White House Reels From Insider Expose

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, March 22, 2004; 10:58 AM

The White House is in massive damage control mode today after another searing, book-length indictment from a former insider.

Richard A. Clarke, Bush's former counterterrorism director, says that the Bush White House failed to take the al Qaeda threat seriously before Sept. 11, 2001, and by Sept. 12 was trying to pin the attack on Iraq.

Barton Gellman writes in The Washington Post: "For Clarke, then in his 10th year as a top White House official, that day marked the transition from neglect to folly in the Bush administration's stewardship of war with Islamic extremists. His account -- in 'Against All Enemies,' which reaches bookstores today, and in interviews accompanying publication -- is the first detailed portrait of the Bush administration's wartime performance by a major participant. Acknowledged by foes and friends as a leading figure among career national security officials, Clarke served more than two years in the Bush White House after holding senior posts under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He resigned 13 months ago yesterday. . . .

"The president, he said, 'failed to act prior to September 11 on the threat from al Qaeda despite repeated warnings and then harvested a political windfall for taking obvious yet insufficient steps after the attacks.' The rapid shift of focus to Saddam Hussein, Clarke writes, 'launched an unnecessary and costly war in Iraq that strengthened the fundamentalist, radical Islamic terrorist movement worldwide.' "

The charges go right to the heart of Bush's reelection campaign as a war president whose vision and leadership have made the country safer.

The first salvo of Clarke's media tour came last night, on 60 Minutes. CBSNEWS.com has a full report on the segment, and a video excerpt. Here's Joie Chen summing up the interview -- and the White House response -- on the CBS Evening News.

Clarke was also on Good Morning America today, where host Charlie Gibson noted that Clarke is an ABC News consultant.

"Well, the president wanted us to look to see if Iraq was involved," Clarke said. "Now, the White House is trying to say he very calmly asked me to do due diligence and see who might have done it, to look at all the possibilities. That wasn't it. And the White House is also saying maybe the meeting didn't take place. And there are witnesses who have said the meeting took place," Clarke said.

"The president in a very intimidating way left us, me and my staff, with the clear indication that he wanted us to come back with the word there was an Iraqi hand behind 9/11 because they had been planning to do something about Iraq from before the time they came into office."

Clarke says: "I think they had a plan from day one they wanted to do something about Iraq. While the World Trade Center was still smoldering, while they were still digging bodies out, people in the White House were thinking: 'Ah! This gives us the opportunity we have been looking for to go after Iraq.' . . .

"U.S. soldiers went to their death in Iraq, thinking that they were avenging 9/11, when Iraq had nothing to do with it. . . . They died for the president's own agenda which had nothing do with war on terrorism. In fact, by going into Iraq, the president has made the war on terrorism that much harder."

Gibson asked how Clarke felt about turning around and attacking his former colleagues.

"It pains me to do it," Clarke said. "It pains me to have Condoleezza Rice and others mad at me. But I think the American people needed to know the facts and they weren't out. Now they are."

The White House Response

Gibson then turned to Rice herself, who, doing the morning shows from the White House briefing room, is taking the lead in the counterattack against Clarke's charges, and Clarke himself.

"This was in fact Dick Clarke's area of responsibility," Rice said. "We were in office eight months. Dick Clarke had been here a good deal longer."

And, she said: "Dick Clarke did, by the way, brief the president once when he asked to and decided in the middle of the threat period in June to brief the president on cyber security. That's what he chose to brief the president on."

Rice defended Bush -- and pointed the finger of blame at the Clinton administration -- in an op-ed piece in today's Washington Post.

"In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the president, like all Americans, wanted to know who was responsible. It would have been irresponsible not to ask a question about all possible links, including to Iraq -- a nation that had supported terrorism and had tried to kill a former president. Once advised that there was no evidence that Iraq was responsible for Sept. 11, the president told his National Security Council on Sept. 17 that Iraq was not on the agenda and that the initial U.S. response to Sept. 11 would be to target al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan."

Rice makes a point of noting that the threat pre-existed the arrival of the Bush team. "The al Qaeda terrorist network posed a threat to the United States for almost a decade before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001," she writes, and: "We now know that the real threat had been in the United States since at least 1999. The plot to attack New York and Washington had been hatching for nearly two years. "

In a document entitled "Setting the Record Straight," the White House yesterday afternoon responded to what it termed the "myths" in the book with what it called "facts."

For instance:

"Myth: After the 9/11 attacks, the President ignored the evidence and tried to pin responsibility for 9/11 on Iraq.

"The Facts:

"• The President sought to determine who was responsible for the 9-11 attacks. Given Iraq's past support of terror, including an attempt by Iraqi intelligence to kill a former President, it would have been irresponsible not to ask if Iraq had any involvement in the attack.

"• When the President and his senior advisers met at Camp David on September 15-16, 2001, to plan a response to September 11, the DCI told the President that there was no evidence that Iraq was responsible for the attack. The President then advised his NSC Principals on September 17 that Iraq was not on the agenda, and that the initial US response to 9/11 would be to target al-Qa'ida and Taliban in Afghanistan."

In an unusual move, the White House also released the transcript of the interview of deputy national security adviser Steve Hadley that also ran on 60 Minutes last night, during which Hadley called Clarke's charges untrue.

And communications director Dan Bartlett did a slew of television interviews Sunday, disputing Clarke's charges and suggesting that his timing is politically motivated.

Only the Beginning

The release of Clarke's memoir comes just a day before public testimony begins before the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

Among those called to testify: Clarke himself, along with former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright, former defense secretary William S. Cohen and former national security adviser Samuel R. Berger.

Philip Shenon wrote in Saturday's New York Times: "Senior Clinton administration officials called to testify next week before the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks say they are prepared to detail how they repeatedly warned their Bush administration counterparts in late 2000 that Al Qaeda posed the worst security threat facing the nation -- and how the new administration was slow to act."

And in this morning's Wall Street Journal, Scot J. Paltrow writes about how the commission is trying to fill the gaps and inconsistencies in the government account about what actually happened on Sept. 11.

"Among other things, the commission is examining such questions as how long Mr. Bush remained in a Florida classroom just after the World Trade Center strikes, whether there really was a threat to Air Force One that day, how effectively American fighter jets reacted to the attacks, and who activated the national-emergency-response plan."

White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who famously whispered in the president's ear, "A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack," has previously said that Bush left the Florida classroom he was sitting in within seconds.

"But uncut videotape of the classroom visit obtained from the local cable-TV station director who shot it, and interviews with the teacher and principal, show that Mr. Bush remained in the classroom not for mere seconds, but for at least seven additional minutes. He followed along for five minutes as children read aloud a story about a pet goat. Then he stayed for at least another two minutes, asking the children questions and explaining to Ms. Rigell that he would have to leave more quickly than planned."

Paltrow writes: "Both Republican and Democratic commissioners have said they are focusing closely on what happened next -- and whether mere minutes could have affected the outcome on Sept. 11. The panel's investigators are looking at questions such as the timeliness of presidential orders about intercepting the jet that at 9:37 a.m. plowed into the Pentagon."

Paltrow also writes that Bush could not have been telling the truth when he told a town-hall meeting in December, 2001: "I was sitting outside the classroom, waiting to go in, and I saw an airplane hit the tower -- the TV was obviously on. And I used to fly myself, and I said, 'Well, there's one terrible pilot.' "

There was no such video until late that night, and the TV wasn't even plugged in, Paltrow writes.

Echoes of O'Neill

Clarke's memoir recall another insider's attack on the White House, the subject of my very first White House Briefing column back in January.

In former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's tell-all book (penned, in his case, by Ron Suskind), O'Neill famously described Bush as disengaged ("like a blind man in a room full of deaf people") and managed by his staff (encircled by "a Praetorian guard").

Clarke writes that in his experience, Bush's description by critics as "a dumb, lazy rich kid" is "somewhat off the mark." He says that Bush has "a results-oriented mind, but he looked for the simple solution, the bumper sticker description of the problem."

And One More Thing

Dana Milbank writes in today's Washington Post: "In the early days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush White House cut by nearly two-thirds an emergency request for counterterrorism funds by the FBI, an internal administration budget document shows."

Medicare Watch

Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post on Saturday: "House Democrats demanded yesterday that two senior White House officials explain whether they helped prepare -- or knew of -- predictions last year that the new Medicare prescription drug law would cost more than President Bush publicly said."

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "Richard S. Foster, the chief actuary of Medicare, provided Congress with documents on Friday showing that federal payments to private health insurance plans under a new Medicare law could far exceed what Congress assumed when it passed the measure last fall."

Campaign Strategy Watch

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush's campaign is following an aggressive and precise 90-day media strategy to define Senator John Kerry as indecisive and lacking conviction, with a coordinated blitz of advertisements, speeches and sound bites, senior campaign advisers said this week.

"The goal, several campaign aides said, is to first strip Mr. Kerry of the positive image that he carried away from the Democratic primary contests and then to define him issue by issue in their own terms before the summer vacation season. The central thrusts will be national security and taxes, they said."

Mike Allen and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post: "President Bush's campaign plans to pivot today from Sen. John F. Kerry's national security record to an effort to portray the presumptive Democratic nominee as a reckless spender whose promises would far exceed his capacity to pay for them."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush's campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, released an analysis that he said showed a $1 trillion gap over the next decade between spending increases Mr. Kerry has called for during the campaign and the tax increases he has already supported."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times that "President Bush is working hard to cast himself as the leader of the charge to protect employees and investors from corporate malfeasance."

Tom Raum of the Associated Press looks at Bush's campaign brain trust, and assert that Karl Rove "is but one of a small group of counselors helping to guide the most expensive, and possibly the most corporate-like, presidential campaign in history."

Steven Thomma of Knight Ridder Newspapers writes: "The Bush campaign's critique of Kerry's 2004 budget proposals comes as Republicans enter the first week of spring newly confident that Bush has moved beyond a winter of missteps and sliding poll numbers and is again finding his political footing."

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "Technology and the sheer acceleration of news coverage have combined to produce a presidential campaign that is faster and more frenetic than ever before, reducing response time to mere minutes."

And Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times gives us an unattributed look into the president's head: "These days, one of the striking things about Mr. Bush's campaign for re-election is how much he actually likes getting out and asking people for votes. And why not? He feels cooped up at the White House, and running for president as president is a lot better than running as challenger."

Florida Campaign Rally

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush opened his campaign Saturday with a raucous rally for 13,000 in the state where both parties are determined to avenge the recount of the last election, and warned that his Democratic challenger would 'tax all of you.' "

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "President Bush on Saturday came to the state that delivered him the White House in 2000 for his first full-scale campaign rally of 2004 and opened a new line of attack on Senator John Kerry, saying his Democratic rival would raise taxes and choke off the economic recovery."

Mark Silva writes in the Orlando Sentinel: "Here in Florida, which handed Bush the White House, following a Supreme Court-settled battle over a 537-vote margin, the attention that Bush is paying to his re-election is a sign of how close November's vote could be. In his 20th tour of Florida since his election, Bush is focusing on swing-voting Central Florida. To underscore the importance of this area to the campaign, first lady Laura Bush plans to return to Orlando on March 29."

War Anniversary

Dana Milbank writes in Saturday's Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday marked the anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq with an appeal for international unity after a year of division by warning that there can be 'no separate peace' with the West's enemies. . . .

"The speech, which the White House billed as a major address, contained no new initiatives or changes in policy."

Late Night Humor

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post that the presidential candidates are a running gag for late-night comedians. The themes:

"George Bush still wears a dunce cap.

"And John Kerry is one strange-looking dude."

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