specifically recognized the threat posed by al Qaeda and immediately after taking office the White House began work on a comprehensive new strategy to eliminate al Qaeda,” The White House said.
“The president specifically told (national security advisor) Dr. (Condoleezza) Rice that he was ‘tired of swatting flies’ and wanted to go on the offense against al Qaeda, rather than simply waiting to respond.”
Clarke, who headed a cybersecurity board before resigning, is set to testify this week before the independent commission investigating the 2001 hijacked airplane attacks in New York and on the Pentagon that killed some 3,000 people.
The White House rebutted Clarke’s charge that before the Sept. 11 attacks the administration was focused on Iraq rather than on al Qaeda and that immediately after the attacks it searched for a way to blame Saddam Hussein.
Clarke said Bush took him aside the day after the 9/11 attacks and ordered him to “see if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way.”
Clarke said he responded that al Qaeda was responsible and that Iraq was not linked to the attacks. However, he agreed to look into Bush’s request and again found no cooperation between Saddam and al Qaeda.
Deputy national security advisor Steve Hadley disputed Clarke’s characterization of the president’s request.
“The point, I think, is that of course the president was trying to find out who caused 9/11 … And he couldn’t rule out the possibility that it might have been Iraq, and he asked for the intelligence that we had on a possible link between Iraq and 9/11,” Hadley told “60 Minutes.”
Clarke also said the day after the Sept. 11 attacks, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested bombing Iraq, despite the lack of any evidence of Baghdad’s involvement.
When told al Qaeda’s bases were in Afghanistan, not Iraq, Clarke said Rumsfeld responded that there were no good bombing targets in Afghanistan, but there were plenty of such targets in Iraq. Clarke said he thought at first that Rumsfeld was joking, but quickly realized that he was deadly serious.
Among other claims in Clarke’s book, “Against All Enemies,” is that the Bush administration ignored intelligence “chatter” in 2001 about possible terror attacks, according to CBS.