WASHINGTON – President Bush said Friday he knew nothing of an aide's reported threat that the U.S. would bomb Pakistan "back to the Stone Age" if it did not cooperate after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“The first I’ve heard of this was when I read it in the newspaper today. I guess I was taken aback by the harshness of the words,” Bush said at a press conference with Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in the East Room of the White House following their morning talks.
"I trust President Bush and I have total confidence in him that he desires well for Pakistan and for our region," Musharraf said. "We reinforced our trust and confidence in each other."
Then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who Musharraf names as the official who threatened him, dismissed the Pakistani president's claim.
"There was no military threat and I was not authorized to do so," Armitage said. "It did not happen."
Bush recalled the support from Musharraf shortly after the terrorist attacks and thanked the Pakistani leader for his help in the War on Terror.
"Shortly after Sept. 11, Secretary Colin Powell came in and said President Musharraf understands the stakes and he wants to join and help route out an enemy that has come and killed 3,000 of our citizens," Bush said. "This president is a strong defender of freedom and the people of Pakistan."
Musharraf stunned the White House press gathering when he said he couldn't comment on the reported threat — which he related to CBS's "60 Minutes," and which will air on Sunday — because he was releasing a book on Sept. 25 and was contractually bound by his publisher, Simon & Schuster, not to comment. Simon & Schuster is owned by CBS.
“In other words, buy the book is what he’s saying,” Bush said.
In the "60 Minutes" interview, Musharraf said that after terrorists struck the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, Armitage told Pakistan's intelligence director the United States would bomb his country if it didn't help.
"The intelligence director told me that (Armitage) said, `Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age,"' Musharraf told "60 Minutes."
Armitage, responding to a reporter's questions Thursday, claimed he never threatened to bomb Pakistan, wouldn't say such a thing and didn't have the authority to do it. Armitage said he did have a tough message for Pakistan, telling the Muslim nation that it was either "with us or against us," according to an interview aired on a cable news channel. Armitage said he didn't know how his message was recounted so differently to Musharraf.
White House counselor Dan Bartlett said Friday he didn't know the specifics of what Armitage might have said to the Pakistanis.
"But we have made very clear that we went straight to President Musharraf in the days after 9/11 and said it's time to make a choice: Are you going to side with the civilized world or are you going to side with the Taliban and Al Qaeda," Bartlett told a television station.
White House press secretary Tony Snow also said Friday that he doesn't know what Armitage said.
"Mr. Armitage has said that he made no such representations," Snow said. "I don't know. This could have been a classic failure to communicate. I just don't know."
"U.S. policy was not to issue bombing threats," Snow said. "U.S. policy was to say to President Musharraf, `We need you to make a choice'."
In his meeting with Musharraf, Bush is playing middle man in a thorny foreign policy problem that has bubbled up between Islamabad and Afghanistan — two U.S. allies in the war on terrorism who accuse each other of not doing enough to crack down on extremists.
Musharraf said a peace treaty between his government and tribes along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is not meant to support the Taliban.
He said news reports had mischaracterized the deals.
"The deal is not at all with the Taliban. This deal is against the Taliban. This deal is with the tribal elders," Musharraf said.
Said Bush: "I believe him."
He said that Musharraf had looked him in the eye and vowed that "the tribal deal is intended to reject the Talibanization of the people and that there won't be a Taliban and there won't be Al Qaeda [in Pakistan]."
Pakistan earlier this month signed a truce with tribal figures. Afghanistan has protested that the militants are linked to the Taliban, the militant Islamic group that once ruled Afghanistan until driven from power in 2001.
But Both Bush and Musharraf shrugged off such links and said they were united in pursuing terrorists, especially Usama bin Laden.
"When we find Usama bin Laden, he will be brought to justice. We are on the hunt together," Bush said.
Musharraf echoed him. "We are in the hunt together against these people," the Pakistani leader said.
Bush must work to placate the concerns of Pakistan, which is helping the United States track Usama bin Laden and restrain bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization, as well as the struggling democratic government in Afghanistan, which is suffering its heaviest insurgent attacks since U.S.-led troops toppled the Taliban in late 2001.
Bush meets with Musharraf and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai next week at the White House.
Afghan officials have alleged repeatedly that Taliban militants are hiding out in neighboring Pakistan and launching attacks across the border into Afghanistan. Pakistan, which has deployed 80,000 troops along the border, rejects the accusation and says it's doing all it can to battle extremists.
"This isn't about pointing fingers at one another," State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said Thursday. "What this is about is finding ways that we can all work together to be able to achieve our common objectives, which is a free, secure and independent Afghanistan; and a secure Pakistan border area as well."
Musharraf is strongly defending a truce he recently signed with Taliban-linked militants in the tribal North West Frontier Province where his government has little control. Under the terms of that deal, Pakistani troops agreed to end their military campaign against fighters in North Waziristan. For their part, the militants said they would halt their attacks on Pakistani forces and stop crossing into Afghanistan to launch ambushes.
"If they're able to live up to the terms of those agreements, the border should be a much quieter region," NATO's top commander, U.S. Gen. James L. Jones, said at a Senate hearing on Thursday. "We're in the process now of observing very closely what is going on and what the effect is on the Afghani side of the border. And we'll know that within probably the next month or so."
Karzai said in a speech in New York City on Thursday that the Taliban was not gaining strength and he suggested that Pakistan's toleration of militants had helped make Afghanistan unstable.
He also said some in the region used extremists to maintain political power, referring to Musharraf.
Karzai equated cooperating with terrorists to "trying to train a snake against somebody else."
"You cannot train a snake. It will come and bite you," he said.
During Musharraf's visit, human rights activists are asking Bush to press Musharraf to restore civilian rule in Pakistan, end discrimination of women, and stop using torture and arbitrary detention in counterterrorism operations. Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup. Instead of giving up his military uniform in 2004 as promised, he changed the constitution so he could hold both his army post and the presidency until 2007.
FOX News' Greg Kelly and The Associated Press contributed to this report.