Published March 24, 2004
WASHINGTON – President Bush waded into the debate over a book critical of his administration's handling of Al Qaeda by saying Tuesday he had always been serious about combatting terror.
"Had my administration had any information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on Sept. 11, we would have acted," Bush said after a Cabinet meeting at the White House.
"We have been chasing down Al Qaeda ever since they attacked us ... and we're still pursuing them and we'll continue pursuing them as long as I'm the president of the United States," he said.
Bush was asked to comment on the new book by Richard A. Clarke (search), who served as a counterterrorism adviser for former presidents Reagan, Clinton and the current President Bush. The book, "Against All Enemies," charges that the Bush administration didn't take the Al Qaeda threat seriously enough and instead focused more on Iraq.
Bush never mentioned Clarke or the book in his answer.
The White House says Bush had his sights on Al Qaeda (search) since he first took the Oval Office and that as soon as the president realized Saddam Hussein wasn't behind Sept. 11, he focused on Afghanistan.
Testifying Tuesday before the commission on intelligence failures before Sept. 11, Sec. of State Colin Powell (search) said that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice began working on a strategy for dealing with Al Qaeda in her first week on the job.
"We wanted a new strategy that went beyond tit-for-tat retaliation," Powell said. "We wanted to destroy al Qaeda."
The White House charged Clarke as early as March 7, 2001, with formulating a strategy to eliminate Al Qaeda, a senior administration official told Fox News.
"Dick Clarke seems more concerned about what meetings he was in or what meetings he was excluded from," White House spokesman Dan Barlett told Fox News on Tuesday.
"But the fact remains the same, the president took the issue of Al Qaeda and terrorism very seriously. He himself reconstituted the practice of being briefed first-hand by the head of intelligence, in this case [CIA Director] George Tenet, so he can get first-hand the intelligence information."
Washington insiders hold Clarke in high regard but say his anti-administration themes in his book aren't helping the situation and that maybe he's holding a grudge for not being admitted to all the high-level meetings he wanted to participate in.
"I don't agree with everything he's done, I most especially don't agree with the tone ... it's too bad because I think he was a civil servant who contributed to national security," Frank Gaffney, Center for Security Policy (search) and former deputy defense secretary under Reagan, told Fox News.
"It seems as though it [his book] really has become a personal vehicle for his vendetta against the president … that's regrettable."
Rice went on the offensive Monday, disputing Clarke's claims.
"When the president learned from CIA Director [George] Tenet that there was no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to 9/11, he put Iraq aside," Rice told Fox News on Monday. "This was now an issue of how to deal with Afghanistan."
Clarke claims 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 book is scathingly critical of administration actions and was released on Monday.
Clarke said Rice appeared not to recognize post-Cold War security issues and effectively demoted him within the National Security Council staff. He 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.
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."
"For him to have the gall or nerve to say Bush didn't do anything, when he was in position to do something, I find unbelievable," said Sen. Don Nickles (search), R-Okla., speaking on the Senate floor on Monday.Clarke's 'American Grandstand'
Clarke, a well-respected Washington insider, 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 was testifying 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.
"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. "This is Dick Clarke's American grandstand, but he just keeps changing the tune."
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."
A Kerry Connection?
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry has asked for copies of Clarke's book to review.
"I would like to read them before I make any comment at all," Kerry told reporters.
Kerry's adviser on national security, Rand Beers, 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."
Suggesting that Clarke may have slammed Bush instead of Clinton to bolster book sales, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said in a statement released on Tuesday, "As I learn more about Clarke's connections to people on the Kerry presidential campaign, it's become quite clear that his attacks have more to do with politics than public service. That's disappointing, to say the least."
Kyl was not alone in saying that Clarke's book sales were part of the motivation.
"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.
Clarke claims the White House delayed the release of the book for months because it had to approve it's content for release. However, on Tuesday, McClellan said Clarke's publisher had timed the release for April all along.
Fox News' Wendell Goler, Liza Porteus and Peter Brownfeld and the Associated Press contributed to this report.