WASHINGTON – Richard A. Clarke (search) said Wednesday that when he praised the White House for its steadfast attention to the Al Qaeda threat during a 2002 briefing for reporters, he was merely putting spin on Bush administration operations.
Clarke, who appeared before the commission investigating pre-Sept. 11 intelligence, said he was an employee of the White House at the time and he accentuated the positive when he described how the Bush administration had taken action early in its term to find a more aggressive approach to combating Al Qaeda (search).
"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 added that 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," Clarke told the 10-member National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (search).
Clarke is a counterterrorism expert who worked for the past four presidential administrations — Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and the current President Bush. But Clarke captured headlines this week with the release of his book, "Against All Enemies," (search) in which he blasts the Bush administration's handling of Sept. 11 and Al Qaeda threats.
Asked by commissioner and former Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson (search) which of his seemingly contradictory 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.
"So you believed that your conference with the press in August of 2002 is consistent with what you've said in your book and what you've said in press interviews the last five days about your book?" Thompson asked.
"I do," Clarke replied. "I think the thing that's obviously bothering you is the tenor and the tone. 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 a small group of reporters, which was captured on an audio tape, Clarke listed seven points to demonstrate how the Bush administration had moved to resolve terrorism issues left over from the Clinton administration.
"The Bush administration decided then, you know, in late January, to do two things. One, vigorously pursue the existing policy, including all of the lethal covert action findings," he said in the recording. "The second thing the administration decided to do is to initiate a process to look at those issues which had been on the table for a couple of years and get them decided."
"That process, which was initiated in the first week in February, decided in principle in the spring to add to the existing Clinton strategy and to increase CIA resources, for example, for covert action, five-fold, to go after Al Qaeda (search)," Clarke told the reporters in the briefing.
Clarke gave the briefing on background, a normal procedure where reporters agree to identify him as a senior administration official. On Wednesday, the White House approved attributing the comments to Clarke by name.
But testifying in front of the Sept. 11 commission on Wednesday, Clarke said that while the Clinton administration had made terrorism its top priority, the Bush administration did not consider the issue to be as critical.
"I feel the Bush administration in the first eight months considered terrorism an important issue, but not an urgent issue," Clarke said.
Clarke in 2002 vs. Clarke in 2004
Clarke said during the 2002 briefing that Bush acted quickly and decisively and was informed of the developing approach to Al Qaeda after his administration came into office. On Wednesday, he said that it appeared the president did not realize that a new strategy was in the works.
Clarke also said in 2002 that, in addition to quintupling the budget for going after Al Qaeda, Bush demanded a significant change in strategy.
"[The principals involved in national security] then changed the strategy from one of rollback with Al Qaeda over the course of five years, which it had been, to a new strategy that called for the rapid elimination of Al Qaeda," Clarke said.
Clarke stated in 2002 that in the two years after Al Qaeda attacked two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, the Clinton administration had not made decisions about a number of proposals that he had put forward, including the need to have closer relations with Pakistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan and was backing the Taliban regime.
He said the Bush administration began working with Pakistan and Uzbekistan to deny sanctuaries to Al Qaeda as the United States aggressively pursued Usama Bin Laden and his cohorts through covert actions.
Asked about criticism of the administration that it had done nothing about Al Qaeda until the terror network attacked the United States, Clarke, in 2002, disputed the charges.
"No, that's not true. In the spring, the Bush administration changed — began to change Pakistani policy," he said, adding that the administration succeeded in offering carrots to Islamabad to drop its support for the Taliban (search) and work with the United States against Al Qaeda.
During the testimony Wednesday, Thompson asked Clarke whether those policies had indeed changed. Clarke said yes, but not until after Sept. 11. Prior to the terror attacks, it had been approved at the Cabinet secretary level, but was still waiting for the president's OK.
Clarke added he thought it is "unusual" for the process of changing policy to take eight months "when you are being told every day that there is an urgent threat."
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Clarke moved from his position as head of counterterrorism — an appointment he received in 1998 — 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 on Wednesday that his role as counterterrorism chief was one that gave him "all of the responsibilities but none of the authority."
He added that he thought the Bush administration had not taken 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.
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 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."
Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan on Wednesday accused Clarke of misrepresenting contingency plans that scheduled military action in Iraq before Afghanistan.
McClellan said the Iraq plans were needed in case Saddam Hussein felt he could take advantage of the United States while it was tied up in Afghanistan.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, 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 National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's refusal to testify before the panel.
Fox News' Jim Angle, Wendell Goler and Sharon Kehnemui contributed to this report.