Richard Clarke, who served as the chief White House anti-terrorism coordinator under US president George W. Bush and three prior presidents, has charged that Bush insisted he find a link between the Sept. 11 attacks and Iraq to justify last year's invasion.
Clarke wrote a book, Against all Enemies, that will be released today, just a day before he is expected to testify before a federal commission probing the Sept. 11 attacks, CBS News reported Saturday.
In the interview, which will be broadcast yesterday night at 7pm on the CBS news show 60 minutes, Clarke describes in detail how Bush "dragged" him into a closed room to make the point.
In laying the groundwork for war last year, Bush told the American public that Iraq harbored al-Qaeda operatives and implied a connection to the terrorist attacks.
But even US military commanders in Iraq have admitted that al-Qaeda operatives in any measurable numbers first appeared in Iraq after the US-led invasion, drawn by the opportunity to create further chaos. Bush is already in the public pincers for misleading the country and the world about the presence of weapons of mass destruction there.
Clarke is not the first former Bush official to make such charges. Last year, former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill stirred up dust in a book, The Price of Loyalty, when he claimed that Bush had planned to go to war with Iraq all along.
In the upcoming interview, Clarke says that terrorism was such a low priority for Bush that he never got to directly brief him until just days before the Sept. 11 attacks, despite intense Internet chatter relayed to the White House by the CIA that an attack was afoot, according to the CBS Web site.
On the day after the terrorist attacks, Clarke recalled, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was already calling for bombing Iraq, even though the FBI and CIA repeatedly pointed out that al-Qaeda was in Afghanistan, not Iraq.
"Initially ... I thought he was joking," Clarke said. "We all said ... we need to bomb Afghanistan. And Rumsfeld said there aren't any good targets in Afghanistan. And there are lots of good targets in Iraq."
In the interview, CBS said, Clarke then described the pressure that came from Bush.
"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.
Clarke apparently argued against making the connection, but Bush "came back at me and said, `Iraq! Saddam! Find out if there's a connection.' And in a very intimidating way. I mean that we should come back with that answer."
One of Bush's top national security advisers, Stephen Hadley, has disputed the account. CBS said it had two other sources to confirm the encounter between Bush and Clarke.
Critics of Bush's war strategy say the Iraq invasion was a personal vendetta against ousted leader Saddam Hussein, who had not only eluded his father, former president George Bush, in the first Gulf War but had also tried to assassinate the elder Bush.
Clarke said Bush was doing a "terrible job on the war against terrorism."
"I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism," Clarke said. "He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months."
In the months before Sept. 11, CIA chief George Tenet apparently even urged a call "to battle stations" similar to the efforts that prevented a major attack on Los Angeles International Airport in 1999, CBS said.
But Bush "never thought it was important enough for him to hold a meeting on the subject, or for him to order his national security adviser to hold a Cabinet-level meeting on the subject," Clarke said.
In formulating their reports, Clarke and the FBI and CIA experts kept excluding Iraq from blame. The reports, which had to clear the National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice or a deputy, "got bounced and sent back saying, `Wrong answer. ... Do it again,'" Clarke recalled.
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