Aide's Book Details Bush 9/11 ResponseBy Barton Gellman
Fingers Pointed at Iraq, Clarke Writes
Washington Post Staff Writer
On the evening of Sept. 12, 2001, according to a newly published memoir, President Bush wandered alone around the Situation Room in a White House emptied by the previous day's calamitous events.
Spotting Richard A. Clarke, his counterterrorism coordinator, Bush pulled him and a small group of aides into the dark paneled room.
"Go back over everything, everything," Bush said, according to Clarke's account. "See if Saddam did this."
"But Mr. President, al Qaeda did this," Clarke replied.
"I know, I know, but . . . see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred."
Reminded that the CIA, FBI and White House staffs had sought and found no such link before, Clarke said, Bush spoke "testily." As he left the room, Bush said a third time, "Look into Iraq, Saddam."
For Clarke, then in his 10th year as a top White House official, that day marked the transition from neglect to folly in the Bush administration's stewardship of war with Islamic extremists. His account -- in "Against All Enemies," which reaches bookstores today, and in interviews accompanying publication -- is the first detailed portrait of the Bush administration's wartime performance by a major participant. Acknowledged by foes and friends as a leading figure among career national security officials, Clarke served more than two years in the Bush White House after holding senior posts under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He resigned 13 months ago yesterday.
Although expressing points of disagreement with all four presidents, Clarke reserves by far his strongest language for George W. Bush. The president, he said, "failed to act prior to September 11 on the threat from al Qaeda despite repeated warnings and then harvested a political windfall for taking obvious yet insufficient steps after the attacks." The rapid shift of focus to Saddam Hussein, Clarke writes, "launched an unnecessary and costly war in Iraq that strengthened the fundamentalist, radical Islamic terrorist movement worldwide."
Among the motives for the war, Clarke argues, were the politics of the 2002 midterm election. "The crisis was manufactured, and Bush political adviser Karl Rove was telling Republicans to 'run on the war,' " Clarke writes.
Clarke describes his book, in the preface, as "factual, not polemical," and he said in an interview that he was a registered Republican in the 2000 election. But the book arrives amid a general election campaign in which Bush asks to be judged as a wartime president, and Clarke has thrust himself loudly among the critics. Publication also coincides with politically sensitive public testimony this week by Clinton and Bush administration officials -- including Clarke -- before an independent commission investigating the events of Sept. 11.
"I'm sure I'll be criticized for lots of things, and I'm sure they'll launch their dogs on me," Clarke told CBS's "60 Minutes" in an interview broadcast last night. "But frankly I find it outrageous that the president is running for reelection on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism."
On the same broadcast, deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said, "We cannot find evidence that this conversation between Mr. Clarke and the president ever occurred." In interviews for this story, two people who were present confirmed Clarke's account. They said national security adviser Condoleezza Rice witnessed the exchange.
Rice, in an opinion article published opposite The Washington Post editorial page today, writes: "It would have been irresponsible not to ask a question about all possible links, including to Iraq -- a nation that had supported terrorism and had tried to kill a former president. Once advised that there was no evidence that Iraq was responsible for Sept. 11, the president told his national security council on Sept. 17 that Iraq was not on the agenda and that the initial U.S. response to Sept. 11 would be to target al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan."
White House and Pentagon officials who spoke only on the condition of anonymity described Clarke's public remarks as self-serving and politically motivated.
Like former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill, who spoke out in January, Clarke said some of Bush's leading advisers arrived in office determined to make war on Iraq. Nearly all of them, he said, believed Clinton had been "overly obsessed with al Qaeda."
During Bush's first week in office, Clarke asked urgently for a Cabinet-level meeting on al Qaeda. He did not get it -- or permission to brief the president directly on the threat -- for nearly eight months. When deputies to the Cabinet officials took up the subject in April, Clarke writes, the meeting "did not go well."
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, Clarke wrote, scowled and asked, "why we are beginning by talking about this one man, bin Laden." When Clarke told him no foe but al Qaeda "poses an immediate and serious threat to the United States," Wolfowitz is said to have replied that Iraqi terrorism posed "at least as much" of a danger. FBI and CIA representatives backed Clarke in saying they had no such evidence.
"I could hardly believe," Clarke writes, that Wolfowitz pressed the "totally discredited" theory that Iraq was behind the 1993 truck bomb at the World Trade Center, "a theory that had been investigated for years and found to be totally untrue."
Wolfowitz, in a telephone interview last night, cited statements by CIA Director George J. Tenet and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell affirming that Iraq once trained al Qaeda operatives in bomb making and document forgery.
"Given what George Tenet and Colin Powell have said publicly about Iraqi links to al Qaeda, I just find it hard to understand how Dick Clarke can be so dismissive of the possibility that there were links between them," Wolfowitz said.
Like Tenet, Clarke was a Clinton holdover who faced initial skepticism from Bush loyalists. But Rice asked him to keep the counterterrorism portfolio and discouraged him from leaving in February 2003.
In the first minutes after hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, Rice placed Clarke in her chair in the Situation Room and asked him to direct the government's crisis response. The next day, Clarke returned to find the subject changed to Iraq.
"I realized with almost a sharp physical pain that [Defense Secretary Donald H.] Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were going to try to take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq," he writes.
In discussions of military strikes, "Secretary Rumsfeld complained that there were no decent targets for bombing in Afghanistan" -- where al Qaeda was based under protection of the Taliban -- "and that we should consider bombing Iraq."
Clarke's disputes with the White House are notable in part because his muscular national security views allied him often over the years with most of the leading figures advising Bush on terrorism and Iraq. As an assistant secretary of state in 1991, Clarke worked closely with Wolfowitz and then-Defense Secretary Cheney to marshal the 32-nation coalition that expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Clarke sided with Wolfowitz -- against Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- in a losing argument to extend that war long enough to destroy Iraq's Republican Guard. Later, Clarke was principal author of the hawkish U.S. plan to rid Iraq of its nonconventional weapons under threat of further military force.
In his experience, Clarke writes, Bush's description by critics as "a dumb, lazy rich kid" is "somewhat off the mark." Bush has "a results-oriented mind, but he looked for the simple solution, the bumper sticker description of the problem."
"Any leader whom one can imagine as president on September 11 would have declared a 'war on terrorism' and would have ended the Afghan sanctuary [for al Qaeda] by invading," Clarke writes. "What was unique about George Bush's reaction" was the additional choice to invade "not a country that had been engaging in anti-U.S. terrorism but one that had not been, Iraq." In so doing, he estranged allies, enraged potential friends in the Arab and Islamic worlds, and produced "more terrorists than we jail or shoot."
"It was as if Osama bin Laden, hidden in some high mountain redoubt, were engaging in long-range mind control of George Bush, chanting 'invade Iraq, you must invade Iraq,' " Clarke writes.
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