Bush ignored terror threat, claims adviser
George Bush's re-election campaign suffered a 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 view 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 "tsar" 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 counterterrorism 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 time when the Bush re-election campaign 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 more concerned about Iraq. He said his urgent request in January that year for a cabinet-level meeting on the possibility of an attack was only granted a few days before 9/11. 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.