Bush team jabs back at ex-terrorism adviser

Top aides counter charges president linked Hussein to 9/11 against evidence

March 23, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The charges flung at President Bush last weekend - that he spurned warnings about al-Qaida before Sept. 11 and later pushed for a link between Saddam Hussein and the hijackers even when told there was no evidence of any - have the potential to cause political damage.

That is, if they stick.

The White House vociferously denied the allegations yesterday and launched a full-scale counterattack on Bush's accuser, Richard A. Clarke, who served as the president's counterterrorism coordinator before resigning a year ago.

Senior aides took to the airwaves to try to discredit Clarke, a career official who also served Presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.

The stakes are high. Polls show that Bush's handling of the war on terror is his strongest suit among voters this election year, the lone major issue on which a solid majority trusts him over his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry.

Indeed, Clarke's charges went beyond complaints about how Bush's tax cuts might favor the rich or whether the president served his time in the National Guard. They struck at Bush's political heart.

The former counterterrorism official unleashed his broadside in a new book and in an interview Sunday night on CBS' 60 Minutes.

He is scheduled to testify in public hearings that begin today before the panel investigating what information Bush administration officials had before the terrorist attacks and whether they acted on it. The hearings of the independent commission might lend credibility to Clarke's allegations.

At the same time, the Sept. 11 panel's hearings will give Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell ample opportunity to rebut Clarke.

The White House, though, is wasting no time. Yesterday was an occasion for high-level damage control.

Vice President Dick Cheney, sitting for a radio interview with Rush Limbaugh, asserted that Clarke "wasn't in the loop, frankly" and "may have a grudge to bear."

Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told CNN: "I really don't know what Richard Clarke's motivations are, but I'll tell you this: Richard Clarke had plenty of opportunities to tell us in the administration that he thought the war on terrorism was moving in the wrong direction, and he chose not to."

Scott McClellan, Bush's spokesman, asked: "Why did he wait until the beginning of a presidential campaign to come out with a book and, all of a sudden, raise these grave concerns that he claims to have had?"

McClellan labeled Clarke's attacks on Bush "Dick Clarke's American Grandstand."

White House officials offered a variety of possible explanations for Clarke's allegations. Maybe, some suggested, he had political motivations. Clarke, they noted, is a friend of Rand Beers, a foreign policy adviser to Kerry.

Maybe Clarke was embittered that he was passed over for the No. 2 job in the Homeland Security Department.

Maybe, they said, he was angry that he failed to obtain a higher national security post at the Bush White House. (Cheney said he can sniff out such sour grapes: "I've worked with a lot of them over the years," the vice president told Limbaugh.)

Among the former adviser's assertions:

That the president and his closest aides failed to act on stark warnings before Sept. 11 about a possible attack on the United States by al-Qaida.

That the president, in a meeting with Clarke after Sept. 11, pressured him to find a link between Hussein and al-Qaida, even after Clarke told Bush that national security staffers had sought but found no such evidence.

That an array of top advisers to Bush who also served under the president's father - Cheney, Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz - were intent on ousting Hussein, apparently seething that he had been allowed to remain in power in Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

"It was as though they were preserved in amber from when they left office eight years earlier," Clarke said on 60 Minutes.

"They came back. They wanted to work on the same issues right away."

That assessment parallels that of another former top Bush official, Paul H. O'Neill. After being pushed out of his job as Treasury secretary, O'Neill asserted in a book he published early this year that from the time Bush entered the White House, he began seeking a way to topple Hussein.

Bush's aides, beyond trying to discredit Clarke yesterday, portrayed a very different president. They insisted that Bush was deeply concerned about the al-Qaida threat before 9/11.

The president, they argued, had pressed his advisers to determine whether a terrorist attack on U.S. soil might be imminent, even though intelligence was pointing to a more likely attack overseas.

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