WASHINGTON – The White House is engaged in a full-court press against assertions by President Bush's former counter-terrorism czar that the administration didn't grasp the risk of an attack by Al Qaeda (search) in the months leading up to Sept. 11, 2001.
"When the president learned from CIA Director [George] Tenet that there was no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to 9/11, he put Iraq aside," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) told Fox News on Monday. "This was now an issue of how to deal with Afghanistan."
The administration's counter-offensive follows claims by Richard Clarke (search) that Bush pressured him to find a link to Saddam in a meeting on Sept. 12.
"The president dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door, and said, 'I want you to find whether Iraq did this.' Now he never said, 'Make it up.' But the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said Iraq did this," Clarke said in a television interview Sunday night.
Clarke, who has served in the last four administrations, said he tried to warn the president about the Al Qaeda threat long before the attacks. His appearance on television coincides with the release of his new book, "Against All Enemies," which is scathingly critical of administration actions.
Clarke wrote that Rice appeared to never have heard of Al Qaeda until she was warned about it early in 2001, and that she "looked skeptical" about his warnings.
"Her facial expression gave me the impression that she had never heard the term before," Clarke said in the book, going on sale Monday.
But on Monday, Rice told Fox News this account is "ridiculous," adding that Clarke may be trying to protect himself.
"We, of course, had, of course, heard that, in 1998, when Dick Clarke was the counter-terrorism czar, Al Qaeda had bombed U.S. embassies. We, of course, heard that Al Qaeda was suspected of bombing the [USS] Cole in 2000 when Dick Clarke was counter-terrorism czar. And we learned that plots against the U.S. had been hatching since the '90s, when Dick Clarke was counter-terrorism czar."
The White House said Bush's suspicion about Iraq was just one of the issues he wrestled with after the horrific attacks on U.S. soil that left 3,000 people dead and that he redirected his focus from Iraq when he learned Saddam didn't launch the attack.
"Dick Clarke's assertions are irresponsible and they are flat-out wrong. His past comments and actions contradict his rhetoric," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday.
McClellan said Bush "doesn't have any recollection" about an alleged convesation with Clark about whether Saddam was responsible for Sept. 11.
"This is Dick Clarke's American grandstand, but he just keeps changing the tune," McClellan said.
'That's Just Categorically False'
Clarke said Rice appeared not to recognize post-Cold War security issues and effectively demoted him within the National Security Council staff. He retired last year after 30 years in government; he was the nation's point person on critical infrastructure protection during the last 11 years of his career.
Clarke, who is expected to testify Tuesday before a federal panel investigating the attacks, said that within one week of Bush's inauguration, he "urgently" sought a meeting of senior Cabinet leaders to discuss "the imminent Al Qaeda threat."
Defense Department's Paul Wolfowitz (search) later said, "You give bin Laden too much credit," and tried to steer the discussion to Iraq, Clarke wrote.
"Richard Clarke had plenty of opportunity to tell me he thought we were going awry on the war on terror," Rice told Fox News, saying when Clarke was vying for a position as deputy secretary of homeland security, "he told me he supported the president."
"I don't quite know what he's doing. I do know that we apparently have a different view on how to deal with terrorism," Rice said, pointing out that Bush approach is to target groups and their state sponsors, and changing the Middle East so it's not a terrorist breeding ground.
A group of Democratic senators on Monday wrote to Bush, saying Clarke's charges are just another reason Rice should publicly testify before the Sept. 11 commission. Rice has declined to do so on advice from the White House, citing separation of powers concerns.
"While we acknowledge her efforts to work with the Commission in private, we believe that these revelations demonstrate a need for Dr. Rice to appear publicly before the commission," wrote Sens. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Charles Schumer of New York, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, among others.
"Her refusal to testify before the Commission can only lead the American people to one conclusion: that she has something to hide and is not fully committed to finding the truth."
The White House said it worked diligently to develop a strategy to attack the terror network that was ready for Bush's approval a week before the airliner hijackings.
It said Bush was "'tired of swatting flies' and wanted to go on the offense against Al Qaeda, rather than simply waiting to respond."
A Kerry Connection?
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (search) said Sunday he asked for copies of Clarke's book to review while vacationing at his Idaho home.
"I would like to read them before I make any comment at all," Kerry told reporters.
Kerry's adviser on national security, Rand Beers (search), is a close associate of Clarke and held the job as anti-terrorism adviser under 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."
The White House noted Clarke's friendship with Beers and the upcoming presidential election.
"If Dick Clarke had such grave concerns about the direction of the war on terrorism, why did he wait until a campaign?" McClellan asked. "Instead, he conveniently writes a book and releases it during an election."
"The Kerry campaign was ready to put his assertions on their Web sites," McClelland added, deeming Clarke's comments "more about book promotion and less about policy."
Some said Clarke was just looking to sell more copies of his book and/or possibly hoping for a job with Kerry or a future Democratic president.
"These guys are trying to sell books. The timing of the release of this book clearly is involved in the presidential cycle," said Richard Fisher, a former deputy trade minister in the Bush administration.
"He probably thinks that the Democrats have a chance this time and so he's trying to suck around for another job," Alexander Haig, former secretary of state under President Reagan, told Fox News on Monday.
"This is an outrage to claim President Bush is responsible for nine years of total incompetence in confronting international terrorism that he [Clarke] was a part of," especially when "the Clinton administration did nothing but warn, warn, warn and throw a few rockets" at terrorists.
Bush, however, "has a firm grasp on the global threat that is confronting the United States, the free world and nations that believe in the rule of law," Haig continued.
Fox News' Wendell Goler, Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.