WASHINGTON – The Bush camp continued to argue Thursday that it acted aggressively against Al Qaeda from Day One and tried to discredit charges that it was lax when it came to going after the terror network.
"The president believes we're at war. He has a plan to go after terrorists," Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman (search) told Fox News on Thursday, noting that laws like the Patriot Act help "make sure we're protected at home."
The defense comes one day after Bush's former and most well-known counterterrorism adviser, Richard A. Clarke (search), testified before the panel probing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Clarke said Wednesday that terrorism was "an important issue but not an urgent issue" when President Bush took office in January 2001 up until the attacks.
Clarke worked for the past four presidential administrations and captured headlines this week with the release of his book, "Against All Enemies," in which he blasts the Bush White House's handling of Sept. 11 and Al Qaeda threats, saying it didn't listen to his concerns about Usama bin Laden's terror network.
"I will say that what we did suggests that we thought it both important and urgent," Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice (search), told reporters Wednesday following Clarke's testimony. "We kept in place an experienced team of counterterrorism experts from the Clinton administration, whose responsibility it was to keep the Clinton administration strategy going.
"We did everything during that period of time that we could. The intelligence agencies had the authorities that had been there in the Clinton administration. Nothing unraveled those authorities so they were still acting on those authorities."
The White House is honing in on Clarke for his praise of the White House for its steadfast attention to the Al Qaeda threat during a 2002 briefing for reporters. But Clarke says he was merely putting spin on Bush administration operations.
Clarke: I Put the Best Face on the Facts
Clarke, who appeared before the 10-member National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (search), said that while he was an employee of the White House, he accentuated the positive approaches to combating Al Qaeda.
"I was asked to make that case to the press, I was a special assistant to the president and I made the case," Clarke told the commission about the August 2002 briefing. "I was asked to highlight the positive aspects of what the administration had done and to minimize the negative aspects of what the administration had done."
Clarke said while it was his duty to "put the best face forward on the facts" … No one in the White House asked me to say things untruthful and I would not have."
Asked by commissioner and former Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson (search) which of his statements is true — assertions from the book attacking the White House or the background briefing he gave to a small group of reporters — Clarke said neither.
"I think the thing that's obviously bothering you is the tenor and the tone," Clarke said. "And I've tried to explain to you, sir, that when you're on the staff of the president of the United States, you try to make his policies look as good as possible."
"Well, with all respect, Mr. Clarke, I think a lot of things beyond the tenor and the tone bother me about this," Thompson responded.
In the 2002 background briefing to reporters, Clarke listed seven points to demonstrate how the Bush administration tried to resolve terrorism issues of the Clinton administration and quintupled the budget for going after Al Qaeda. On Wednesday, the White House approved attributing the comments to Clarke by name.
Now, the Bush team is jumping on what it considers a flip-flop.
Clarke's words from 2002 "when he wasn't trying to sell a book are very different than his words today," Mehlman said.
Clarke's ideas and proposals were considered and acted on when he was at the Bush White House, Mehlman added. "I know he was unhappy he didn't get more meetings with people — the president. I know he was looking for another job."
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Clarke moved from his position as head of counterterrorism to that of special adviser to the president for cybersecurity. He left the administration in January 2003 after failing to get the job of deputy secretary in the Homeland Security Department.
Clarke said Wednesday that Bush didn't take his role seriously enough.
"If the administration doesn't believe the counterterrorism coordinator when he says there is an urgent problem ... then I thought I ought to get another job," Clarke told the Sept. 11 panel.
But Rice, the national security adviser, noted Wednesday that the Bush White House continued Clinton anti-terrorism policies and then some.
"We were pursuing what the Clinton administration had been doing, we were developing a more robust strategy to try and eliminate Al Qaeda" that drew on some of Clarke's ideas, she told reporters, noting that both Clarke and CIA Director George Tenet said it would take years. "You couldn't do it overnight."
White House, Democrats Comment on Clarke
The White House has marshaled against Clarke since he gave a Sunday-night television interview criticizing the administration.
"He's an extremely competent individual, very smart, bit of a character, and I have known him for many years," White House Chief of Staff Andy Card (search) told Fox News. "But I think the book he wrote has more fiction than reality to it. What he reflects in the book is not what I understand to be the case during my tenure in this White House."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (search), D-S.D., said on the Senate floor Wednesday that the Bush administration needed to answer Clarke's criticisms rather than make personal attacks on him.
"Rather than attacking those who raise questions about the administration's policies, President Bush and senior administration officials should do all they can to clear up these troubling questions," Daschle said.
"The first step is to make themselves and any supporting documents immediately available to the 9/11 commission," he added, alluding to Rice's refusal to testify before the panel.
Rice told reporters Wednesday that she'd like nothing more than to testify.
But "I would like to be very clear that this is not a matter of preference," she said. "I would like nothing better in a sense than to be able to go up and do this. But I have a responsibility to maintain what is a longstanding separation — constitutional separation between the executive and the legislative branch."
But that reasoning isn't flying well with everyone, not even Republicans.
"I felt very strongly that Condoleezza Rice should be present," former Washington senator Slade Gorton, a Republican, told Fox News on Thursday. "Not because I felt I was going to learn more or other members of the commission would learn more [since she already testified in closed-door sessions] … but I believe she should have been there for the public, for the people of the United States.
"She is a very, very compelling witness and in my view, the administration shot itself in the foot by not insisting she come."
Fox News' Jim Angle, Wendell Goler, Sharon Kehnemui and Liza Porteus contributed to this report.