George Bush’s re-election campaign suffered a stinging blow yesterday when the president’s former chief counter-terrorism adviser accused him of doing “a terrible job” in protecting America against attack, largely because of a fixation on Iraq.
Richard Clarke, who retired as the White House counter-terrorism coordinator last year, accused the president of putting pressure on him to find evidence of Iraqi involvement in the September 11 attacks, despite being told repeatedly that there was no link.
“I think he’s done a terrible job on the war against terrorism,” said Mr Clarke.
“Frankly, 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. Maybe. We’ll never know.”
Mr Clarke made his allegations in an interview last night on a CBS current affairs programme, 60 Minutes, and in greater detail in a book, Against All Enemies, published today. He is also expected to deliver a blistering critique of the administration’s performance tomorrow to a bipartisan commission investigating US preparedness for the 2001 attacks.
Mr Clarke’s book is the latest in a trickle of unflattering accounts of the Bush White House to emerge from people leaving the administration. It confirms the impression provided by a former treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, of an ideological clique fixated on Iraq.
White House officials have questioned Mr Clarke’s impartiality, pointing out that he served as counter-terrorist “czar” in Bill Clinton’s White House, and although he stayed on after Mr Bush’s election, he lost his cabinet rank. However, Mr Clarke also served as a state department counter-terrorism adviser under President Reagan and the first President Bush.
A senior Republican senator, Chuck Hagel, yesterday described Mr Clarke as “a serious professional”, adding that “the White House is going to have to answer these charges”.
Mr Clarke’s account comes at a critical moment for the Bush re-election campaign, at a time when it is spending millions of dollars to define the president as a decisive wartime leader, and his Democratic challenger, John Kerry, as a vacillating liberal who is “weak on defence”.
One of Mr Clarke’s tasks was to chair the administration’s counter-terrorism and security group, a panel of CIA, FBI and White House experts that met several times a week to assess foreign threats.
He depicted the Bush White House as being uninterested in the threat from al-Qaida in its first eight months in office, and far more concerned about Iraq. He said his urgent request in January that year for a cabinet-level meeting on the possibility of a terrorist assault was only granted a few days before the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. At crisis meetings in the White House the day after those attacks, Mr Clarke said he expected to discuss how to strike back at al-Qaida bases in Afghanistan, and was surprised when the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, quickly shifted the subject to Iraq.
“Rumsfeld was saying that we needed to bomb Iraq,” Mr Clarke said in last night’s interview. “And we all said … no, no. Al-Qaida is in Afghanistan. We need to bomb Afghanistan. And Rumsfeld said there aren’t any good targets in Afghanistan. And there are lots of good targets in Iraq.”
Mr Clarke initially thought that Mr Rumsfeld was joking, but quickly discovered he had the backing of Mr Bush.
“The president dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door, and said, ‘I want you to find whether Iraq did this.’ Now he never said, ‘Make it up.’ But the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said Iraq did this,” he said.
“I said, ‘Mr President. We’ve done this before. We have been looking at this. We looked at it with an open mind. There’s no connection …’ He came back at me and said, ‘Iraq! Saddam! Find out if there’s a connection.’ And in a very intimidating way. I mean, that we should come back with that answer.” Mr Clarke coordinated the writing of a report by the CIA, FBI, and his own staff, concluding that Iraq had few links with al-Qaida and no involvement in the September 11 attacks. He said: “We sent it up to the president and it got bounced by the national security adviser or deputy. It got bounced and sent back saying, ‘Wrong answer … Do it again.’ I have no idea, to this day, if the president saw it, because after we did it again, it came to the same conclusion.”
The deputy national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, objected to Mr Clarke’s account, arguing that the president had been alert to the possibility of an al-Qaida attack on US terri? tory in the weeks before September 11. “All the chatter was of an attack, a potential al-Qaida attack overseas. But interestingly enough, the president got concerned about whether there was the possibility of an attack on the homeland,” Mr Hadley said. “He asked the intelligence community: ‘Look hard. See if we’re missing something about a threat to the homeland’.”
Mr Clarke’s revelations are the latest skirmish in a long battle between Republicans and Democrats to assign blame for September 11. The Clinton administration has also been accused of mounting only fitful responses to al-Qaida attacks in east Africa in 1998 and on the USS Cole destroyer two years later.
JULIAN BORGER writes for the Guardian of London, where this story originally appeared.