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U.S.: Former White House Aide Says Bush Focused On Iraq, Not Al-Qaeda

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is again disputing allegations made in a book by a former senior aide. Two months ago, Paul O'Neill, who had been fired as the U.S. Treasury secretary, wrote that long before the war on terrorism, Bush wanted to find a way to depose Saddam Hussein. Now Richard Clarke, who resigned a year ago as the White House's coordinator on counterterrorism, writes in a new book that Bush ignored evidence that the United States was vulnerable to an attack by Al-Qaeda in the months before 11 September 2001.

Washington, 23 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In his book, "Against All Enemies," Richard Clarke writes that from the beginning of his administration, Bush was so determined to depose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that he was distracted from the threat posed by Al-Qaeda.

And yet, Clarke says, Bush now believes he deserves to win a second four-year term in the presidential election this November because of his response to 11 September and the war in Iraq. Clarke expressed his indignation in an interview broadcast 22 March on an American news program ("60 Minutes").

"I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he has 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 said.

Clarke spent 10 years as a White House counterterrorism expert, first under Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, then President Bill Clinton, and finally under the current President Bush. He says he quit a year ago because he believed the current administration was not taking the Al-Qaeda threat seriously.

He writes that more than three years ago -- days after Bush took office -- Clarke strongly urged the White House national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to call for a meeting of senior advisers to discuss the terrorist threat, but she refused.

The day after the 11 September attacks, Clarke writes, Bush himself took an interest -- but seemed more concerned about Iraq than Al-Qaeda. He says the president told him and several other aides, "See if Saddam did this."

Clarke says he replied that Al-Qaeda already was being held responsible. But Bush insisted that he wanted what he called "any shred" that might link Hussein to the attacks. He writes that Bush appeared irritable when reminded that U.S. intelligence had found no such link previously, and said again, "Look into Saddam, Iraq."

Such allegations have prompted fiery denials from the Bush administration. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld yesterday dismissed Clarke's claim that Bush was seeking to tie the 9/11 attacks to Iraq.

"Certainly, it is true that we were talking about the fact our planes were being shot at in Iraq, but in terms of connecting it [to 11 September], the way some seem to want to do, it seems to me would be a misunderstanding of the situation," Rumsfeld said.

Clarke writes that misdirecting the U.S. response to 11 September led to a needless war in Iraq, stripped the United States of its credibility, alienated many of the country's allies, and increased the resentment of America in the Arab and Muslim world.

Because of his long service to presidents from both leading political parties, Clarke's conclusions are being considered carefully in Washington. Senator Edward Kennedy, a Democrat and a leading Bush critic, says the book shows that Bush's strategy actually has led to what he calls a "setback" in the war on terrorism.

Even a member of Bush's own Republican Party, Senator Chuck Hagel, says Clarke's accusations should not be dismissed. On 21 March, Hagel -- a leading Republican spokesperson on world affairs -- told a U.S. news program ("Meet the Press") that Bush and his aides would have to address the issue.

"This is a serious professional who was there [Clarke], and he makes some very serious charges, and the administration is going to have to answer those charges," Hagel said.

The White House answer came quickly. It accused Clarke of being motivated by politics. Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday that Clarke wants to profit from his book. McClellan also sought to link Clarke's claims to Bush challenger John Kerry, because of Clarke's longtime friendship with Kerry adviser, Rand Beers.

"He is bringing this up in the heat of a presidential campaign. He has written a book, and he certainly wants to go out there and promote that book. Certainly, let's look at the politics of it: His best buddy is Rand Beers, who is the principal foreign policy adviser to Senator Kerry's campaign," McClellan said.

Two political observers say they have no doubt that Clarke's actions are politically motivated, but they disagreed about the importance of his accusations.

Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, says that Clarke, in his television interview, could not hide what he called "a deep hatred" of Bush and his inner circle.

"I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he has done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it."
Sabato also says he finds it disturbing that Clarke would publish such disclosures while Bush was still in office. He says the practice could have a chilling effect on how a future president might interact with his advisers.

"This is a very new and disturbing trend. This is dangerous, because what people like Clarke are forcing presidents to do is to talk to fewer and fewer people. They cannot trust anyone. Anybody can end up writing a book during the term of the president. People used to have the good grace to wait until after the [president's] term was over before publishing books of this sort," Sabato said.

Alan Lichtman, a professor of U.S. history and politics at American University in Washington, agrees that presidents might be tempted to be overly circumspect in speaking with aides. But he adds that presidents should never say anything to anyone that they would not want known publicly.

He calls this his "Pennsylvania Avenue" rule for politics, referring to the avenue that connects the White House and Capitol Hill, where the U.S. Congress is located.

"I believe in the Pennsylvania Avenue rule: that is, you don't say anything unless you presume it's going to be broadcast all over Pennsylvania Avenue. My view is: The more sunshine [openness], the cleaner our politics and the better our politics," Lichtman said.