WASHINGTON – President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice (search), "looked skeptical" when she was warned early in 2001 about the threat from Al Qaeda (search) and appeared to never have heard of the terrorist organization, according to Bush's former counterterrorism coordinator.
"Her facial expression gave me the impression that she had never heard the term before," wrote Richard A. Clarke in a new book — "Against All Enemies" — that is scathingly critical of Bush's response to the 2001 terror attacks against New York and Washington. The Associated Press obtained a copy of Clarke's book before its Monday publication.
Clarke said Rice, who previously worked for Bush's father, appeared not to recognize post-Cold War (search) security issues and effectively demoted him within the national security council. He said Rice has an unusually close relationship with Bush, which "should have given her some maneuver room, some margin for shaping the agenda."
Clarke, expected to testify Tuesday before a federal panel investigating the attacks, recounted his meeting with Rice as support for his contention that the Bush administration failed to recognize the risk of an attack by Al Qaeda in the months leading to Sept. 11, 2001. Clarke retired in March 2003 after three decades in the U.S. government.
Clarke said within one week of the Bush inauguration he "urgently" sought a meeting of senior Cabinet leaders to discuss "the imminent Al Qaeda threat." Months later, in April, Clarke met with deputy secretaries. During that meeting, he wrote, the Defense Department's Paul Wolfowitz told Clarke, "You give bin Laden too much credit," and he said Wolfowitz sought to steer the discussion to Iraq.
The White House responded that it kept Clarke on its staff after the election because of its concerns over Al Qaeda. "He makes the charge that we were not focused enough on efforts to root out terrorism," White House spokesman Dan Bartlett said Sunday. "That's just categorically false."
Bartlett said Clarke's memo to Rice in January 2001 discussed recommendations to improve security at U.S. sites overseas, not inside the United States. "Each one of these, while important, wouldn't have impacted 9/11," Bartlett said.
Clarke harshly criticizes Bush personally in his book, saying his decision to invade Iraq generated broad anti-American sentiment among Arabs. He recounts that Bush asked him directly almost immediately after the Sept. 11 terror attacks to find whether Iraq was involved in the suicide hijackings.
"Nothing America could have done would have provided Al Qaeda and its new generation of cloned groups a better recruitment device than our unprovoked invasion of an oil-rich Arab country," Clarke wrote.
Clarke added: "One shudders to think what additional errors [Bush] will make in the next four years to strengthen the Al Qaeda follow-ons: attacking Syria or Iran, undermining the Saudi regime without a plan for a successor state?"
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said Sunday he doesn't believe Clarke's charge that the Bush administration — which defeated him and former Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 election — was focused more on Iraq than Al Qaeda during the days after the terror attacks.
"I see no basis for it," Lieberman said on Fox News Sunday. "I think we've got to be careful to speak facts and not rhetoric."
And Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., said Sunday on ABC's "This Week" that while he has been critical of Bush policies on Iraq, "I think it's unfair to blame the president for the spread of terror and the diffuseness of it. Even if he had followed the advice of me and many other people, I still think the same thing would have happened."
Presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry said Sunday he asked for copies of Clarke's book to review. Kerry is vacationing at his Idaho home through Wednesday before returning to the campaign trail.
"I would like to read them before I make any comment at all," Kerry told reporters. "I have asked for them."
Kerry's adviser on national security, Rand Beers, is a close associate of Clarke's and held the job as terrorism adviser under President Bush during part of 2002. Clarke quotes Beers in the book as asking his advice when Beers considered quitting because "they're using the war on terror politically."
Bartlett, the White House communications director, noted Clarke's friendship with Beers and the upcoming presidential election.
"We believe the timing is questionable," Bartlett said. "When [Clarke] left office, he had every opportunity" to make any grievances known.