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White House Takes Issue With New Book Critical of Bush War on Terror - 2004-03-22

The White House is taking issue with a new book by a former top national security official that is highly critical of the Bush administration's handling of the war on terror.

The author of the book is Richard Clarke, who served several presidents as an advisor on counter-terrorism and resigned from the White House staff early last year.

Mr. Clarke says the Bush administration ignored the terrorist threat prior to the September 11, 2001, attacks on American soil. He says that from the start, this White House was fixated on Iraq, and tried to use the attacks as a pretext for war against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

In his book, Mr. Clarke recounts a conversation with President Bush the day after the attacks. He says the President instructed him to go over all the information available and see if he could find an Iraqi connection.

During an interview with the CBS television program 60 Minutes, the former White House counterterrorism coordinator recalled what happened next. "I said, Mr. President, we've done this before, we have been looking at this, looked at it with an open mind. There is no connection [with Iraq]. He came back at me and said, 'Iraq, Saddam. Find out if there is a connection.' Now he never said, make it up. But the entire conversation left me with absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted to come back with a report that said Iraq did this," he said.

His book, called Against All Enemies, is the first detailed look at the way the Bush administration has handled the war on terror by someone who was actually involved in the formulation of policy. It clearly hit a nerve with many of Mr. Clarke's former colleagues, who immediately called his credibility into question.

The president's chief national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice responded with an opinion piece in The Washington Post in which she stressed the administration worked hard from the very beginning to counter the threat posed by al-Qaida terrorists. She said the president was right to keep an open mind after the September 11 attacks and consider all sorts of ties to the terrorist network.

Ms. Rice followed up with interviews on a number of television networks. She told NBC's Today show that once the culprit was clear, Mr. Bush demanded action. "The president returned to the White House and called me in and said, 'I've learned from [CIA Director] George Tenet that there is no evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. This is going to be about Afghanistan. Iraq is going to be put to the side,'" she said.

The tough talk continued with White House Spokesman Scott McClellan who leveled blunt criticism at Richard Clarke. "His assertion that there was something that we could have done to prevent the September 11th attacks from happening is deeply irresponsible, it's offensive, it's flat-out false," he said.

He told reporters that President Bush has no recollection of a conversation with Mr. Clarke on the day after the attacks. When asked what might have prompted the former presidential advisor to make these allegations, the White House spokesman noted Richard Clarke's closest friend works for Senator John Kerry, the likely Democratic presidential nominee.

Mr. McClellan said this book may have more to do with politics than policy. "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," he said.

But Mr. Clarke denies he is trying to help the Democrats, saying he considers himself to be a political independent. He says he has been involved in public service for 30 years, and considers it his duty to get the facts out. He will share his views this week with the commission investigating the 2001 terrorist attacks.