White House strikes back at former counterterrorism adviser

The White House Monday launched a multipronged attack on former White House "counterterrorism czar" Richard Clarke, who has recently criticized the Bush administration for its handling of the war on terrorism and for seeking nonexistent connections between prewar Iraq and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In an interview with CBS' 60 Minutes broadcast on the eve of the release of his book Against All Enemies, Clarke accused the Bush administration of failing to adequately consider the threat posed by al-Qaeda after taking office. As an example, Clark said that he sent a memo in January 2001 to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice requesting a Cabinet-level meeting to discuss the al-Qaeda threat, but no meeting was held until April, and then only with deputy-level officials in various relevant departments.

Clarke also described White House meetings held soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to determine an appropriate military response - meetings that Clarke said he had expected to focus on al-Qaeda and Afghanistan, but instead involved discussions on attacking Iraq. In addition, Clarke said that President George W. Bush personally directed him "in a very intimidating way" to examine whether former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had any connections to the attacks.

The White House launched an aggressive defensive yesterday, with Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney conducting several media interviews regarding the allegations.

In a radio interview with conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh, Cheney criticized Clarke for failing to stop several al-Qaeda attacks against U.S. interests during the 1990s while working as a White House counterterrorism adviser during the Clinton administration.

"He was here throughout those eight years, going back to 1993, and the first attack on the World Trade Center; and '98, when the embassies were hit in East Africa; in 2000, when the USS Cole was hit. And the question that ought to be asked is, what were they doing in those days when he was in charge of counterterrorism efforts?" Cheney said.

The criticism of Clarke's counterterrorism record continued yesterday on the floor of the Senate.

"For him [Clarke] to have the gall or the nerve to start pointing a finger at President Bush saying he did not do enough in fighting the war on terrorism when Mr. Clarke was actually in a position to really do something for two or three years during the Clinton administration, I find unbelievable," Senator Don Nickles, R-Okla., said.

While denying that the White House focused solely on Iraq as being responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, Rice said yesterday that it had been a "logical question" to consider whether Hussein might have had some involvement.

"It makes perfectly good sense that when you're thinking about against whom are you going to retaliate, that you keep an open mind. And the president asked about Iraq. It was a logical question, given our history with Iraq. But I can tell you … that when we got to Camp David on Sept. 15, it was a map of Afghanistan that was spread out on the table," Rice said in an interview with CBS' "Early Show."

In her appearances yesterday, Rice also responded to Clarke's criticism of the administration's response to his efforts to brief officials on the threat posed by al-Qaeda soon after the inauguration. At that time, she said, Clarke was told that such a briefing was not needed and was instead asked to provide proposals to attack al-Qaeda. Rice also said that several of Clarke's proposals had been "tried by the Clinton administration."

"The key here was not to have a meeting. The key was to have a strategy. We needed a broad and comprehensive strategy that would not roll back al-Qaeda, which had been the strategy of the past, but would eliminate al-Qaeda," Rice told NBC's Today.

In several instances yesterday, the White House also said there were personal biases behind Clarke's criticisms. For example, White House press secretary Scott McClellan accused Clarke of criticizing the creation of the Homeland Security Department only after failing to obtain the deputy homeland security secretary position.

"If someone is going to make these kind of serious allegations, it's important to look back at his past comments and his past actions and compare that with what his current rhetoric is," McClellan said.

In his interview with Rush Limbaugh, Cheney also suggested Clarke might have personal reasons for criticizing Rice. "I've worked with a lot of them over the years. I suppose he may have a grudge to bear there since he wanted a more prominent position than she was prepared to give him," Cheney said.

McClellan yesterday also accused Clarke of having political motivations behind his criticisms, saying Clarke's "best buddy" was Rand Beers, a foreign policy adviser to the presidential campaign of Senator John Kerry, D-Mass.

"Why all of a sudden, if he had all these grave concerns, did he not raise these sooner? This is 1 1/2 years after he left the administration. And now all of a sudden he's raising these grave concerns that he claims he had," McClellan said. "And I think you have to look at some of the facts. One, 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," McClellan added.

In an interview today with ABC's "Good Morning America," Clarke said he was not surprised by the criticism leveled at him by the White House.

"They've got lots of people, on taxpayers' dollars by the way, out refuting these charges. But they're not really going after the main charge," Clarke said. "They're throwing lots of things up in the air - flak - to divert me, and to divert other people, to, you know, basically personal attacks. And I don't think we should be involved in that sort of personal attack and trivia," he added.

Clarke also denied that personal or political reasons were behind his accusations.

"I'm not doing this because I'm disgruntled. I'm doing this because I think the American people need to know the truth. And if someone else had told the truth, if the story had already been out there, I wouldn't be doing this. But I think the American people, this year especially, need to know all the facts. That's why I'm doing it," he said.

The White House's quick and aggressive response to Clark may be indicative as to how serious the administration views his claims, according to Charles Pena, director of defense polices studies at the CATO Institute in Washington. Pena compared the reaction Clarke's book received to the relatively milder response garnered earlier this year by a book written by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, which also criticized the Bush administration for its focus on Iraq. Clarke's book is "much more damning" than O'Neill's, Pena said, because of Clarke's former position as a top White House counterterrorism adviser.

The White House, though, may also have felt that an aggressive response was needed to repudiate what it saw as false allegations, Pena told Global Security Newswire Tuesday. "If you are innocent, you are much more vocal about being innocent," he said.

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