Terrorism was among top priorities, Rice says

Adviser acknowledges Bush had other concerns, but calls Clarke `arrogant'

March 26, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Despite its strenuous efforts to discredit Richard A. Clarke's accusations, the White House acknowledges that in the months before Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism was not the overriding foreign-policy priority Clarke says he tried to make it.

"Urgent priority? Absolutely. Only priority? No," Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, said in one of the briefings intended to counter Clarke's testimony this week.

The Bush administration entered office in 2001 with its own national security agenda, which it articulated before and after the 2000 elections.

High on the list: development of a national missile defense system, strengthening of U.S. military forces, increasing of pressure on "rogue states" and adoption of what officials saw as a more hard-headed approach to Russia and China.

Briefing reporters Wednesday, Rice denounced what she called "scurrilous allegations that somehow the president of the United States was not attentive to the terrorism threat."

She also bristled at the suggestion in Clarke's just-published book that in early 2001 she did not appear to have heard of the name al-Qaida.

"This is arrogant in the extreme," Rice said, adding that she found a reporter's question on Clarke's assertion "insulting."

"I'm a specialist in international politics. I've heard of a few things before I met Dick Clarke," who served as White House counterterrorism chief in both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

But Rice, in a lengthy article on Republican foreign policy for Foreign Affairs magazine during the 2000 presidential race, mentioned terrorism only briefly and in the context of the war in Chechnya and the need to deal decisively with "rogue regimes and hostile powers."

Yesterday afternoon, Rice asked for a private meeting with the commission investigating Sept. 11 to respond to "inaccurate" statements made at the commission hearings.

President Bush acknowledged that before Sept. 11, Osama bin Laden "was not his focus or that of his national-security team," according to Bob Woodward's 2002 book, Bush at War.

"I didn't feel that sense of urgency," Bush told the author, "and my blood was not nearly as boiling" as it was after Sept. 11.

But addressing the issue yesterday during a speech in Nashua, N.H., the president said: "Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to strike America, to attack us, I would have used every resource, every asset, every power of this government, to protect the American people."

Samuel R. Berger, who was President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, has said he warned Rice just before Bush took office that she would spend more time on terrorism and al-Qaida than on any other issue, according to his testimony before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

Colin L. Powell's first briefing as secretary of state, at his request, was on counterterrorism, according to his deputy, Richard Armitage.

But Clarke writes that the incoming administration considered the Clinton team "overly obsessed" with al-Qaida and the idea of making it one of their top priorities, "well, rather odd."

Even immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, some high officials in the administration found it hard to accept that they could have been carried out by a terrorist network operating without a nation's backing.

Though Clarke and his staff were kept on in the new Bush administration, he was downgraded in the reporting chain of command and lacked the same access to the president he had enjoyed under Clinton.

Bush's top foreign policy advisers, according to Clarke, had "a full agenda and a backlog of Bush priority issues." Those included plans to dissolve the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty with the former Soviet Union, renouncing the Kyoto environmental accord, and Iraq.

"The daily NSC staff briefings were filled with detailed discussion about the ABM Treaty and other issues that I thought were vestigial Cold War concerns," Clarke writes.

Rice, in her briefings late Wednesday, insisted, "We did everything during that period that we could" on terrorism, but added, "There were other things that had to be done as well."

Those things included dealing with a crisis with Beijing after China's downing of a U.S. spy plane and "trying to build a relationship with Russia, China."

She said the improved relationship with Russia paid dividends after Sept. 11, when Russia allowed the stationing of U.S. forces in Central Asia for the invasion of Afghanistan.

Early in the new administration, Rice added, there was also "a pretty bad dustup" with Iraq. In February 2001, U.S. and British warplanes struck radar and communications sites south of Baghdad in the largest allied attack on Iraq in three years.

At the Pentagon, which was becoming a powerful force in foreign policy, counterterrorism officials got the impression that the Bush team was "focused on other issues and was not especially interested in their agenda," according to a report by the commission staff.

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